Mapping Sound Studies

How do the different projects everyone is working on intersect with particular approaches to the study of sound and sonic culture?  We might use this space on the blog to work through some of the theoretical questions that are emerging as your projects are taking shape.  Post your thoughts, questions, and/or comments here.

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Fred Moten, Kimberly Benston

How does the reading of black performance as an “ongoing improvisation of a kind of lyricism of the surplus, (26)” that Moten suggests in his chapter “The Sentimental Avant-Garde,” relate to Kimberly Benston’s formulation of black music as, “at once excessive practice and authentic being, disruptive critique and constructive vision, subjective experience and objective truth” (117)?  For starters, in Moten’s work, we are presented with a vision of black sonic performance that emerges (in part) from an understanding of Freud’s An Outline of Psycho-Analysis as a text that represents the critical impulse to categorize the “energy of eros” and that this attempted categorization is “cut” by Ellington’s “sound of love,” allowing the limits of categorization to be re-written or re-sounded into a new force that “swings” in a way that these categories can’t.  Here, a crucial intervention seems to be in fashioning the ephemeral, fluid nature of sound as both phonic and critical force that destabilizes the empiricism that often goes into describing life in more objective terms.  Benston seems to working along a similar trajectory by framing Coltrane’s late musical innovations as performances that trouble the “logical antinomies that have habitually beset linguistic practicioners” (117).  Check out Benston’s elaboration of this point as he focuses on the critical power of sonic dissonance as “the music’s exploratory character as source of a subversive instinct sanctioning the deepest necessities of traditional imagination” (19).  Given these comments, how might we bnegin to think more carefully about approaches to black sonic innovation as inherently theoretical maneuvers?

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Coming Through Slaughter

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2/28 Seminar Notes

Part one: Sir Duke, Morrison, and Jazz Sensibilities

For our first class session of Morrison’s Jazz, we began quite fittingly by listening to music. Specifically, we began our class soundtrack with the help of Duke Ellington, whose music permeated the 1920s. With the help of “Sir Duke,” as Stevie Wonder calls him, we began pondering the significance of music to this text set in 1920s Harlem.

Carter’s opening remarks focused on the relation of sound to the narrative structure of Jazz, while linking it to Corbould’s piece on sound in Harlem. He then posited that one way of entering the text was through an intertextual connection between Morrison and Brodber’s Louisiana, especially considering the role of technology in the two novels. Thinking intertextually might also help us return to Toomer’s Cane, which has a soundscape that could provide a lineage between it and Morrison, especially since both texts contrast the sounds of the urban north with those of the rural south. Additionally, Carter noted that jazz music might help us address the thematics of the text, including issues of voice, the narrative presence, the fluidity of a jazz sensibility, and the surreal passages that pepper the text. Also we cannot think about the urban north without first remembering how characters arrived there. The novel makes it clear that terror drives people out of the south and up north, and that jazz music highlights the fascination with the city.

I began the class discussion by offering my thoughts on the lack of sound in this text. Though sound is obviously present, I was interested in what remains unsaid. It seems that the collective silence from Dorcas, Violet and Alice helps link these women together, especially as women scorned. Alice and Violet in particular do not voice their disgust with the men in their lives but keep their reactions hidden. It is this silence that helps us to think about Louisiana, in that what remains unspoken cannot obscure the influence of the past on the present, despite the characters’ best efforts. Keeping with this theme of sound in the text, several of us offered our initial reactions to it. For example, Torleif focused our attention to jazz as not only the title, but also as a way to map the text. Jazz, for him, refers to the style on a “soundscape, and structural level.” Not only is the narrative voice jazz-like, but the diction of many characters reflects jazz as well. For Shana and Carter, the book is a jazz piece: the blank pages between sections represent pauses in the music, while themes from previous sections pick up as in a jazz ensemble. Moreover, with each section of this jazz piece, the perspective shifts, which again recalls a jazz tune.

At this point, Al Zumar intervened to caution us against rendering jazz as only one type of music; it is a musical genre, with different subgenres. Lest we believe jazz music to be monolithic, we must realize that a “jazz sensibility” might be an inaccurate term to describe a capacious genre of music. Indeed, Shana reminded us that the various minor characters in the text help to highlight jazz sensibilities, and we must consider them so that we get a more nuanced definition of the ways in which jazz works in the narrative. These points led to our observations about the text’s form. For Abbie, the novel represents various types of transgressions/subversions, especially since characters voice different agencies. Thinking of voice helped me to formulate my own notions of the text’s form, which I noted was unique for its improvisational quality. In other words, much like a jazz piece is often improvised, this story sounds like it is, as though the narrator reveals what she knows as the details come to her. This might explain the novel’s non-linearity. Carter added on to this by noting that the text features repetition with a difference, not unlike the music genre that titles the piece.

With that, Roseann, diverted our attention to the text, so that we could begin translating our abstract assertions using concrete textual examples to back them up. For example, repetition of the music allowed us to get inside Alice in the windowsill scene. Torleif pointed to the fact that sound in the narrative helps to push people onward, using the demonstration and march scenes as examples. Shana noted that drums fill in for the silence during the silent march on page 54, which shows that the text finds meaning beyond the visual. Pointing to the scene that includes “life of the sash,” Al Zumar articulated the various uses for sound in the text, as it constructs femininity, sexuality, and desire, especially since jazz music helped usher in a variety of “the new” during the 1920s.

As if anticipating the time to break for our class, Shana observed that for her, music represents time, since time is left unstructured in the text and perpetually based on internal rhythm. Moreover, music reveals that the text shows readers how to love, without offering a rigid definition of what love is. She pointed toward the scene of armed women to support her claim. After migrating to this new urban north, women now had a different type of freedom, while encountering their history of pain and freedom. The Lowdown Music concluded our pre-break discussion. Shana believed that the unreliable narrator is not the best person to offer commentary on this music: she is judgmental throughout the novel, even though the music helps characters experience freedom. At Tamara’s suggestion, we listened again to “Doing the New Lowdown,” and we noted that it sounds pleasurable, Disneyland-ish, and not something that would elicit a warning against doing “unwise things.” Carter reminded us of the antiquated notion that noise which signaled pleasure had to be regulated. With that our class took a break and we returned to bring in the critical material into our assessment of Morrison’s Jazz, which Al Zumar will address.

Don Ramon

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2/21 Seminar Notes

In our seminar this week we discussed Erna Brobder’s Louisiana. Carter began class by playing Jamaican folk music and examples of dub. The folk music was of interest because of how African retention and cultural memory come together with new world Christianity in rural Jamaica, realized in a new kind of sound. Dub music, Carter argued, is intimately connected with the political moment in the 1960s and 70s in Jamaica, and with the Rastafari movement. A genre that remixes existing tunes, accenting base and drums lines, and manipulating the soundscape through the use of effects like reverb and echo, dub tries to create an atmospheric yet fractured sound. Carter’s initial suggestion during class was that Louisiana reads like an attempt to write dub, or a textual version of dub.

In discussion, the idea of the novel as a manipulated, as remade and remixed, resurfaced a number of times. Some metaphors that were used to describe the novel was that of a remix, and Brobder was at one point likened to a DJ. Invoking Weheliye, Al described the remixing in terms of the notion of not a repetition of difference, but a repetition with difference, and Nadia pointed out that the novel seems to invite re-reading. Carter further suggested that the echoing spiritual effects in the text produces and elongation of time, and that this connects to a notion of diasporic memory. This comment also hearkened back to the intro where Carter posed the leading question of how, in Louisiana, the music and the spirit world interact, and how sound operates in the text to create a textual collage of sounded effects. The question of the role of recording technology was also broached in the introduction, and Carter would later come back to this and underline that Ella’s tape recorder is not just a strawman for the connection made in the novel between (cultural) memory and recording, but that the novel also provides commentary on recording technology as such. Shana suggested that the tape recorder could be seen as a symbol of bureaucracy (in its WPA context) and and the oppressive and dominant white culture.

One thread in the discussion that was brought up several times and that is directly connected to the tape recorder is the “I heard the voice from heaven say”-section of the novel. We thought for a while about what word should be used to describe this part: Carter referred to it as “a prologue,” but immediately qualified this by saying that it doesn’t feel like one; the section was also likened to an appendix, though placed at the “wrong” end of the text, and finally simply as “field notes.” Al suggested that this initial section is a way for Brobder to establish legitimacy. Torleif brought up the point that though this section sometimes appears to be a transcript, it does not always read as such, and that the notion of transcript versus interpretation is problematized throughout the novel. Abbie talked about the emphasis on writing in the novel as a problem of agency, and that although we normally ascribe subjectivity to forms of writing, subjectivity in Louisiana seems to operate on alternate or multiple modalities of the production of meaning. We also came to discuss the final embodiment of sound in Ella, and how Reuben here becomes the transcriber, and Ella the medium.

Another aspect of the text that we discussed at some length and from a number of angles was the editorial commentary that opens the novel. Tasia commented at one point that all of our conversations about Lousiana seem to come back to the issue of the transmission of information. Inside the novel, this is thematized in terms of the WPA project and its transformation into Ella’s exploration of her own memories in conjunction with her reception and parsing of the voices of Mammy and Lowly. Circulation thus seems to be a key concept both within the novel, and on a meta-level in relation to the editor’s introduction. Another point that was discussed in relation to these pages is the paragraph on page 4 that speaks about the manuscript’s arrival as being “opportune” because the world is now ready for an expanded notion of knowledge, and more receptive to the kind of knowledge that Louisiana articulates–or maybe it is the other way around: the kind of extra-sensory knowledge that articulates and constitutes the novel. In relation to this we also discussed Brobden as a scholar, and we asked the same questions of her novel that we previously had about its first section: what is it? Although we didn’t arrive at an answer to this question, and it may indeed be the case that the novel resists being classified in this way, Carter did point out that it seems to be literature plus something else. In order to access the knowledge of the text, you need to give into its world, Shana commented. The question of knowledge and its sources was also a through-line in terms of our discussions of archives.

We began the second half of class thinking about a simultaneously resonant and challenging passage from Nancy’s Listening and attempted to parse both  its meaning and implications in and of itself and how it opens up, augments, and generally brings to bear on our reading of Brodber’s complex novel-cum-meditation (drawing from Shana’s understanding of the text’s nature) . In our conversation, we began to gain access to what Carter referred to as broad points of unacknowledged convergence between the two texts, and we explored how Brodber’s work, specifically in her rendering of the recorder, responds to and goes beyond Nancy’s conception of the sonorous. Proceeding from a meditation on the isomorphism between the visual and the conceptual, the section of Nancy’s text we most concentrated on is the following: “The sonorous…outweighs form. It does not dissolve it, but rather enlarges it; it gives it an amplitude, a  density, and a vibration or an undulation whose outline never does anything but approach. The visual persists until its disappearance; the sonorous appears and fades away into permanence” (2). This passage helped us to consider how when we perceive visually, we are able to concretize and isolate both the object viewed and the moment of its viewing. In this moment of visualization, the ability to see something distinctly that can be objectified makes both the object and the viewer discrete figures. Sound, in contrast, is capacious and enveloping: it surrounds both subject (formerly viewer) and object, opening up the possibility for permanence and thus a different conception of time. We see this in the recorder in Louisiana, a technological device that would traditionally preserve temporal linearity, but which, in Brodber’s rendering, confounds a conventional understanding of temporality. Additionally, Nancy’s sense of the perpetuity of the sonorous helps us to think about the ongoingness variously conveyed in Brodber’s text—in terms of memory, political collectivity, construction of narrative, etc. Finally, Rosanne drew our attention to Nancy’s description of the relational and processional (drawing from Abbie’s observation) quality of subject formation (Nancy 12) and drew connections between the contingency of subject formation vis-à-vis Brodber’s characterization of Ella.

Crucial to Brodber’s text and figuring throughout our seminar meeting are questions centered around the interpenetrating concerns of (specifically African) diaspora, movement, collectivity, resistance, and memory. Our conversation mirroring Brodber’s text in its ultimate inability to resolve conclusively the problems raised by Louisiana’s representation of these concepts (which is not to imply that resolution was ever our goal), we nonetheless made headway in considering how Brodber interestingly reconsiders and re-theorizes these ideas in her novel. Specifically, we thought about the song competitions as moments of convergence between/among diasporic cultures in which participants experience or feel mutual recognition through the sensory.

As we approached the end of our discussion, we addressed explicitly a question that existed as an undercurrent through most of our conversation: what are the possibilities of the politics of the text in making a push for different understandings of diaspora and resistance ? Put another way, given the fragmented, disordered, temporally and spatially uncertain qualities of the work, are we able to take away a positive sense of the political, and if so, how does it work? While at first it might seem as if the text makes accessing elements of the political more difficult, despite the presence Garvey and other black nationalist and labor movements within the work, our discussion proved that in several subtle and perhaps even subversive ways, Louisiana amplifies these concerns. Tasia suggested the idea of constant circulation within and outside the text as one way to answer this question (recalling and building upon our exploration of the text’s portrayal of movement). We also looked to the character of Silas as nicely encapsulating the text’s negotiation and understanding of a new version of the political. As both a political organizer and a spiritualist (154), Silas provides a new model of political resistance—a remix, as it were—recasting the political as something unrecognizable which draws upon psychic connections and a spiritual realm, both of which are crucial to growth and the production of history. Finally, the formal qualities of the text provide a way of understanding its politics as neither orthodox, linear, nor predictable.

Gender is another issue that we spent some time discussing. Carter argued that black nationalism influenced black feminism. Don pointed out that gender relations shift throughout the novel in that Reuben at first had no voice at all, but that he, nevertheless, gets to have the last word, a last word which effectively supplants Ella’s voice as the ultimate authority yet does not do so in an especially obtrusive or circumscriptive way. Another issue that was brought up was how Ella willingly assumes the position of domestic housewife. This underscores the racial component in this particular brand of feminism, and contrasts with the white feminist movement of the same time period in that it seeks the empowerment of women at home.

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2/14 Seminar Notes

Our seminar meeting focused on readings from Cane specifically “Karintha” and “Kabnis” as well as selected chapters from Houston Baker’s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance and the musical composition of Marion Brown with reading of “Karintha” by poet Bill Hassan. The first half of the class focused on the reading of “Karintha” and touched on “Kabnis.” The second half on Houston Baker’s thoughts on Modernism and African American literary production during the Harlem Renaissance.

In the second half of the class Professor Mathes turns to Houston Baker’s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance in order to show another way of accessing and theorizing the sonic. Professor Mathes lists the various sound theorists we have been working with thus far: Scheafer, Idhe and Nancy. He notes the connections between Scheafer and Idhes which centers on the interaction between sound and space, sound and body. Idhe however, goes toward the phenomenological which is thinking of the relationship between sound and meaning the consciousness in the self. Nancy is also invested in elements of the phenomenological as well as the semiotic thinking about sound as systems of signs and ways of signaling different ideas and aspects of identities. Baker’s use of sound is more a metaphorical one, although he is not disconnected from the aforementioned. When Baker touches on minstrelsy, he uses the idea of sound at times somewhat more materially.

The metaphorical element the way baker uses sound to construct an account of history of black modernism that grows out of a specific point in history in Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Exposition Address” in 1895. Professor Mathes argues that sound becomes metaphorical for Baker in that he is interested how Washington’s speech goes beyond the actual words that were spoken a sounding a gesture toward a certain formation of black identity and consciousness which is very much aware of its ability to articulate itself and be heard in a certain way and for Baker sound then becomes rich on different levels at once. Baker says the modern American sound functions as a specific Afro-American discursive practice. His use of discursive is influenced by someone such as Foucault where the discursive is that realm of expression and understanding and meaning that’s not solely contained by that utterance and for Baker it is signaling both the speech act and all the meaning that is attached to it. The things that are signified through the speech that are extra and crucial to signaling specific aspects to Afro-American identity and for Baker particularly consciousness.

Turning to Baker’s preface, Baker uses the terms “the mastery of form” and “the deformation of mastery” (Baker xvi) to talk about encounters between emerging black modernist consciousness and forms of national belonging and identity produced by the U.S. How this Duboisian “double-consciousness” is negotiated through expressive acts.

Nadia asked Professor Mathes to clarify how Baker negotiates “double-consciousness” through expressive acts. Professor Mathes goes back to “the mastery of form” and “the deformation of the mastery” which he states are categories for thinking about different expressive acts by black writers, speakers and black subjects who are encountering American national identity with their perspective of having this double-consciousness and trying to negotiate that without sacrificing who they are.  The “mastery of form” would signal more of the tendency of assimilation like what he sees Booker T. Washington doing. Washington is “mastering” the already established form of American consciousness and negotiating double-consciousness that way by sublimating blackness with what’s already there. The “deformation of mastery” is more like a gorilla tactic. This questions the very idea of form and to de-form.  For Baker sound is crucial to these moves both in the speech and liminal quality of minstrelsy liken to the kind of minstrelsy he sees Booker T. Washington performing. The metaphorical sense of sound for Baker is not about hearing but about an orientation toward understanding black expressive culture.

Nadia brings up the question of form. Is Baker talking about form as in “art form” or form as in “citizenship?” Professor Mathes believes it is both. Baker is talking about form to talk about Anglo-Modernism and Afro-American Modernism but as Baker’s argument develops “form” becomes the form of the nation and national belonging and how these soundings (Afro-American identity) interact with that form of the nation by having a stance of de-formation (rejection of standard) and not participating in the national form or mastering it as Booker T. Washington.

Al did not read form as “art form” or “forming of the nation” he takes us to page 16 of Baker’s text  (I will use the first six words in the quote and the last six this will continue for all other long quotes) “When I use the word ‘form, …even an easily described spatial apperception.” Al also takes us to the bottom of page 16 and top of page 17 from “As we move beyond a solid…forward such notions is a mask.” Al thinks of form as the in-between as in the Derridian sense that in-between the dichotomy. It opens up the dichotomy and displaces it. Al sees form in the Duboisian sense of double-consciousness (the Hegelian sense) of seeing oneself through the eyes of the other. So the form would be the space in between. If you see yourself through the eyes of the other then you never see yourself and in a sense you never see the other so the dichotomy is displaced. Al references Franz Fanon and how he reformulates that by seeing how the notion of whiteness (the materiality of whiteness) is constructed in relation blackness and there is a space in-between that is not oppositional but differential in relation. This is how Al sees “form.”

Tasia brings up Baker’s notion of “a valued repository of spirit” (17), the notion of an archive containing both artistic form and issues of citizenship because in order to be some contained discursive practice a container to be drawn upon seems to suggest both.

Professor Mathes continues to read from where Al stops “It is difficult to convey notions…repository for a quintessential American ritual.” Baker is resisting the idea of form as a definitely identifiable thing. When he brings in the idea of a “mask” or the form of masking is crucial to allowing one to negotiate double-consciousness. Al asks if masking is a kind of passing. Professor Mathes responds that it could be but it is purposely distinct from passing. Masking however is more like a gorilla tactic. Washington is doing a certain kind of masking. The masking has that potential to be both subversive and complicit. Nadia uses the word “intentional” which seems to be the distinct difference between masking and passing. For Al masking is strategy you actively deploy and passing doesn’t have to be a strategy you deploy it could be just how you are perceived. Masking is so much more intentional and you don’t leave much room for the viewer to reconstruct you.

Professor Mathes shifts the conversation to measuring Baker’s use of sound and sounding where he is deploying it in metaphorical and non-metaphorical ways, against or in concert with Moten and/or Weheliye as they are all talking about sound and its relation to black identity. For Moten, performance is key. For Weheliye technology is crucial. Al asks in relation to Weheliye and Moten can a song perform since Weheliye believes that the invention of the phonograph delinks the material presence of the body and the voice. So if there is no performer standing behind the record player and all you have is the voice then what kind of performance would that be? Professor Mathes states it becomes an acousmatic performance (acousmatic adjective Referring to a noise that is heard but whose source is hidden, Referring to Pythagorean disciples who for years listened to his lectures from behind a curtain, unable to sew him; (context, music) Referring to music that cannot be performed live on stage, e.g. some types of computer music). This performance has a different status (status being the difference between there being a person or not) from Aunt Hester’s scream in the flesh.

Al asks why is there a different status and what does that status mean? The difference would mean whether you buy into the distinction between the original (authentic) and the copy (reproduction).

TAMARA’S NOTE: This brings to mind Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Benjamin talks about the loss of aura through mechanical reproduction of art itself. So a painting has an aura but a photograph does not because it is the copy of an image. So aura represents originality. Can we apply this to sound?

Al brings up the point that Weheliye suggests that the “original” is always already a reproduction because it only stands as an original in relation to being reproduced. If you don’t have the technology to reproduce things then you would not be thinking about the original.

Torleif adds that in creating music with technology the original is now the master tape and not the performance.

We will pick up discussion next class

(Tamara Jones)


Class Notes

February 14, 2011


Listened to: Marion Brown’s musical reading of Karintha

Question: What is the effect of actually hearing the humming (that which is associated with Negro spirituals) which Toomer would like to have us associate with the reading of Karintha?

In Cane, Toomer creates a literary soundscape of Black modernism:

  • Dense compression of time rural past/urban present
  • Question: If Toomer is decoding the haunting of Black history with such a close compression of time, does putting the text of Karintha to spoken word do something to destabilize such a project?

Autobiographical quotes from Toomer:

  • “Cane was a swan song, a song of an end…”
  • “Never in life” would Toomer want the life conditions under which he wrote Cane to be replicated

Question: What were you struck by in the reading of Karintha?

  • Disrupted relationship with text
  • Haunting becomes absent from sonic experience
  • Upward inflection, lack of pauses, improvisation by narrator creates rift between interpretations of two different presentations
  • Reader replicates aspects of meter and rhythm which Toomer included


A darkly humorous story: Kabnis is an “other” within the South

Toomer uses the landscape as an entry point to history, collective consciousness—massiveness of landscape with respect to human being

Material representation of the feeling of lost in Kabnis’ experience of discrimination

Sense of paranoia (falsely believing he is being chased by hounds) is representative of a haunting of a collective memory

Toomer creates a dream world: soundscape represents liminality

  • Question: Is the impact to erase a sense of definable reality?
  • Question: Is Toomer making the argument that history must be encountered through the sensory?

Toomer complicates sound as a presumable point of access to reality

The ending of Kabnis represents a transition, ascension into a new identity/possibilities


There are different ways of accessing and theorizing the sonnet

Sound is metaphorical for Baker—simultaneously rich on several levels

Sound is a specifically Afro-American discursive practice

  • Those things excessive to speech are crucial to an Afro-American consciousness
  • Relationship between reality of black national identity and meaningful sound
  • DuBois’ double-consciousness is negotiated through expressive acts

Masking vs. passing (masking is defined more by intent to negotiate power)

(Jessica Hyman)

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2/7 Seminar Notes

Meeting at the Crossroads (2/7)

I. (Resonances. Miles Davis, Robert Johnson, Foucault, Ray Charles.)

“History is a songbook for anyone who would listen to it” (Schafer 30).

“Racialized logic confines some sounds to particular colour-coded bodies but music offers what Breendt calls a kind of ‘crossing place’” (Bull, Black 15).

We begin by listening to Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” to develop a motif in considering song form in Cane. Dr. Mathes explained his purpose in framing our discussion with this context; in listening, he was attuned to the cultural and regional locations and inflections in the text and Toomer’s life (DC, GA). Cane moves us through different locations, with DC as an urban, sonic space and reference point of migration. Thus, the situated aspect of the text—its formal “crossroads,” so to speak, allow us to consider the broader questions raised for the day.

This motif allows us to consider the “different reference points,” and pose a significant question: “how do we hear these moments of song, given our present?”  Mathes asked us to consider how we “listen” to the past “in order to offer a discernibly recoverable black past,” while at the same time—being careful to remember the situated nature of our practice– thinking and asking, “what happens to our present?”  As Mathes noted, this is not a “mimetic experience,” but offers something more.  What is this “something more?”  In reflection, we might turn to Nancy at this moment and consider how “the sonorous is tendentially methexic (that is, having to do with participation, sharing, contagion)” (10).  We can perhaps find some utility in this idea to think beyond the mimetic and figure ourselves in the resonances of the “crossroads”.

II. Migrations, hauntings and “deep listening” (or “digging through the crates”)

“ [. . .] standing at the crossroad\ tried to flag a ride” (“Cross Road Blues”)

Our discussion of Weheliye furthers the consideration of form that inspired many of our class members to discuss the senses and patterns they noted in Cane, linking this attunement to the concept of “technicity” in Weheliye (for more on responses, see Tasia’s portion of this week’s post).  By focusing on how we “listened” to the text, we forward a “difference in attuning oneself beyond digesting the plot;” we are, as Mathes continued, “trying to experience the sensory material [my emphasis]”.  In doing so, our conversation “directs us to the often unacknowledged muteness to the lower frequencies [. . .] that covertly underlie many poststructuralist-inspired academic debates, where language is always already “pure form” [. . .], in Moten’s phraseology, and therefore the sonic is downgraded to the same old place: outside, below, and beyond the strictures of discourse” (Weheliye 35).   Consequently, as we work with Weheliye’s ideas on reproduction and re-iteration, we can begin to consider the soundscapes or “sensorium” created by Cane.  As Tasia notes in her post, our conversation allowed us to consider what we gain in the process of “listening”.

III. Troubling “truth” and silence(s)

Throughout our discussion, the “haunting” aspect of Al’s initial question on “truth” offered a viable reference point for our engagement with previous themes and questions.  Wondering if the desired effect of Cane and/or listening to its soudscapes is an attempt to “communicate a truth to Black experience and lives,” we return to a question that framed our initial course inquiry, namely, what is the relationship between listening and the literary/cultural iterations of Black subjectivity formations?

In order to trace a thread here, we might consider the previous questions Dr. Mathes posted.  In his Wiki post, he asks, “riffing off of Moten, what does it mean to consider every reproduction of a performance as a disappearance?  What is the condition of the possibility of sound, the projection of it, and the hearing of it?  Where is the original/originary, and is the project of determining/recovering it, a politically worthwhile endeavor?  What is gained from framing the originary?  Does such a move become unnecessarily totalizing?”

Our approaches to the texts for this week demonstrate a way to re-frame, perhaps, the totalizing problematic.  By attuning ourselves to the sonic spaces and resonances in form and content, we consider the situated presence of sound (eg. cane, instruments). Furthermore, many of us found our approach generative; as Shana noted, she felt more “comfortable” by moving and working beyond notions of “fixed representation.”

Consequently, it seems that the initial inquiry Mathes proposed in his questions have continued, yes, but shifted some, specifically in the context of our work with these texts.  As the class was framed in terms of reception, resonance, “crossroads,” it seems we’ve come to a different set of questions framed in “convergences,” as Mathes noted, the potentiality and utility of our attunement to the soundscapes in and with Toomer.  Keeping this in mind, we  might ask how our practice better attunes us to working through the varied convergences and relationships of the subject to structures of power.  If sound carries the potentialty of methexis, can we consider our experience and practice as performance?  How has the situated and yet shifting nature of attunement to sound and listening challenged or opened the ways in which we articulate and inscribe critical engagement with texts?

(Roseanne Alvarez))


Readings: Jean Toomer’s Cane (“Karintha” through “Harvest Song”), Don Ihde’s “Auditory Imagination,” Murray Schafer’s “Open Ears,” and Jean-Luc Nancy’s Listening (1-43)

Hommi Bhabba’s definition of modernity as “a series of competing and, at times, conflicting singular spatiotemporal terrains marked by constitutive lag… ‘the function of the lag [being] to slow down the linear progressive time of modernity to reveal its ‘gesture,’ its tempi, ‘the pauses and stresses of the whole performance’” encapsulates both Torleif’s experience of Cane as an album with a “sequenced track list” with moods and/or themes that repeat and Al-Zamar’s experience of discontinuity in the work’s continuous shifting of generic registers  (Bhabba qtd. in Weheliye 23). In her experience of reading the novel, Abbie also noticed a persistent rhythm in the text’s structure in its alternating poems and short stories as well as the integrated images. The discussion turned to the short phrases that repeat themselves, creating a refrain, and the text’s ebbs and flows. These different reading experiences Cane hit on the  two critical questions that drove our discussion this week: 1) what is the sound of Toomer’s prose, his narrative architecture? and 2) what does it mean if we take Toomer to be creating/ depicting soundscapes? What is the payoff for “listening” to Cane?

In our struggle to define Cane, Shana described it as “literary vaudeville” in its performativity and Carter characterized it as collage or pastiche. Bringing in the context of Toomer’s affiliation with the Seven Arts and Waldo Frank also helped us understand Toomer’s formal experimentation especially with jazz and the other resonances we noted, such as: work songs, spirituals, blues, field calls. The discussion also explored how the soundscape plays an important role thematically throughout the text. The sounds interacting within Cane, Toomer’s amplification of sounds (e.g. the swaying of cane leaves heard above the guinea’s squawk in “Karma”), and the deliberate insertion of silence were particularly striking. In our close readings of parts of Cane, we were struck by the silence of the recurring images of smoke, which Don posited denotes presence, dust, and trains. Tamara recalled hearing the bite and sucking of cane in her reading experience. I also pointed to how sound, or rather silence, could be considered in reading Toomer’s exploration of Bob Stone’s consciousness in “Blood-Burning Moon” separating him from the “noisy” depiction of black life, which is marked by women singing, chickens squawking, hounds baying, and men gossiping. The discussion hit on the convergence of formal experimentation and the issue of migration (Toomer’s own and the Great Migration) when discussing Toomer’s representation of different musical genres textually  through syntax, alliteration, and tempo in the discussion of “Theater” and “Seventh Street” in which we noticed not only the evocation of the blues but also be-bop.

The context of his biography  also contributed to our discussion of Toomer’s depiction/ construction of the rural South and urban Washington, D.C. soundscapes. Like White and White, Toomer attempts to recapture the historical past especially in the face of the industrialization of the South. However, this is balanced by Toomer’s creative focus. Toomer’s improvisation of the soundscape is not meant to mimetically reproduce the environment; instead its goal is to achieve a type of representation that goes beyond textual meaning. Considering the sound of Cane allows access to the past while transcending a historical state, similar to how, in Fred Moten’s “Resistance of the Object,” Abbey Lincoln’s scream resonates at the level of Aunt Hester’s, carrying “an invagination constantly reconstituting the whole of the voice, the whole of the story, redoubled and intensified by the mediation of years, recitations, auditions” (22). This blurring of description and the creative enables the questioning of what constitutes “blackness” and the role of environment in constituting subjectivity.

Question for Next Week

  • When I first encountered Cane as an undergraduate in a class on literature of the American South, we read “Becky” and “Blood-Burning Moon” as separate short stories alongside the poem “Portrait in Georgia.” That Cane can be so easily excerpted and reframed hits on a question Carter proposed but we didn’t pick up in-depth, how is the text meant to be read? In spurts? In one long movement? Going even further, what happens to Cane when it is read as an archive? In Archive Fever, Derrida theorizes the archive using Freud as existing between the pleasure principle, in that the archive promises futurity from the present as well as collects the past for consumption, and the death drive in its “incite[ment] [of] forgetfulness, amnesia, the annihilation of memory” in what is not recorded. What does Cane allow us to consume? What is not recorded  in Cane?

Works to Check Out:

  • Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination
  • Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy

(Tasia Milton)

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