The family in A Quiet Place (2018) lives a life marked by incessant trauma. Invisible to the hunters who are far more powerful than they are, the family remains safe from direct assault as long as they remain unheard by the hunters, who can’t see them. But that same invisibility means the everyday mundanities of life become a constant struggle marked by the terror of the horrific death that will claim them should they make an errant sound. A trip to the pharmacy could prove fatal; a hungry child could summon the hunters and put in danger the entire family. When sketched out in these broad strokes, A Quiet Place, as Kathryn Adams Burton pointed out to me when we left the theater, summons terror from its viewers by depicting the kind of institutional surveillance and violence that endanger Black lives in the US, without one person of color in the entire movie. Thinking with Simone Browne’s Dark Matters (2015), Jennifer Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line (2016), and Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes (2008), I argue here that A Quiet Place places white characters in a non-white relationship with surveillance, which they overcome in a way that projects white ingenuity and strength and reinforces the centuries-old notion that those who live under the eye and ear of hyper-surveillance tactics do so because they deserve to and because they are not exceptional enough to evade those tactics.
The Quiet family’s invisibility is literal: the creatures who hunt them have no sense equivalent to human vision and instead track their prey using hyper-developed listening abilities. They remain vigilant for the audible traces of their victims; sound is the thing that can put the family in trouble. Simone Browne highlights in Dark Matters the significance of visibility and invisibility in the history of antiblack surveillance in the US. Lantern laws in 18th century New York City stipulated that enslaved black and indigenous people must carry a lit lantern if they were in the streets after dark, a regulation that Browne understands as an act of “racializing surveillance,” a “form of knowledge production about the black, indigenous, and mixed-race subject” (79). Specifically, the knowledge created through the lantern laws marked bodies of color as “un-visible,” in need of illumination in order to be properly seen. And here “seen” slips into a couple of different meanings, encompassing not only the ocular but also the notion of “seeing” that connotes understanding and discernment.
The early technology of lantern surveillance, as well as the boundaries delineated by sundown towns, marked black, indigenous, and mixed-race bodies as untrustworthy, scheming, and therefore in need of ongoing surveillance that would make these bodies visible to the eye. At the heart of Dark Matters is Browne’s contention that the history and techniques of surveillance cannot be understood separate from their racializing work: “surveillance…is the fact of antiblackness” (10). So while the Quiet family is white, their relationship to the powerful beings that hunt them–an existence unseeable and unknowable apart from heightened measures of surveillance–appropriates signifiers of racialized surveillance in order to heighten the stakes of the movie’s characters.
While Browne focuses primarily on acts of looking as mechanisms for violently enforcing the color line in Dark Matters, Jennifer Stoever traces the history of that same color line through listening practices. Stoever isn’t explicitly engaging surveillance studies the way Browne is, but her theorization of the “listening ear”–the social and political norms that shape how we hear race–includes surveillance acts that, like lantern laws, mark voices perceived to be non-white as always already ready to be monitored, bounded, and eliminated should they exceed their boundaries (13). For both Browne and Stoever, the act of surveilling uncovers a racializing sleight of hand: non-Whiteness is held up as that which stands out, though this racialization is proven backwards if we look and listen a bit closer. US looking and listening norms condition people to organize blackness and brownness and noise as aberrations against natural, invisible, inaudible whiteness, but it takes a good deal of white supremacist work to create this illusion (by “white supremacy,” I mean the social and political practices and institutions that reify and reward whiteness). Looking through brighter lights and sharper camera lenses at non-White subjects and listening through amplification devices and ubiquitous bugs to non-White subjects are both ways of drawing attention away from whiteness–the racialized construct that fuels US social, legal, and political praxis–and toward non-whiteness.
Stoever opens The Sonic Color Line by considering the violence visited upon Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland, and a Spring Valley High School student when each was considered too loud and unruly by white listening ears trained to surveil blackness. The Quiet family is listened to in the same way Davis, Bland, and the Spring Valley student were, in the same way non-whiteness has been surveilled in the US: with dire consequences for being too loud. But, by erasing black and brown bodies and histories from the screen, A Quiet Place divorces these surveillance tactics from their real-world context, where they work as tools of white supremacist systems to “fix and frame blackness as an object of surveillance” (Browne 7). Part of the fantasy of A Quiet Place involves “fixing and framing” whiteness as the objects of sonic surveillance practices that have historically worked to preserve and reward whiteness, not target it.
While the Quiet family is subjected to antiblack surveillance techniques, they are otherwise marked as white–and not just based on what their skin color looks like. Farmers in a rural, hilly region of Upstate New York, the Quiet family navigates the apocalypse with a libertarian aplomb. They’re stocked and loaded when the government fails to protect its citizens, and they’re also aware of but not in collaboration with other survivors in the surrounding area. Operating outside the bustle of urban noise, which Stoever notes is marked as non-White by the listening ear, the Quiet family likely boasts generations of working class whites who benefited from the kind of social safety nets built by the New Deal, only to mistake the wealth those social programs built to be fully the fruits of their own hard work.
The independence and autonomy that the Quiet family demonstrates is not on its own a marker of whiteness, but the kind of wealth accumulation that makes non-collaborative survival possible is the kind that’s historically been more readily available to white folks in the US. It’s a history that is flattened, as is the history of the surveillance that shapes their lives. Their wealth simply exists, and viewers aren’t meant to wonder where it came from or at whose expense. Likewise, viewers learn very little about what the hunters are, where they came from, and why they’re here. The hunters just appear, terrifying sonic surveillers who carry signifiers of antiblack listening practices but who remain detached from the antiblack history of surveillance.
The racialized terror at the heart of A Quiet Place grows from the fear of being denied one’s whiteness, being subjected to the same controlling surveillance measures that have helped maintain the color line for centuries in the US. It’s a standard white sci-fi nightmare scenario where technologies spin out of control and subjugate all of humanity, white people included. It’s also a white exceptionalist fantasy, where whiteness–not just white people but the wealth and freedom created for white people by white supremacist systems–conquers the unconquerable. Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes can prove helpful here, as he outlines the way racial ideology has shifted in recent decades to permit multiculturalism so long as it preserves whiteness. While systems like slavery and segregation were buttressed by explicit white supremacy, where whiteness = good and non-whiteness = bad, contemporary racial hierarchies are maintained by conceding that multiculturalism = virtuous and race-based solidarity = problematic. Here, white supremacy cloaks itself in diversity, hybridity, mixedness and points to any group that coheres around racial identity as regressive.
Flattening history is crucial to that ideological shift. In order to maintain a racial hierarchy that tips in favor of whiteness, past violence and kleptocratic seizures of money, resources, and lives must be removed from the equation so that the kind of multiculturalism that Sexton critiques can proceed as if all who participate do so on a level playing field. Whiteness becomes “something equivalent to the…ethnicities and cultures of nonwhite immigrants and American Indians” (Sexton 66). The field, of course, isn’t level when white supremacy has funneled centuries of ill-gotten gains to whiteness, so this kind of multiculturalism is a way of gaming the system, mixing up racial signifiers so that white folks can take on just enough racial signifiers to blend into a racially diverse society without giving up the power and privilege that continues to give them a leg up.
A Quiet Place follows a calculus similar to the multiculturalism Sexton describes. First, the movie extracts emotional responses of terror and dread through a mixture of racial signifiers, subjecting white characters to forms of surveillance rooted in antiblackness. With no historical context to explain the forms of surveillance the hunters use or the characters’ previous relationships to surveillance, the Quiet family’s whiteness becomes just another ethnicity, a flattened way of being in the world divorced from the white supremacist context that funnels resources their way. Their privilege and power become as invisible to viewers as they are to the hunters. By masking that privilege, A Quiet Place clears space for a fantasy world where the white heroes have survived by virtue of being simply more clever, more resourceful, more brave, more everything than all the black and brown people who have, by implication of their absence from the film, been killed off by the hunters.
A Quiet Place, then, takes a family of multiculturally white characters and positions them in roles white characters have become accustomed to occupying: that of world saviors–some of them even martyrs. Here, hyper-surveillance is simply a fact of life, and those who are able to live life free of the dire consequences of that hyper-surveillance are able to do so because they are exceptional. By this logic, what protects you from the police is either your innocence or your guile, not your whiteness. What guarantees your safety when you publicly challenge government policies is the righteousness of your cause, not your whiteness. What allows you to move in the dark without a lantern or to listen to your music loudly in public spaces without being shot or to cross borders without fear is your inherent virtue, not your whiteness. And when surveillance is positioned as a fact of life, and when those who avoid the crushing consequences of surveillance are understood to do so because they are virtuously exceptional, then those who are targeted, hunted, and killed using hyper-surveillance tactics are understood to be deserving of their fate because they are not virtuous or exceptional enough to avoid it. This is the logic that frames slavery as a choice, that cages children at the border, that influences and fixes elections across the globe but takes umbrage when subjected to the same tactics.
One terrible irony of a movie like A Quiet Place is that its flattened hyper-surveillance context makes it incapable of seeing and hearing the deep and rich history of black and brown evasion of hyper-surveillance. There’s an ingenuity coursing through activities of evading surveillance–“looking back,” marronage, and fugitivity chronicled by writers including Sylvia Wynter, Franz Fanon, Katherine McKittrick, and Simone Browne, among others–an ingenuity that evades hyper-surveillance and simultaneously exposes hyper-surveillance as antiblack while arguing against the notion that it is simply a fact of life and signalling avenues to freedom. Instead of those stories, though, the white Quiet family whispers to us a familiarly unsettling refrain: the white Quiet family, alone, can eradicate these terrors. The white Quiet family, alone, can fix this. The white Quiet family, alone, are exceptional.
Featured image, and all images in this post are screenshots from “A Quiet Place ALL TRAILERS – Emily Blunt & John Krasinski 2018 Horror Movie” by Youtube user Flicks And The City Clips.
Justin Adams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.
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Recently, in a Harvard graduate seminar with visiting composer-scholar George Lewis, the eminent professor asked me pointedly if I considered myself a “sound artist.” Finding myself put on the spot in a room mostly populated with white male colleagues who were New Music composers, I paused and wondered whether I had the right to identify that way. Despite having exploded many conventions through my precarious membership in New York’s improvised/creative music scene, and through my shift from identifying as a “mrudangam artist” to calling myself an “improviser,” and even, begrudgingly, a “composer” — somehow “sound artist” seemed a bit far-fetched. As I sat in the seminar, buckling under the pressure of how my colleagues probably defined sound art, Prof. Lewis gently urged me to ask: How would it change things if I did call myself a sound artist? Rather than imposing the limitations of sound art as a genre, he was inviting me to reframe my existing aesthetic intentions, assumptions, and practices by focusing on sound.
Sound art and its offshoots have their own unspoken codes and politics of membership, which is partly what Prof. Lewis was trying to expose in that teaching moment. However, for now I’ll leave aside these pragmatic obstacles — while remaining keenly aware that the question of who gets to be a sound artist is not too distant from the question of who gets to be an artist, and what counts as art. For my own analytic and creative curiosity, I would like to strip sound art down to its fundamentals: an offering of resonance or vibration, in the context of a community that might find something familiar, of aesthetic value, or socially cohesive, in the gestures and sonorities presented.
I have spent most of my musical life wondering how the sounds I produce intersect with specific vectors of social belonging. The sounds emanating from my primary instrument — the mrudangam, a South Indian drum — are situated within a complex lattice of social difference, resonating within and across communities as disparate as the predominantly privileged-caste audiences of Chennai’s elite Karnatik sabha-s and the cosmopolitan connoisseurs who show up to find a home in New York City’s myriad intercultural and experimental music spaces. The sounds I produce are also inflected by the multivalent referentiality of my own socially situated body — as a queer, privileged-caste, Indian-American woman — simultaneously slicing through and answering to sonic environments organized around particular notions of rigor, virtuosity, and beauty.
For me, what began as a creative path rooted in the mimesis of an artistic lineage eventually settled in a versatile expressive voice, shaped by a decade of aesthetic (and ethical) nomadism. From my vantage point as a female percussionist in the South Asian diaspora, I have always been aware of the cracks in the veneer of tradition and other normative structures, and perhaps this fueled my musical vagrancy. Over time, my sound has accumulated the resonances of Karnatik music, ‘jazz’ drumming, bharatanatyam footwork, and Afro-Cuban rhythms, among others.
Certainly, this convergence of sonic layers is mediated by the rich specificity of interpersonal relationships and positionalities within larger networks. Power and positionality mediate the shape, audibility, and versatility of sounds as they become coupled with the implied (or actual) encounter of socially situated bodies. Yet, sounds somehow continue to exist in excess of the mechanisms and bodies that attempt to explain, produce, and contain them: idiom, tradition, space, culture, nation, race, gender, and sexuality. Therein lies their potency and mystery, and I intend to briefly explore the sensation of sonic excess in the hopes of honing a more sensitive analytic and creative perspective.
I am yet to become comfortable thinking in terms of sound, due to the longtime privileging of structure and technique in my musical upbringing. However, this is beginning to unravel as I am forced to deal with sound, particularly the sound of what Patrice Pavis and Jason Stanyek have called the “intercorporeal” aspect of intercultural performance. The predominantly improvised sounds that resonate through my mrudangam often emerge on the edge of my dynamic embodied consciousness, arranging themselves chaotically in real-time, interacting with others’ emergent soundings and sensory yearnings. Some of it may be mediated by parallel perceptual and idiomatic forms, but achieving a core interactive flow involves a fundamental immersion in sound.
Mat Maneri, feat. Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan
Tongues Series, curated by Amirtha Kidambi
ISSUE Project Room — June 18, 2016
For instance, take this impromptu piece presented by violist Mat Maneri, violinist Anjna Swaminathan (my sister), and me in 2016. It took place in the wonderfully resonant vaulted space of ISSUE Project Room, in front of an unsuspecting audience that had convened to hear the back-to-back juxtaposition of two improvisational “tongues” — a set of Maneri’s rich microtonal experiments, followed by a Karnatik concert of voice, violin, and mrudangam. However, this impromptu ludic exchange of sonic offerings — particularly Maneri’s incredible, chameleon-like ability to confound the sounds of Karnatik ornamentations with his own microtonal reflections — guided attention away from comparison and toward the sounds as they bounced eerily around the resonant architecture. Faced with the technically daunting Karnatik repertoire that Anjna and I were to play subsequently with vocalist Ashvin Bhogendra, the echoes of our interstitial collaboration allowed us to reorient ourselves and breathe a little easier.
From an analytic perspective, it is irresponsible to distill these sounds, to capture and conceptualize them as distinct from the bodies, histories, and discourses that participate in their co-creation and interpretation. Yet, riddled as they are with generations of power asymmetries and complex emotions, it is clear that these resonances have a secret life of their own. As musicians, we are not often given the opportunity to explore these clandestine, almost Baudelairean, correspondences, except perhaps when we discover them by accident. For instance, sonic ambiguities like those spun during the trio encounter play on sonic excess to spur new ways of listening and relating, with a direct ethical impact on the ensuing music.
John Blacking’s definition of all music as “humanly organized sound” is perhaps an early articulation of this idea, although the word ‘organized’ contains a bias toward formal structure and stability. To be sure, organizing principles always exist at the local level of socially situated perception and expression, which Nina Sun Eidsheim calls the ‘figure of sound.’ However, the kind of sound art I’m proposing revels in excess, or as Eidsheim puts it — “not only aurality, but also tactile, spatial, physical, material, and vibrational sensations [that] are at the core of all music” (5). We can even turn to how Jacques Attali poetically describes composition — as “a labor on sounds, without a grammar, without a directing thought, a pretext for festival, in search of thoughts,” a practice wherein “rhythms and sounds are the supreme mode of relation between bodies once the screens of the symbolic, usage and exchange are shattered,” one that neither marks nor produces the body, but allows for “taking pleasure in it” (143). By focusing on the multi-sensory, pleasurable valences of sound, and on the ways in which sonic excess allows for new patterns of coexistence, we can outline a ‘sound art’ practice and analytic that aren’t circumscribed by Western institutional definitions and technological/perceptual biases.
Thinking in this way about sound and vibration helps to eradicate the mind-body problem that continues to plague certain areas of music studies and music making. Sound forms an elusive common denominator that doesn’t rely heavily on colonial taxonomies of form or hierarchical theories of art. It even accounts for the subversive or incommensurable resonances that tend to emerge at the unstable threshold between so-called ‘producers’ and ‘receivers’ of music. After all, sound is in the ear of the beholder, and social asymmetries are embedded in the way we hear and listen. Through the notion of vibration, we are further attuned to the visceral space in which it reverberates, and the ways in which its echoes live on in the bodies of those who experience it.
Finally, there is the other definition of sound in English, which indicates a level of trust and holism. Taking this path to becoming ‘sound artist’ focuses attention on the artist. I don’t intend to focus on the ‘chops’ conventional to a field of aesthetic practice. Rather, I am interested in the more obscure meaning: a ‘sound artist’ as one that ethically occupies space as an artist.
How might this emerging sound art, as analytic and creative practice, work to interrogate the very ethics and politics of art, while succumbing to the contingency and volatile excess of sound? I don’t claim to hold the answers, but if we are in any way sounding out against the grain of dominant modalities, then at some level we must attend seriously to sound: in its excess, as it overwhelms bodies and spaces, and as it stretches the realm of the known.
Featured Image: “The great Rajna Swaminathan,” from Teju Cole tweet, 5 October 2013.
Rajna Swaminathan is an accomplished mrudangam (South Indian percussion) artist, a protégé of mrudangam legend Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. She has performed with several renowned Indian classical musicians, most notably mentor and vocalist T.M. Krishna. Since 2011, she has been studying and collaborating with eminent musicians in New York’s jazz and creative music scene, including Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Miles Okazaki, and Amir ElSaffar. Since 2013, Swaminathan has led the ensemble RAJAS, which explores new textural and improvisational horizons at the nexus of multiple musical perspectives. Swaminathan is active as a composer-performer for dance and theatre works, most notably touring with the acclaimed company Ragamala Dance and collaborating with playwright/actress Anu Yadav. Swaminathan holds degrees in anthropology and French from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is currently pursuing a PhD in cross-disciplinary music studies at Harvard University.
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