The Sonic Side of Race
a resource page for people interested
in race, sound, and process theology
Process Theology and
God the Deep Listening
God doesn't see the world with eyes,
God prehends the world with feelings.
God's knowing is more like deep listening, moment by moment,
than clinical observation or detached visual perception.
From a process perspective God listens with a passion for inclusion,
a love of life, a respect for persons, and a tender care that nothing be lost.
What makes God "God" is not that God sees so much, but that
God hears so much, sensitive to each and every voice, hoping for harmony.
Sound Studies Blog (on Race)
Can you say "ocularcentrism"?
I am very late in discovering that there is a field called “sound studies,” which takes as its subject the role that sound and listening play in human life. Sound studies and its companion discipline, ethnomusicology, are critical of epistemologies that rely primarily or exclusively on vision as a source of knowledge, thus falling into the prejudice of “ocularcentrism.” Ocularcentrism privileges sight over sound: the written word over the spoken word, for example. And I’m even later in discovering that some sound theorists find a home in critical race theory, thereby showing how racism itself is promulgated, not only through images but also through habitual forms of (often prejudiced) listening. Not simply listening to other people or to music, but also to the sounds of environment: whistles, cars, wind, noise. So I’ve imagined a course I’ll teach in some imagined future (somewhere) that will focus on the sonic side of race relations as a tool for liberation-oriented process theology. Of course there may be very few sign-ups, Maybe none! It's not like there's an already existing market for sound studies and process theology. Still, I’ve developed a resource page for imagined students. Here it is.
Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity
"Phonographies explores the numerous links and relays between twentieth-century black cultural production and sound technologies from the phonograph to the Walkman. Highlighting how black authors, filmmakers, and musicians have actively engaged with recorded sound in their work, Alexander G. Weheliye contends that the interplay between sound technologies and black music and speech enabled the emergence of modern black culture, of what he terms “sonic Afro-modernity.” He shows that by separating music and speech from their human sources, sound-recording technologies beginning with the phonograph generated new modes of thinking, being, and becoming. Black artists used these new possibilities to revamp key notions of modernity—among these, ideas of subjectivity, temporality, and community. Phonographies is a powerful argument that sound technologies are integral to black culture, which is, in turn, fundamental to Western modernity." (Publisher)
Wikipedia on Sound Studies
"Sound studies is an interdisciplinary field that to date has focused largely on the emergence of the concept of "sound" in Western modernity, with an emphasis on the development of sound reproduction technologies. The field first emerged in venues like the journal Social Studies of Science by scholars working in science and technology studies and communication studies; it has however greatly expanded and now includes a broad array of scholars working in music, anthropology, sound art, deaf studies, architecture, and many other fields besides. Important studies have focused on the idea of a "soundscape", architectural acoustics, nature sounds, the history of aurality in Western philosophy and nineteenth-century Colombia, Islamic approaches to listening, the voice, studies of deafness, loudness, and related topics. A foundational text is Jonathan Sterne's 2003 book "The Audible Past", though the field has retroactively taken as foundational two texts from 1977, Jacques Attali's "Noise" and R. Murray Schafer's "The Soundscape".
Initial work in the field was criticized for focusing mainly on white male inventors in Euro-America. Consequently the field is currently in a period of expansion, with important texts coming out in recent years on sound, listening, and hearing as they relate to blackness, gender, and colonialism." (Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_studies)
What is Ocularcentrism?
"A perceptual and epistemological bias ranking vision over other senses in Western cultures. An example would be a preference for the written word rather than the spoken word (in which case, it would be the opposite of phonocentrism). Both Plato and Aristotle gave primacy to sight and associated it with reason." (Oxford Reference, 2018)
What are some core questions?
"How does listening impact the production of social difference? And vice versa? "
"What is the relationship between sound and power?"
"What is the role of sound and listening in everyday life, particularly in regards to identity construction and performance?"
"How do we understand the cultural histories of various sound media—the phonograph, the radio, the tape recorder, the telephone, the digital recorder and its various playback systems—in relationship to power and the production of social difference?"
-- guidelines for submission to Sound Studies Blog, edited by Jennifer Lynn Stoever
Process Theology versus Ocularcentrism
Process theologians, ethnomusicologists, and sound scholar studies all believe that there is a problem with ocularcentric epistemologies: that is, with epistemologies that ground knowing in vision, thus neglecting the role of other senses in understanding (and misunderstanding.) To whatever degree we fall into ocularcentric assumptions, we neglect the important role that sound and listening play in human life, sometimes quite beautifully. Listening is indeed a form of knowing: we know others through the tones of their voice, their oral speech, and their silences. Indeed, listening is especially important in helping us understand their emotions; it is a major source for what scholars have come to call "emotional intelligence." Whitehead calls emotion "subjective forms" believes that they are actually transferred from agent to agent. Listening is a means of transference.
In addition and importantly, to whatever degree we fall into ocularcentrism, we neglect the fact that various forms of racism are promulgated through listening, not seeing. Jennifer Lynn Stoever, introduced below, helps correct this.
One purpose of this page is offer a very brief introduction to the work of Stoever, hoping that readers will turn to her work, and to the blog she edits -- Sounding Out -- to learn more.
The page is but a springboard for further study. The links on the left will give you a sense of the importance of sound studies as it helps us understand black experience and the problems of racist listening.
Introducing Jennifer Lynn Stoever
and her book The Sonic Color Line
excerpts from the interview
The Color Line is Auditory, Too
White Supremacists listen Prejudiced Ears
The Sonic Color Line: Publisher's Description
Race is a visual phenomenon, the ability to see “difference.” At least that is what conventional wisdom has lead us to believe. Yet, The Sonic Color Line argues that American ideologies of white supremacy are just as dependent on what we hear—voices, musical taste, volume—as they are on skin color or hair texture. Reinforcing compelling new ideas about the relationship between race and sound with meticulous historical research, Jennifer Lynn Stoever helps us to better understand how sound and listening not only register the racial politics of our world, but actively produce them. Through analysis of the historical traces of sounds of African American performers, Stoever reveals a host of racialized aural representations operating at the level of the unseen—the sonic color line—and exposes the racialized listening practices she figures as “the listening ear.”
Using an innovative multimedia archive spanning 100 years of American history (1845-1945) and several artistic genres—the slave narrative, opera, the novel, so-called “dialect stories,” folk and blues, early sound cinema, and radio drama--The Sonic Color Line explores how black thinkers conceived the cultural politics of listening at work during slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. By amplifying Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, Charles Chesnutt, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Ann Petry, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Lena Horne as agents and theorists of sound, Stoever provides a new perspective on key canonical works in African American literary history. In the process, she radically revises the established historiography of sound studies. The Sonic Color Line sounds out how Americans have created, heard, and resisted “race,” so that we may hear our contemporary world differently.
The Relevance of Sound Studies to Theology
Open and relational theologians talk a lot about relationality. We use the word to name at least three ideas: (1) that the universe is a world of inter-being and inter-becoming; (2) that the very Soul of the universe, God, is likewise an instance of inter-being and inter-becoming; (3) and that we human beings, individually and socially, emerge out of our felt relations to one another. We are agents to be sure, but our very agency is in response to, and dependence on, other people and the more-than-human world. We are not skin-encapsulated egos cut off from the world by the boundaries of our skin; we are instead relational selves.
Too often, as we process theologians speak this way, we presuppose that relationality is generally positive and uniform. But we best realize that for many people relationality is oppressive or painful. A woman who is relationally connected to her abusive husband is suffocated and harmed by the relations; and a person of color who feels marginalized by society is harmed by the relations. As open and relational theologians we are committed to transforming such negative relations into positive relations: we call it social justice. But we must first understand and recognize the harmful relations themselves. Such understanding cannot come from written alone -- or for that matter from vision alone. It requires hearing or listening to others, and also listening to the sounds amid which they feel what they feel, because those sounds are the auditory context of their lives. The sounds can and do reveal the stories of people lives but also the sonic divides and thus the injustices. Such is the importance of the work of Jennifer Lynn Stoever and many other sound study scholars. (J. McDaniel)