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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