“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.