Our seminar meeting addressed reading selections from Mark Smith, “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America,” The Sounds of Slavery, Fred Moten’s, “Resistance of the Object,” and the first chapter of Jacques Attali’s Noise. The first half of the class focused on the readings dealing with sound in the context of slavery and early America more broadly.
The basic premise offered by these readings focused on the methods and implications of “hearing history” – in this case, how we might hear aspects of racial experience and historical consciousness within the frameworks that mark historical time. We had the beginnings of a great discussion about the “ontological” and “phenomenological” aspects of soundscapes. Building on Al-Zamar’s query about a house being constructed as a house and not as a soundscape, we pushed this idea of what might constitute a soundscape, and the degree to which we might imagine a soundscape as naturally occurring and/or constructed. Something that might be helpful in furthering this discussion, is a look at the R. Murray Schafer chapter that is not on our syllabus, but has been posted to our Sakai site under the announcement of the CCA meeting last week. Actually, all 3 selections for the CCA meeting are relevant to this discussion: the Schafer, as well as the Dyson and Sterne. I’ll re-post the readings under our resources tab. For Schafer, coming from the perspective of what I have earlier referred to as “acoustic ecology,” he wishes to situate sound within a natural context — with a sense that the human creation of sound interacts with natural sound in both understanding natural sound as a creative canvas which can be evoked as a basis for musical compositions, and that soundscapes increasingly reflect the alienation of the individual within modernity, as they are marked by what he calls “schizophonia” or the splitting of an “original” or “natural” occurrence of a sound and its electronically, humanly modified reproduction – in a sense, what does it mean to split the sound from its source via technology? I would encourage you all to take quick looks at the Schafer, Dyson, and Sterne readings which all investigate this problematic. Beginning on p.72 of the Dyson chapter, there is a very good overview of Schafer’s inquiry into the idea of the soundscape. One point that she makes is how Schafer divides the sonic realm into 4 categories: Keynote sounds, signals, sonic archetypes, and soundmarks. Check her work, or Schafer’s for more elaboration on these concepts. I think that our focus on Cane will continue to address these kinds of queries into the soundscape as well.
We talked a good deal about the methods of Smith, and White and White in trying to capture and represent an historical soundscape and its possible relationships to consciousness, resistance, time, memory, and labor. There were concerns expressed over the methodological implications of defining aspects of black consciousness and memory through notions of sound that might inadvertently stagnate the humanity of the enslaved. In a sense, do we become attuned to certain historical interpretations that already define our sense of the sensory history, and then (re)construct our idea of the sounds marking/constituting the soundscape to fit into that idea? Is it possible to re-hear history through frequencies that were natural to certain pasts? Thinking more theoretically, perhaps in connection to issues that arose as we discussed Moten, should we instead understand this temporal gap between historical source and present as one not to be reduced through a methodological inquiry into sound, but maybe a gap of possibility that uses the fungibility of sound to complicate historical time and its passage through different perspectives on the status of subjectivity that move through time and space. A lot to unpack there, but it seems like this is where we were going in our discussion. Perhaps we can frame this discussion, as well as the above soundscape discussion, as starting points for the trajectory of our seminar, and ones, therefore, that will be crucial to build upon.
Another point that was raised by Torlieff, I think, started to introduce into our discussion the physicality or materiality of sound – in terms of issues of frequency and vibration. This gets into the field of acoustics and the scientific measurement of sound. In some ways this might seem beyond the purview of a literary class, but I think we will need to address such structural aspects of sound and how it has been “measured” and manipulated in relationship to understandings of its sonic properties.
Overall, I feel that, in particular with our discussion of the Moten chapter, there is much interest in the possibilities of configuring ideas of subjectivity through invocations of the sonic. Attali discusses this relationship in the following way:
More than colors and forms, it is sounds and their arrangements that fashions societies. With noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world. With music is born power and its opposite: subversion. In noise can be read the codes of life, the relations among men. Clamor, Melody, Dissonance, Harmony; when it is fashioned by man with specific tools, when it invades man’s time, when it becomes sound, noise is the source of purpose and power, of the dream – Music. It is at the heart of the progressive rationalization of aesthetics, and it is a refuge for residual irrationality; it is a means of power and a form of entertainment . . .
All music, any organization of sounds is them a tool for the creation or consolidation of a community, of a totality. It is what links a power center to its subjects, and thus, more generally, it is an attribute of power in all of its forms. Therefore, any theory of power today must include a theory of the localization of noise and its endowment with form. (6)
Attali seems important for understanding the simultaneity of transgression and containment within the transmission and reception of sound: surveillance and subversion, order and non-linearity — ideas of fracture and collage in relationship to a kind of sonic archiving.
Listening is a concept that we also seemed to be framing as central to our inquiry, in that it gets at the position of the hearer in respect to the particular projection of sound being taken in/processed. We listened to a recording of field hollers and also to Abbey Lincoln’s scream. We’ll be doing more and more listening in class as we move along in the semester, but I’m wondering how we might begin theorizing what we hear in terms of how our particular points of reference (as scholars and as individuals with certain historical memories) become manifested in our listening experiences and subsequent attempts to interpret and theorize the meaning of sounds we are hearing.
Towards the end of the session we had a discussion about sound studies as an attempt to correct the Western focus on visuality. I offered some hesitation with interpretations of this move being an attempt to simply supplant the visual. Then there were a series of incredibly enriching ideas regarding the mirror-like quality of sound’s reproducibility and repetition. Riffing off of Moten, what does it mean to consider every reproduction of a performance as a disappearance? What is the condition of 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?