This issue, titled “The Soundwork of Media Activism,” engages some of the most pressing concerns of the early 21st century by tracing affective, embodied, sometimes playful, sometimes violent experiences of aurality in activist and otherwise transformative media. The year 2020 has been marked by upheaval and activism. And it has been marked by sound. From our collectively heightened awareness of birdsong to chants calling for abolition, 2020 has been a year defined by aural crisis and calls for justice. Compared to some of the stark images we have witnessed, sound might seem to fade away in importance. To allow this, however, would be to return to the ocularcentrism that troubled early media studies. We draw upon Michele Hilmes’s concept of soundwork to tune into sound and listening in our experiences of crisis and activism. Research into soundwork helps to elucidate the sonic dimensions of efforts to assert and reclaim control over the cultural, historical, and technological legacies of human expression as organized struggle, as well as ongoing contests over the management and meaning of systems of contemporary cultural production. Soundwork plays and has always played a central and under-examined role in political activism,1 taking many forms—from community-organizing radio broadcasts, to the sounds of demonstrations, to tactile performative disruptions of sensory spaces, to non-lexemic transmission of meaning in everyday life.
“Reach out and touch someone” was the famous AT&T slogan of the 1980s. The ad worked because it connected to people’s idea of speech and listening as connection; the telephone line was a way to touch someone else. Hearing and touch are, of course, thought of as two distinct members of the five senses. Yet it made intuitive sense that sending one’s voice by electrical impulses, instantly, through a great grid of wires and cables to someone on the other side of a continent was a way to experience touch, contact. It also unwittingly anticipated the turn to immersive digital communication, which has all but replaced face-to-face interaction during the pandemic.
AT&T’s slogan was popular at a time before the Internet was widely known, before a variety of digital technologies ranging from home recording software to iPhones made sound production more protean and multifarious than ever before. At that time, research engaged sound in just a few mediated forms: a telephone conversation, a radio broadcast, a musical recording, maybe an answering machine message. These modes of expression and communication were rarely thought of as falling under the same analytical rubric.
But as Hilmes has shown, the vast multiplication of ways of producing and experiencing sound since the 1990s has created room for us to consider sound in all its different forms as “soundwork.” Scholars such as Lisa Gitelman, with her 1999 book Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines, Alex Sayf Cummings, with her 2013 book Democracy of Sound, and Jonathan Sterne, with his 2003 book The Audible Past, led the way for situating sound itself as a subject and category of historical analysis.2 Now we can deploy Hilmes’s concept of soundwork as a heuristic for understanding “a burgeoning world sound culture that can encompass the myriad manifestations of aural communication free from traditional boundaries and restraints.”
This issue was conceived before the 2020 protests, and before coronavirus laid waste to millions of people’s livelihoods and lives and quarantined a large portion of humanity behind the four walls of home. The pandemic has made systemic inequalities impossible to ignore, such as disparities in employment and access to healthcare, with some workers put on the frontlines of the virus while others sit at home in one great, long Zoom call. The virus has literally robbed us of touch, even as we have had to hear more carefully than ever before, even if through a face mask or a computer screen. We have had a crisis of listening, and now we have to listen. There are limits to Zoom communication. One is unable to “read the room” in the same way during a mediated encounter, and relationships constituted over the service are at best approximations of the kinds of loyalties and fidelities people develop while sharing a common space. Yet at the same time the interface has introduced an immediacy to visible and auditory communication that has permitted scholars, activists, and discursive groups to connect when physical presence has been impossible.
We did not anticipate that this issue would come together amid a global pandemic, yet its contributions feel utterly of the moment, at a tipping point in political and cultural representation. These essays push us to listen to voices that have grown increasingly insistent: Black, Indigenous, youth, women, and a voice many are just learning to hear—that of the climate on our changing planet. Here we see people making noise, creating and disseminating sound through recordings, radio, even megaphones—whether to record the voices of Indigenous artists who have been treated as invisible by mainstream media, to beam messages of radicalism from Cuba to the American South, or to harass women seeking healthcare. Sound makes all of these divergent ideas, expressions, and struggles legible, and through a focus on activism, these pieces expand and apply the study of soundwork to manifold ways of mediating political struggle.
We are grateful for Hilmes’s framing contribution, “Soundwork: Something to Work With.” As she argues, her term soundwork helps to consolidate several parallel movements in sound studies into a shorthand that accounts for the dialectical relationship between cultural formations, epistemic regimes, and institutional practices across aesthetic-historical discourses. Taking sound seriously as a humanistic object of study complicates our engagement with, as Hilmes writes, a “spectrum of voices to be heard across a multiplicity of topics,” from cultural struggles documented by radio to cued and spontaneous methods of dissent. Soundwork encourages researchers to encounter and to listen not only to what is said but also to what has been conveyed during campaigns and ruptures, aspirational expressions and catharses.
Much of what feels newest and most urgent in these pieces in fact recognizes very old practices, sometimes by connecting across divides, as Adam J. Banks had done in his 2011 book Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age; certainly, for instance, call and response has filled the streets this year at protests and rallies, and those vocal choruses continue to get remediated across media.3 Like Banks, Alexis Pauline Gumbs in her 2020 volume Dub: Finding Ceremony unites poetics (specifically dub poetry), spiritual practice, interspecies “ancestral listening,” and breathwork.4
The concept of soundwork not only lets us see and hear voices that were not being heard but also lets us listen in different ways. The anthropologist Marina Peterson and religion scholar Vicki L. Brennan provide a methodological reflection on how to listen to climate change in their article “A Sonic Ethnography: Listening to Climate Change.” They urge us away from a preoccupation with the “soundscape” or “sonic environment” as a thing to be studied and toward a focus on the experience of listening as a process, to how people hear climate change unfolding in a palpable and present way. Through their work in Los Angeles and Lagos, Peterson and Brennan propose that we listen with people as they experience a changing climate, with all its unpredictability and specificity. “Staying with listening,” they say, “is also a way of dwelling with uncertainty.”
One way that we find people listening to their ecological and affective environments is described in Georgia Ennis’s “Affective Technologies: Kichwa Women’s Media Activism in the Ecuadorian Amazon,” where Amazonian Kichwa women use singing to influence their environmental and interpersonal relationships with humans and other-than-human beings. Ennis examines the remediation of Kichwa women’s song through radio broadcasts and performance media as a grassroots form of cultural and linguistic revitalization. Kichwa women might sing to sway the emotions of plants, to speak to their departed and absent family, to tell of their accomplishments, or to recirculate these poetic practices across broadcast publics.
Members of dominant media publics still often see Indigenous media as “unexpected,” in Dakota Sioux historian Philip Deloria’s words. During a period that is more often remembered for the “salvage ethnography” that shaped anthropology, Josh Garrett-Davis explores the early history of the Native American recording industry in “American Indian Soundchiefs: Cutting Records in Indigenous Sonic Networks.” Garrett-Davis documents the 1940s Kiowa-led Soundchiefs record label as both a form of citizens’ media and a part of specifically Indigenous relational networks.
In a piquant coincidence, the artist Nikita Gale reminds readers of Octavia Butler’s landmark 1983 story “Speech Sounds,” which describes a mysterious pandemic. Illness has broken down American society by robbing people, in various ways, of their ability to speak and understand each other. Of course, the story’s indelible ring of truth may not be so much a coincidence as a sign of Butler’s prophetic gift; many readers turned toward her work (particularly 1993’s Parable of the Sower) as the dystopian events of 2020 increasingly resembled the overturned world of her stories. In “Speech Sounds,” systems collapse, yet the bus somehow keeps running in Los Angeles. People lose their sense of self as their own legibility fades, and the result is a Hobbesian mess of violence. Communication is reduced to the visual and the physical—the fist or maybe the gun—but Butler holds out the possibility that speaking and hearing were not so much lost as forgotten, as Gale demonstrates in “After Words: On Octavia Butler's ‘Speech Sounds’.”
Radio has inspired some of the best scholarship in sound studies, yet the medium has remained stubbornly evanescent, especially in the early- to mid- 20th century. Rather than focusing on scant scraps of recorded broadcasts, in “The Radio Free Dixie Playlists,” Brian Kane focuses instead on playlists—specifically, Mabel and Robert F. Williams’s Radio Free Dixie programs, transmitted in the 1960s from Cuba after the activist couple’s exile there. Pulling from Foucault’s concept of parrēsia, or truth-telling, Brian Kane explores how Radio Free Dixie represents an under-researched area of sound studies, one that identifies the nexus of protest music, protest radio, and how social movements utilize the technical characteristics of a specific aesthetic as forms of resistance, but also community building. Kane details how the Williamses fled framed FBI charges to Canada, China, and finally Cuba, where they developed the Radio Free Dixie radio show, which featured music that elucidated African American racial struggle in the United States and abroad. Transmitting from a 50,000 watt long-wave AM signal, the broadcast could be heard as far as the Midwest and exposed listeners to challenging social commentary, musical expression, and a vision for civil rights that was rarely permitted on US stations. The song and sound selection by the Williamses becomes a unique kind of primary source, revealing that they did not strictly rely on agitprop in their broadcasts but offered a much more capacious sonic picture of Black and working-class culture to their listeners in America.
With a parallel recovery from whitestream media history erasure, Sonja Thomas asserts tap dance as a form of Black soundwork in “Black Soundwork, Knowledge Production, and the ‘Debate’ Over Tap Dance Origins.” Taking tap seriously as a form of knowledge production, and taking social media seriously as a forum for both circulating and resisting white supremacy, this piece elucidates an example of the upheavals in so many cultural organizations grappling with their own racial prejudices.
“The Ripping Apart of Silence: Sonic Patriarchy and Anti-Abortion Harassment” by Rebecca Lentjes, Amy E. Alterman, and Whitney Arey illustrates what happens when sound is weaponized to maintain patriarchy. In spaces that frequently defy patriarchal control—women’s health centers and abortion clinics—sound becomes a tool of oppression for anti-abortion protesters. Their article is also an important reminder of the need to consider the violent affordances of sound. While the visual—angry crowds and their signs—might be shielded from the patient's view by volunteers or physical barriers, sound resists such containment.
Women’s voices remain some of the least heard in studies of media and soundwork, and even less so when those voices emerge from the Global South. Ivoline Kefen Budji attunes readers to the role of women’s lament in the Grassfields of Cameroon as a nonviolent protest against ongoing armed conflict in “Utilizing Sounds of Mourning as Protest and Activism: The 2019 Northwestern Women’s Lamentation March Within the Anglophone Crisis in Cameroon.” Although such protests did not halt the larger conflict, Budji traces how the use of women’s songs of mourning as a strategy for political activism produced greater dialogue between activists and the government. Under women’s direction, soundwork becomes an explicit method for affective transformation that can reconfigure poetic and political practices.
Scholarly research delimits a phenomenon to a describable case by focusing and accentuating variables in order to answer a question asked at the commencement of a project. We contend that in cases of social change, dialectical engagements, and grassroots movements, researchers have an opportunity to sow unexamined terrain by detailing the intentional and unintentional utterances, pronouncements, emittances, and emergent sounds that resonate from civil engagement and upheaval. Events resonate through cultural memory only to the extent that we attune to the holistic phenomenon at hand. Sound analysis helps to promote sound humanistic research, and over 2021 the “soundwork of activism” series will encourage new research from professors, graduate students, archivists, artists, and curators. In light of the theme’s ongoing relevance to our intimate and raucous communicative world, our study of the soundwork of media activism will continue in another half-issue and an ongoing series in forthcoming issues of Resonance, continuing and adding threads of sound and identity, pedagogy, performance and media history, museums, forests and cityscapes, and deep listening across time, place, and species.
See Josh Shepperd, “The Political Economic Structure of Early Media Reform Before and After the Communications Act of 1934,” Resonance: The Journal of Sound and Culture 1, no. 3, (Spring 2020): 244–66; Sonja Williams, “Wade in the Water: The Making of a Groundbreaking Radio Documentary Series,” Resonance, the Journal of Sound and Culture 1, no. 1 (Spring 2020): 15–24.
Lisa Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000); Alex Sayf Cummings, Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
Adam J. Banks, Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Digital Age (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011).
Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Finding Ceremony (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).