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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