Listening to Race An interdisciplinary workshop on coloniality, race and sound

Ahead of the publication of our first issue, themed ‘Practices of Listening‘, Zeno Siemens reports from this workshop exploring coloniality and race in sound, archives, listening technologies and practices. Read more about the launch of Issue 1.1. Practice of Listening here

Organised by Anette Hofmann (Academy of Fine Arts Vienna) and Carolyn Birdsall (University of Amsterdam), the workshop “Entanglements of Race, Sound and the Archive: Coloniality and the Globalised Present”, took the form of several presentations, discussion, lectures, and a couple of masterclasses over the course of two days in December 2018. Billed as an intervention into the largely Eurocentric and often universalising discipline of sound studies, the programme focused on various specific constructions of sound(ing) and listening, mostly in relation to intellectual histories and colonial archives. Throughout the lectures and discussions, sound emerged as more than an intellectual exercise: something able to provoke – perhaps even reconfigure – the ways in which we think about social, cultural, and political interactions.

Nowhere was this clearer than during the two keynote lectures, in which Jennifer Lynn Stoever (CUNY) and Alejandra Bronfman (University at Albany, SUNY) both argued in vastly different contexts that sound and voice are specific social constructs – racialised, gendered, and situated as such – and yet so often generalised and oversimplified to detrimental effect in service of colonial projects or ideological discourse. They both brought a particular attention to the medium through which specific sounds or voices are conveyed, be it radio blasted through the streets or constructions of silence associated with white middle class life, both seeking to expose the supposed lack of bias we so often tend to associate with sound as being the product of specific power relations. Sound, they showed, can have a central role to play in constructions of identity and otherness, in rule and resistance.

The ways in which sound has shaped and continues to shape power relations throughout the world necessitates a kind of attunement

However, an attunement to sound does necessitate a specific kind of ear. During their talks, I was struck by the level of attentiveness both scholars bring to so many of the moving elements around a single sound. Not only in what happens to sound after it is produced, but also what conditions enable that production, what inflections are given to it, where it can linger, what it can touch. Being attuned to the specific impacts sounds have on specific bodies opens up questions about how those bodies are affected: homeless people in New York City being supposedly deterred from sleeping in parking lots by classical music will lead to different questions than Caribbean musicians playing Kréyol language music on the radio, but they both require a certain type of attentiveness. By listening closely to reverberations, echoes, delays, compressions and stretches, amplifications and mufflings – but also specific modulations such as timbre, volume, “quality”, or pitch – these talks opened up a certain space within decolonial scholarly practice not only to consider forgotten archives, but also to ask how we treat existing cultural materials and their production too.

It seemed fitting, then, that the lectures were followed by mini paper presentations which morphed into roundtable discussions, in which references and recommendations touched on areas of scholarship spanning language, media, performance studies, music, oral history, literature, visual art, archival cultural studies, and much more. Sound, it seems, is in contact with so much else that you don’t necessarily need sound studies to theorise about it. This optimistic interpretation of its inherent interdisciplinarity, though, is undercut by the ways in which sound is employed metaphorically for supposedly revolutionary conceptions of flux and forms of knowing, or similarly as a universalising force by mostly white, male academics focusing on European sound production.

For me, the intervention of this workshop lay in the insistence of all of the contributors not to shy away from the ambiguity of sound in specific cultural and academic constructions – acknowledging that use and abuse are never far apart, but nevertheless making the case for a kind of listening that carries within it exciting critical potential. The ways in which sound has shaped and continues to shape power relations throughout the world necessitates this kind of attunement, among many others, and it is to the great credit of the organisers and participants of this workshop that in such a short time they were able if not to define, at least to gesture towards the importance and originality of this kind of work. This could most clearly be heard as a distinct buzz throughout the workshop, during the breaks: the kind of palpable excitement that can be heard when people gather to discuss things they can intuit but find hard to put into words, and realise others are hard at work (and, luckily for me, much further along) doing precisely that.

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In that spirit, I would like to point anybody interested in this kind of scholarship and sound more generally towards the Sounding Out! blog (of which Jennifer Lynn Stoever is editor-in-chief), as well as this inevitably incomplete list of works discussed or mentioned during the workshop, which will hopefully serve as a springboard for further conversations in and through sound studies, and, as the organisers put it, “to start building an international network for critical, decolonial research on sound cultural histories and archival practices.”

Image above shows the sound archive from the British Library.