Symposium Introduction

“What is radio?” Tom McEnaney asks toward the end of Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas. The question—one this work of literary criticism has been asking implicitly from its opening description of the first transnational commercial radio broadcast in 1923—unsettles from the start any easy conceptualization of the medium’s reach or trace. For scholars of comparative literature, whose commitments concern them with transmission across languages as well as national and communal boundaries, the answer will be heard as a call to attend more deeply to media ecologies. This is because over the course of this magisterial study, which moves through the United States, Cuba, and Argentina from the 1930s to the late 1960s, what the radio is is grounded in the coterminous question, what is the novel.

Aiming to attune its readers to the “intersection of symbolic, social, and material practices,” Acoustic Properties is organized into three parts, all of which weave together concerns with real property and properties of “voice” both on the page and in the ether: In the first, the realist novels of John Dos Passos, Carson McCullers, Raymond Chandler, and Richard Wright are set in relation to the New Deal’s shaping influence on real estate and domestic spaces. Part two turns from the housing crisis in the United States to the interconnected Cuban and US radio networks to consider how popular broadcast programs, including the radionovela and the radio play, offered forms for both commercial exploitation and revolutionary rhetoric. Here, McEnaney’s readings focus on Félix B. Caignet’s El derecho de nacer (The Birthright), Severo Sarduy’s Los matadores de hormigas (The Ant Killers), and the program Radio Free Dixie, produced by civil rights activists Robert F. and Mabel Williams. The book’s concluding section moves to Argentina to discuss Manuel Puig’s transformation of New Deal aesthetics for his own aesthetics of the “commonplace,” before looking at last to the avant-garde experiments of Puig and Ricardo Piglia who, by integrating tape recorders into their own reflections on voice and private property, anticipate the end of “the age of radio.”

The key figures for these readings—and for the arguments McEnaney makes about radio as it represents, organizes, challenges, and transforms political and economic structures in and between the Caribbean, North, and Latin America—are, on the one hand, spatial and, on the other, sonic. The first is the neighborhood which, in McEnaney’s theorizing, refigures media theory’s “network” to incorporate a much broader set of geopolitical and cultural interconnections. Beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, the “new neighborhood of the Americas” affords a scalar movement from the diplomatic metaphor deployed in political rhetoric to describe national and hemispheric relationships to the lived reality of domestic space, the shared walls and streets of local architectures.

The second figure intervenes in our reading practices more concretely. Attending to “narrative acoustics,” McEnaney pursues what Jean-Paul Sartre once proposed was the “literary art of radio” as a site for the “symbolic reorganization of cultural forms” (15). Indeed, Sartre’s phrase proves far too narrow a description for how this book upends the persistent distinction between orality, aurality, and textuality. Moreover, to read these writers as listeners turns out to necessarily attune us to the sounds of state control, to colonial, imperialist, and capitalist expansion, and to the intimations (some loud and some whispered) of resistance to these forces. In his readings, McEnaney argues that these authors critique property relations and imagine counter-publics and revolutionary futures as they seek to locate, describe, and construct a popular voice—a voice “to, for, and as the people” (8).

“Books can teach us how to hear,” proposes McEnaney. In this spirit, this symposium gathers together a group of Latin American, hemispheric, and media studies scholars who have been listening to Acoustic Properties—both its questions and its arguments. They respond in what follows with riffs and rebuttals, bringing other critical and artistic voices as well as political events and characters into conversation with McEnaney’s already expansive corpus of texts. In doing so, they clarify the stakes of a literary study which sets radio at the center:

Graciela Montaldo begins with an appreciative account of how McEnaney remaps radio’s everyday and avant-garde forces on both literary production (realism) and material property (real estate) in the twentieth century. In bringing together disparate cultural objects and texts, she suggests, from the first international commercial broadcast in 1923 to the writing Severo Sarduy did for radio to Manuel Puig’s formal narrative innovations, this book aims “to change the circuits of the reproduction of power.” Craig Epplin, in a related vein, asks how Acoustic Properties might teach us to tune into our contemporary soundscapes and attend more astutely to the spatial and aural realities of present-day modes of governance. In this he suggests we consider the connections (and differences) between Roosevelt’s paternalistic Good Neighbor Policy and the tone of today’s political discourse, between the kinds of subjectivities shaped by the radionovela and those cultivated by internet-listening.

Next, Alejandra Bronfman takes up McEnaney’s conception of the neighborhood as both a local and highly concrete site of sensory experience and a transnational sociopolitical figure, asking how we might “linger” between these two conceptual levels. Reflecting on the political and sonic possibilities of “the space of the street” leads Bronfman, too, to speculate on how poetry might extend and transform McEnaney’s reflections on narrative. For Harris Feinsod, Acoustic Properties “helps us to see the Janus faces of an era defined by hemispheric commerce and plunder at one and the same moment as its radios amplified the vocal tones and accents of populist narratives securing the boundaries of American communities.” He takes a particular interest in the characters, on and off the radio, of capitalist and neocolonial expansion that populate the margins of McEnaney’s book. In them he listens for the noise of labor exploitation and resistance.

Neil Verma, in the forum’s final response, listens still differently. Noting that Acoustic Properties brings together radio theory with the history of the novel comes as a refreshing intervention in past attempts to discuss radio in contradistinction to other media, he turns especially to “the politics of ‘verberant’ modernism”—which can be heard in the many forms of repetition found in these narratives. The novel’s representation of “real acoustic practices” opens up “aesthetic space in the realist novel” that can signal the disruption of imperial and colonial contexts.

Graciela Montaldo


Reading Literature, Reading Politics

Almost a century ago, André Breton quoted a phrase that would come to define the surrealist doctrine of objective chance: “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” In taking this phrase as their motto, the surrealists clearly meant to be provocative, but they also created a new aesthetic machine for modern times. After all, and along with contemporary avant-garde movements, they explicitly sought to subvert traditional knowledges and perceptions. In the early twentieth century, that subversion took place in the arts. Avant-garde movements developed new ways of seeing and new modes of interpreting the world. During modernity, experimental artists and critical intellectuals and philosophers focused on new perceptions.

In his seminal essay “Teoría del complot,” Argentinian writer Ricardo Piglia wrote about avant-garde literature, arguing that conspiracy as a practice was an articulation point that connected the building of an alternative reality to the deciphering of the political machine. He argued that what connected avant-garde literature and politics was the artists’ practices, not their political affiliations. In Piglia’s view, radical artists and intellectuals acted as conspirators, or undercover agents who lived in the real world under state law but worked to create experiences alternative to the oppression of the state, the law, and society. Piglia, in a way that recalls Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of surrealism, saw the avant-garde as a political reaction to a repressive and bourgeois modern world. But the innovative perceptions are not limited to the arts space.

The first time I read Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas, I was floored, simultaneously attracted by the force of its novelty and rattled by the shock of its new ideas. With this book, Tom McEnaney has created an avant-garde artifact to expand the critical approach to the Americas cultural production from the ’20s to the ’80s with especial focus on the United States, Cuba, and Argentina. McEnaney has remapped the cultural scene of the Americas, introducing new relationships between practices, actors, traditions, languages, laws, and media. Although the objects of his book do not usually go together, it is not chance that brings them together, but rather a strong logic that McEnaney uses to weave an intricate web of arguments, ideas, and conclusions. Radio connected a variegated community of writers, entrepreneurs, boxers, activists, filmmakers, and poets at different key moments in the history of modern Transamerican relationships. As McEnaney says: “Following writers, activists, and performers across this new neighborhood of the Americas, I identify a series of aesthetic and political connections unrecognized by official histories, and I reveal how the idea of the neighborhood operated to connect the micropolitical problems of local and physically proximate neighbors to the transnational, or ‘hemispheric,’ geopolitical neighborhood defined the Good Neighbor Policy’s treaties and trade” (13). These new relationships were registered primarily in literature. As spies or undercover agents, literary writers could see the secret plots between popular and lettered cultures. There is an idea of what literature is and how it functions.

Although the book explores numerous phenomena linked to radio, including the voice and national and international regulations, it focuses on the ways that the new aural, legal, and cultural context transformed the codes of realist narrative. Once mass culture had appropriated the representation machine, the entire representational system shifted. According to McEnaney, realism was at the core of twentieth-century literary inquiries, as the “realism” of new technologies encouraged literature to explore its own formal process of construction. He concludes that a new realism moved away from the visuality of (Latin)American narrative productions toward no-literary zones in the political context of the Americas. He convincingly traces a line from the New Deal (US) to populism (Peronismo in Argentina) and revolution (Cuba). Although they are not the same thing, these movements and events created agents and conditions to negotiate (in the economic and cultural meaning of the word) the new conditions of representation (in the political and aesthetic meaning of the word).

In most Western traditions, twentieth-century literary modernity was understood as a “literary” phenomenon, with traditional critics approaching literature as if its writers were isolated in their own practice, as if they read only literature. In Acoustic Properties, McEnaney designs a different place for literature (and literary critics). Modern literature negotiates its voice and its aesthetics with a variety of practices that belong to different realms. Real estate and realism are not “natural” relatives, but their logics—in McEnaney’s hands—are synchronizable. I think the most valuable aspect of this book is its capacity to develop new ways of reading. It shows that a creative and critical reading must build a “logic” of interpretation, instead of simply arriving at a conclusion. I want to insist on this point because, aside from its innovative ideas, solid arguments, and brilliant close readings, this book offers a sort of machine for understanding regional dynamics and the transactions between politics and culture. And it makes representation the crucial term at its very center.

McEnaney highlights the importance of representation when he interprets the fictional narratives of John Dos Passos, Carson McCullers, Julio Cortázar, and Severo Sarduy, among many others. Although these writers come from different literary traditions, they share some common concerns (the limits of private life, the relationship between intellectuals and the public sphere, and the process of building new subjectivities, for instance). Fiction, aesthetics, economics, the culture industry, technology, and politics intertwine in their voices and powers in very different ways. McEnaney demonstrates the convergences between them by analyzing a few privileged objects, including the pre-revolutionary Cuban radionovela. His approach to “El derecho de nacer,” the most popular radionovela, is not limited to untangling its complex web of racial and gender relationships in an uneven and dependent society. He takes the genre beyond its content and reads it as a social and political phenomenon: “The U.S. commercial influence in Cuba found its most powerful conduit in radio advertising aired during Cuban radionovelas. These advertisements, primarily from U.S. cleaning supply manufacturers who bought airtime to sell their households goods to the largely female and domestic audience that listened to the melodramatic afternoon programs, eventually gave their names to the genre of ‘soap operas’” (121). Imperialist pressure apparently intersected with highly local phenomena.

McEnaney does not, however, remain in a comfort zone of popular cultural productions. Because culture is continuous, not a series of isolated works, McEnaney moves from popular culture to avant-garde practices. He examines the case of the Cuban writer Severo Sarduy. Sarduy, in exile in France, both created experimental literature and contributed to radio scripts, thereby changing the cultural contract between sophisticated writers, big audiences, writerly authority, and culture as property. McEnaney concludes: “To be yet more specific, we might say that for Sarduy the anti-colonial project hinges on the voice, whereas the colonial project emerges from dialogue’s insistence on the pronoun I” (158). These avant-garde works altered the grammatical system and social relations. Radio is a place to exercise the exploration of the new but it is also a scene where writers and artists could intervene in political ways: “. . . voice becomes inseparable from sound. It is precisely this space of sonic-social indexicality that Sarduy will manipulate in his attempt to decolonize the voice” (157).

In selecting objects and events for analysis from an overcrowded political and cultural scene, McEnaney makes smart choices. The book begins with a transnational event and its consequences: “The first transnational radio broadcast in the Americas was the 1923 fight between Jack Dempsey —the United States heavyweight champion of the world—and his Argentine challenger, Luis Ángel Firpo. Broadcast from New York City’s Polo Grounds, the transmission reached listeners in Argentina, Cuba, and the United States” (3). In McEnaney’s reading, this episode illuminates a complex web of implications: the new role of sports in mass societies, duels and the glorification of strength, the appeal to the nation in international contexts, popular phenomena as cultural events, and the divisions that mass culture created in modern life. Cultural events are not inert. Representation is again at the center of an analysis that problematizes the political dimension of entertainment, the voice, and language.

Forty years later, radio voices populate everyday life in the Americas, not as special or high-profile events, but rather as constant background noise. Some artists and writers take advantage of the aural unconscious, exploring mass society’s new subjectivities and politicizing the disciplinary role of mass media. The Argentinian writer Manuel Puig was one such artist, and he expanded ongoing experiments with voices and recorded words. According to McEnaney: “Puig realizes a formal principle: imitating the speech patterns of immigrants amounts to representing the insinuation of radio speech into the newly forming language. The author’s role is not to explain, but rather to listen and record” (176). Literature develops new ways to represent voices in increasingly homogeneous societies.

McEnaney argues that this variety of narrative resources was a way to replicate the conflicts of the modern representational model in the Americas. He is able to find how—as some characters in Piglia’s novels—the “connections between the personal, the national and the imperial—a network of relations already threated into the social conditions of broadcast technology´s engineering—also links the apparently local scene to a more general historical and conceptual affiliation with radio” (210).

Nelly Richard, one of Latin America’s most prestigious critics, has written that critics who seek to change the circuits of reproduction of power must be attentive to the most vulnerable zones and breaks in the dominant systems. Acoustic Properties is an excellent example of this defiant approach. These vulnerable zones, however, are not necessarily hidden deep in the social tissue; in contrast, they can be extremely visible, naturalized practices. The critic helps us uncover the secret connections between different objects that reside in these zones. McEnaney is opening the field of Transamerican studies, media studies, literary criticism. In this book, he successfully expands the boundaries of what we knew but also of what we want to know.

  • Tom McEnaney

    Tom McEnaney


    Reply to Montaldo

    It’s difficult to respond to Graciela Montaldo’s generous reading of my book because, as critics, we’re so often trained to think through disagreement rather than accord. This is not to say that Montaldo’s response doesn’t add to the book’s meaning. Indeed, I’m thankful not only for her thoughtful analysis of the book’s argument, the generous praise of its ambitions, or the intersections she identifies between Acoustic Properties and the writings of such eminent critics as Nelly Richard and the late novelist and theorist Ricardo Piglia, but especially for the way her essay makes my own work come to life for me, its author. Therefore, in my comments I want to borrow from Montaldo’s own formulations, from her ways of reading my book, in order to reconsider some of its influences, methods, and ongoing limitations.

    While I’d like to take credit for developing in this book what Montaldo generously calls “its capacity to develop new ways of reading,” I know that I’m following the lead of critics like Rachel Price, Michael Allan, Jing Tsu, Damien Keane, and Montaldo herself. These critics and others have shown how cultural objects, including those deemed “literary,” emerge from complex processes I’ll call here “entextualization” (the dynamic co(n)textual framing of information as an embedded material artifact), the sedimentation of specific cultural practices as reified norms, and the commingling of domains of representation and belief engaged to produce those objects’ meaning and use. I don’t know that these critics would describe their own work in these terms, but they have helped me formulate part of my approach to reading the archive around radio technology, literary production, and political discourse in the middle third of the last century. Thus, while my book does not overtly theorize a surface, descriptive, close, distant, post-critical, or other mode of reading, it does attempt, in its own practice, to respond to specific problems raised by the study of radio from the discipline of literary or cultural theory in the hope that such work can address the formation of power past and present. To borrow Montaldo’s terms, the book “designs a different place for literature (and literary critics),” wherein we cannot situate writers “isolated in their own practice, as if they read only literature,” but must recognize that “culture is continuous, not a series of isolated works.” Such a recognition entails locating “the vulnerable zones and breaks in the dominant systems,” often “extremely visible, naturalized practices,” in order to establish their points of intersection across a number of apparently separate domains, and to create a “logic of interpretation,” “a sort of machine for understanding regional dynamics and the transactions between politics and culture,” which “makes representation the crucial term at its very center.” To Montaldo’s astute analysis I’ll only add that I aimed to create this “logic” in imitation of radio itself, at least in part. The resulting method entails understanding representation as entangled in multiple national contexts, moving continuously among superficially distinct fields of production, and emerging from the intersection of different media.

    One of the difficulties I confronted in this book, and which I hope to continue to address in my future writing, was how to bring together often segregated literary and political histories from Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. Again, this problem, and some potential responses, arose from the apparatus of the radio itself. While radio historians South and North have comfortably narrated the national implications of the medium’s use, it seemed to me that such histories forcibly ignored the extra-national entanglements radio entailed at the level of infrastructure and content. As I describe in the book, the rise of national broadcasting corporations in the United States required governmental intervention to purchase British contracts, enlist US businesses in the Caribbean and Central America—the notorious United Fruit Company chief among them—and transform a multinational corporate conglomerate into a national company in order to create the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). In Cuba, the Cuban Telephone and Telegraph Company, a US corporation, established the first official national broadcast, which the Cuban president delivered in English and Spanish to listeners in the United States and Cuba. And while the infrastructure of radio already undermined any easy national history of the medium, the broadcasting range created further transnational affiliations, or extra national consequences. I study them through the rise of the radionovela in Cuba, the emergence of pirate radio stations across the hemisphere, and the circulation of the musical and rhetorical forms Manuel Puig subtly interweaves into his novels, as well as the radio corporation owners who moved from one country to another, adapting and migrating forms and sounds for new markets. A given utterance on the radio, and often in print novels, as well as daily talk on the streets, are often filled with these contexts and impossible without them.

    To call these intersections “transnational,” a term I use in the book, doesn’t quite do justice to the multiple ways in which national and nationalist discourses or uses of radio derived from extra or multinational infrastructures, or how writers, activists, and politicians forced into exile from the nation—that imagined entity with legally felt barriers—could lay their claim to what the nation ought to be from territories just outside those national barriers: broadcasting from Havana to Alabama, or Montevideo to Buenos Aires. When vocal tones in one country could be dictated by influential standards across the hemisphere, or when a radio play writer in France, but born in Cuba, uses a Billie Holiday recording to represent the provincialization of imperial Lisbon as an effect of decolonization in Angola, we need another term than “transnational” to name the multiple sites of cultural meaning carried in a single sound on the tongue. While I resort to that keyword in the book, I’m dissatisfied with its limitations, and with the inability to name the objects that exist amidst the sustained power of national borders even at the moments at which they are crossed.

    If radio makes it difficult to separate one nation from its neighbors, or even to separate the domestic home from the domestic borders of the nation, the “private” from the “public,” the publics from the counterpublics, and so on, it also challenges the separation of literary and popular cultures, politics and art, sound and discourse. Rather than argue that radio alone gave form to a series of cultural moments, I lay out the various dynamic struggles to determine radio content, access to its airwaves for producers and listeners, the physical infrastructure and ownership of the medium by businesses and governments, the particular uses of the medium over the air, as well as the possibilities it opened in other fields and through other media (especially print journalism and literature), which helped create the meaning of radio as a medium, in turn. At the same time, we should recognize that radio did change the possibilities of representation in political discourse (a single voice could now speak simultaneously to a mass audience in the intimacy of their own homes, as well as in more public spaces), narrative work (writers could now compose for the heard voice with sound as an artistic component, while print novelists, like Sartre, could create an effect of simultaneity by showing his characters listening to the same program from different locations, and then weaving their listening together), and literary publics (broadcasts could now reach audiences beyond the distribution networks of even big publishing houses, and illiterate listeners could hear the stories they could not read on the page), among other fields. And since the radio dial could spin from the radionovela to guerrilla propaganda to top 40 music, presidential oratory, avant-garde plays, and back again, my book treats culture as continuous.

    Finally, and to return to her comment cited above, Montaldo recognizes that in imitating something of radio’s logic in order to find my own logic for interpreting its function—in that Foucauldian sense drawn from statistical modeling—I had to create “a certain sort of machine for understanding regional dynamics and the transactions between politics and culture” with representation at its center. I wish I had thought of the book in this way from the start. Montaldo’s formulation conveys how I’ve attempted to build a literary media theory by following the cultural practices radio enabled, by turning my book into a machine that mimics the radio, by creating, in other words, a compatible dispositif to study the discourse network of which radio was both cause and effect. Radio, in other words, did not merely come into being at a single moment after which we can trace its effects across different fields. While this approach might be familiar from media archaeology, it leaves a challenge for the critic trained to believe that interpretative analysis of rhetorical form—that catchall term “close reading”—has a place in a media theory so often defined through its resistance to such hermeneutic practices. On the other hand, I sought to resist turning radio into a metaphor or symbol in novels or poems, and, above all, to avoid thinking of sound as either yet another “text,” or as a limit or a surplus. Some recent work by Jennifer Stoever, Ana María Ochoa Gautier, Anke Birkenmaier, and others has made it easier to think about sound through the analysis of texts. In my book, I aim to study how novels, poems, and other printed objects connect with a media ecology that includes sound recordings and radio transmissions in order to tune us in to how this entire environment produces how we hear and how we understand the meaning of the medium of radio. Montaldo’s notion of Acoustic Properties as a “certain sort of machine” captures what I had hoped to accomplish with this book, to think of print and analytical reading as integral to media studies.

Craig Epplin


Towards an Anti-Spotify Literature

Tom McEnaney’s Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas comprises, in the author’s own words, “a prehistory of our wireless culture” (vii). It is a study of how, in the age of radio, writers in the United States, Cuba, and Argentina listened and taught us to listen, creating a feedback loop between print and audio culture that constantly crossed, while not fully transcending, national boundaries. The book itself serves as a model for how to listen closely, as its attention to the nuances of radio voices reminds us how important tone and timbre and accent are for the creation of belonging (and its opposite: exclusion)—or, to use the idiom of this study, of neighborliness (and its opposite: hostility).

At the end of the book’s preface, McEnaney expresses his desire that readers might use this book as an impetus to “continue seeking out new resources in sustained actions against control” (ix). This invitation seems to harbor a claim: If, as Acoustic Properties demonstrates, how we listen to the world shapes the ways we write about it, then as long as we keep listening and writing—and in the present, these actions remain central both for the administration of capital and in the resistance to it—then there are valuable lessons to be learned from the history of sound. I agree wholeheartedly, and as such, in what follows I’d like to highlight a few moments in the text that seem particularly important for understanding our present-day soundscape—and for transforming it.

A recent article about Spotify can serve as a useful backdrop for my comments. Writing in the Baffler, Liz Pelly draws parallels between the music-streaming service and the elevator sounds of Muzak. Spotify, according to Pelly, is likely to go public in the first half of 2018. It has attracted plenty of venture capital, and yet it has an important weakness when compared to its rivals in the streaming business: Both Apple and Amazon, Pelly notes, use inexpensive access to music as a way to rope listeners into a broader ecology of products (“overpriced, fun-sized plastic and metal surveillance machines”), but there is no such equivalent for Spotify. Its selling point, on the contrary, is the bounty of data it has gathered about listeners’ habits, data that can then be used to transform our behavior. This happens primarily, in practice, through a specific genre of music: the emotionally attuned playlist.

Although Spotify’s catalog is vast, Pelly identifies “chill,” in particular, as the preferred affective register of this apparatus of listening: “Spotify loves ‘chill’ playlists: they’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect.” This attention to emotional dispositions (including those that go beyond “chill”), generates specific sorts of listening practices:

It turns out that playlists have spawned a new type of music listener, one who thinks less about the artist or album they are seeking out, and instead connects with emotions, moods and activities, where they just pick a playlist and let it roll.

Who is this listener? Most likely one among “an audience of distracted, perhaps overworked, or anxious listeners whose stress-filled clicks now generate anesthetized, algorithmically designed playlists.” And how does all this affect the sorts of music that get promoted? Pelly quotes the answer of one independent label owner to this question: “The more vanilla the release, the better it works for Spotify.”

I happened upon this article as I finished reading McEnaney’s book. This coincidence underscored, for me, the importance of the sonic landscape in the fashioning of political common sense. Because the material properties of sound are distinct from those of sight or touch, for example, they can alternately envelop or invade human perception in ways unlike other sense experiences. As such, the attention McEnaney gives to the changing tone of official political speech in the United States during and after the Great Depression, or to the use of racialized dialects in Cuban radionovelas, or to the Argentine state’s suppression of the linguistic practices of immigrants, matters greatly. It has the effect of delimiting a battleground. I mean this term literally: Acoustic Properties effectively demonstrates that, in the hands of large corporations or of the governments that are symbiotic with them (but which one is the crocodile and which the plover bird?), and likewise in the hands of those who would resist military-industrial control, radio became a weapon in the political struggles of the twentieth century. We should suppose that our present-day soundscape is no less important for today’s struggles.

McEnaney presents the Good Neighbor Policy, begun under the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a framework through which to understand the political economy of radio in the Americas during the twentieth century. This “extension and revision of the Monroe Doctrine” made ample use of radio technology and placed the United States’ global ambitions at the center of statecraft throughout the Americas (12). The metaphor of the neighbor, furthermore, calls attention to the concrete circumstances of convivencia (a word whose closest equivalents in English, cohabitation and coexistence, are inadequate translations). That is, if US policy toward Latin America is to be conceived in terms of neighborliness, then we might imagine the geopolitics of the region as large-scale versions of the practices of neighbors—borrowing and lending, acknowledging or ignoring, welcoming or shunning, caring or harming. At stake is the general question of how we occupy space together. Or, put less abstractly, if I play the radio at this volume, will it annoy the neighbors upstairs? And what if, instead of turning it down, I turn it up even louder?

Neighbors struggle over the norms and rules that govern any given neighborhood. Similarly, the writers that McEnaney analyzes seek to fashion alternatives to the property relations, from housing policy to national sovereignty, characteristic of the era of the Good Neighbor Policy. By paying close attention to their aesthetic practices, we may learn how best to offer alternatives to the reigning orthodoxies of the present era, when radio and an ideology of paternalistic neighborliness have been supplanted by digital streaming and the habitus of thuggish stupidity.

In the United States, for example, McEnaney notes the transformation of realist codes in Raymond Chandler’s fiction. Comparing Chandler with French antecedents like Flaubert and Balzac, this analysis changes emphasis among the senses: from sight to hearing, with the latter coupled to proprioception. McEnaney builds on previous work by Fredric Jameson to make this point:

Although Jameson remains silent as to how this alteration in realism might occur, we can understand Chandler’s shift from furnishings to the rooms that contain them as a change in perception, from the eye to the ear. When Marlowe enters a building looking for clues, he hears something else entirely: “I went farther into the room and stood peering around and listening and hearing nothing except those fixed sounds belonging to the house and having nothing to do with the humans in it.” Disrupting realism’s inherited design code, Chandler moves away from the intimate possession of things and toward the aural attention to spaces. Realism here has less to do with how people possess and are possessed by their things than how buildings produce their own sounds. (62)

At the level of the “inherited design code” of realism, then, Chandler emphasizes buildings, instead of the objects contained in them. He orients his readers’ attention toward the delineation of space and toward the sonic and proprioceptive experiences that accompany it.

In post-Revolutionary Cuba, Robert F. Williams’s Radio Free Dixie took advantage of radio’s capacity to cross national borders, as his English-language broadcasts critiqued racial politics in the Jim Crow South, reaching listeners all over the United States. The broadcasts, McEnaney points out, included music features as well, incorporating both jazz and soul into a broader critique of racism:

With a keen understanding of radio’s unique capacity to balance words and music, political commentary about African American life throughout the United States and the musical revolution led by African American musicians, Williams helped provide the soundtrack for the civil rights movement. (148)

This observation brought to my mind the CIA’s deployment of jazz as a weapon abroad on the cultural fronts of the Cold War, something that makes clear the importance of context in the elaboration of any message. It also adds depth to the ultimate fate of Radio Free Dixie in Cuba: “Williams’s support for jazz, and his refusal to advocate for socialism in his broadcasts . . . ultimately distanced him from the increasingly dogmatic Communist line in Cuba” (151). He would leave Cuba in 1966.

Finally, in the analysis of Argentine novelist Ricardo Piglia’s La ciudad ausente, we find important differences between radio and tape recordings. Seen against the backdrop of a national radio culture that had, decades earlier, sought to standardize the national radio voice, Piglia’s representation of tape exchange represents a rebellious alternative:

Piglia takes up the cassette tape as a hybrid technology that exists only through the remediation of the radio and the phonograph and attempts to use the newer medium of tape to rethink radio’s political history. The turn to tape restructures the idea of the radio network, moving it away from the single broadcasting station and toward an underground community of rebel listeners making hand-to-hand deliveries. (214)

The people involved in this system of exchange thus reconstitute a sort of network, one with many active nodes (much like early radio culture), unlike the one-to-many model of the standard radio broadcast.

Chandler, Williams, Piglia—these are only three names among many that McEnaney weaves together to create an uncommon study of sound culture in the Americas. I highlight these cases in particular because they portray cultural labor within a system of restraints. In all three, we find writers (or a broadcaster, in Williams’s case) redirecting our attention to both the limits and the possibilities of their own moment in the history of sound. We engage with form and content, but we are simultaneously drawn to the infrastructure beneath.

The question of infrastructure brings us back to the example of Spotify and present-day modes of governance. What sort of alternatives can be fruitfully pursued against digitally enabled capitalism? On the one hand, Acoustic Properties emphasizes that space is central for any form of governance, and that battles over sound are ultimately about the uses of space. But something else that this eloquent study brings to mind is how infrastructure so often lays the bases for unforeseen future developments. The commercial radio networks that broadcast Cuban radionovelas, themselves vehicles for advertising for American products, were not “supposed to” conduct programs like Radio Free Dixie, and yet following the Cuban Revolution, for a few years they would. In a different direction, the increasing commingling of commercial and military interests in the development of the Internet is today bundling entertainment with surveillance, something that was not inherent or obvious in the original design. We should be careful and imaginative (even paranoid, perhaps), in other words, about what future forms of control are potentially made possible by any given technology. We should also, following the example of the cultural producers studied in Acoustic Properties, cultivate literary alternatives—in sound and sight, and also in space and time—to today’s digital tools of governance.

  • Tom McEnaney

    Tom McEnaney


    Reply to Epplin

    I’m thankful to Craig Epplin for his sensitive reading of my book’s arguments, and for taking seriously my claim that the history of media, and, in my particular study, the history of sonic media, especially radio, should inform how we think about our contemporary moment’s ongoing struggles at the intersection of technology, listening, and popular power. As I point out in the book’s introduction, the history of sound technologies from the gramophone to radio to the mp3, has repeatedly challenged copyright laws, national sovereignty, private (real) property, and other forms of possession. Some of the consequences have been revolutionary: anti-colonial radio uprisings in Algeria, Angola, Cuba, and elsewhere, transnational broadcasts from exiled speakers inspiring political movements in their countries of origin, and even the “lossless” sharing of mp3 files that transformed the business of selling music. Others have been reactionary: US business accords to privatize and commercially exploit national Cuban radio stations from the 1920s through the ’50s, the 1920s invention of “selling the air” by transforming radio waves into new avenues for advertisers, and today’s use of “shared” data on social platforms for private corporate gain or overt political manipulation. Epplin’s invocation of Spotify extends this story, once again revealing the ways that our contemporary wireless cultures repeat and expand on the longer history that began with radio’s renegotiation of the borders between private and public life, the frontiers between nations, and the social limits that structure communities.

    As Epplin underscores in his reading of my book’s argument about the different uses of radio in Cuba from the 1940s to the 1960s, technological infrastructures open “unforeseen future developments.” Spotify, as an application and platform for mp3 files, does not fulfill the lossless sharing mp3s promised in that long-lost age, twenty years past, of Napster 1.0. This is not because the infrastructure of the internet, the format of the mp3, or the medium of your phone has changed to impede that model. Rather, like radio history before it, the current Company era of the internet quickly discovered ways to sell what had been “free” (notwithstanding web access, the infrastructure of server farms, etc.). Through the haze of nostalgia, users used to share mp3s by copying and transferring files without charging on either end; but we now pay into the “sharing economy,” which does not involve sharing at all, just the increased penetration of capital into everyday life. The commodification of privacy under another name is sold to consumers as “sharing,” as “social (media),” and as “free culture.” Indeed, in a sign that internet companies learned the lesson of corporate radio in order to take the process one step further, we now often have to pay for radio that was free a decade ago online, even when we can still hear it for free on any other (car, clock, transistor) radio. In other words, this present was not inevitable. However, it was foreseeable.

    One point of uncovering the political, corporate, and cultural histories of radio—their histories of control and the successful modes of resistance—is to anticipate how we might address the return of those histories and remake them into that alternative present we missed out on the first time around: in struggles over everything from the policy of net neutrality (which mimics US radio laws) to the failed liberation of the listener through “interactive” and “user generated” talk radio to, on the side of resistance, the anti-colonial and anti-racist campaigns theorized by Franz Fanon and Ernesto “Che” Guevara and put into practice throughout the world as key instruments in the success of those political movements, radio history holds lessons for the wireless present. As my book hopes to make clear, while we are in the midst of repeating the corporate takeover and consolidation of wireless once again, we might also look to how different actors addressed distinct communities with models of “pirate radio,” “free radio,” and “rebel radio” that used the medium for very different ends.

    The formal openness that Epplin identifies in his response, he also implicitly links to a key issue often overlooked or undertheorized in media histories. Epplin observes that Spotify playlists serve as “emotional wallpaper” to pacify the familiar anxiety-ridden, overworked, and distracted listener of today, and that record labels, following the money, produce “vanilla” content. On one hand, we can think of this as just the culture industry at work—and if Spotify’s “chill” playlists are impoverishing musical tastes, we can’t blame it for the previous popularity of everyone from REO Speedwagon to Matchbox 20. On the other hand, what I find more intriguing than the continued banality of the lowest common denominator—music that the largest number of people can bear to have on in the background—is that Epplin’s Spotify example draws attention to how the openness of a given infrastructure, medium, format, or application derives its meaning from its content as well. Indeed our media theories can do more to understand not just how, as Kittler polemically wrote, media determine our situation but how content participates in defining a given medium; how for example, in Jonathan Sterne’s more recent critical history of the mp3, a format’s construction engages in “perceptual coding” that shapes and delimits some of its practices, uses, and meanings; or how, more specifically, the color bias of Kodak photography actually made people of color invisible when juxtaposed with lighter skinned bodies. We can pay still more attention to how particular thematic and ideological valences of a medium’s use—the “vanilla” content of Spotify, in Epplin’s example—matter at least as much as that medium’s formal promise. Medium is the message, but content still counts.

    The question of resistance remains—at least in my book, and in Epplin’s response. In his closing remarks, Epplin echoes the close of my book’s prologue, as both of us urge all of us to seek resources—technological, literary, historical, or otherwise—to act against control. The last term, a keyword in media studies from Wendy Chun to Alexander Galloway to Seb Franklin, invokes Gilles Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” and the notion that in the wake of a Foucauldian epoch of discipline, the new societies of control manipulate populations through a dispersive, continuous, and limitless network in which choice becomes another means to be controlled, or, as Deleuze writes, “many young people strangely boast of being ‘motivated.’ . . . It’s up to them to discover that they’re being made to serve.”1 Although I don’t map this shift onto the histories in my own book, one might think of the United States’ Policy of the Good Neighbor, which rejected military intervention in Cuba in favor of a model that made the island economically dependent on US goods—using sentimental radionovelas as a prime mover of that commerce—as part of this transformation from discipline to control. The Cuban guerrillas answer to this situation was to occupy a radio station and declare the US-backed dictator dead. When that didn’t work, another group launched a militarized socialist revolution against capitalism. The proposals from our contemporary media theorists have been different. When Epplin asks, “What sort of alternatives can be fruitfully pursued against digitally enabled capitalism?” one might turn to Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, who more than a decade ago encouraged readers to exploit “the exploit,” the weakness built into any system, including the internet. Anna Watkins Fisher, through the model of the “parasite,” suggests a similar process of using the resources of control to undo control with models from hacktivist art collectives. Works of critical infrastructure studies insist on making infrastructure visible in order to follow the supply chain of exploitation. Activists, meanwhile, tap electrical lines to keep the heat and lights on in Detroit. The people of Standing Rock and water protectors there and elsewhere continue to stand up for land and water rights against pipelines that enable the power that keeps our computers and mobile devices running. It’s not that we lack models, or know-how. It’s not that the “chill” playlist, or the control society that produces it, has rendered us passive victims of capital. People everywhere are intervening politically every day. It’s easy to forget. That’s why Robert F. and Mabel Williams broadcast from exile to the Southern United States throughout the early 1960s with a straightforward tagline: “You are tuned to Radio Free Dixie from Havana, Cuba, where integration is an accomplished fact.” Sometimes, in order to act, you need to hear that an alternative reality is right next door.

    1. Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (1992) 3–7.

Alejandra Bronfman


June 19, 2018, 1:00 am

Harris Feinsod


June 26, 2018, 1:00 am

Neil Verma


July 3, 2018, 1:00 am