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


Bridges of Sound

Tom McEnaney reads for how authors listen, and listens for spoken words that reach across oceans and cities, designating what he has elegantly construed as a neighborhood of the Americas in search of the “contagious and unofficial” vox populi. Acoustic Properties is a book that puts a slew of texts, broadcasts, and their authors alongside one another, among them Julio Cortázar, John Dos Passos, Che Guevara, and Severo Sarduy. All of them have something to say, some way to listen. Guevara, doctor and revolutionary, framed radio as etiology: “At moments when war fever is more or less palpitating in everyone in a region or country, the inspiring burning word increases this fever and communicates it to every one of the future combatants.”1 Radio voices, networks, and spaces of listening, writes McEnaney, profoundly motivated Dos Passos. U.S.A. reimagines a nation connected to Buenos Aires, Cuba, the Caribbean and Mexico, via empire and business, both of which came together as radio mushroomed throughout the Americas.2 Fewer women wrote about radio (one wonders why), but female voices nevertheless prompted new ways to listen as they drew attention to the interplay of race, class, identity, and performance, generating controversy and adoration. To be sure, some of the texts and voices in Acoustic Properties are familiar, but how often have they been situated in a neighborhood of the Americas, all engaged in overlapping conversations about what the Americas is or what it should be and in particular what its sound is?

Intriguingly, Acoustic Properties dwells on the relationship between radio and property, and specifically housing. This is not necessarily an intuitive set of connections, but McEnaney makes their relevance clear. Playing with notions of real estate and housing in both literal and metaphoric dimensions, he notes the ways that sound both passes through enclosed spaces and helps to render them meaningful. He also thinks about the social and political conflicts over property, segregation and inequality that accompanied and shaped the emergence of broadcasting as a domestic medium. At stake is whether this led to a critique of private property or an affirmation of the primacy of the home to both politicians and corporations in search of loyal, regular audiences. In any case they all contributed to the making of sonic neighborhoods, spaces that capitalism created, and through which it might be disassembled.

The book moves from the space of homes to the neighborhood of the Americas. I think that one could linger, as well, in between. The further I read, the more interested I became in another space that is necessary to the creation of a neighborhood, the space of the street. As legal definitions remind us, there is an essential relationship between neighbors and boundaries; the bounding of a property necessarily creates a neighbor. The street, where those boundaries end, is a space that has a relationship to property and possession that are more ambiguous and as such analogous to McEnaney’s imagined neighborhood of the Americas: not necessarily neatly apportioned and tightly bounded, but rather fluid, porous, with no clear archive of possession, title or ownership, and readily used and claimed by a variety of actors. The street is precisely what turns a collection of houses into a neighborhood. It is a space of gossip, play, conflict, and community.

The traditions of street listening and sounding are long and sturdy. Many of McEnaney’s own subjects relied on its revolutionary potential. Cuban politicians Eddy Chibás and Fidel Castro hoped their voices would move people out of their houses and into the street, and when they did it was a sign of success. In the days of unreliable listener surveys, the physical manifestation of the crowd was proof of a listening public. Photographs of Chibás’ funeral in Havana in 1951 document streets crowded with listeners/fans mourning the loss of a voice fighting corruption, an idealistic voice that Chibás himself had extinguished by committing suicide, believing that he had not done enough to rouse Cubans in the fight against corruption.3 In José Antonio Echeverría’s ill-fated call to citizens to rise up against Batista’s regime, the army and its tanks materialized and took control of the streets, terrorizing any opposition that might have appeared.4

Tropical weather means that boundaries between houses and streets are precisely where the action takes place; on balconies, in doorways, sidewalks, the “yards” as they are called in the West Indies. In Buenos Aires, the uprising directed by Evita Perón in support of her husband and future president, Juan Perón, may have called attention to the housing crisis in Argentina, but it was at the same time a claiming of a street and a fountain in the center of the city. The throng of protesters redesignated a neighborhood of privilege as a neighborhood of the people. For them, the neighborhood of the Americas they envisioned necessarily included public spaces they might inhabit without shame or fear. Broadcasters recognized that, and many of them put loudspeakers outside their stations, or set them up in street corners. Businesses had radios, and people often stopped on sidewalks to listen.

McEnaney notes that in Severo Sarduy’s The Ant-Killers, much anticolonial listening takes place outside: “in corner stores, in cars, at military barracks on barren paths, the play’s diegetic radios blare out with music and news of Angola’s independence movements, announcing the invasion of the empire’s soundscape with the sounds of the periphery.”5 Indeed, Sarduy, a Cuban exile writing in Paris suggests that travel between metropole and periphery are at the heart of decolonization. In other words, voices without homes are what are going to decolonize the stability of the colonial “I.”6 So much of the action in The Ant-Killers takes place on a bridge, or under the bridge. A bridge is both part of the built environment and the street, it crosses and connects, it is ambiguously owned, it is indispensable.

In thinking about this I turned to Kamau Brathwaite, who has written about the radio as a “bridge of sound.”7 In much of his work the Jamaican poet, critic, and essayist tunes in to sound and the borders it crosses and creates. He expands the notion of neighborhood. Brathwaite’s soundings connect technology, home, nature, and the world of the dead. As Loretta Collins notes, spirits and broadcasts were often channeled through the same medium. Brathwaite uses an “analogy to the radio to suggest the vibrational energy channeled from the crossroads of space to the living earth.”8 And indeed, in his work voices arrive from space, or from the world of the dead, or are generated by the sea or the earth. Far-flung voices get transmitted to radio-listeners, and they are “intimate, invasive, infiltrating and mediated.”9

Perhaps there is a way to open a conversation about the poetic genre alongside the novel, to see what it yields in terms of this line of inquiry about the spaces of home and the people’s voice. As Acoustic Properties suggests, once you start listening to texts, and seeking out the spaces they inhabit or conjure, the possibilities multiply. I loved the way the book ranges across media. Film, theater, television, novels, and radio plays are all in radio’s orbit. Perhaps poetry as well. Maybe now more than ever. As Philip Nanton suggests, citing Nick Laird, poetry nurtures complexity and in so doing is “at the far end of the verbal scale from the demagogue’s three-word phrases framed as hoarse imperatives.”10

In Brathwaite’s Kumina, a woman mourns the death of her son. Sound flows through the poem, from the ominous “singing blade” to the quiet she experiences, as she tells him, “on the first day of your death,” to the sounding beings that mark his death in different ways:

[EXT]On the fifth day after your death, a young white rooster. White white white feathery and shining tail and tall neighbor of sound from miles away in the next village.

On the sixth day after your death. There is this silence of flowers their petals say their shining needs.11

For Brathwaite, the neighborhood is noisy, and he listens all the time. Sounds make space, and they don’t respect many boundaries: inside, outside, living, dead, nature, “culture”; whatever the binary, sound flows between and through. It is not decolonizing listening as much as placing sound at the center and observing what flows from it. The vox populi, for Brathwaite, speaks from many sources, and we do well to heed them. It seems a point of departure for the expansion of the neighborhood. For what is a neighborhood without flowers, streets, and the occasional crowing rooster?

  1. Tom McEnaney, Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative and the New Neighborhood of the Americas (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2017), 137.

  2. McEnaney, Acoustic Properties, 31.

  3. Ilan Ehrlich, Eduardo Chibás: The Incorrigible Man of Cuban Politics (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).

  4. Alejandra Bronfman, “Batista Is Dead: Media, Violence and Politics in 1950s Cuba,” Caribbean Studies 40.1 (2012) 37–58; Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

  5. McEnaney, Acoustic Properties, 153.

  6. McEnaney, Acoustic Properties, 161.

  7. Edward Brathwaite, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 162.

  8. Loretta Collins, “From the Crossroads of Space to the (dis)Koumforts of Home: Radio and the Poet as Transmuter of the Word in Kamau Brathwaite’s ‘Meridian’ and Ancestors,” Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal 1.1 (2003) article 3, 3.

  9. Collins, “From the Crossroads of Space,” 1.

  10. Philip Nanton, “Caribbean Literary Epistemology as Frontier: Two Caribbean Poets and Thinkers—Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott,” ms., 1, citing Nick Laird, “Why Poetry Is the Perfect Weapon to Fight Donald Trump,” Guardian, March 17, 2017.

  11. Kamau Brathwaite, Born to Slow Horses (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2005), “V: Kumina,” 69–76.

  • Tom McEnaney

    Tom McEnaney


    Reply to Bronfman

    In her short story, “Un abanico chino” (A Chinese Fan), the Cuban journalist, author, and former radio broadcaster María Elena Llana describes a claustrophobic bourgeois home in Havana where a matriarch presides over her two unwed daughters and their three alienated, lonely, and lovelorn teenage children—two boys and one girl—as she strives to hold on to the vanishing traditions, class status, and cultural prestige she associates with her familial connections to Europe. The family spend most of their time withdrawing to their music room to play Schubert on the piano, or looking down from the high window of their personal library onto the garden gate that establishes “the limit between the light and the shade” that “separated the house from the rest of the city.” However, one day, an Afro Cuban drummer during Carnival breaches the divide between the home and the street—“no one knew how”—and, somehow injured during the festivities, he is allowed to recover in the garage. Although the man vanishes from the narration, eventually his son is born to one of the matriarch’s daughters, and, years later, at the story’s close, the son, now a drummer himself, seduces his cousins in a scene of interracial and multi-sexual mimetic desire accompanied by “the crushing weight of the music that pulled them together.” The sound of the street—connected to racial otherness indexed by popular and African musical influences—disrupts the matriarch’s fantasized cocoon of protection from the non-European masses, and the story ends in a silent scene that repeats the family’s secret shame: a daughter dancing in the salon with nothing to wear but a Chinese fan.

    I open my reply to Alejandra Bronfman’s elegant essay with this story because it speaks to one of the aspects she foregrounds as missing from or at least less central to my book’s investigation into the history of radio and the novel: the sounds of the street. If María Elena Llana does not write of the radio here, her story addresses one of Bronfman’s concerns: how the sounds of the street can challenge the private (real) property of the domestic space through a more heterogeneous and communal public area where political action and popular movements materialize alternatives to the repressive control and possessiveness more easily asserted in the home. “Un abanico chino,” written after the Cuban Revolution, takes place in a vague historical moment, but asserts the importance of sound and its capacity to force a reactionary private sphere to contend with the potentially revolutionary public project of the street. It resonates with Bronfman’s reading of my book and its potential limitations, when she writes,

    The street, where those boundaries end, is a space that has a relationship to property and possession that are more ambiguous and as such analogous to McEnaney’s imagined neighborhood of the Americas: not necessarily neatly apportioned and tightly bounded, but rather fluid, porous, with no clear archive of possession, title or ownership, and readily used and claimed by a variety of actors. The street is precisely what turns a collection of houses into a neighborhood. It is a space of gossip, play, conflict, and community.

    Bronfman writes with a critical ear carefully attuned to my book’s ambitions—in particular, my attempt to think seriously about the interconnections of radio and property—as well as those spaces and genres at the edge of my study left open for a critic of the future to pursue. I appreciate several of her reformulations of my arguments, as she puts into lively prose the experience of radio listening as cultural and political activity. I’m especially thankful for her ability to render the cacophony of what I call “the hemispheric noise” of the Americas’ debates on and about the radio into a neighborhood “engaged in overlapping conversations about what the Americas is or what it should be and in particular what its sound is.” Statements like this help convey what I mean by the experience of understanding the hemisphere as a neighborhood, as well as the ways radio broadcasts extending beyond national territories transformed that metaphor into a sensuous experience felt as well as thought.

    My book does not spend as much time focusing on the street as it does on the porousness of domestic spaces and private property. While I mention radio broadcasts accompanying Back to Africa marches in the streets of Chicago in Richard Wright’s Lawd Today!, anti-colonialists occupying the Salazar bridge in Lisbon to the sound of Angola’s decolonization reaching them on the radio in Severo Sarduy’s radio play The Ant Killers, or Manuel Puig’s characters questioning the politics of place, exile, and affect as they wander around New York City’s Washington Square and wonder about what one should feel in association with the public plaza’s national(ist) name, I perhaps take too much for granted that radio’s most transformative challenge to property was to destabilize domestic space. Of course, Bronfman is right about the famous uprising in support of Perón, and one can also think of the revolutionary general strike I discuss in chapter 4, when Fidel Castro called to secure the Cuban revolution and avoid a military coup by announcing over Radio Rebelde: “Yes to the Revolution! No to the coup d’état!” The street, radiophonic mobility, the transistor radio, and the car radio could all be part of a further history and another book linked to what one podcast calls Radio Ambulante. Bronfman’s own work on the history of radio in the Caribbean, especially her new book Isles of Noise, would be essential reading for any literary study that hoped to follow this possibility.

    In addition to the importance of the street, Bronfman also wonders if “there is a way to open a conversation about the poetic genre alongside the novel.” Her example of Kamau Brathwaite opens yet new paths to follow, and one can imagine connecting his Kumina to Langston Hughes’s “Broadcast to the West Indies,” or, as in Janet Neigh’s recent work, to Jean “Binta” Breeze’s “ryddm ravings (the mad woman’s poem).” However, I should say that my turn to the novel instead of poetry was purposeful. First, when I began writing Acoustic Properties, I was drawn to the recurring connections between the history of the novel and the history of radio, what I came to call the “co-evolution of the radio and the novel,” as writers and composers worked through the different possibilities of narrative through print and radio with the resources of text and sound. At that time, there were very few studies of radio and narrative to take up this possibility. (Anke Birkenmaier’s excellent Alejo Carpentier y la cultura del surrealismo en América Latina was an extraordinary exception.) On the other hand, from Douglas Kahn to Rubén Gallo to Timothy Campbell and others, the dominant claim was that only poetry, in particular the poetry of modernism and the Latin American vanguard, with its keen attention to sensuous detail, its play with onomatopoetic, alliterative, or rhymed phrasing, and what critics like Craig Dworkin and Marjorie Perloff called The Poetry of Sound could possibly register sonic meaning in print. Second, Acoustic Properties aims to think of writers as overtly entering into popular debates about culture and impacting many of the same massive audiences radio reached. While one can point to exceptions—Pablo Neruda’s poetic performances to tens of thousands, the propaganda of “Poetry and the Microphone” carried out at the BBC by George Orwell, T. S. Eliot and others during World War II—the novel, not poetry reached mass publics. For that reason, I not only write about novelists in Acoustic Properties, but about bestselling novelists like John Dos Passos, Manuel Puig, and Carson McCullers. There is no doubt much more to be written about poetry and the microphone—especially in the Caribbean—and about radio in the street. I’m thankful to Alejandra Bronfman for opening these new possibilities, and finding in my book new sounds to listen for and write about.

Harris Feinsod


Has Don Rafael Spoken?

Last summer, just as Tom McEnaney published his sensational new book Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas, I visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated Administrative Building and Research Tower at the Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. Alas, my amazement at Wright’s historic achievements in midcentury corporate campus design abruptly fizzled when our tour culminated at a newer building, Norman Foster’s Fortaleza Hall, completed in 2010. That is because Foster provides SC Johnson with a gaudy monument to the self-mythologizing, Midwest supercapitalists who made their fortunes removing resources from underfoot of South American communities. In the sun-drenched atrium, a wood mosaic map of the American hemisphere ornaments a glossy, antiseptic floor. Although sourced from “sustainably harvested” local wood, the map evokes an exotic history of mahogany extraction. Above it dangles the replica of a Sikorsky-38 amphibious plane for which Foster built this glorified hangar. In 1935, Johnson Wax company chairman Herbert Fisk “Hib” Johnson Jr. christened one such Sikorsky the Carnauba, and piloted it from Wisconsin to Fortaleza, Brazil, a corporate katabasis meant to aggrandize his establishment of a wax plantation.1 Call it Fordlandia for flooring buffs.2 In 1998, Hib’s son Sam commissioned the replica in order to retrace his father’s footsteps, completing this family-owned company’s neocolonial torch-passing ritual. Hovering in Fortaleza Hall, the Sikorsky dwarfs the map with all the cartoon solemnity of Pedro the Baby Airplane, who, in Walt Disney’s Saludos Amigos, “has to fly the mail all by himself, because his papa has a cough.”3

Also in 1935, Hib Johnson first hipped to the national advertising game of radio sponsorship. “The Johnson Wax Program with Fibber McGee and Molly,” a husband-and-wife sitcom broadcast from Chicago on the NBC Red Network, would become one of the most popular and enduring US radio programs of the era. In the folksy community of Wistful Vista, Fibber’s cornball Nebraskan puns and Molly’s no-nonsense, Irish-accented responses (“t’aint funny, McGee!”) voiced the populist humor of a nation subordinating its domestic life to corporate advertisements with new alacrity. Fibber habitually misidentifies the announcer Harlow Wilcox as “Car Wax,”4 and Wilcox in turn calls out imperatives to the house orchestra that double as instructions for housewives applying Glo-Coat to the linoleum: “Pour it on, Rico!”5

The technological forms of spatial compression, through which the outsized appeals of a few floor polish moguls calling themselves “good neighbors” could loom over and shoot through hemispheric airspace, structure what McEnaney identifies in his book title as “the new neighborhood of the Americas.” McEnaney’s Acoustic Properties rewards its readers with numerous kinds and qualities of insight (especially in the domains of media theory and literary interpretation), but, crucially, he also begins to recapture a key dimension of the hemisphere’s schizoid history. That is, McEnaney 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. Across the first several chapters of his book, McEnaney calls this “New Deal Acoustics,” charting the intertwinement of radio’s early history with Pan-American commercial interests, populist narrative forms, and housing works. Later, in some of the book’s most riveting chapters, he traces these networks south to Cuba and then to Argentina, both before and after Fidel Castro and Juan Perón. In McEnaney’s telling, hemispheric radio history comes together in fractured but nonetheless luminous details, mimicking what he calls “the medium’s fractured capacity for collectivity” (75).

For instance, long before the intimate national radio public he sought to forge in the Fireside Chats, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s World War I stint as assistant secretary to the Navy included a scheme to collaborate with United Fruit Company on an early set of transnational relays, laying the groundwork for the rise of NBC at Rockefeller Center. After these early US dispatches to banana republics, radio would in every instance become “the transnational medium par excellence” (10), for wherever a Border Blaster or pirate radio station set up shop to dodge FCC regulations, or wherever US shortwave hawked commodities south, “the transnational precedes the national” (11). Yet, as McEnaney convincingly demonstrates, Rockefeller Center and the acoustic architecture of Radio City Music Hall also structured the national style of US New Deal fiction. This new “kaleidosonic” (48) social space controls the social realism of John Dos Passos, who witnessed some of this early “national hookup” (25) and envisioned U.S.A.’s character system in terms of a radio network; it inflects Carson McCullers’s and Richard Wright’s narratives in the interiors of New Deal housing works; and it accounts for long-debated questions about the style of Wright’s dialogue. These and other New Deal novelists falsify György Lukács’s theories of realism with ingenious strategies for vocalizing the radiophonic dimensions of social totality, offering new “versions of the vox populi” (52).

In McEnaney’s deft close readings and even defter exercises in listening, what he calls a “narrative acoustics” (8) emerges, producing recursive and “entextualized” meanings in the circuits between sound, speech, and writing. Acoustic Properties therefore presents an “intersectional poetics of radio history and literary theory” (9), in league with recent works by Mark Goble, Damien Keane, and Neil Verma, among others. Of course, for literary scholars who are trained to find satisfaction in bravura readings, we may be accustomed to seeing McEnaney’s keen reading method as the aesthetic payoff that warrants his investigations into the underlying historical contexts. And certainly, McEnaney’s readings are uniformly rewarding. To take only one example, the model of “enregistered” speech he borrows from linguistic anthropology leads him to a real breakthrough in the analysis of novelistic character space. And the readings grow ever more nuanced and illuminating as he tracks his narrative to the effects of Cuban radio’s history of “forked address” (116) to Cuba and the United States, and further still to the debates over Argentine language behind radiophonic statements, stories and novels by Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig, and Ricardo Piglia.

Yet, if I were to issue a lone demurral about McEnaney’s book, it might be that the profusion of great readings pushes to the margins radio’s corporate history—a history whose stakes are inevitably a bit muckraking. These alternative stakes come to mind wherever McEnaney in passing draws the reader’s attention to the Hib Johnson-like chairmen of the radio corporations. For example, when McEnaney describes Orson Welles’s inter-American radio program at CBS, Hello Americans (1942), which Welles pitched to Nelson Rockefeller as “the best way ‘to sell South America to North America,’” he includes this fascinating backstory:

The program’s message of Pan-Americanism made historical sense at CBS. The network’s founder, Samuel Paley, had begun his career in the United States as a lector in a Chicago cigar factory, following the Cuban tradition of reading novels, magazines, and newspapers to the cigar rollers. When he began his own cigar company, from which he soon made millions, Paley purchased the Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System to advertise his La Palina cigars, and his son, William S. Paley, transformed the consortium of radio stations into one of the country’s major broadcasting networks. (54)

Not mere context, this passage is also a good example of McEnaney’s attentions to different codes of speech as they work their way through circuits binding literature to labor, commerce to Hertzian communication. The fact that so much of the broadcast infrastructure had been set up to saturate the airwaves of the Americas with the interests and advertisements for the United States’ wealthiest stogie merchants, hailing an entire hemisphere into an intensified stage of consumer capitalism, is no small fact of radio history. “Chesterfield is merely the nation’s cigarette, but the radio is its mouthpiece,” wrote Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno in their scathing indictment of the radio as a wing of “the culture industry.”6 I find Acoustic Properties especially riveting at these margins, where it sets its sights on a cast of characters like Paley and Rockefeller, or, later, on the Cuban food wholesaler turned radio tycoon Goar Mestre (who decamps for Argentina when Castro seizes state control of the NBC-affiliated station CMQ to set up Radio Rebelde, providing one of the many tissues of connection that McEnaney artfully tracks between three national situations).

Perhaps the most compelling of these moments occurs in chapter 4, entitled “Tears in the Ether: The Rise of the Radionovela.” This chapter explores “the creation of a new narrative genre—the radionovela—meant to sell U.S. goods to Cuban consumers” (117), especially cleaning supplies to women at home, and therefore a progenitor of the melodramatic “soap opera” (121). The genre’s most distinctive innovator was Félix B. Caignet, who got his start adapting Hollywood adaptations of Charlie Chan novels for Cuban radio, pioneering the devices of a narrator and a serial format. By July 1948, Caignet’s radio novel El derecho de nacer (The Right to Be Born) had caused such a national stir that Cuban citizens “halted every afternoon to hear if Don Rafael del Junco, a plantation owner in the country’s eastern city of Santiago, would recover from the mysterious illness that had left him mute, and admit that he was indeed the grandfather of the Havana doctor Alberto Limonta” (124). All across the island, “¿ya habló Don Rafael?” (has Don Rafael spoken?) became the national refrain, a Cuban counterpoint to “t’aint funny, McGee!”

McEnaney tracks the importance of this drawn out, emotional climax to a staggering number of contexts, such as its renegotiation of the negrismo performance cultures represented by Eusebia Cosme, and its influence on famous Boom novelist including Gabo himself. But the crux of the matter is a labor dispute that gives voice to Caignet’s device of narrative suspension. When the voice actor José Goula, playing the decisive character of Don Rafael, realized that the whole plot revolved around his big reveal, “Goula decided to go on strike until his salary was increased” (132). Goar Mestre ordered Caignet to fire Goula, but instead of carrying out the retaliation, Caignet developed a narrative twist that held the labor dispute in limbo while driving up the listenership: Don Rafael’s extended silence. Horkheimer and Adorno might have again viewed this device skeptically: “The promissory note of pleasure issued by plot and packaging is indefinitely prolonged.”7 But McEnaney sees it as a two-way channel: “In Don Rafael’s muffled voice of plantation power one could hear Mestre’s stifled business demands, and a minor victory in a worker’s labor struggles, but also a sound that produced further profits for Mestre and his advertisers. It is the sound of art under capitalism: the dialectic of resistance and containment” (132).

Subsequent chapters of McEnaney’s book suggest that the network set up by the commercial conglomerates could be requisitioned by populist states and anticolonial insurgencies, and put to a variety of ends beyond the peddling of consumer goods, from Castro’s Radio Rebelde to Robert F. Williams’s “Radio Free Dixie” program. Thus by the 1960s, the signals were awash in what McEnaney variously calls “hemispheric noise” and “transnational interference” (146) of many kinds. McEnaney records many extreme examples of that noise, such as the startling sound of Cuban radio personality and Castro mentor Eddie Chibás in 1951, committing suicide mid-broadcast in the belief that it would launch the revolution. But to my ears, the special power of this book comes at those moments when the endless wash of “sponsored content” comes to the fore, and, like the silence of Don Rafael, mutates through McEnaney’s analysis into the sounds of labor struggles and wars of position. In such moments, we might all learn to listen just like McEnaney.

  1. Herbert Fisk Johnson and Arthur Dailey, Carnaúba Expedition (Racine, WI: Western Printing and Lithography, 1936). Privately printed.

  2. See Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (New York: Picador, 2010).

  3. Saludos Amigos (Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Productions, 1942). Film.

  4. “The Motorcycle, the Judge, and the Fibber,” Fibber McGee and Molly (April 16, 1935): Last accessed January 28, 2018.

  5. “Buying Vegetables at a Roadside Stand,” Fibber McGee and Molly (November 25, 1935): Last accessed January 28, 2018.

  6. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, translated by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 129.

  7. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 111.

  • Tom McEnaney

    Tom McEnaney


    Response to Feinsod

    Feinsod’s tonic response to my book is a pleasure to read, especially as he adds his own knowledge of hemispheric commerce and culture to the stories I outline in my book. The verve in his writing weds an enthusiasm for these materials—the characteristic mix of capitalism, liberalism, and artistic optimism of some strands of the New Deal and Good Neighbor projects in the United States—with a critical impulse that can smirk at the wackiness of “a few floor polish moguls calling themselves ‘good neighbors’” as they run roughshod over the hemisphere with designs on how art can make money and democracy at once.

    Feinsod’s opening is a wonderful example of how much more can be said about the intermingling of business and government through media infrastructures that often used aesthetics as either a sincere if misguided avenue for opening relations between countries, or an overt propaganda tool to carry out more nefarious ends. Previous books from Claire Fox, Catherine Benamou, Darlene Sadlier, and others have detailed the more official sides of these stories, as US New Deal negotiations with artists South and North sought to construct an artistic infrastructure that would strengthen democracy against communism, on one side, and fascism, on the other. Not that those books fell into the logic of New Deal liberalism. Rather, they showed how the integration of art and government could both build socially minded and progressive alliances, as well as serve as a smokescreen for the ongoing work of imperial power. Feinsod does not ask that my book follow those studies. He acknowledges that my project takes a different track, as I trace many of the unofficial participants across hemispheric circuits of ideas in conjunction with and alongside the more institutional frameworks established from the New Deal to the Cuban Revolution. But Feinsod wishes my book would make room for the corporate histories like the one he invokes at the start of his response. This poses some difficulties worth discussing.

    In my reply to Graciela Montaldo’s response in this forum, I explain some of the problems that arise for the more familiar modes of detailed rhetorical and formal analysis that go under the name of “close reading” when one also acknowledges the value of those anti-hermeneutic models of media theory proposed by Kittler and the tradition of scholarship known as media archaeology. The challenge, as I see it, is to integrate the rigorous histories of media formations in the vein of Science and Technology Studies (STS), avoid turning media objects into mere metaphors or symbols in printed texts, and, at the same time, employ historically aware formal analyses that reveal how novels, poems, or stories embed reflections on the media ecology of which they are a part.

    Feinsod’s response points to another, similar challenge for the critic attempting to balance cultural histories as co(n)texts placed in dynamic relation to the literary objects on which I practice what he generously, but also critically, calls my “bravura readings.” In general, I agree with his “lone demurral” that would hope to find corporate history on equal footing with the interpretation of a novel. Feinsod’s own book, The Poetry of the Americas, manages to alternate brilliantly between formal analysis, governmental programming, and capitalist history. Thus, it should not be surprising that he seeks a similar balance in my own work. In my defense, each of my book’s three sections tells the story of the rise of radio in the three countries of my study, the corporate and governmental accords behind wireless infrastructure, and, later, the capitalist appropriation of culture often pursued for governmental ends. Feinsod cites many of the book’s examples, from Orson Welles’s work with Nelson Rockefeller to Goar Mestre’s multinational business dealings to Samuel Paley’s training as a cigar factory reader. He also discusses in greater detail my analysis of the radionovela’s complicated role at the intersection of the US desire to sell commercial goods to Cuban listeners and the Cuban author Félix B. Caignet’s attempt to narrate a foundational fiction of romantic racialism against the country’s, and the hemisphere’s, plantation power. I point to these examples as some of the many moments where I put corporate history and textual production into dynamic relation. Yet, I understand and largely agree with Feinsod’s own desire to further weave these stories into the book’s readings of novels and poems. That’s precisely how the content appeared on the radio, and how, I argue throughout the book, we ought to understand the authors’ attempts to learn from, critique, and participate in shaping the sound and form of the popular voice.

    Where I largely depart from Feinsod’s approach to the fusion of critical theory and corporate history is where he connects my mention of Samuel Paley’s cigar reading past with the most famous concept of the Frankfurt School:

    The fact that so much of the broadcast infrastructure had been set up to saturate the airwaves of the Americas with the interests and advertisements for the United States’ wealthiest stogie merchants, hailing an entire hemisphere into an intensified stage of consumer capitalism, is no small fact of radio history. “Chesterfield is merely the nation’s cigarette, but the radio is its mouthpiece,” wrote Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno in their scathing indictment of the radio as a wing of “the culture industry.”

    This perfectly pitched formulation—witty and precise—of the apparent politics of radio restates what was one of my key figures of opposition when I first began writing Acoustic Properties: the now simplistic understanding of art under capitalism that Adorno and Horkheimer, and their many readers, repeatedly bludgeon with the name “the culture industry.” My study of the rise of the radionovela, for one, aims to undo this critical catchall. Second, as I state in my book’s fifth chapter, their formulation of radio as part of a return to primitive instinct and orality, as the dialectical complement to enlightenment engineering, reaches its logical end in their inheritor Marshall McLuhan’s racist theory of “the radio as tribal drum.” My work throughout the book, especially my reading of Richard Wright’s posthumously published novel Lawd Today!, which hears the radio voice as the voice of white power, unseats that tradition. Third, the outsize influence of Adorno and Horkheimer’s insistence on hearing in radio both the expression of capitalism and the “voice of the Führer” has meant that subsequent critical theories of radio have too often heard nothing more than fascism on the airwaves, regardless of who was speaking, the sound of their voice, or the location and content of their address.

    Acoustic Properties recognizes a series of different capitalist and anti-capitalist histories, imperial and anti-colonial uses of radio, and a struggle over “the voice of the people” tuned in to New Deal liberalism, Peronist populism, and Cuban revolutionary socialism (and, later, communism) that was formulated through the radio, as well as through a whole set of symbolic and material battles waged in arms and letters. When we hear in radio or in capitalism only “the voice of the Führer,” we miss out on the more particular circuits and modes of power that operate by different rules of use, unique cultural politics, and particular social and material histories. That’s not to say fascism can’t operate through ostensibly democratic forms of media used to communicate between a president and a people. The history of radio I analyze in my book shows there are alternatives, but they required skill, labor, and persistence to enact and sustain.

Neil Verma


Acoustics, Otherwise

Radio is to international propaganda what the airplane is to international warfare.

—Dorothy Thompson, 1934


The situation of radio today is the situation of poetry backwards. Poetry is an art without an audience, and radio is an audience without an art.

—Archibald MacLeish, 1939


Like pantomime, one of the oldest literary forms, the radio play reaches us through the channel of a single sense.

—Carl Van Doren, 1939


I begin with these well-known chestnuts about broadcasting to illustrate how haphazard many attempts by middlebrow critics to name radio’s literary “other” were during the 1930s, the decade when the medium arrived at the center of modern life in many parts of the Americas. Propaganda, poetry, pantomime: the three P’s articulated by these critics seldom go together, and it’s hardly obvious they truly triangulate the “situation” of radiophonic expression. What’s more, these proposals never laid down roots; in the current generation of radio-studies scholarship none of these forms are considered significant in contrast or insightful in likeness to radio. Since the 1990s radio studies has thrived mainly in film & media studies departments, extracting the medium from decades in the clutches of communication studies. As a result of this change, we have grown accustomed to understanding radio in contradistinction to film and television rather than to literary arts, an approach that’s illuminating when it comes to finding interconnections between the media industries, but one that is also sometimes misleading in its anachronism and adoption of jargon that was really devised to be used in visual analysis by cinephiles.

Notably absent in these discussions, then and now, is the novel. Until the last fifteen years or so little detailed work on the interpenetration of literary and radio aesthetics existed. And although many thousands of dramas actually broadcast during the radio age were derived from books—literary classics from Shakespeare to Poe, modernist works like Lowry’s Under the Volcano or Hemingway’s The Killers, bestsellers like du Maurier’s Rebecca and Hersey’s A Bell for Adano and a host of dime novels—only briefly in discussion among radio professionals do we find reflections that coordinate the culture of the airwaves with that of the codex. During the radio age, professionals tended to liken their work to theatrical fare, importing whole genres and modalities of patter, along with terminologies, address conventions and modes of operation from vaudeville and legit theater.1 Most discussions about how radio and the novel texture one another—books like Erik Barnouw’s 1947 Handbook of Radio Writing and Milton Kaplan’s 1950 Radio and Poetry—tended to come out late in the era. But tardiness isn’t the only problem when it comes to finding a concept of radio’s appropriate “other.” A deeper one is the lack of agenda. While Thompson, MacLeish and Van Doren are clearly being provocative above, their provocations are spent once they are made. What, after all, is the pairing of radio with another medium supposed to explicate? In the century of its history, radio theory has had a hard time with that question, and so even its canniest insights are frustrated by a paucity of outcome.

That situation is what made McEnaney’s Acoustic Properties such an exciting read to me. It not only makes the mutual registration of radio and the novel, but it shows how the history of that relationship is also the history of describing and contesting the neighborhood of the Americas through imagined and real acoustic territories. I know of no other book so scrupulous in showing how intimate radiophonic publics populate the novel in this period, or so insightful in linking things like the use of radio as the voice of power in Richard Wright’s work and the use of radio to represent the political voice and its articulation in Cuba. Thanks to McEnaney, not only can we can hear radiophonic sensibilities in the nonreferential elements of speech in Dos Passos and key tropes about the radio as the voice of radiophonic populism in McCullers, but we are able to hear the medium’s ambiguous relation to the possession and dispossession of spaces across the Americas. In Acoustic Properties, radio’s relation to the novel and vice versa is not simply promulgated, in other words, it has projects on its hands.

In this response, I’d like to focus on just one of those projects, something that’s tucked in the background of McEnaney’s narrative but which emerges regularly as he discusses echoic aspects of novels—what we might call the politics of “verberant” modernism. In his recently translated “acoulogical treatise” on sound, Michel Chion suggests reviving the dormant term “verberation” to refer to sound, one that borrows from acoustics to indicate a wave that emerges from the “shaking” of a body in space, and thus emphasizes the way a vibration traverses a medium of air to produces a sound in an ear’s membrane and other bodily sites of reception.2 Verberation is more specific than the more broadly explored category of vibration, which Anthony Enns and Shelley Trower among others have used in relation to modernist writing, and it also suggests what we might think of as a post-Cartesian concept of resonance, which Viet Erlmann has argued concluded in the middle of the radio age in 1928 with the work of von Békésy in the sciences and Heidegger in philosophy.3 For Chion, verberation is relational and physical; it also calls attention to another phenomenon on which modernism in particular fixated—reverberation. As McEnaney points out following historian Emily Thompson, the decline of reverb in architecture for the sake of communications efficiency was a hallmark of many sound environments in the radio age (McEnaney 27). But radio drama was an exception. For radio producers reverb was essential, and was often produced by a reverberating “plate” in a drama studio to increase the extension of a sound in time, producing a sense of enlargement without gap or distance that could convey fictional settings.4 Reverb is the account of the interaction of a sound or voice with a place whose acoustic attributes alter its decay, and in radio studios this effect was magically simulated. For longer reverb radio engineers would use “echo chambers,” small enclosures with hard walls, where a voice once spoken was piped in by loudspeaker then picked up again by a second microphone that also drew in reflections of the voice at the same time before being mixed with the original signal for a broadcast. The term “echo chamber” is actually a misnomer, as these spaces were too small to produce a real echo. In the parlance of radio professionals, “echo” describes the return of a sound after long enough of a delay to make it perceivable by a human as a second sonic event; when you hear your voice enlarged by the walls of a church but perceive it as inextricable from your original utterance you hear “reverb,” but when you hear your voice return to you after a delay in a large canyon you hear “echo.” The distinction is, of course, a microsonic version of the question of public space of the Americas itself: contiguity or difference, coextensiveness or gap.

With that in mind, consider the many repetitions, slurs and extended vocal dissolves that McEnaney highlights in Acoustic Properties. There is the repetition by J. Ward Moorehouse in The 49th Parallel, “entering the war was only a question of months” (49), which seems to be echoic rather than reverberant, since the narrative voice makes the statement then it only appears in the character’s mouth afterward. On the other side of the equation we find Boris Max’s stutter in Native Son, something associated with a Steinian inarticulacy, but which also stands as a potent metaphor for the “disequilibrium registered by the fractured dialogue between the stutter and speech” (104). That fracture is also enlarged through reverberation, the amplification of racialized disequilibrium through the “mouthpiece” of the lawyer. Indeed, we can separate many of the moments discussed in Acoustic Properties into rough lists of repetitions that feature contiguous reverberation and others that feature echo-with-a-gap, but more important than such a classification is the fact that the very approach immediately becomes an armature over which political struggle might be arranged. One reason to consider the novel as radio’s apposite other, I am trying to suggest, is its capacity to turn the radiophonic distinction between echo and reverb into an aesthetic framework for political imaginations of the Americas.

Writing for radio also does this. Consider these lines from Archibald MacLeish’s “The Fall of the City,” a play that is also driven by good neighbor ideas (MacLeish based the play on the coming of Hernán Cortés to Tenochtitlán) and New Deal. Here is the culminating moment of the play, when a metallic “conquerer” to whom all the citizens of the city have foolishly thrown down their arms, is unmasked as merely an empty shell. The correspondent on the scene speaks:

There’s no one! . . .

There’s no one at all . . . No one!

The helmet is hollow!

The metal is empty the armor is empty! I tell you

There’s no one at all there: there’s only the metal;

The barrel of metal: the bundle of armor, it’s Empty!

The push of a stiff pole at the nipple would topple it.5

To my knowledge, these lines never aired as written (just imagine network censors blanching at the word “nipple”), but they remain suggestive in their attributes. In a forthcoming publication I make the argument that this passage depicts a voice reverberating as if interacting with the stone of the public square in which the play is set. Note how the repetition of “no one,” “empty,” and “metal” (itself a kind of distorted “helmet”) works like an echo propagating across gaps in an outward wave as the lines of dialogue flow, while sounds at the endings of words (barrel, bundle, nipple, topple) smear together like a reverberation, extending one another into space.

The fact that this passage is both “reverberant” and “echoic” suggests that the verberant modernism I’m drawing out of Acoustic Properties—one founded in real acoustic practices, but actually opened up in the aesthetic space of the realist novel—is not merely able to gather instances of acoustic phenomena, but also suggests kinds of sound that acoustics itself cannot capture, an “otherwise” acoustics. This is perhaps most clear in McEnaney’s reading of the complex voice work of Sarduy’s The Ant Killers: “When we hear an utterance repeated [in the play] with a different tone in a different context, but with a residual timbre that links both characters, we can hear the two contexts dissolve into each other” (163). In taking one context and producing another, it is as if an echo is carrying with it previous acoustic confines, or even conjuring the surfaces that it requires rather than responding to those imposed upon it. And there is a politics to doing so, as McEnaney points out: “Repeated strips of discourse spoken by different voices knit together different imperial and colonial contexts and then disrupt those contexts” (166). In Puig’s turn to tape, discussed at the end of Acoustic Properties, we find a similar move. Through a “pop epic realism” that casts doubt on proprietary notions of voice, McEnaney explains, Puig’s writing “confuses a single story of origins that might link location with locution” using “listening and recording to sculpt a place in his fiction for other voices to resound” (201). Sarduy’s anticolonial aesthetic leads him to approach the politics of verberant modernism as if it were an echo that makes its own chamber, while Puig’s writing follows up with a chamber that solicits the echoes that will inhabit it. In both cases, it is precisely by showing unimagined “other acoustics,” and thereby challenging the way that space “houses” sound, that literature becomes radio’s own most necessary other.

  1. See Shawn VanCour, Making Radio: Early Radio Production and the Rise of Modern Sound Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

  2. Michel Chion, Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise, translated by James Steintrager (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 16–18.

  3. See Anthony Enns and Shelly Trower, Vibratory Modernism (New York: Palgrave, 2013), and Viet Erlmann, Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality (Brooklyn: Zone, 2010).

  4. For a typical radio engineer’s view on echo and reverb, see Alec Nisbett, The Technique of the Sound Studio: Radio and Recording (New York: Hastings, 1962).

  5. Archibald MacLeish, Reflections (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), 111.

  • Tom McEnaney

    Tom McEnaney


    Reply to Verma

    Neil Verma’s response to my book expertly situates one of the problems I confronted early in its production: the paucity of approaches to consider the mutual coordination of narrative in print and on radio. Verma’s own Theater of the Mind was pathbreaking in its revelation of the complex narrative work carried out through sound in US radio dramas, and some of my own discussions of the novel and radio seek to expand on some of his keywords, such as “kaleidosonic” style, and locate these narrative techniques at the intersection of text and sound in order to investigate the difference between media, as well as the intermedial lessons learned by writers and critics alike about the construction of narrative spaces.

    Verma’s notion of a “verberant” modernism, which he finds “tucked in the background” of my book, raises some intriguing issues in the consideration of sound, text, and narrative. First, a “verberant” approach to sound would emphasize vibration, which a number of recent critics, from Chion, Enns, Trower, and Erlmann to Steve Goodman and Marcus Boon, have turned to in order to discuss an “ontology of sound.” Vibration, in the claims of some of these critics, would at last address sound studies’ failure, as they understand it, to think about “sound itself.” In my book, I emphasize the material conditions of sonic production, and sound as material significantly different from printed text. On the other hand, my discussion of a larger media ecology that informs how we hear points away from an ontology of sound, and towards the social, psychological, and cultural modes with which we experience sound as it is transduced by our cilia from a vibrating physical wave into a sensory pulse that we have come to understand as the process of hearing. While other investigations into sound as an object—such as Mara Mills’s work on deafness and the inscriptive processes that can transform sound into information, propose an intersection between the material and the symbolic—any vibrational ontology of sound that wants to consider hearing as a cultural process would have to account for the difference between vibration in general and the felt experience of vibration that we have come to know as sound.

    Verma, however, does not follow this ontological insistence in his response. Instead, he draws an important distinction between radio drama and the politics of what I call, slightly modifying a phrase from Emily Thompson, the New (Deal) Acoustics. I argue that this latter turn linked the decline of reverb in architectural environments to Rudolf Arnheim’s suggestion to suppress the sound of space in radio broadcasting to FDR’s use of a dental bridge to prevent his teeth from whistling and help him create the intimate feel across the sensitive microphones he used for his “fireside chats.” Verma’s assertion that radio drama at the same time turned to reverb would potentially correspond to John Dos Passos’s insistence on emphasizing the echo effects, reverberations, and audible distances he heard in radio in order to draw attention to the ideological distance between presidential power and the poverty-stricken lives of listeners during the Great Depression. Verma’s suggestive reading of Macleish’s “The Fall of the City,” which he has already interpreted to great narrative and political effect in Theater of the Mind, provides a helpful example of the intersection between sonic reverberation and printed repetition that he finds in my examples of repetitions in Dos Passos and Richard Wright. His proposal that these novels’ entextualization of sound are both based on real acoustic practices and “also suggest kinds of sound that acoustics itself cannot capture, an ‘otherwise’ acoustics,” is an addition to my own study of what I call “narrative acoustics,” or the textual capacity to reorganize cultural forms (like realism) through the recognition of material differences in sound. Likewise, Verma’s “‘otherwise’ acoustics” chimes with my assertion that the novel allows us to record those scenes of listening that most often escape the range of representation in sonic technologies.

    Of the few radio plays I know to rehearse the scenes of listening, Severo Sarduy’s The Ant Killers, with which Verma closes his response, offers several scenes on the radio in which characters listen to radios. This inclusion of the device within the play is not simply a mise-en-abyme. Rather, the scenes allow the play itself to theorize listening. First, the radio’s broadcasting news of Angola’s anti-colonial successes to listeners in Lisbon open a space between empire and colony that ultimately leads the listeners to attempt to decolonize the metropole, as they flow across the Salazar bridge in an insurrection against the Portuguese government. Second, as Verma points out in my reading of the play, the different voice actors occupying different positions in the play—as broadcast announcers, Portuguese soldiers, or anarchist rebels—rely on the extra-diegetic audience to hear how one voice becomes another, how a soldier becomes a rebel. Thus, what was the printed repetition of a vowel, word, or phrase in the narratives of the 1940s now becomes, on radio, the sound of decolonization, as we hear the sound of a voice repeated across different social and political positions, or, on the other hand, a word or phrase repeated across a number of different voices. Verma’s “verberant” narratology is a helpful addition to the terms I’ve constructed in Acoustic Properties, and a prime example of the ongoing work of critics in conversation, hearing others’ voices in their own and their own in others’.