|“Nodes of the urban system.” From The New Yorker|
|“Renderings of the city center in Disney’s Project X.” From Esquire|
|“The Digital Stewards set up DIY WiFi in Detroit for community access.” From Commotionwireless.net|
|“Nodes of the urban system.” From The New Yorker|
|“Renderings of the city center in Disney’s Project X.” From Esquire|
|“The Digital Stewards set up DIY WiFi in Detroit for community access.” From Commotionwireless.net|
[On October 11, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Empire and the End of the Postcolonial’” as part of the Fall Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Christopher Taylor, Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Chicago. Below is a response to the lecture from Debojoy Chanda, English.]
[On October 4, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Biopolitics’” as part of the Fall Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Penelope Deutscher, Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Northwestern U. Below is a response to the lecture from Michael Uhall, Political Science.]
[On March 31, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Soundscapes, Sound Archives, and the ‘Sounded City.’” The speaker was Alejandro Madrid, Associate Professor of Musicology at Cornell University. Below is a response to the lecture from Marc Adam Hertzman, Assistant Professor of History.]
Soundscapes Past, Present, and Future
Written by Marc Adam Hertzman (History)
I am extremely grateful for being invited to participate in this event, and for the chance to engage with this fascinating paper. Madrid’s critical appraisal of the Fonoteca Nacional brings to the fore questions about a number of perennially interesting, vexing topics—nationalism (and the “post-national”); the relationship between nation and city, rural and urban, and lettered and oral; new and old forms of cultural ownership and authorship; the “democratization” (or not) of cultural and political institutions and spaces; and the always complex personal and intellectual relationships that develop in “the field,” to name just a few. In ten to fifteen minutes it would be impossible to adequately address one, let alone all, of these topics. Aware of the limitations here I would like to elaborate three sets of questions that Madrid puts on the table for us.
In assessing the Fonoteca’s self-consciously “bottom-up” project, Madrid is skeptical. Drawing on Angel Rama’s foundational text The Lettered City, Madrid suggests that, whatever its intentions, the Fonoteca project reproduces power relations and hierarchies that its architects had hoped to challenge. This, Madrid points out, raises troubling questions for those who see in today’s wired world a newly democratic, egalitarian public sphere. Rather than pointing us toward a world of more access and opportunity for a greater number of people – not to mention the valorization of previously marginalized groups and traditions – the Fonoteca becomes instead emblematic of how even the most well-intentioned national projects so often turn into “top-down, civilizing” projects. As a result, and whatever its intentions (stated or real), the Fonoteca doesn’t lead to a “democratization of sound” and instead functions more as a wall between the “late capitalist” present and the utopian “post-national” future that Madrid refers to at key moments throughout the text.
Beyond the Lettered City
One wonders, then, what makes today’s “sounded city” different than earlier ones. What exactly is unique about the moment in which we live? Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier suggests that the aural has intensified in the last two decades. Building off this idea, Madrid sees an “increasing relevance of sound culture within a sector of the educated middle and upper classes” and “a new epistemological model, one in which sound becomes as important as the written word in trying to make sense of the natural, social, and cultural world we live in.” “In a way,” he continues, “knowledge about sound and participation in alternative sound scenes have become markers of cosmopolitan intellectual distinction” that define Mexico’s “apparent postnational ‘sounded city.’”
These are provocative ideas, worth interrogating a bit further. How does the “intensification” that Ochoa Gautier refers to compare with the remarkable transformations in technology and modes of distribution that came with the rise of the phonograph and subsequent innovations in recorded sound at the turn of the twentieth century? Returning to the Andes and again going back in time, we find a truly vibrant, connected set of sonic universes in colonial Cuzco, what Geoffrey Baker calls an “urban soundscape” or a “sonorous city.” How, then, does Mexico’s contemporary “sounded city” compare to those from hundreds of years ago? I ask not to suggest a trans- or a-historical reading, but rather in the hope of honing in more closely on what is and is not unique about the moment in which we currently live and in which Madrid’s paper is set.
Along with Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba, Mexico was at the forefront of sound recording technology during the first half of the twentieth century. But the power of sound far exceeded the nascent technology. Corridos, the “soundtrack” of the Mexican Revolution, functioned as what anthropologist Robert Redfield called the “newspaper of the folk.” In what ways, then, does today’s “sounded city” differ from earlier ones?
Madrid emphasizes change especially among the educated and affluent in Mexico City. Here again, it would be interesting to also think about what came before, not only in 1970s and ‘80s, but the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, when Mexican elites, much like their counterparts across the Americas, took special interest in folklore and used new technology to capture and reproduce sound, often with ideas and goals that, at least on the surface, don’t seem that different than those of the individuals under consideration in this paper.
Moving on now to a second, related set of questions about the national and postnational…
The National… Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
In the paper’s opening pages, Madrid frames the history of national music archives with the example of Austria’s Phonogrammarchiv, “the first sound archive in the world.” As he points out, the intention there was to collect music from all over, a project he writes, that was “encyclopedic, civilizing, and largely imperialistic-nationalistic.” That last term, “imperialistic-nationalistic,” is very interesting, especially given the paper’s juxtaposition of the national and the postnational. On one level, it seems that the Austrian example leads us towards thinking about the ways that external imperial projects become reinscribed or reinvented within national borders. Does Mexico City, in this case, represent a kind of metropole to the rural interior? On another level, the Austrian project to collect music from around the globe makes us think twice about the meanings of the postnational. In my own work, I’ve explored the way that Brazilian nationalism, and the fight against musical poachers from Europe and North America, helped galvanize the domestic defense of musical and intellectual property right. As imperfect and even oppressive as it is, the national has represented a refuge and source of support for musicians in a way that the postnational may not. If there is a single question here it is what, exactly, does this postnational looks like, and what specific impact it has on age-old global imbalances and inequalities in the music market. And here I’m thinking especially of Professor Madrid’s edited collection Postnational Musical Identities, which delineates a number of possible postnational pasts, presents, and futures. Which kind are we dealing with here?
First, Sandroni’s project represents an interesting counterpoint to the Fonoteca, and not just because it focused on returning rather than recording. As Madrid shows, the Fonoteca originally hoped that individuals and communities from around Mexico would upload recordings, thus creating a map of the national soundscape. But the lion’s share of contributions came from urban areas. And so, like Redfield and Andrade before them, the scholars who Madrid discusses set out to record the hinterland. For me, the issue of whether those recordings are “bottom-up” or “top-down” is only part of a larger story. Indeed, and as Sandroni and so many other ethnographers readily admit, this kind of encounter is inevitably rife with hierarchy and imbalance. I wonder, then, whether we might focus not only on those things but also now in terms of the possible futures that the recordings, however problematic, may have.
Some of the best possible futures might be post-national, but if the experience of Sandroni is any indication, that might be missing the point a bit, too. Many of the men and women who reencountered their music were proud to have been included in a project now being studied and celebrated as a rich chapter in national history. Less important than the impositions, blindnesses, and insensitivities of Andrade’s team was the ability to reconnect, now years later, with something that was theirs.
I’m grateful to Professor Madrid for writing such a stimulating paper and bringing all these fascinating issues to the table.
[On March 31, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Soundscapes, Sound Archives, and the ‘Sounded City.’” The speaker was Alejandro Madrid, Associate Professor of Musicology at Cornell University. Below is a response to the lecture from Jessica C. Hajek (Musicology).]
Whose City? Whose Sound?: Mexico’s Sonic Geography
This presentation focused on the case study of the National Sound Archives of Mexico (known as Fonoteca) and the experience of, knowledge about, and intervention in the sounded city. This work is a recent research endeavor for Dr. Madrid, but is clearly situated within his other works dealing with music and cultural studies, modernity, globalization, and music and dance in Mexico. This particular topic is also positioned within the discourses of performance studies, sound studies, and space/place.
Dr. Madrid began his presentation with a personal recounting of his introduction to Fonoteca in Mexico City. While teaching a sound studies seminar at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in 2013, Madrid planned a field trip for his students to the archive. To his surprise, what he experienced was a disconnect between the congratulatory tone of the archive’s guides and the skepticism of his students regarding the purported “democratic access” to its celebrated collections and sponsored projects. In focusing on sound-based collectives like the Fonoteca, the objective of Madrid’s presentation was to construct a new epistemological model that would consider sound as an equally important object of study as the written word in understanding culture.
In the first part of his lecture, Madrid examined how the collection methods of sound archives over the past century have shaped a sonic sense of our world. Madrid began by discussing the early endeavors to document sound in 19th-century Europe, which focused primarily on the encyclopedic capturing and documentation of the sound of traditional or exotic places. Madrid then showed that this was the model that Mexico attempted to recreate when opening its first audiovisual/sound archives in 1964—a model that represented a validation of the nation-state in a local, but patronizing and colonialist way. However, in an attempt to create something new with the opening of Fonoteca in 2008, the goals of this archive were to be more democratic, not only preserving the sound of Mexico, but also promoting educational programs to create a culture of listening and fostering participation among audience and artists alike. In order to discuss its varying degrees of success, Madrid introduced two of Fonoteca’s most prolific projects—the Sound Map of Mexico and the Soundscapes CD series. He posed the question: how did these projects identify and respond to the desires of its audience?
Sound Map of Mexico showing origins and quantities of sound recordings uploaded to the app
The Sound Map of Mexico project is an interesting case in point. Here, Madrid looked at an attempt to create a “community of listeners” and a “sonic geography” of Mexico. Beginning in 2010, everyday Mexicans were encouraged to record sounds of their own environments and upload it to the app. The catch? Fonoteca requested that the sound be in the style of “field recordings”—capturing the sound of a specific place in time including ambient noises—and not professional studio recordings. Not surprisingly, the community created by the Sound Map ended up skewed toward urban sounds, with currently 224 of 380 recordings coming from Mexico City itself. Even more interestingly, a majority of recordings from outside of the capital were captured and uploaded by Fonoteca staff.
Fonoteca recording crew member for Soundscapes of Mexico CD project
However, even with his more democratic approach to the Soundscapes project, Rivas was still instrumental in determining what sounds were collected and heard. For example, a narco-military conflict in the State of Guerrero made it too dangerous for Rivas’ team to make recordings in certain locations. Could this be considered a refusal to listen to the sound of everyday violence in the lives of these people, or even a state-sponsored project ignoring state-sponsored violence?
In the final part of his presentation, Madrid used Angel Rama’s concept of “the Lettered City” to suggest a discourse of “the Sounded City.” Madrid claimed that the power of recorded sound stems from its sensorial and transmittable nature, suggesting that the “Sounded City” can be considered as a cosmopolitan epistemic model of post-national circulation of knowledge and cultural belonging beyond national borders. In returning to the case study of Mexico City, he asked two questions: What kind of Sounded City is at stake with Fonoteca? Is the archive recreating older models of behaviors or offering new alternatives? In conclusion, Madrid proposed that while although the experience of sound may be more democratic in 21st-century Mexico, the institutions and artists responsible for maintaining that sound are still the heirs of the 19th-century colonial model.
Translation: “Fonoteca National Sound Archive –
We preserve sound memory for the future”
In the case of Fonoteca, who then has decided what Mexico sounds like? According to Madrid, urban centers dominated the contributions to the Sound Map of Mexico. These sounds were supplemented by Fonoteca staff who strategically sought out the idealized fantasy of authentic sounds from the countryside. In instances when the reality of the countryside was in contrast to their desired image—as with the Soundscapes of Guerrero project—these sounds were avoided. Therefore, the epistemological implication of Madrid’s soundscapes project is to better understand the processes that result in the fragmentation and compartmentalization of local sounds as a consequence of focusing only on the aural within an otherwise multisensorial experience. Although this presentation represented only the beginnings of a larger project, Madrid intends to continue unpacking the implications of both the essentialist search for sounds and the naturalization of identity as a strategy to attract listening audiences.
References and Further Reading
[On March 14, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium, highlighting the research projects of our current Faculty Fellows. The first panel of the day featured Samantha Frost, Associate Professor of Political Science and Gender & Women’s Studies, and Hina Nazar, Associate Professor of English. Below is a response to this panel from Wendy J. Truran (English).]
The habit and habitus of subjectivity
Written by Wendy J. Truran (Department of English)
The first panel at the Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium, held on March 14 2016 brought two, seemingly very different, projects into conversation. Samantha Frost‘s project sought to shift our conception of the human animal. Hina Nazar’s project shifts assumptions regarding John Locke’s ideas on education from the long eighteenth century. Despite their projects’ apparent dissimilarity, both speakers focused on subjectivity. Both papers outlined forces which contribute to the creation of a political subject and addressed the limits of contemporary critical theory, offering ways to reconceive of its application in their respective fields.
Samantha Frost’s paper offered an ontological argument regarding the “it-ness of the body,” or what she called the “corporealization of culture.” Frost’s paper brought together the unlikely bedfellows of contemporary theory and life sciences in the service of creating a more nuanced, fleshy, multi-scalar idea of subject formation. Her discussion of the materiality of the subject was given in the form of ten theses, not all of which I’ll be able to cover here, but more information can be found in her upcoming book: Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New Theory of the Human. Life Sciences are trying to account for social influence, or as Frost put it, ‘how the social gets under your skin.’ Life sciences are finding evidence for what feminist theorists and literary scholars have long known: culture and imagination changes you. Scientific findings are demonstrating that even if the event does not take place, even if it is imagined, the effect can still remake biological matter. The formation of self must be thought of as a corporeal, social, and subjective phenomenon. Frost therefore offered a conception of a “biocultural human” (thesis four), which insists that, even at a cellular or hormonal level, “meaning shapes matter.”
Frost began by exploding the commonplace belief that biology is a stable substance, a fleshy given, when in fact – at the level of cells or genes for example – biology is very responsive to a wide range of influences. Going further, Frost pointed out that biological processes do not exist before the environment in which the subject functions. The biocultural organism is a dynamic system, living is a process. Frost offered this new picture in thesis one, stating that “all living organisms, including humans, are porous.” In addition, thesis three offers that “a living body is a temporally particular configuration of processes of composing and decomposing.” There is influx and efflux of environmental influences, such as toxins, nutrients and air-quality. Indeed all organisms are influenced by their habitus, and can be affected all the way down to the biochemical or even molecular level. What is key for Frost is that culture forms an integral part of the habitus, and therefore living bodies are always influenced by culture. The fleshy materialization of norms within living creatures means that we must think of the ‘environment’ as mental, emotional, social, cultural, biological, material, and even imagined. In the act of “composing and decomposing and recomposing” the human is open to influence and change. Not infinite change, Frost cautions, but change nonetheless, and therefore she asks, how might corporeal change be affected by social, political, and material changes in the environment? Whilst this increases the complexity of how we conceive of the human, both biologically and culturally speaking, it also allows for a new conception of the ways living bodies “inhabit place, history, and time.”
Frost cautioned that we must stop thinking about bodies as “stuff” and begin thinking of them as processes. She points out in thesis six that there is a lag, “the responses of biocultural creatures to bio-culturing are non-contemporaneous with their current habitats” and in thesis seven adds that “living organisms, including humans, are distinct from the habitats that culture them.” Past responses to previous habitats prepare biocultural organisms for future habitats, so that responses now can have a multi-dimensional sense of time: they may have immediate effects but also a futurity, lingering for generations. Thesis nine brought Frost’s work most clearly into conversation with contemporary theory: “Material environments shape biological processes as well as processes of identification, and social and representational environments shape biological processes as well as processes of identification.” She elucidated by suggesting that a living subject’s response to social norms or institutional inequalities have hormonal, neurochemical, immune-system consequences that then convert, for example, into habitual anger, or stress, or depression. So that to study subjectivity, Frost contends, means that we need to account for “all the biocultural constituents formative of living human subjects,” cultural and biological.
Hina Nazar’s paper “Locke, Education, and ‘Disciplinary Liberalism’” draws upon her book project entitled Educating for Freedom: Enlightenment Narratives of Autonomy, Gender, and Social Influence. Nazar focused on two discursive developments in the long eighteenth century – the rhetoric of education and the rhetoric of freedom, concentrating on the paradox of John Locke’s idea of “teaching freedom,” most explicitly discussed in “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” (1693). Nazar positioned her argument against scholars that she labelled the “disciplinarians”: those who draw on Michel Foucault’s work to levy criticism against Locke’s ideas on education and liberalism. The disciplinarians suggest that the Locke’s conception of family, community, and system of education produces a disciplined child who can only reproduce the inherited performance of freedom, rather than be truly free. Nazar, however, complicates this reading by drawing on all of Locke’s work on education including “Of the Conduct of the Understanding” (1706) and “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1689). Whilst she concedes that there are certainly authoritarian strains in “Thoughts,” taking his work on education as a whole means that such discipline can be “transformed in an autonomy-friendly direction.”
Nazar points out that Locke did not think that freedom was an instinctive feature of the will, but rather the cultivation of habits. In refusing the binary of habituation versus autonomy, Locke offers a complicated (and inconsistent) vision of education producing free, rational subjects. It is this inconsistency that allows Nazar to find a means to reconcile Locke’s liberalism and his thoughts on education. Locke claims that our character is formed through our habits, and this is why the right education is so important, because without it “habits will still be formed” but they will be formed “without due regard to the duty to exercise one’s power of freedom.” Nazar identifies a split in Locke’s thinking and thereby offers two ideas of education that emerge from Locke. The first she called “child-responsive,” which conceives of teaching as educating children to attain future freedom. Second, “adult-imitative” sees education as teaching children to imitate adult freedom. The first, Nazar argues, is the more compelling when looking at Locke’s ideas on education as a whole.
Given that a child lacks reason, or the self-command to be reasonable (in Locke’s conception), is it possible to teach the habit of free thinking? What habits, Nazar asks, are autonomy-friendly habits? Early in “Thoughts,” Locke claims that until children have mastered self-command, which is a necessary condition for freedom, they must submit to parental will. Through compliance to adult reason, they are cultivating their own reason. This is what Nazar calls the “adult-imitative” model. On the other hand, his “child-responsive” model demands that educators “respect the given talents and temperaments of their pupils” and be responsive to each child’s “habits of desiring.” Parents, he suggests, should talk to their children as rational beings and encourage them to participate in a community of rational adults, so that self-command and a love of reason will develop in the future.
These issues still filter into our classrooms today: how do we teach individuals to be critical thinkers without telling them what to think? Locke in his “child-responsive” form, Nazar suggests, suggests we should emphasize “how rather than what to think.” One means of creating a free thinking child is by engaging others in “dialogue, debate, and critical reading” in order to form a greater awareness of how ideas are put together in general. Nazar argues that Locke’s subject is a more complicated figure than the disciplinarians allow, and that ultimately Locke offers a modest scope for autonomy. Nazar suggests, however, that this is a more compelling and accurate picture of Locke and education, and “of the freedom of the socialized subject.” Indeed, Nazar’s conception of the subject, like Frost’s, is one that is porous; that is capable of change. A subject who through a change of habit, or Frost’s habitus, achieves the possibility of limited autonomy.