Tag Archive | Roland Barthes

(T)racing Mother Listening: W.E.B. Du Bois & Sigmund Freud

Inspired by the recent Black Perspectives “W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150” Online Forum, SO!’s “W.E.B. Du Bois at 150” amplifies the commemoration of the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth in 2018 by examining his all-too-often and all-too-long unacknowledged role in developing, furthering, challenging, and shaping what we now know as “sound studies.”

It has been an abundant decade-plus (!!!) since Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies “link[ed] the formal structure of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the contemporary mixing practices of DJs” (13) and we want to know how folks have thought about and listened with Du Bois in their work in the intervening years.  How does Du Bois as DJ remix both the historiography and the contemporary praxis of sound studies? How does attention to Du Bois’s theories of race and sound encourage us to challenge the ways in which white supremacy has historically shaped American institutions, sensory orientations, and fields of study? What new futures emerge when we listen to Du Bois as a thinker and agent of sound?

Over the next two months, we will be sharing work that reimagines sound studies with Du Bois at the center. Pieces by Phillip Luke SinitiereKristin MoriahAaron Carter-Ényì, Austin Richey, Julie Beth Napolin, and Vanessa Valdés, move us toward a decolonized understanding and history of sound studies, showing us how has Du Bois been urging us to attune ourselves to it. To start the series from the beginning, click here.

Readers, today’s post (the second of an interlocking trilogy of essays) by Julie Beth Napolin continues to echolocate Du Bois and Freud as lived contemporaries, exploring entangled notions of melancholic listening across the Veil.

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.


In “Intimacy and Affliction,” Peter Coviello writes of W.E.B. Du Bois’ abiding, proto-psychoanalytic preoccupation with race’s “entanglements with virtually every aspect of intimate life” (4). Such entanglement demands, he suggests, a method both historical and psychoanalytic. Coviello recalls, for example, the work of Hortense Spillers who writes that Du Bois finds in the color line “radically different historical reasons” for such key psychoanalytic themes as the “look” than those to be discovered in the pages of Lacan (726).

While there’s much to say on this topic, I want to focus in particular on the contribution of Du Bois to a psychoanalytic theory of listening, showing how that contribution demands a renewed return of psychoanalysis, sexuality, and race to sound studies. Beginning to touch upon these questions, literary critic Joseph Flatley describes the intersection of politics and melancholia in Du Bois to argue for what he calls “affective mapping” in listening.  For Du Bois, songs disclose the historicity of his feelings, bound to other people who feel and have felt like he does before (146), creating a transpersonal map.  This disclosure, Flatley writes, “always beckons towards a potentially political effect,” an effect that is often “nascent and unrealized” (106). Such nascence, or what Sara Marcus calls “untimely feedback,” begins to explain why we listen to old songs in the present: old feelings are waiting for us to take them up in politically transformative ways. I will unfold this claim in this week’s post to conclude with an analysis of the politics of sound, gender, and sexuality in Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film, Moonlight.

Du Bois’ mode of presentation of word, sound, and melody in The Souls of Black Folk has been theorized by Alexander Weheilye as being akin to DJ samples cutting and mixing history and by Eric Sundquist as the elevation of a uniquely African American culture. In an earlier post in this series, “More Ancient Than Words,” Aaron Carter-Ényì argues that, in including melodies, Du Bois “entered the songs into a new literary and scholarly canon,” changing the concept of “the book.”

vinyl loves water, image by Flickr User Georgios Kaleadis

Beyond this work of canonization, which turns upon the existence of what Gilroy names the “Black Atlantic,” the materiality of Du Bois’ text discloses much concerning the suppressed contours of both race and the feminine in psychoanalytic theories of listening. It is difficult to separate these theories (particularly Chion’s, as Kaja Silverman makes plain in The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema) from Freud’s premise of a universal, male subject. In Freud’s theory of the Oedipal phase, the male child desires to supplant the father, and the mother—who is culturally forbidden from being seen in any way as being akin to or “like” the boy—emerges as the model of the proper object for heterosexual desire. But the pre-Oedipal phase is the opposite, defined by a closeness with the mother, often revealed in the language of cooing sounds they share. In other words, masculinity is culturally founded on the rejection of the feminine. Despite Silverman’s major contribution, this structure still remains essential for sound studies to deconstruct, particularly as it obscures other kinds of historical determinations that give shape to listening and the psychic life of sound in Du Bois’ text.

Psychoanalysis had been largely abandoned by the various “historical turns” in media studies. But it can only be recuperated in a Du Boisian fashion, that is, by the modes of listening made available by his text. Above all, the psychobiography indicated by Du Boisian listening is neither “universal” nor Oedipally determined—shaped by the destruction of the maternal— but rather historically and politically wrought by the specificity and ubiquity of the Middle Passage, or what Christina Sharpe names “being in the wake.”

“In the Wake,” image by Flickr User Sharonius Maximus

Unfolding the gendered afterlife of the Middle Passage has proved crucial for black feminism. Saidiya Hartman’s lyrical memoir of her experience as an African American woman traveling along the former routes of the Atlantic slave trade, for example, is defined by the feeling of what it is to “lose your mother.” This phrase contains many melancholic resonances, including the ideal of Africa (as a place of imaginary “return”), its phantasmatic, lost mother tongues, and fantasies of reunited kin in the midst of longing for “a new naming of things” (39). At the same time, Hartman suggests, the African American subject—whose name is derived from the slave owner—is “born with a blank space where a father’s name should be.” This blank space, its attendant forms of de-gendering, makes an imputed maternal inheritance of the black subject in the American cultural imaginary nothing less than a “monstrosity” (81).

In tension with these revelations, Sundquist’s magisterial To Wake the Nations argues that Du Bois’ textual presentation and formal strategies of pairing word and melody indicate racial amalgamation. Such a notion, however, is largely fraternal in its connotation. Indeed, the poetic epigraphs Du Bois calls upon are from white men, as many have critiqued. Flatley has shown how the “echo of haunting melody” is both historically and melancholically charged in Du Bois. We in sound studies can go further to describe how it is an acousmatic sound object. Such a claim involves intervening in the racially neutral terrain of the sound object to insist that it emanates in Du Bois’ memory from a black maternal position. This position makes the epigraphic space not so much an otherworldly union, but a violently charged, historical space that listens for the traces of miscegenation. It desires a place for the black maternal that could be articulated without also being repressed.

Where there is amalgamation, there is sexuality. Du Bois’ formal strategies, both conscious and unconscious, are radical because they indicate potential for a theory for a listening derived from or animated by a black feminine position.

***

To listen for the black maternal in Du Bois, then, involves returning to its most traumatic memory of song, one carried by his unnamed grandfather’s grandmother in the book’s final chapter, “The Sorrow Songs.” Whereas the opening epigraphs of Du Bois’s text provide us with bars of melody offered without comment, his final chapter is a sustained and nearly musicological analysis of song. The one amplifies silence, heightening the gap between reading, hearing, and understanding, the other produces cultural knowledge. At the core of “The Sorrow Songs” is the autobiographical memory of a song first heard in childhood. It is perhaps his earliest memory of song, though we can’t be sure.

Do ba – na co – ba, ge – ne me, ge – ne me!
Do ba – na co – ba, ge – ne me, ge – ne me!

Ben d’ nu – li, nu – li, nu – li, nu – li, ben d’ le.

He recalls this melody, as sung by a Bantu woman seized by Dutch traders: “The child sang it to his children and they to their children’s children, and so two hundred years it has travelled down to us and we sing it to our children, knowing as little as our fathers what its words may mean, but knowing well the meaning of its music.” For Du Bois, the song remains a transmission that necessarily involves both a partial memory and a mode of overhearing, as if hearing from a distance. Du Bois “overhears” not because, like Freud’s Wolf Man, he stands at the threshold of a secret and clandestine threshold. Du Bois overhears because to receive the song in the New World is already to be traumatized, on the outside of some possibility of full transmission. Carter-Ényì describes how rhythms and “melodies may last longer than lyrics as cultural transmissions.” Melody in Du Bois provides “an alternate theory” of orality and literacy, one that privileges not a spoken oral tradition, but rather a survival of music, an aural tradition, as Carter-Ényì calls it, where melodies hold fast when language is “violently submerged.”

I want to fasten upon a different but related aural affect, not the one of immediate recognition (through which the song is passed down), but rather its attendant ambivalence and gaps. This gap—hearing without understanding— returns us to Souls as a displaced beginning of psychoanalytic modes of listening.

“Bubbles, Streams, and Waves.” Image by Flickr User Wolfgang Widener

According to Theodor Reik, Freud’s musically attuned student, Freud experienced an extreme distaste for music because an analytic trait bristled against something he couldn’t clearly theorize. When he did attend to the songs remembered by his patients, Freud suggested that only the words mattered. Bucking his master, Reik instead privileged the sound of a song, a tune and its affective valences, noting that “haunting melodies”—the same phrase used by Du Bois to describe sorrow songs as they echo on the other side of the Middle Passage—must be listened to with what Reik called a “third ear.”  Insisting that two ears already too many, Jacques Lacan resists Reik’s emphasis upon listening for meaning to suggest that an analyst instead “listen for sounds and phonemes, words, locutions, and…not forgetting pauses, scansions, cuts” (394). Even transcriptions of patient speech, Lacan says, must include these as the basis of “analytic intuition.”

The way the analyst listens beyond meaning resonates with Du Bois who was already listening to, repeating, and writing down the Bantu song without knowing what the words mean, nevertheless “knowing,” as it were, the meaning, ascribing to it great psychological importance. In the language of sound studies, “Do ba – na co – ba” is a sound object. Something of it is acousmatic, arriving as a sound separated from source. But the acousmatic is largely apolitical in its orthodox, Schaefferian conception. Schaeffer deems the sound object to be separable from its ecology, which would include not only ideology and the social, but race and history. In contrast, we learn from Du Bois that an acousmatic situation can rest upon historically determined partial memory. “Do ba – na co – ba” is sung in a so-called “mother tongue,” but this tongue is unknowable, unretrievable by Du Bois (the words he remembers as sounds have yet to be translated by historians).

We can’t forget that, like Du Bois, Freud died in exile (the one in Ghana, American citizenship revoked, the other in London, escaping persecution). When Reik describes the haunting melody, he begins with the experience of mourning. What he doesn’t say is that he himself, writing in English in America, was in émigré from war. The émigré is not the captive, and immigration is not forced migration of the Middle Passage. My point is that the position of racialized listening that is submerged in Freud is the avowed place of beginning in Du Bois, allowing him to address head on the historical and political conditions of listening, even though he can’t totally compass their sexual charge. He is listening for a new kind of political subject whose dictum is “lose your mother.”

Coast off Accra, Ghana, Image by Flickr User Fellfromatree

Importantly, “Do ba – na co – ba” is not part of the pre-Oedipal maternal effluence of sound and rhythm that Julia Kristeva famously calls the “semiotic chora.” Part of the content of the song is defined by being missing, seized, and surviving (rather than simply coming and going). Nor is it structured by the Oedipal desire to supplant the father and have the desire mother. Above all, Du Bois turns to this intensely personal memory of song to posit an individual coming into formation through a memory of song that is collective. These songs are both his and belong to others. Hearing the song involves affective mapping, or understanding oneself as being more than oneself (which we will find in part three of this essay) is the crux of sound and music in Moonlight.

Du Bois doesn’t begin the book with this memory of a Bantu woman’s crooning, but rather ends with it. By relocating the (personal) primal scene to the end, he redefines the political possibility for its epistemological rupture. This beginning releases the reader back into the world as a listener whose ears are now pricked, that is, alert to the historical injuries that sustain subject formation. In this way, the formal elision of the song animates the autobiographical locus of the book, its subject and its self. In other words, it is a locus that has to be displaced in order to be represented.  This displacement is not merely symbolic, owing to the structure of language as such, but to or the real displacement of exile, the forcible entry into an imperial or colonizing language while one’s mother tongue is extracted, stolen, or erased.

Door of No Return, Cape Coast Castle, Ghana, Image by Flickr User Greg Neate

Here, I point to black feminism and its transformative use of psychoanalysis. Spillers begins her intensely psychoanalytic essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” with Du Bois’ prediction for a 20th century that will be defined by “the problem of the color line.” But she argues the color line is a “spatiotemporal configuration” to which must be added another and weightier thematic: the revelation of the figure of the “black woman,” i.e. a “particular figuration of the split subject that psychoanalytic theory posits” (65). This split—between the “I” and the “me”—is defined for Lacan by the entry into language. The Freudian primal scene is triangulated by the threat of castration that underwrites the boy’s entry into language. Though imaginary, it was nonetheless literal, localized in genital fantasies. For Lacan, castration is instead a more a generalized cut between the signifier and signified, the conscious and the unconscious. No one, male or female, escapes this cut, and the formation of the “I,” the subject, is contingent upon the separations and losses that language first negotiates. The infant first learns words to articulate pleasure and pain, its separation from things. We forever have the word because we don’t have the thing.

When Spillers takes up psychoanalysis it is to make the radical claim that the New World is “written in blood.” There is not the fantasy of castration, but rather a history of “actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile,” a “theft of the body” that severs it from its motive, will, and desire (67). Spillers insists not on crimes against the body (a more traditional category in psychoanalysis), but what she calls the “flesh” in its capacity to be harmed. Flesh forms the basis of a central distinction between captive and liberated subject-positions. By the primary narrative of flesh, she continues, “we mean its seared, divided, ripped-apartness, riveted to the ship’s hole, fallen, or ‘escaped’ overboard.”

Lacan’s move is de-literalize castration in favor of structure; Spillers (poststructuralist) move is to re-literalize it, but without losing the insight that the cut is language itself, the separation between word and thing. Spillers’ point, however, is that psychoanalysis is incomplete until it can think these transhistorical questions. By this same token, I would argue, sound studies remains incomplete if it cannot transform what we think we are listening for in language. Lacan insists that the word is an irremediable cut or severance from a thing that it nonetheless brings into being through naming. Sound studies misrecognizes itself if it thinks that sound isn’t precisely what is to be located and listened for through the cut between word and thing.

The memory of “Do ba – na co – ba” is both sung and heard from within that cut. These words (that are also not words) are the coming into being of a thing that cannot be named, or is sounded out rather than named. We are suddenly placed into a terrain—and mode of listening—not totally familiar to the origins of psychoanalysis, unless we include Du Bois. We enter into real implications for the primal scene. At the beginning of Souls, Du Bois elliptically notes “the red stain of bastardy,” which designates the rape of black women by white men. Is not the trauma of this stain indirectly registered by Du Bois when listening to “Do ba – na co – ba,” as the crooning of a kidnapped woman? The meaning of its sound is “well understood”—but never put into words. This unnamed Bantu woman’s crooning is a song of becoming violently undifferentiated, a thing, alienated, and forced out of language: it is a song of the flesh. In this way, Du Bois’ political subject position cannot be fully separated from the flesh of the past whose searing and ripping “transfers,” Spillers suggests, across generations. With Du Bois, then, we encounter a subject and bodily ego with memories that are not entirely personal, but rather transpersonal.

For Du Bois, the memory of listening is animated by the fantasy of belonging to a lost language out of which his authorial “voice” and with it, the sorrow songs, emerge. The place of the mother’s voice in psychoanalysis is often one that sweetly echoes back and repeats the self to itself. That is why we are drawn to lullabies; they sonically contain and affirm us.  Barthes famously writes of the “grain of the voice.” “That is what the “grain” would be: the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue . . . [Emphasis mine]” (270). But this body is not the flesh. The grain is the voluptuousness of a voice speaking its “mother tongue.”

“Foam” by Flickr User Melissa Emmons

It is not that Du Bois is without voluptuous memories of a mother’s voice, but rather that he elevates a different kind of auditory heritage of the self. He writes of the sorrow songs as “some echo of haunting melody.” There are two orders of remove in what is presupposed by Barthes to be a perfectly reflexive scene. It is not that Du Bois did not as an infant experience this conjectured scene, but that it is doubled by another that does not enter into psychoanalytic discourse without its completion by black feminism, postcolonialism, and other discourses that begin from the premise of historical trauma and stolen mother tongues.

Du Bois was able to listen for what Freud repressed. Du Bois writes down not only the melody as he remembers it, as it has been passed down to him, but also the sounds of her words in Romanized letters that approximate her phonemes. The melody has persisted in spite of the mystery of the words. But what becomes apparent in their approximation, as phonemes, is both retention and loss. The Bantu woman sings in a lost mother tongue; singing, she is in the midst of being forcibly taken away from language, and the song acts as a trace.

Next week, Napolin’s third essay will further explore the psychoanalytic listening Du Bois enacts via The Souls of Black Folk through a reading of Barry Jenkins’ “stunningly lyrical and psychologically complex coming-of-age film, Moonlight,” and its use of wave-sound aural imagery that “continually marks a desire for “return” to maternal undifferentiation and oneness, and yet. . .provides the space for two embodied memories that cannot be compassed by traumatic separation.” 

Julie Beth Napolin is Assistant Professor of Literary Studies at The New School, a musician, and radio producer. She received a PhD in Rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley. Her work participates in the fields of sound studies, literary modernism and aesthetic philosophy, asking what practices and philosophies of listening can tell us about the novel as form. She served as Associate Editor of Digital Yoknapatawpha and is writing a book manuscript on listening, race, and memory in the works of Conrad, Du Bois, and Faulkner titled The Fact of Resonance. Her work has appeared in qui parleFifty Years After Faulkner (ed. Jay Watson and Ann Abadie), and Vibratory Modernism (ed. Shelley Trower and Anthony Enns).

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Scenes of Subjection: Women’s Voices Narrating Black Death

This past summer 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Warsaw and delivered an unplanned statement on the brutal police shooting deaths of two black men that had just occurred within one day of each other, Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. Obama was speaking from afar on the structural relationship between two events that should trouble “all of us Americans.” Obama spoke pointedly to the fact of “racial disparity” in police shootings and in the justice system more broadly.

Since November 2016, it has felt as though a space of sanctioned public discourse—still in the making since Reconstruction—has once again become smaller and, in a manner of speaking, unhearing. Quite simply, Obama’s statement meant that identification could not compass the ground of an imagined community. A white listener could not say, as with gun violence in general, “he speaks of someone who could have been me, therefore I am troubled.”  Again, identification with white experience asserts itself as the ground of “we.”

The death of Sterling had been captured on cellphone video that showed the police holding him down before shooting him. The video was taken by a store owner who was friendly with Sterling. The ground of a white viewer’s identification is here easily acceded.  That viewer might say to him or herself, “I too could know someone who I don’t believe is violent or dangerous; I too might wish to protest or prevent his or her unjust murder.”

still from cell phone video of the police shooting of Alton Sterling, cropping/blurring by JS, SO!

still from cell phone video of the police shooting of Alton Sterling, cropping/blurring by JS, SO!

The shooting of Castile by police officer Jeronimo Yanez was not captured on video; there is no visual evidence of the event made by a bystander. Instead, Castile’s dying moments were captured on live video stream by his girlfriend, a black woman, Diamond Reynolds, who orally narrated the immediate aftermath of the event while it was happening.  There was no rescue that could have been attempted by Reynolds. Even though Castile was alive and Reynolds’s daughter sat in the back seat, the effort immediately—and of necessity—turned to testimony. The camera—but also narration, putting into words the event that was still unfolding—afforded Reynolds and her daughter some measure of protection against the officer’s gun still aimed in the car. Reynolds no doubt imagined the recording would be used as evidence in a court of law. If she herself did not survive the event, the recording would have already been seen by a public and archived by live stream; her voice would still testify within it.

What does it mean, on an ethical level, for a black woman to narrate the spectacle of a black death? What does it mean for me, a white woman, to listen to that narrative or read a transcription, knowing that I will never be called upon to narrate the death of my loved one while it is happening, and then to write of it, to narrate it to you?

To feel emotionally impacted by an image of another person, Kaja Silverman argues, is to imaginatively project oneself into the visual field. This identification for Silverman can be fractured, multiplied and redirected in ways that richly expand the parameters of ethical life; but at base, one must be able to project oneself into the image.

still image from Diamond Reynold's live video feed of Jeronimo Yanez's shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile , Cropping by JS, SO!

still image from Diamond Reynold’s live video feed of Jeronimo Yanez’s shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, Cropping/blurring by JS, SO!

In contrast, testimony is to assert that some juridical order has been perverted for an individual and to seek adjudication.  But it is also to critique the boundaries of public life: it is to insist that to listen to or receive a narrative is to recognize an another who is not—and could never be—you. To recognize another is to affirm the singularity of the other’s life, a life that has been or can be lost or brutalized. Identification cannot be the sole ground of political action around unjust death: one must be able to say to oneself, “that was not me; that could not have been me; someone singular has been lost; I am troubled nonetheless.”

In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman shows how 19th century white abolitionist sentiment was first organized by the spectacle of the black body in pain. White abolitionists often recounted the feeling of “what if that were me?” or “what if that were my family?” Hartman shows how the black body in American life takes on what she calls “fungible” form. If as a commodity, that body must be exchanged, then as spectacle, that body must also be a projective screen for identification where the white viewer emplaces him or herself in order to feel sympathy or outrage. Such sentiment, Hartman insists, is merely feeling for oneself.

Much of the recent discourse surrounding viral videos of black death has concerned looking or “not looking,” or what Alexandra Juhasz calls in a recent essay on her decision not to watch Reynolds’s video, “surfeit images.” But these are not simply images—they are narratives and testimonies. Later in this post, I return to what it means to speak of a “voices” in this context—some of them written and some of them mediated by retelling.

***

Diamond Reynolds narrating after her camera falls, instagram screen capture by author

Diamond Reynolds narrating after her camera falls, Instagram screen capture by author

A long history of black women’s acts of testimony is occluded in the emphasis on the newness of the new media event and the “convergence” it affords. As Juhasz notes, new media scholar Henry Jenkins describes convergence as the spreading of media events across mediums and formats. Juhasz felt “compelled to join the fray of discourse that surrounds, reproduces and amplifies the video I have not yet seen.” She describes the sense of “knowing” the video without watching because of its convergence across platforms as well as its historical repetition. But convergence is, in the term long afforded by literary discourse, a narrative.  Reynolds told the story in real time; one person may have watched the video, in full or in fragments, and told the story of the event in a status update, in conversation, or in a text message. The convergence relates Reynolds’s live stream to a long history of testimony, testifyin’(g), and unofficial or counter-history that has long been held by both oral and print culture across the black diaspora. It is how one “knows” in advance that Castile’s death is “like” so many others before him.

But this advance sense of “knowing” overleaps the singular voice that mediated the video of a singular death. To feel oneself to know in advance is to have internalized, but then occluded, the other. I say this because convergence is premised upon fungibility. Reynolds’s narrating voice is “like” many voices before hers; she occupies a place in a long historical field. At the same time, the singular always interrupts fungibility as an untenable ground of ethical life.  Quite simply, the choice is as follows: you can avert your gaze and still participate in public outrage, but you’re missing something important if you don’t listen or attend to narrative, if you don’t amplify its particular domain.

When Reynolds narrated what was happening in the car at that moment—when that narrative is again repeated by people who watched or read of it, as I am now—an alternate and urgent relation is demanded by the narrating voice: neither projection nor identification, but recognition. In this post, I want to explore how this is the case. I will bring to the discussion my understanding of what has long been a concern in American literary studies, one that corresponds to the entry of black women into American literature and public discourse: testimony. Under what conditions have black women been called upon to testify and how does this kind of testimony get mediated?

Image by Flickr User Johnny Silvercloud, Taken 15 November 2015, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image by Flickr User Johnny Silvercloud, Taken 15 November 2015, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

***

On September 24, 2016, the New York Times released a cellphone video of the death of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina. Police shot Lamont outside of his car. The police claimed–and continue to claim–that he was holding a gun. Several videos from different vantage points have emerged since Lamont’s death.  The presentation of videos mainly confirms a contemporary epistemic and ethical relationship to the visual, a new twist on an old sensory formation that continues to organize American social and political life. Repeatedly, people express a hope, or the belief, that some angle or some vantage correctly adjoined to another angle alone will answer the questions of “what happened?”

President Obama has called for more body cams for police, the underlying logic being that, if recorded, police brutality will become more preventable as it becomes more officially visible. However, the issue remains that the relationship to visual evidence always-already concerns the racist optic that organizes the black male body for a white gaze in advance as “threat.” Judith Butler, writing in 1993 of the Rodney King trial in the essay “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia” in the Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising anthology, reminds us that “The visual field is not neutral to the question of race; it is itself a racial formation, an episteme” (17).

This post does not focus on the urgent question of how white supremacy has historically marshaled the black male body within the racialized regime of the visible. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jackie Wang are among those who have provided recent and pivotal accounts that orient me as I write.

Instead, I want to shift our contemporary conversation about white supremacy, racist policing, and black life and death by addressing the ethical place of black women’s voices as they narrate the spectacle of black death. The question is not, can black death be seen within a white optic? I think the answer is no, it cannot. Time and again, the amassment of images insists that no amount of video footage can or will change the optic. Race is no doubt a visible artifact.

Can hearing differently augment and change its regime?

Jennifer Stoever has recently asked after “the sonic color line” as a rejoinder to W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1903 insistence in The Souls of Black Folk that the “problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line” (3).  The problem of a line or threshold suggests the possibility of crossing and, with it, amalgamation. For Du Bois, the need and demand for crossing moves in one direction: the white consciousness should experience, not what it is to live as a black consciousness, but that her own consciousness, indeed very life, is inextricably bound to the other it repudiates.  For Du Bois, this transformation–even in the act of writing—was intimately linked to song and narrative. Stoever reminds us that, though writing, he implored his reader to “hear” him.

As I sifted through the news in the weeks following Scott’s death, I kept returning to this question: what does it mean for the voices of black women to become politically audible and intelligible as narrators in a society that still insists on identification as the only ground for ethical life? At the same time, what does it mean for a black woman to become a voice for another, to survive a death and tell the story where another cannot?

NYC action in solidarity with Ferguson. Mo, encouraging a boycott of Black Friday Consumerism.

NYC action in solidarity with Ferguson. Mo, encouraging a boycott of Black Friday Consumerism. Image by Flickr User The All Nite Images, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The majority of the police brutality that has received widespread public scrutiny is the visible violence against black males. As the #sayhername hashtag was meant to illustrate, black women are more invisible as subjects of racist violence. When Castile was bleeding out in silence, Reynolds took the camera and became his voice for him. The ground was suddenly shifted away from the visibility, toward audibility. I include within its matrix the significance of Sandra Bland who, using her phone’s video camera, orally narrated her own arrest in her own voice.

In the U.S., white supremacy has attempted to make black voices historically inaudible as historical agents: slaves (not being citizens) were not originally allowed to testify in court, and even after Emancipation, black litigants could not testify against whites in some states. The demand for extra-juridical testimony has remained constant since slavery and Emancipation and it was the first point of entry for black writers into American literature. But the task of testimony—and making it “heard” in a manner of speaking—has long fallen disproportionally on black women, but this task brings to black women, as I will describe, an important power and ethical charge.

Ida B. Wells, 1893, Courtesy of the US National Portrait Gallery

Ida B. Wells, 1893, Courtesy of the US National Portrait Gallery

In 1895, Ida B. Wells wrote A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. The pamphlet provides statistics (the number of lynchings listed under year and purported crimes), but also narratives of specific events. In the Preface by Frederick Douglass, he writes, “I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison. You give us what you know and testify from actual knowledge.” She tells one story of a lynch mob coming to a house where a black man accused of a crime was being held while still with his family. As you read, I want to ask “where” Wells is as a speaker is and by what authority:

…that night, about 8 o’clock, a party of perhaps twelve or fifteen men, a number of whom were known to the guards, came to the house and told the Negro guards they would take care of the prisoners now, and for them to leave; as they did not obey at once they were persuaded to leave with words that did not admit of delay.

The woman began to cry and said, “You intend to kill us to get our money.” They told her to hush (she was heavy with child and had a child at her breast) as they intended to give her a nice present. The guards heard no more, but hastened to a Negro church near by and urged the preacher to go up and stop the mob. A few minutes after, the shooting began, perhaps about forty shots being fired. The white men then left rapidly and the Negroes went to the house. Hamp Biscoe and his wife were killed, the baby had a slight wound across the upper lip; the boy was still alive and lived until after midnight, talking rationally and telling who did the shooting.

He said when they came in and shot his father, he attempted to run out of doors and a young man shot him in the bowels and that he fell. He saw another man shoot his mother and a taller young man, whom he did not know, shoot his father. After they had killed them, the young man who had shot his mother pulled off her stockings and took $220 in currency that she had hid there. The men then came to the door where the boy was lying and one of them turned him over and put his pistol to his breast and shot him again. This is the story the dying boy told as near as I can get it.

Here, testimony is not to tell what happened to Wells herself, but to tell the story where the young boy cannot.

Is this narrative’s ethical stance premised upon identification and fungibility? No, I think not. But it is premised upon self-absencing. Using the strategies of direct discourse and shifts in narrative voice (or the subject of the verb’s mode of action), she absents herself as an “I” or first-person to mediate the story—until the very end: “This is the story the dying boy told as near as I can get to it.” Her written tactics are vivid, and a reader perhaps imagines a scene. But the culmination of the image insistently returns to a voice: the dying boy’s. It is only at the end of the synthetic narrative that she attributes the narrative to him as its witness. She writes in the third-person of an event she did not witness: she has allowed her voice to move around in space – from the site where the warrant was made, to the threshold of the family’s cabin door, on the other side of the door, to the anonymous spaces of rumor, then away from the scene to the church, and back.

I’m reminded of a recently audio performance, The Numbers Station [Red Record], where sound artists Mendi + Keith Obadike sonifed Wells’s statistics, using them as numbers to generate audio frequencies (some of the numbers being below 20 hz, the lowest threshold of human hearing).

In a measured and restrained, yet breathy and resonant tone of voice, Mendi Obadike reads the statistics as Keith Obadike generates and oscillates corresponding tones. It is a study in repetition, as is Wells’s pamphlet (racist crime, Douglass writes, “has power to reproduce itself”). And yet, both the pamphlet and the Obadikes’ performance are a study in the singular: one female voice carries each of the numbers in their signification.

Numbers Station is depleted or exhausted narrative space that asks that no images be conjured. The vocal style is impersonal, to be sure—the performer does not passionately react to the numbers. And yet, it is style that moves the voice into that region of the throat where Roland Barthes found the “grain,” where timbre most resonates. It burrows in the human capacity for timbre as the singularity of every voice that says, “here I am.”

When Roland Barthes asked the famous question, “who speaks?” in “The Death of the Author,” he delighted in the impersonal domain of the literary, wherein writing becomes “an oblique space” no longer tied to the physical voice of the body writing. We can say that a physical guarantee of white life, its freedom of continuation underwrites the death of the author.  In other words, one can die into text, relinquish the tie that binds the first-person to the body writing, and survive those deaths. It was not important for Barthes to ask, “who may die?,” as in who might have the freedom of impersonality, and “who hears?”, as in who has the right to determine the meaning of the utterances. I want to address these questions.

***

Video technology means that one can record sound and image simultaneously–video having built in mics–yet cell technology makes video, as sound and image, even more accessible and disseminable. Often, the voices of those holding the cell phone at a distance are also captured, remarking upon what they are witnessing or trying to cognize, or they are simply breathing; these voices become a part of the narrative scene. Cell phone technology enables a new mode of witnessing, one connected to older antecedent technologies: the written word as a form of “voice” for black writers. Yet, there is something even more importantly material that gets lost when one focuses on the image of brutality rather than the narrative agency that can be harnessed by the act of recording. In the case of Reynolds’s video, this narrating is explicit. She puts into words what she is seeing. But this narrating can also be more implicit.

Rakeyia Scott and Keith Lamont Scott

Facebook picture of Rakeyia Scott and Keith Lamont Scott

The video released by the New York Times of the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott included the subtitle, as an introductory slide, that “It was recorded by his wife, Rakeyia Scott.” I pressed pause and, like Juhasz, felt myself unable to watch, stopped in my tracks by this matter-of-fact annotation. Scott had had to videotape the murder of her husband. It took some time before I could return to the video itself, but immediately my thoughts return to Reynolds—again, a black woman had been thrust into the position of narrating black death at the hands of a white police officer, while it was unfolding. But I want to insist that the fungible quality is ethically augmented by narrating itself.

In what follows, New York Times reporters Richard Fausset and Yamiche Alcindor transcribe Scott’s audio and summarize the visuals of the video rather than calling upon readers to view or re-view the video itself. I am choosing to provide the summary report—a narrative—in order to underscore the types of social and sensory positions that get taken up when one tells a story (in this case, it is a narrative of a narrative, since Rakeyia Scott is already positioned in the video as its participant-narrator). This account is not “what happened”—it is a narrative that tries to synthesize audio-visual information into a narrative form. If I also choose to repeat the narrative, rather than the video, it is in alignment with Hartman’s ethical insistence that to repeat the spectacle of death is to reify it, as when she choose not to quote Douglass’ narrative of witnessing the beating of his Aunt Hester in the introduction to Scenes of Subjection. Fred Moten, in In the Break, rightly suggests in response that to turn away from an image is still to be caught up in its imaginary reproduction.

I want the reader to focus on how the Times’s narrative conjures the scene while also involving certain decisions about what sensory data to include as internal to the logical order of events, harnessing adjectives, adverbs, and certain sensorial details. It is one platform of convergence:

Immediately, Ms. Scott said, “Don’t shoot him,” and began walking closer to the officers and Mr. Scott’s vehicle. “Don’t shoot him. He has no weapon. He has no weapon. Don’t shoot him.”

An officer can then be heard yelling: “Gun. Gun. Drop the gun.” A police S.U.V. with lights flashing arrived, partly obscuring Ms. Scott’s view, and a uniformed officer got out. From that point, there are five officers, most of whom appeared to be wearing body armor over plain clothes, around Mr. Scott.

“Don’t shoot him, don’t shoot him,” Ms. Scott pleaded, her voice becoming louder and more anxious. “He didn’t do anything.”

Officers continued to yell “drop the gun” or some variation of it — at least 12 times in 38 seconds.

“He doesn’t have a gun,” Ms. Scott said. “He has a T.B.I.” — an abbreviation for a traumatic brain injury the lawyers said Mr. Scott sustained in a motorcycle accident in November. “He’s not going to do anything to you guys. He just took his medicine.”

“Drop the gun,” an officer screamed again as Ms. Scott tried to explain her husband’s condition. The officer then said he needed to get a baton.

“Keith don’t let them break the windows. Come on out the car,” Ms. Scott said, as the video showed an officer approaching Mr. Scott’s vehicle.

“Drop the gun,” an officer shouted again.

Ms. Scott yelled several times for her husband to “get out the car,” but on the video, he cannot be seen through the window of the S.U.V.

kls

still image from Rakeyia Scott’s video of the police shooting of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott. Cropping/blurring by JS, SO!

The above summary reproduces on the page how Scott’s speaking voice suddenly thrust her into a position of addressing several auditors. In listening to the video, I can hear that she modifies her tone of voice to communicate to each addressee, speaking alternately in an imitate imploring tone to her husband and with sharper emphasis to the police. The tone of voice is also linguistic—the diction changes as the addressee changes (“Come on out the car” is so intimate and familiar to my ear somehow, a private grammar and tone suddenly thrown into the public space). She calls the police, “you guys,” which strikes me as an attempt to tone them down, as it were, to bring them back into a human sphere from which they’d removed themselves.  “Ms. Scott tried to explain her husband’s condition”—I add this emphasis, because I think the journalist is channeling here the ways in which Rakeyia Scott is not being heard.

In narrating the scene of her husband’s death, Rakeyia Scott becomes the absolute tie between that past of the image and the present of watching; I use the present tense, because it happens again, with each telling.  Scott speaks, more silently and spectrally, to the audiences that will later watch and listen to the video she is recording, or read the transcript as synthesized by journalists or other viewers. In holding the camera, she imputes to herself a third voice as narrator, as did Wells in narrating the scene in A Red Record. This third voice, I am suggesting, is inaudible. It hovers next to her words with new force because, in the act of recording itself, she is testifying, offering a synthetic view as to reality.  She creates a hearing space even though it is being foreclosed around her.

She is the only party in the scene who speaks to all addressees at once: her husband, the police, and “us.” The police do not respond to her directly, as if she not there. Indeed, she is standing somewhere outside of the scene as would a narrator. Because Rakeyia Scott holds a camera–outside of the frame–while also speaking, something of testimony gets activated. She has one foot outside of the event in the future after the video.  She courageously separates herself from what is unfolding in order to constitute a narrative of the event; she mediates the scene. She not only puts into words facts that are not visible to the police, she issues pleas, commands, and words that carry the explanatory force of narrative, but also testimonial force because she holds the recording device.

still from the NYT's publication of Rakeyia Scott's video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

still from the NYT‘s publication of Rakeyia Scott’s video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

By holding a camera, Scott directs her words not only to police, but toward a yet-to-be constituted audience. The recording device also activates the presence of a juridical gaze. She anticipates having to bring this event, not yet fully unfolded, before a court of law. But at the same time, her use of the recording device reveals the juridical sensorium as white. The device’s presence indicates that, were Scott to remember and tell the story later in a court of law, her words on their own would not be enough to guarantee their explanatory power. The spectacle of black death cannot, on its own, announce its own truth within a racist optic. She says what the police (and a spectral jurist) refuse to see. She is forced to narrate because her voice is negated by the police, but also for those unknown viewers who will see this later.

still from the NYT's publication of Rakeyia Scott's video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

still from the NYT’s publication of Rakeyia Scott’s video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

There is hope, no doubt, that sometime after this scene has come to end, the video will find a place in the civic as a force of enacting law and justice, and above all, change.

At the turn of the last century, Du Bois wrote of “double consciousness” in The  Souls of Black Folk, or the split incumbent upon black American consciousness to see oneself and then, to see oneself as the other sees you, “measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” However, in narrating her husband’s death at the hands of American police in 2016, Rakeyia Scott was split in ways that are not fully compassed by double consciousness. This split into three (or more) not only marks the mediating place of black women in the spectacle of black death, but marks another ethical horizon where at issue is not only seeing differently, but hearing differently. As I’ve tried to describe, these ways of hearing are not an identification with (like me), but a recognition of (you are singular).

This is not yet to speak to the collapse of Scott’s voice after her husband’s murder. Continually occupying this position of testifying, Scott bravely maintains her hold on the camera, even when it means capturing her own screams when Charlotte police begin to shoot. She is both forms. Even then, in screaming, her voice retains its narrative power. Horrifyingly, she cannot change the sequence of events. But her voice continues to exist in belated relation to the scene and to the political afterlife of the murder as image.

With the digital, it becomes possible to reduce the space and time of testimony.  With Reynolds, many watched on Facebook Live an event they were powerless to change in its unfolding. With Scott, the police gun shots had not yet taken place. I think the question is, were Rakeyia Scott white, would her words have been pro-active testimony of a not-yet determined event? Her words would have been lent a different power, a power to change events in their unfolding. In America, white testimony and black testimony bear fundamentally different ontological weight.

still from NYT publication of Rakeyia Scott's video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

still from the NYT‘s publication of Rakeyia Scott’s video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

In repeatedly trying to answer the question whose recurrence haunts me–What does it mean for Scott to have narrated the murder and death of her loved one as it was taking place?–I am thrust up against the sense that we are in a new ethical moment and relation to history when it becomes possible—and necessary—for black women to narrate death to an unknown public as it is unfolding. This includes the moments before their own deaths, such as Korryn Gaines, who was killed by the Baltimore County Police Department in August 2016, in her own apartment while holding her five year old son, who watched and himself suffered a gunshot wound.  Like Reynolds, she broadcast her recordings via Facebook live.

Testimony is usually reserved for some time after the scene, and its hallmark is that it is belated. It must reconstitute a scene we can no longer see. The burden is on the narrating voice to conjure, with persuasion and conviction, the truth of the missing image, so that the story can in fact stand in place of the scene, merging with it on an ontological level.  The live streamed video fundamentally reduces that distance in time, where the narrative now overlays the image, not from outside of it, but within it. They refuse the false juridical narratives that will, in the future, attempt to reframe the image in the name of “fact.”

In the differentiation of the senses, there is the order of the visible and the order of narrating voice that accompanies the image to give it sense, to retell its meaning somehow after. Scott insists on being there to narrate. That is not to suggest that somehow, because Scott speaks, she is more “present.” While the video is meant as future evidence, it also lends a voice of recognition in this ethical sense I have been trying to describe. Scott’s voice is split by the camera. Even if she herself were not to have survived the event, in narrating and taping, she becomes the medium for history (the persistent and unchanging fact of unjust black death). And yet, she is the vehicle for this death that matters in its singularity. She speaks as both, as history and particularity.

In watching and listening, I finally understand something of Hannah Arendt’s argument in The Human Condition that speech and action form a fundamental unit. For Arendt, great deeds cannot happen in silence: they must be narrated and accompanied by speech. And yet the scenes Arendt describes couldn’t be more different. This raises the issue of the conditions of narration: it is one thing to be speaking to your fellow citizens in a sanctioned forum. It is another to hold a camera as an officer holds a gun that might very well shoot you too.

Alicia Garza, one of the three co-founders of the national #blacklivesmatter movement in 2013, along with Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors.

Alicia Garza, one of the three co-founders of the national #blacklivesmatter movement in 2013, along with Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors.

What I’d like to preserve about Arendt’s analytic is the union of speech and action. It is related to the role of the right to speak in the ancient polis, where one had to take responsibility for the possibility that one’s speech might lead to the deeds of the community. But speech, for Arendt, is the function of action that makes it for others, that commits that action to the memories of others who can narrate it. In Arendt’s view, the story does not end there. The fact is, one might not survive one’s greatest deed. If one does survive, it would be in highly transformed terms. It is for others to tell the story.

In part, the ethical bond means our lives are in each other’s hands, that the other is responsible for narrating where you cannot. We are always-already ethically bound as “witnesses and participants,” as Frederick Douglass once described himself in his 1851 Narrative. He remembers himself as a six year old child not only watching, but listening to the scene of brutality against his Aunt Hester that he later recalls and transmutes into a narrative.

My hope is that this power of narrative is in the midst of opening another political horizon. It refutes identification as the untenable ground of ethics and action. We must act—or hold on to a sense of acting, even if its meaning and parameters remain unclear.   As I reach the end of this essay, I can’t shake the sense that that it is not enough to have provided an analytic for understanding these videos and their voices in their long resonance with history.  Nor does it feel right to say that these videos “do” something for us– they, and their narrators, demand that we do something for them.  This mode of action begins in the attitude of hearing. Hearing testimony, Jill Stauffer describes in Ethical Loneliness: The Injustice of Not Being Heard, means allowing the unchangeable past to resound in the present. Only then can one “author conditions where repair is possible” (4).

It might be, then, that hearing itself is a mode of action, even if that action be much delayed. Hearing becomes action when formal power structures have denied its event as a source of repair. As listeners to the present and the past, we are neither projecting ourselves in the images nor imagining ourselves uninvolved in their scenes of subjection.  We were all already there.  And yet, to be “there” means to allow oneself to be exposed to another’s singular experience, rather than favor a collectively conditioned idea of what is known in advance. Who and where will we be afterward, is what remains.  These videos and their not-yet determined afterlives become louder than the optic, if not in the word than in the sounds.

I’d like to thank Jennifer Stoever, Erica Levin, Jay Bernstein, and Ben Williams for their thoughtful voices and contributions that resound throughout this essay.

Julie Beth Napolin is Assistant Professor of Literary Studies at The New School, a musician, and radio producer. She received a PhD in Rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley. Her work participates in the fields of sound studies, literary modernism and aesthetic philosophy, asking what practices and philosophies of listening can tell us about the novel as form. She served as Associate Editor of Digital Yoknapatawpha and is writing a book manuscript on listening, race, and memory in the works of Conrad, Du Bois, and Faulkner titled The Fact of Resonance. Her work has appeared in qui parle, Fifty Years After Faulkner (ed. Jay Watson and Ann Abadie), and Vibratory Modernism (ed. Shelley Trower and Anthony Enns).

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“A Sinister Resonance”: Joseph Conrad’s Malay Ear and Auditory Cultural Studies–Julie Beth Napolin

SANDRA BLAND: #SayHerName Loud or Not at All–Regina Bradley

On Whiteness and Sound Studies–Gus Stadler

Spaces of Sounds: The Peoples of the African Diaspora and Protest in the United States–Vanessa K. Valdés

 

 

 

 

 

A Conversation With Themselves: On Clayton Cubitt’s Hysterical Literature

Hysterical Sound3Welcome to our second installment of Hysterical Sound. Last week I discussed silence and hysteria in relation to Sam Taylor-Johnson’s silent film Hysteria, suggesting that the hysteric’s vocalizations go unheard because we have tuned them out. In upcoming weeks Veronica Fitzpatrick will explore how the soundtrack of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can be considered hysterical in its rejection of language and meaning and John Corbett, Terri Kapsalis and Danny Thompson share an excerpt from their performance of The Hysterical Alphabet.

Today, Gordon Sullivan, considers the video art series Hysterical Literature in relation to a long history of women’s vocalizations serving as aural fetishes for the pleasure of male listeners. In doing so he troubles the dichotomies raised by the project, dichotomies between masculine visual pleasure and feminine aurality, between language and bliss.

— Guest Editor Karly-Lynne Scott

Each video in filmmaker and photographer Clayton Cubitt’s Hysterical Literature series (2012-) – which consists of 11 “sessions” so far – appears deceptively simple. We see a black and white frame with a clothed woman seated at a table, visible from the sternum up, holding a book of her choosing. She announces her name and the title of the book before beginning to read. While reading, the subject generally begins to stumble, the speeding of reading slowing down or speeding up, changes in pitch and emphasis growing more pronounced. Eventually, she is able to read no more and gives in to sighs, groans, or silent, eye-closing paroxysms. When she returns to herself, she announces again her name and the title of the book before the “session” ends.

Despite the consistency of the concept, the 11 “sessions” have been viewed a combined 45 million times, and perhaps much of the appeal of the series is in what it doesn’t show. What we do not see – and indeed do not hear – is the “assistant” beneath the table with an Hitachi Magic Wand physically stimulating the subject. What might have been errors or difficulties in the reading are retroactively understood as evidence of the difficulty of “performing” under the attention of the vibrator.

According to Cubitt, the series’ title and conceit nod at the Victorian-era propensity for naming “unruly” female behavior as “hysterical,” where the cure was often the application of a vibrating device to produce “release.” Female sexuality is therefore the absent center of Hysterical Literature – it is there, but can be disavowed (at least visually), a trend that places it firmly in a culture that has an ambiguous relationship to female pleasure and its sounds.

As John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis note in “Aural Pleasure: The Female Orgasm in Popular Sound,” the sounds of female pleasure are “more viable, less prohibited, and therefore more publically available form of representation than, for instance, the less ambiguous, more easily recognized money shot” that characterizes “hard core” pornography (104). Certainly Hysterical Literature’s home on YouTube would seem to confirm Corbett and Kapsalis’ claim that sounds of female pleasure “occur in places…that would otherwise ban visual pornography” (104).

Indeed, the question of pornography looms over Hysterical Literature, as Cubitt seeks to push on YouTube’s “Community Guidelines” by exhibiting female pleasure sonically (See also Joshua Hudelson for a discussion of sexual fetish and the ASMR community on Youtube). Here the sound of the subject’s voice echoes Linda Williams’s description in Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and “The Frenzy of the Visible,” where the female voice “may stand as the most prominent signifier of female pleasure” that can stand in for the pleasure we are denied access to visually (123). In this way, the sound of female pleasure is, as Corbett and Kapsalis suggest, always evidentiary (104). For them, a woman’s pleasure may/must be corroborated by her sounds (For an alternative view of gender and sound as it relates to women, see Robin James’ “Gendered Voice and Social Harmony”).

This pleasure calls to mind Roland Barthes, who saw the possibility of bliss and representation as fundamentally incompatible. For Barthes, the “grain” of the voice is a bodily phenomenon, not one of language and signification. For him, “the cinema capture[s] the sound of speech close up…and make[s] us here in their materiality, their sensuality, the breath, the gutturals, the fleshiness of the lips, a whole presence of the human muzzle” (67). This “materiality” has a single purpose: bliss. This bliss doesn’t reside in language, with its representational aims, but in those aspects of the voice that are not ruled the signifier/signified dynamic.

What draws me to these discussions – and their relation to Hysterical Literature – is the almost overwhelming insistence on dichotomy. The visual “evidence” of hard core pornography is juxtaposed to the aural “evidence” of female pleasure. Male pleasure (on the side of the visible) is opposed to female pleasure (on the side of the invisible). Representation is incompatible with “bliss.”

This logic is not confined to discussions of sound, but is echoed in some of the writing on Hysterical Literature as well. In her profile (which included her own “session”), dancer and writer Toni Bentley argues that the series “juxtaposes the realm of words literally atop the realm of the erotic.” In her view, this immediately becomes a conflict: “Who would win the inevitable war? Upper body or lower? Logic or lust? Prefrontal cortex or hypothalamus?” Though her list of oppositions may seem idiosyncratic, she still insists on division before suggesting that what might emerge instead is that they “meld together.”

Bentley is not alone in understanding the videos this way, as other subjects find a clean break between “I am reading” and “I am orgasming” that would suggest a strict dichotomy between, as Barthes would put it, representation and bliss. For Bentley, this is a “literate, and literal, clitoral monologue that renders the Vagina Monologues merely aspirational.” I’m not sure that “monologue” captures the depth of what is happening in each Hysterical Literature session. Cubitt’s goal is to reveal something about his subjects, to use “distraction” as a means for revelation that ultimately removes him from the scene. Indeed, the participation of the vibrator-wielding “assistant” and Cubitt’s status as filmmaker argue that instead of a monologue, the series facilitates what Cubitt calls “a conversation with themselves.”

Though Cubitt and his subjects seek to maintain the division between the subject and her distraction, the series is far more interesting than that dichotomy would suggest. Hysterical Literature is interesting not because it juxtaposes “reading” and “orgasm,” but rather because of the rigor with which it is willing to dwell in between these two (apparently) opposed states. There is no cut, no switch in which a subject goes from reading to not-reading. Every video begins and ends the same way – we open on a woman telling us her name and her book, and end the same way, orgasm over with. In between, however, we have a combination of the book chosen by the subject and her augmented reading. Rather than the sighs and groans that supposedly evidence the subject’s pleasure, the more interesting elements are the sounds of the book transformed. The cadence that slows down, speeds up, gets lost, and must repeat. The drawn out vowels that teeter between a gracefully pronounced word and the abyss of unintelligibility. That the “struggle” will end in orgasms and the loss of speech is less significant than the attempt to maintain a voice in the face of what cannot be denied.

If we grant a gulf between “representation” and “bliss,” Hysterical Literature suggests that such a gulf is a productive place to be.

Gordon Sullivan is a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, currently writing a dissertation on questions of sensation and the political in exploitation films.

Featured image taken from “Hysterical Literature: Session Four: Stormy“.

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Echo and the Chorus of Female Machines — AO Roberts

This Is How You Listen: Reading Critically Junot Díaz’s Audiobook — Liana M. Silva

Standing Up, For Jose — Mandie O’Connell

Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic

“Dance!” by Flickr user Clearly Ambiguous, under Creative Commons License 2.0

In the two weeks prior to my drafting this piece, the world lost Adam “MCA” Yauch, Robin GibbDonna Summer, and Chuck Brown.  In their wake they leave a profound legacy of music, yes, but of dance music particularly. MCA declared your right to party while demonstrating that white MCs aren’t always gimmicks.  The BeeGees gave you a new strut courtesy of the bounce-funky soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.  The goddess Donna Summer seduced your ears with her orgasmic whispers, then pumped up the pulsating synthetic beats that brought the discotech from its urban centers directly to you.  And go-go’s blaze, though not as far-reaching as disco’s, grew out of Chuck Brown’s musical sensibility, and burned deep in the hearts of Chocolate City natives.  For all of these artists, moving to the music isn’t merely a possibility or inclination, but a deeply irresistible impulse.  Altogether, these artists brought music that not only called out to people to dance, but if you didn’t dance you missed something essential:  the inextricable ties between music and movement.  One acts as a key that opens up a dimension to understanding the other.

Seeing people dance to a live go-go band taught me how to appreciate their music.  When I finally heard go-go for the first time at a club in 1995, it challenged my musical sensibilities, which were more attuned to smooth R&B and jazzy Hip Hop.  By then, go-go music seemed so fast, and coupled with the multiplicity of drums that I didn’t know how to get inside of the groove.  In the midst of the bubbling fervor I stood noticeably still as the young woman next to me ripped the shirt off her sweaty body and whipped it above her head (like a flag at carnival), never once missing a beat in her frantic jumping and pumping to the live drums while wearing only her bra and a pair of jeans.  The dancing bodies of the whole club fueled my understanding, and by extension appreciation, of what go-go does.  Without them, I would have missed out on something deeper.

I am drawing your attention both to music meant to make you dance and dancing that is necessarily done to music—i.e the arena of social dance.  Julie Malnig, in Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake:  A Social & Popular Dance Reader, defines “social dancing” by “a sense of community often derive[d] less from preexisting groups brought together by shared social and cultural interests than from a community created as a result of the dancing” (4, emphasis in original).  That might include social dances that correspond to particular songs, or called and standardized steps, like the twist or the electric slide.  My focus is more broadly on a visceral, embodied, kinesthetic response to dance music in a particular social space, which is not explicitly directed by the lyrics or a set of moves but by the feel of a song as a whole.  In the Hip Hop social dances I write about, rather than a finite set of moves there are infinite possibilities for improvisational play within a particular style (like b-boying or popping) that the music draws out of the dancer.  As David F. García states in his piece on mambo titled “Embodying Music/Disciplining Dance: The Mambo Body in Havana and New York City,” “the embodied experience of sound and movement [are] merged through the body” (172).

Break Dancing en Costa Rica, 2009 by Flickr User Néstor Baltodano, under Creative Commons License 2.0

I have come to name the frame for analyzing the simultaneity of social dance and music (and sound broadly) as aural-kinesthetics.  While these words capture sound and movement separately, together I am looking to engage more than just the sensory response of moving to what one hears.  The term develops out of works by music scholars like Kyra Gaunt (The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes From Double Dutch to Hip Hop), Kodwo Eshun (More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction), and Kai Fikentscher (“You Better Work!”: Underground Dance Music in New York City), who shift our orientation to music and rhythm by drawing on our kinesthetic responses to it.  Aural kinesthetics recognize that social dance practices are kinesthetic forms within the all-encompassing aurality of an environment.  I use spatial terms to acknowledge sound’s omni-directionalality, coming at you from all sides and helping to actually produce the social dance place.  In other words, the aural kinesthetic is also a kind of spatial practice (along the lines of Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space).  For example, consider how a bomba dancer orchestrates the primary bomba drummer’s rhythms within the rhythmic arena created by the second and tertiary drummers; or how loud music in street dance performances fills the immediate surroundings and bleeds out into other areas, attesting to their capacity to claim public spaces (the volume has volume).  Music in particular plays a fundamental role in establishing the conceptual performance arena that ultimately makes the physical space functional for certain dance practices.

Despite the fact that social dances necessarily have a musical component, dance is typically overdetermined by the visual, which in Western cultures we are better equipped to address.  The sound and feel of dance experiences are often overridden by the spectacle of dancing, which the following clip demonstrates. In this clip showcasing the final battle from the 2007 Freestyle Sessions in Los Angeles, the spectacle of these amazing dancers distracts you from the actual social dynamics of their battle, of which music is central.

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The exchange between dancers is truncated, spliced together for dramatic effect.  You focus on the center of the cypher, lost in the visual thrill of it all.  The song they were actually dancing to is replaced by another that, though danceable, prevents us from appreciating a particular song’s nuances as well as the crowd and emcee’s involvement in the event.  Overdubbing songs that you do not have clearance for is in compliance with copyright laws that force the video’s producers to instead play songs to which they have legal access, in sacrifice of aural-kinesthetic experiences the videos attempt to capture.  Yet even in cases of the below clip where we hear the original song, the recording cannot capture the quality of the force of the music that is loud enough to feel throughout your entire body, thereby promoting a shared sensorial experience in the room.  Whether one is recording with a camera or in writing, capturing the aural-kinesthetic can be tricky.

2009 Dutch B-Boy Championships Semi-Finals between Hustle Kids and Rugged Solutions

For me, the aural-kinesthetic is useful insofar as it opens up creative space for me in writing the simultaneity of sound and movement.  Scholars like Mary Fogarty (Dance to the Drummer’s Beat: Competing Tastes in International B-Boy/B-Girl Culture) have approached the topic by distinguishing between notions of musical taste and musical competency in clarifying the contours of b-boying’s dance-music relationship.  In my own writing, I’ve tended toward storytelling and descriptive analyses.  In contrast, considerations such as those of Roland Barthes’ “The Grain of the Voice” (in Image, Music, Text) propose to expand the language on (vocal) music in general by shifting the object of analysis to create new ways of writing music, which we can extend to writing social dance.

So what is a productive approach for writing the aural-kinesthetic?  I’m not prescribing a method, but I do want to consider the possibilities of shifting the focus of analysis in such a way that it allows for the simultaneity of music and movement.  For example, there may be value in examining a gesture repeatedly made to a particular part of a song to understand what that song is doing; or examining the physical layout of a room and how that space gets used through the song that fills it.  Perhaps coming at social dance indirectly and on multiple fronts makes for a richer depiction.

For now, let’s take advantage of this digital space and collectively consider our options.  Here’s a task I hope you might take up:  post a link to a song or a video clip that makes you move.  Describe some quality of your visceral response to the song and place your thoughts in the comments section below.  Include the multiple fronts that help you to articulate your experience.  While music and dance have the capacity to “speak” in ways that verbal language cannot always reach, my hope is that a range of possibilities might get us there. or at least much closer.

Dr. Imani Kai Johnson is a Ford Dissertation Fellow, who has just completed a three year postdoctoral fellowship at NYU’s Performance Studies Department.  She received her PhD in American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California in 2009, where she wrote a dissertation titled,”Dark Matter in B-Boying Cyphers: Race and Global Connection in Hip Hop,” which considers the cultural and performative dimensions of Hip Hop dance as a global phenomenon through cyphers (dance circles), and the invisible forces of the collaborative ritual.  Dr. Johnson is currently completing a manuscript based on her dissertation.

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