“So, it really don’t make no difference…about my enemies.”
“If we don’t win then we’d have to leave again. Dread to even think about it.”– Mildred Loving
How do geographies, images, sound, and memories interanimate within the contexts of our material and metaphysical relationships to the places we and our ancestors call or have called home? Although the physical immediacy of these spaces (the structures, the land, the growth, the topology) may seem most prominent, it is the ethereal, intangible, inchoate qualities of place (the sensory constellations of remembered sights, sounds, and smells) that often and profoundly resonate within us. How, then, do these intersections of memory, ecology, and representation expand through our attunement to the sensory? How might our attention to the multidimensional expansiveness of sound help us consider forms of life and relation beyond the hegemonically constructed category of the human?1
Another way to frame this point would be to consider how sound eloquently and disruptively traverses and exceeds our horizons of knowing the world through familiar lenses. Part of the compelling nature of sound is that it offers the possibility of alternately, and at times perhaps simultaneously, creating contexts of recognition, remembrance, and disorientation. It may move in multiple and often unpredictable directions in and out of—and/or it may perhaps expand—our temporal frames, our ways of recognizing our pasts, presents, and futures. Jean-François Augoyard and Henry Torgue describe this calibration of sound, time, and memory as the experience of anamnesis, an “effect of reminiscence in which a past situation or atmosphere is brought back to the listener’s consciousness, provoked by a particular signal or sonic context…the often involuntary revival of memory caused by listening and the evocative power of sounds.”2 I open with these considerations and contemplations to frame the following question: What might it mean for us to consider such a sensory exchange operating not along strictly linear, finite, definable circuits of self, consciousness, and subjective memory, but rather across registers of the sensory reverberating between the sonic and the visual, and at the same time outside of a notion of human singularity—instead, offering a critical lens through which human biology, spatial ecologies, and multiple consciousnesses resonate in and out of time?
Rachel Fernandes’s essay in this issue, “Listening to Loving: Mildred Loving and the Case for Quiet Activism,” offers many openings for further contemplations of the oscillating frequencies moving between sound, the multidimensionality of being, and visual representation. Fernandes’s focus on the quiet activism of the Lovings, as it is projected through the Life magazine photos of the couple and captured in the recent feature-length film, Loving, confronts us with the complexity of Mildred Loving’s resistance to the state of Virginia’s refusal to legally recognize love across racial lines, and on the Lovings we might think about (1) how important a sense of place, the geography of being we might say, was to the Lovings’ struggle, and (2) some ways that we might think about the sonic relationship—the resonance, as it were—moving between image, place, and memory.
Fernandes's critical perspective echoes and amplifies the concerns expressed in an earlier volume of Resonance by Michael Cheers in his photo essay “Listening for the Pictures” (Resonance, summer 2021), a visual-textual meditation on the sonic qualities emerging from photographic images, specifically those that create encounters between viewer-listeners and ideas of race, memory, and social justice. Cheers and Fernandes both draw upon and engage with the growing body of work on race and the interplays of image and sound, a line of inquiry recently taken up in Tina Campt’s study, Listening to Images. For Campt, engaging with the correspondences between reading, viewing, and hearing photographs is a multidimensional and multidisciplinary practice, and to that end, she proposes a method of sonic-visual reading that both recognizes and explores the range of sensory resonance generated by photographs. As she states, “Engaging these frequencies requires us not only to read images, but also to listen to the sonic dimensions through which they also register.”3 Campt, Cheers, and Fernandes all focus on complicating the ways in which portraits may be viewed and consumed as distinct, mimetic representations of bodies and subjectivities. Moving in the spirit of this critical work, I want to push in a slightly different but complementary direction to contemplate how land reverberates within the sonic field of photographic representation as both an inchoate and an immersive presence; one that generates a series of contingent sets of relations connected to but not anchored by human existence.
In her essay “Listening to Loving,” Rachel Fernandes urges us to consider the tonality of quiet and the silent elements of gesture that mark the relationship between photographic representation and political resistance. Fernandes focuses on the sonic dimensions of the pivotal legal confrontation between the Lovings and the state of Virginia’s regime of mid-20th-century white supremacy, as the Lovings engaged in a quiet but powerful struggle to be able to love one another across racial lines on the Caroline County, Virginia, land they both loved. Fernandes frames the complex issues at play within and spiraling out of the photographic sound of the Life magazine visual renderings of the couple, featured in the 1966 story “The Crimes of Being Married: A Virginia Couple Fights to Overturn an Old Law against Miscegenation.” Framing and exploring Mildred Loving’s “quiet activism,” Fernandes considers how political agency might be configured on lower frequencies; in Fernandes’s words, “frequencies of meaning encapsulated in the image.” The importance of Fernandes’s critical intervention can’t be overstated, as she carefully charts the differential sonic modalities of protest and how the choice of the Lovings to resist the dictates of the State of Virginia, in large part through Mildred Loving’s mobilization of silence, opens onto a series of questions that put into relief the spoken and unspoken entanglements of sound, representation, and political agency.
I encountered Rachel Fernandes’s essay after having recently watched the 2016 film Loving and a 2011 documentary about the Lovings, The Loving Story. I had certainly been aware of the Lovings’ case for some time, but these recent re-intensified re-engagements with the details of their story coincided with my becoming aware of my own connections to the land that the Lovings called home. The connection moves along two different but perhaps overlapping trajectories. As a child, I learned from my maternal grandfather, Charles E. Carter, that the Northern Neck of Virginia is the land that our earliest ancestors in the Americas were brought to—as property of the notorious settler-colonialist, slave trader/holder, and early Virginia political and economic powerbroker Robert “King” Carter I. My proximity to the Lovings’ story moves along another trajectory, one that is charted through the relationship of my wife, Shannon Lee Mathes, to this land through her familial history (her father, William Anderson, owns a small farm that sits in the middle of the section of Caroline County, Virginia, where the Lovings found one another and chose to pursue their love) and her ability to photographically engage with the vibrations and frequencies bridging space, memory, and ecology. Over the past few years, Shannon has started to photographically explore the landscapes of Caroline County, situated between Spotsylvania County and the aquatic-terrestrial beauty of Eastern Virginia’s Northern Neck.4 In the middle of this expanse of interconnected landscapes and soundscapes of memory (Black memory of enslavement and possibility, Civil War spirits haunting forever blood-scarred land) spanning eastward, somewhat following the winding and widening Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Virginia, to the Chesapeake Bay, sits the section of Caroline County, a crossroads between Central Virginia and the Tidewater, where the Lovings mounted their struggle to love one another on their own terms. The terms of the Lovings’ struggle against the State not only rejected the impositions of the State against the natural energy of personal, romantic interconnection, but their struggle also rejected the State's construction of “natural” racial laws to preserve a regime of white supremacy.5 Rachel Fernandes’s critical exploration of the visual and sonic dimensions of the Lovings’ struggle is both a critical meditation on the formal qualities of protest within the arena of racial politics, and in that spirit it is also a call for us to understand “the role of photographs, their sonic possibilities, and the echoes they continue to produce.” I’d like to consider Fernandes’s insights in conjunction with Shannon Lee Mathes’s photographs of Central Point, and through this intersection continue working with Fernandes’s focus on hearing the sonic possibilities of silence through instances of visual representation to perhaps begin putting the following questions into finer relief: How do images of specific geographies contain and project historical narratives? How do they sound and why? How do history, memory, and place create a frequency that is captured visually, but only to the degree that the image emerges through an appreciation of the image’s texture—its visual grain? How might that relationship be projected through sound that is not always experienced aurally but is working along a connection that resonates between the image and the interiority one may experience/inhabit?
Photographs are openings, portals into and outside of time. They often confront us with the elusiveness of memory, the fine line between recall and disremembering described in the lines of narration that open Chris Marker’s 1983 film, Sans Soleil: “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining.”6 Shannon Lee Mathes’s pictures of the Central Point section of Caroline County project in multiple directions through the lining of memory with a vibrational sonority that shifts between and across registers of place and displacement, memory and futurity, loss and possibility, time and timelessness. One way we can hear the photographs is through the technical photographic levels of distortion and hue in the image, and through the vibrational distortion created through the static movement of the pines and brush overlaid and intertwined with one another. We can see the ecological combustion of natural growth falling underneath the vastness of a pale sky with the remnants of Central Point’s P. E. Boyd Byrd Store and Central Point Post Office in between and in the background. The expanse and interplay of light and shadow accentuate the land, its growth swaying in the sound of the gentle breeze. The presence and interplay of darkness and light captured in the photograph might infuse and be infused by the Lovings’ story in at least a couple of possible ways. The overt exchange and confrontation of opposite colors or shadings created through light and its absence might reflect upon the combustion of race at the center of the Lovings’ efforts to love across those lines of color and shade. At the same time the shadows exist as a reminder, an evocation of the fact of the gentle eclipse of an unending history of white supremacy embedded in the land forever scarred by the brutality of enslavement and its many aftermaths and wakes—one of those being, of course, the denial of the ability to love through and despite the conditions created by the capitalistic extraction of Black labor under the yoke of chattel slavery on that very land.
To this point, another photograph shows a field barren for now, a space created centuries ago for the early Virginia tobacco crop, the gently undulating flatness pointing to a horizon of vastness. Across Shannon’s images of Central Point, the land unfolds with a sonority beckoning memory to move through various circuits and connections. Édouard Glissant discusses this sense of aura—the aura of aurality, I’ll call it—riffing off the spirit of Glissant’s words, as “the world’s poetic force (its energy), kept alive within us, fasten[ing] itself by fleeting, delicate shivers, onto the rambling prescience of poetry in the depths of our being.” For Glissant, this poetic force is even more valuable to realize in the face of violent attempts to distract us from its infinite, nonlinear possibility. He explains that this force, not unlike Raymond Williams’s “structures of feeling,” exists as always inchoate and in formation. Never static and immobile, even while at rest, this force emerges through its contradictory nature that Glissant explains as “the newness of the world not setting itself up as anything new.” The energy force of relation, then, becomes in terms deceptively simple sounding, but infused with a long-stretching horizon of possibility, “what the world makes and expresses of itself.”7 Put another way, and in concert with Glissant’s evocative insight, we might ask, What is the land telling? How is it telling us stories that refuse linearity? To circle back to the observations of Fernandes in the context of these questions, how might we discern circuits of nonlinguistic projection moving between the silent resistance of Mildred Loving and the gestures of the land so central to her struggle? How might we read and hear the passage and permanence of time embedded in the texture and composition of photographs that on one hand offer direct representations of her modulation of sound and silence, and on another show us landscapes containing remains of the spaces she called home?
“How much does a memory weigh?” Leyla McCalla asks, these lyrics of her recent “Memory Song” echoing within and alongside the complementary intersections of image and sound that Fernandes and Mathes offer.8 Shannon Lee Mathes’s photographs engage with the weight of memory through images that animate spatial ecologies, imbuing these landscapes with sonic narrative potential that reminds us of Chris Marker’s musing referenced above regarding the thin, liminal line suturing memory and its absence. Fernandes frames memory as an important counterweight to the seeming linearity of political victory achieved through struggle. By lingering on the quiet, she offers us a way to contemplate the totality, longevity, and persistence of struggle as a crucial context for understanding that “a focus on the victory of the case can overshadow the memory of the struggle that took place in order to win the legal battle.”
The creative-critical ensemble orchestrated through the works of Rachel Fernandes and Shannon Lee Mathes offers new angles through which we might (re)encounter the Lovings’ historical presence and forward-moving legacy. The synergy of this critical-sonic-visual convergence moves and unfolds in various directions, encouraging us to ask and ponder a range of layered questions regarding not only content and critique, but also method. How might we bring together different modes of critical and creative inquiry to further explore the phenomenological dimensions of spatial and political histories? How might the aesthetic layers that comprise our objects of critical inquiry reflect onto the form of our analyses? How do the autobiographical elements of critical-creative expression inflect what we can say and how we might say it? What does it mean, for instance, for me as a Black man, situated within a particular racial history and present, to look at these photographs of land containing not only the echoes of my familial history of enslavement but also the history of the Lovings’ struggle, a past that can ultimately be understood as a broad context for my present connection across racial lines to the creative energy of Shannon Lee Mathes and her artistic reanimation of the historical sonority of Central Point?
I am of course invoking the critical-conceptual insight and theoretical reorientations regarding Eurocentric classifications of the human proposed by Sylvia Wynter, perhaps most prominently in her 2003 essay, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” in CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 257–337. For a rich set of critical reflections on Wynter’s project of revisioning the category of the human beyond coloniality, see Katherine McKittrick’s edited collection, Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), in which McKittrick herself reflects on the critical depth of Wynter’s engagement with “the possibility of undoing and unsettling—not replacing or occupying—Western conceptions of what it means to be human” (2).
J. Augoyard and H. Torgue, Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds (Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 21.
Tina Campt, Listening to Images (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).
Robert “King” Carter I manipulated and maximized his position as proprietary agent in the Virginia Colony for Lord Fairfax during periods from 1702 to 1732 to acquire landholdings amounting to almost the entirety of the Northern Neck region. For more detail on Robert “King” Carter’s history, see Andrew Levy’s recent biography of Carter’s grandson, Robert Carter III (Robert III also would become famous for freeing the nearly 500 enslaved held by the Carter family in 1791), The First Emancipator: Slavery, Resistance, and the Quiet Revolution of Robert Carter (New York: Random House, 2005); also, on Wendy Wilson-Fail’s oral and archival historical regions, see J. T. Roane’s work on Black ecologies broadly, perhaps beginning with the critical essay/autobiographical reflection, “Black Ecologies, Tidewater Virginia” in Transformations (August 6, 2020): https://www.transformationnarratives.com/blog/2020/08/06/black-ecologies-tidewater-virginia.
See Bazile’s indictment of the Lovings (https://lva.omeka.net/items/show/54), in which he states, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” His indictment was based on Virginia’s white supremacist and eugenicist “Racial Integrity Act of 1924” (https://lva.omeka.net/items/show/62).
Chris Marker, director, Sans Soleil (Argos Films, 1983).
Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), 159–60.
Leyla McCalla, “Memory Song,” Breaking the Thermometer, Anti-, 2022.
Shannon Lee Mathes is a photographer from Virginia and Tennessee, currently living and working in East Orange, New Jersey. She has a B.A. in interdisciplinary studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and holds a certificate in documentary studies from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. She is currently working on multiple projects in New Orleans, Virginia, and New Jersey.