This is the first post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us. For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening as a political act, beginning this year with Gustavus Stadler’s timely provocation. –Editor-in-Chief JS
Many amusing incidents attend the exhibition of the Edison phonograph and graphophone, especially in the South, where a negro can be frightened to death almost by a ‘talking machine.’ Western Electrician May 11, 1889, (255).
What does an ever-nearer, ever-louder police siren sound like in an urban neighborhood, depending on the listener’s racial identity? Rescue or invasion? Impending succor or potential violence? These dichotomies are perhaps overly neat, divorced as they are from context. Nonetheless, contemplating them offers one charged example of how race shapes listening—and hence, some would say, sound itself—in American cities and all over the world. Indeed, in the past year, what Jennifer Stoever calls the “sonic color line” has become newly audible to many white Americans with the attention the #blacklivesmatter movement has drawn to police violence perpetrated routinely against people of color.
Racialized differences in listening have a history, of course. Consider the early decades of the phonograph, which coincided with the collapse of Reconstruction and the consolidation of Jim Crow laws (with the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval). At first, these historical phenomena might seem wholly discrete. But in fact, white supremacy provided the fuel for many early commercial phonographic recordings, including not only ethnic humor and “coon songs” but a form of “descriptive specialty”—the period name for spoken-word recordings about news events and slices of life—that reenacted the lynchings of black men. These lynching recordings, as I argued in “Never Heard Such a Thing,” an essay published in Social Text five years ago, appear to have been part of the same overall entertainment market as the ones lampooning foreign accents and “negro dialect”; that is, they were all meant to exhibit the wonders of the new sound reproduction to Americans on street corners, at country fairs, and in other public venues.
Thus, experiencing modernity as wondrous, by means of such world-rattling phenomena as the disembodiment of the voice, was an implicitly white experience. In early encounters with the phonograph, black listeners were frequently reminded that the marvels of modernity were not designed for them, and in certain cases were expressly designed to announce this exclusion, as the epigraph to this post makes brutally evident. For those who heard the lynching recordings, this new technology became another site at which they were reminded of the potential price of challenging the racist presumptions that underwrote this modernity. Of course, not all black (or white) listeners heard the same sounds or heard them the same way. But the overarching context coloring these early encounters with the mechanical reproduction of sound was that of deeply entrenched, aggressive, white supremacist racism.
The recent Sonic Shadows symposium at The New School offered me an opportunity to come back to “Never Heard Such a Thing” at a time when the field of sound studies has grown more prominent and coherent—arguably, more of an institutionally recognizable “field” than ever before. In the past three years, at least three major reference/textbook-style publications have appeared containing both “classic” essays and newer writing from the recent flowering of work on sound, all of them formidable and erudite, all of great benefit for those of us who teach classes about sound: The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (2012), edited by Karen Bijsterveld and Trevor Pinch; The Sound Studies Reader (2013), edited by Jonathan Sterne; and Keywords in Sound (2015), edited by David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny. From a variety of disciplinary perspectives, these collections bring new heft to the analysis of sound and sound culture.
I’m struck, however, by the relative absence of a certain strain of work in these volumes—an approach that is difficult to characterize but that is probably best approximated by the term “American Studies.” Over the past two decades, this field has emerged as an especially vibrant site for the sustained, nuanced exploration of forms of social difference, race in particular. Some of the most exciting sound-focused work that I know of arising from this general direction includes: Stoever’s trailblazing account of sound’s role in racial formation in the U.S.; Fred Moten’s enormously influential remix of radical black aesthetics, largely focused on music but including broader sonic phenomena like the scream of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester; Bryan Wagner’s work on the role of racial violence in the “coon songs” written and recorded by George W. Johnson, widely considered the first black phonographic artist; Dolores Inés Casillas’s explication of Spanish-language radio’s tactical sonic coding at the Mexican border; Derek Vaillant’s work on racial formation and Chicago radio in the 1920s and 30s. I was surprised to see none of these authors included in any of the new reference works; indeed, with the exception of one reference in The Sound Studies Reader to Moten’s work (in an essay not concerned with race), none is cited. The new(ish) American Studies provided the bedrock of two sound-focused special issues of journals: American Quarterly’s “Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies,” edited by Kara Keeling and Josh Kun, and Social Text’s “The Politics of Recorded Sound,” edited by me. Many of the authors of the essays in these special issues hold expertise in the history and politics of difference, and scholarship on those issues drives their work on sound. None of them, other than Mara Mills, is among the contributors to the new reference works. Aside from Mills’s contributions and a couple of bibliographic nods in the introduction, these journal issues play no role in the analytical work collected in the volumes.
The three new collections address the relationship between sound, listening, and specific forms of social difference to varying degrees. All three of the books contain excerpts from Mara Mills’ excellent work on the centrality of deafness to the development of sound technology. The Sound Studies Reader, in particular, contains a small array of pieces that focus on disability, gender and race; in attending to race, specifically, Sterne shrewdly includes an excerpt from Franz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, as well as essays on black music by authors likely unfamiliar to many American readers. The Oxford Handbook’s sole piece addressing race is a contribution on racial authenticity in hip-hop. It’s a strong essay in itself. But appearing in this time and space of field-articulation, its strength is undermined by its isolation, and its distance from any deeper analysis of race’s role in sound than what seems to be, across all three volumes, at best, a liberal politics of representation or “inclusion.” Encountering the three books at once, I found it hard not to hear the implicit message that no sound-related topics other than black music have anything to do with race. At the same time, the mere inclusion of work on black music in these books, without any larger theory of race and sound or wider critical framing, risks reproducing the dubious politics of white Euro-Americans’ long historical fascination with black voices.
What I would like to hear more audibly in our field—what I want all of us to work to make more prominent and more possible—is scholarship that explicitly confronts, and broadcasts, the underlying whiteness of the field, and of the generic terms that provide so much currency in it: terms like “the listener,” “the body,” “the ear,” and so on. This work does exist. I believe it should be aggressively encouraged and pursued by the most influential figures in sound studies, regardless of their disciplinary background. Yes, work in these volumes is useful for this project; Novak and Sakakeeny seem to be making this point in their Keywords introduction when they write:
While many keyword entries productively reference sonic identities linked to socially constructed categories of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, citizenship, and personhood, our project does not explicitly foreground those modalities of social difference. Rather, in curating a conceptual lexicon for a particular field, we have kept sound at the center of analysis, arriving at other points from the terminologies of sound, and not the reverse. (8)
I would agree there are important ways of exploring sound and listening that need to be sharpened in ways that extended discussion of race, gender, class, or sexuality will not help with. But this doesn’t mean that work that doesn’t consider such categories is somehow really about sound in a way that the work does take them up isn’t, any more than a white middle-class person who hears a police siren can really hear what it sounds like while a black person’s perception of the sound is inaccurate because burdened (read: biased) by the weight of history and politics.
In a recent Twitter conversation with me, the philosopher Robin James made the canny point that whiteness, masquerading as lack of bias, can operate to guarantee the coherence and legibility of a field in formation. James’s trenchant insight reminds me of cultural theorist Kandice Chuh’s recent work on “aboutness” in “It’s Not About Anything,” from Social Text (Winter 2014) and knowledge formation in the contemporary academy. Focus on what the object of analysis in a field is, on what work in a field is about, Chuh argues, is “often conducted as a way of avoiding engagement with ‘difference,’ and especially with racialized difference.”
I would like us to explore alternatives to the assumption that we have to figure out how to talk about sound before we can talk about how race is indelibly shaping how we think about sound; I want more avenues opened, by the most powerful voices in the field, for work acknowledging that our understanding of sound is always conducted, and has always been conducted, from within history, as lived through categories like race.
The cultivation of such openings also requires that we acknowledge the overwhelming whiteness of scholars in the field, especially outside of work on music. If you’re concerned by this situation, and have the opportunity to do editorial work, one way to work to change it is by making a broader range of work in the field more inviting to people who make the stakes of racial politics critical to their scholarship and careers. As I’ve noted, there are people out there doing such work; indeed, Sounding Out! has continually cultivated and hosted it, with far more editorial care and advisement than one generally encounters in blogs (at least in my experience), over the course of its five years. But if the field remains fixated on sound as a category that exists in itself, outside of its perception by specifically marked subjects and bodies within history, no such change is likely to occur. Perhaps we will simply resign ourselves to having two (or more) isolated tracks of sound studies, or perhaps some of us will have to reevaluate whether we’re able to teach what we think is important to teach while working under its rubric.
Thanks to Robin James, Julie Beth Napolin, Jennifer Stoever, and David Suisman for their ideas and feedback.
Gustavus Stadler teaches English and American Studies at Haverford College. He is the author of Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the U. S.1840-1890 (U of Minn Press, 2006). His 2010 edited special issue of Social Text on “The Politics of Recorded Sound” was named a finalist for a prize in the category of “General History” by the Association of Recorded Sound Collections. He is the recipient of the 10th Annual Woody Guthrie fellowship! This fellowship will support research for his book-in-progress, Woody Guthrie and the Intimate Life of the Left.
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Reading the Politics of Recorded Sound — Jennifer Stoever
Editor’s Note: Welcome to Sounding Out!‘s annual February forum! This month, we’re wondering: what ideas regarding gender and sound do voices call forth? To think through this question, we’ve recruited several great writers who will be covering different aspects of gender and sound. Regular writer Regina Bradley will look at how music is gendered in Shonda Rhimes’ hit show Scandal. A.O. Roberts will discuss synthesized voices and gender. Art Blake will share with us his reflections on how his experience shifting his voice from feminine to masculine as a transgender man intersects with his work on John Cage. Robin James will return to SO! with an analysis of how ideas of what women should sound like have roots in Greek philosophy. Me? I’ll share a personal essay/analysis of what it means to be called a “loud woman.”
Today we start our February forum on gender and sound with Christine Ehrick‘s selections from her forthcoming book Radio and the Gendered Soundscape in Latin America. Below, she introduces us to the idea of the gendered soundscape, which she uses in her analysis on women’s radio speech from the 1930s to the 1950s. She will make you think twice about the voices you hear on the radio, in podcasts, over the phone…
In the meantime, lean in, close your eyes, and let the voices whisk you away.–Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor
Several years ago, while aboard a commercial airline awaiting take off, I heard the expected sound of a voice emerging from the cockpit, transmitted via the plane’s P.A. system. The voice gave passengers the usual greeting and general information about weather conditions, flight time, etc. What was unusual, and caught the otherwise distracted passengers’ attention, was the fact that the voice speaking was female. People looked up from their magazines and devices not because of the “message” but because of the “medium”: a voice that deviated from the standard soundscape of commercial aviation, a field comprised mostly of men.
For this historian, interested in vocal gender and the female voice in particular, the incident was a fascinating demonstration of both the voice as performance of the gendered body, and the fact that the human voice can and often does communicate beyond (and sometimes despite) the words being spoken. In this essay I want to briefly discuss some of the ideas I explore more fully in my forthcoming book, a study of women/gender and golden age radio titled Radio and the Gendered Soundscape in Latin America: Women and Broadcasting in Argentina and Uruguay, 1930-1950 (forthcoming, Cambridge 2015). In this book, I use the stories of five women and one radio station to explore the possibilities and limits for women’s radio speech, and to pose some larger questions about vocal gender and the gendered soundscape. For this post, I present the conceptual framework that I use to understand how gender is constructed through the voice.
Gender and sound have both been explored as categories of historical analysis, but largely in isolation from one another. The historiographical impact of gender analysis is almost too obvious to mention; suffice to say that attention to gender has altered the very questions historians ask of the past and the way we understand structures of power and historical change. More recently, historians have begun to incorporate R. Murray Schafer’s concept of the soundscape and what Jonathan Sterne has called “sonic thinking” into their analysis of the past (The Sound Studies Reader, 3). But not enough consideration has been given within the field of history to the ways sound may be gendered and gender sounded.
I bring these three threads together – gender, sound, and history – via the concept of the gendered soundscape. Helmi Järviluoma, Pirkko Moisala and Anni Vilkko introduce the term in their book Gender and Qualitative Methods (2004), which asks readers to contemplate the way gender – and gendered hierarchies – may be projected and/or heard in sound environments. We not only “learn gender through the total sensorium,” as they put it; gender is also represented, contested and reinforced through the aural (85). Thinking historically about gendered soundscapes can help us conceptualize sound as a space where categories of “male” and “female” are constituted within the context of particular events over time, and by extension the ways that power, inequality and agency might be expressed in the sonic realm—in other words, tuning in to sound as a signifier of power. Although many of us have been well-trained to look for gender, I consider what it means to listen for it.
The soundscape, of course, is not only gendered; other aspects of social hierarchy, such as race, class and sexuality, are also performed and perceived in the aural realm. Greg Goodale’s analysis in Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Recorded Age (2011) of “the race of sound,” which argues that sound constructs rather than simply reiterating race, provides a useful framework for understanding both what we might call the gender of sound and the ways gender and race might intersect in the soundscape (76-105). As we learn to become more “ear-oriented” scholars, in other words, we come to perceive power, oppression, and agency in entirely new ways.
One of the most immediately gendered sound categories is the human voice, a richly historical convergence of human biology, technology and culture. We can and do hear gender in most human vocalizations; linguists seem to agree that, when listening to adult (non-elderly) voices speaking above a whisper “gender determination is usually a simple task” (See, for example, David Puts, Steven Gaulin and Katherine Verdolini in “Dominance and the Evolution of Sexual Dimorphism in Human Voice Pitch” and Michael Jessen in “Speaker Classification in Forensic Phonetics and Acoustics”). When we hear a voice without visual referent, as in the airplane example above or when listening to the radio, we immediately tend to classify the voices as “male” or “female.”
Voice differences have roots in biological sex difference. With the onset of puberty, the larynx is enlarged and vocal folds increase in length and in thickness, resulting in a decrease in frequency (Hz) of vocal fold vibration and thus a lowering of voice pitch. But while bodies classified as biologically female experience about a one-half octave average drop in voice pitch with puberty, biological males tend to experience a full octave average drop in pitch, with the result being that adult male voices tend to operate within a lower frequency range than female voices. However, gendered constructions of the human voice vary widely over time and place.
Biology (body size, hormonal secretions, age, and other physiological factors) is no way destiny when it comes to the human voice. Linguists distinguish between “anatomical voice quality features,” which in essence set the parameters of comfortable pitch range given a person’s vocal anatomy (the range outside of which is difficult to easily maintain one’s speaking voice) and “voice quality settings,” which refers to where someone places their voice within that range (See Monique Adriana Johanna Biemans’ thesis, Gender variation in voice quality.) Bound to some degree by these physiological parameters, humans can and do place their voices in ways that are consistent with the performative aspects of gender, and voice pitch is both highly variable and subject to cultural/historical framing and self-fashioning (For more on this subject, see Anne Karpf, The Human Voice: How this Extraordinary Instrument Reveals Essential Clues About Who We Are, 2006). Thus like other aspects of gender, voice is culturally and historically constructed and performative.
Conceptualizing the voice as a sonic expression of the gendered body requires revisiting both the tendency of feminist scholars to equate “women’s voice” with writing or discourse, and the tendency of some media scholars to refer to voices without immediate visual referent (in film, radio) as “disembodied.” In their Introduction to Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture (1997), Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones concisely articulate the challenge for scholars interested in the sonic/acoustic dimensions of women’s voices:
Feminists have used the word “voice” to refer to a wide range of aspirations: cultural agency, political enfranchisement, sexual autonomy, and expressive freedom, all of which have been historically denied to women. In this context, “voice” has become a metaphor for textual authority…This metaphor has become so pervasive, so intrinsic to feminist discourse that it makes us too easily forget (or repress) the concrete physical dimensions of the female voice upon which this metaphor was based. (1)
Thinking about voice in terms of vocal gender brings us to the complex relationship between voice and body. The concept of disembodiment conveys the sometimes uncanny effect of hearing (especially female) voices without an immediately discernible source. It also underscores the destabilizing effect of these unseen female voices liberated thus from patriarchy’s specular regime. Yet to refer to voices from an unseen source as “disembodied” is to suggest that the voice is somehow separate from the body, a problematic formulation.
Simply: if the voice is not the body, what is it? Even when it travels over long distances (via telephone or radio, for example) and/or if its source remains out of sight, the body is there, present via the sound vibrations it produces. Stepping away from concepts like disembodiment frees us to explore the nuances of the relationship between the voice and the body, and the presence of gendered bodies in the soundscape, particularly with regard to the vertiginous relationships between bodies and voices that are gendered female.
Gender and history impact how we read the tone, velocity and pitch of the voice, but they also shape parameters of where and when particular voices are invited to speak or expected to remain silent. And here of course we encounter the ways gender hierarchy is expressed and constructed in the acoustic/vocal arena, as well as racial categorization. Kathleen Hall Jamieson puts it succinctly in Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking (1990): “History has many themes. One of them is that women should be quiet” (67). While by no means absent, women’s voices have remained largely outside of the realm of what Schafer calls “signal”: sounds listened to consciously and that often convey messages and/of authority. Just as other aspects of gender inequality become naturalized, patriarchy tunes our ears to listen to certain voices differently. In these formulations, women’s voices are thus subject to categorization as “noise” or “unwanted sound” (see Mike Goldsmith, Discord: The Story of Noise) and therefore dissonant, disruptive, and potentially dangerous.
The discomfort (or dissonance) with women’s voices, especially women’s voices speaking publicly and/or with authority, carried over into and shaped the history of radio, making early and golden age broadcasting an ideal venue for an historical exploration of gender and voice. What did it mean to hear women’s voices on the radio? How did radio rework the gendered dimensions of public and private space, and by extension the place of the female voice in the public sphere?
The emergence of radio in the early twentieth century was part of a larger revolution in human communication which Walter Ong termed in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing the Word (1983) a “secondary orality,” an historical moment which reawakened older oral traditions and communal listening in a very different historical and technological context (3). It also reawakened a focus on the human voice, with all of its implications for the gendered soundscape.
In many parts of the world, the rise of radio also coincided with an upsurge in feminist politics and discourses calling for women’s full citizenship and other related matters. As Kate Lacey notes in Feminine Frequencies: Gender, German Radio and the Public Sphere 1923-1945 (1997), “the arrival of radio heralded the modern era of mass communication, while women’s enfranchisement confirmed the onset of mass politics in the twentieth century.” Researching the history of women and radio – and particularly the sometimes hostile reactions to women’s radio voices – led me to appreciate the ways gender is performed and perceived via the voice, and from there into larger questions about the way social hierarchies – of gender, but also of race/ethnicity, class and sexuality – are reproduced and challenged within the sonic realm.
In this way we can better begin to contemplate the historical significance of women’s radio speech in understanding the sonic construction of gender. Depending on content and context, these voices carried the potential to not only challenge taboos on women’s oratory, but to assert the female body into spaces from which it had previously been excluded—like the cockpits (can’t help but note the name here) of commercial airliners.
Featured image: “ateliers claus – 140522 – monophonic – Radio Femmes Fatales” by Flickr user fabonthemoon, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Christine Ehrick is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Louisville. Her second book, Radio and the Gendered Soundscape in Latin America: Women and Broadcasting in Argentina and Uruguay, 1930-1950 will be published by Cambridge University Press in Fall 2015. This book explores women’s presence and especially their voices – on the airwaves in the two leading South American radio markets of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Her current work looks at comedy, gender and voice, with a focus on mid-twentieth century Argentine comedians Niní Marshall and Tomás Simari.
Thanks to Cambridge UP for allowing me to use some excerpts from the forthcoming book in this essay.
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