I turned to sound studies as a resource for teaching, several years ago, when my teaching practices were beginning to seem stale. Sound studies, especially at the intersections with critical disability studies and feminist philosophy, quite quickly turned the staleness into a whole array of creative problems to work with.
On the one hand, for example, sound studies scholars like Nina Sun Eidsheim flag the ways in which our habits of perception can keep intact those systems of oppression that our critical pedagogies seek to undo. We hear a sound and swiftly ask a disciplining question, one that Eidsheim calls the “acousmatic question”: who made that sound? Instead of responding to sounds with this question, Eidsheim suggests, we can examine our own enculturated and experience-based perceptions: what do my listening habits demonstrate about my assumptions and the habitual ways in which I “hear” and adjudicate sounds?1
This interplay between sounds and listening underscores the kinds of reflections that crip theorists solicit. Margaret Price asks, for example, how a shared space like a classroom might afford different experiences, pointing out that “not all of us, in academia, are inhabiting the same spacetime.”2 Along similar lines, in a contribution to this symposium, Joshua St. Pierre points to intervocality—a key conceptual contribution of Sounding Bodies—as an event, produced by capacities of speakers as well as listeners that, in any given situation, will shape exchanges in particular ways. Even staleness, as a quality of teaching-practice, starts to signal the in-betweenness of teaching and learning, opening up the relationality of specific classroom encounters.
On the other hand, by attending to listening habits, we can think concretely about the constraints of listening itself. As Jill Stauffer suggests, you can “open yourself to surprise to the sometimes unwelcome sense that you do not already have at hand the tools you need for hearing and responding.”3 This point collides, somewhat, with my motivation to tap the liveliness of sound studies for crafting courses and delivering lessons. How do we know what we don’t know when it comes to our “tools” by which knowledge comes to count as knowledge? As Ann Cahill and Christine Hamel explain in Sounding Bodies, “who gets to speak, how frequently, and for how long” are prompts that open up the sonic terms by which spaces, like classrooms, come to hold claims to authority (162), so much so that mechanics of oppression emerge as salient to the material aspects of speaking and listening (3, 16–21).
This brings me to a third lesson of sound studies, one that runs throughout Sounding Bodies, and this symposium as a whole. I have been stopped in my tracks by statements like this one by Billy-Ray Belcourt. “To my mind,” Belcourt writes in A History of My Brief Body, “one of the most vital modalities of decolonial life is that of remaining unaddressable to a settler public that feasts on our misery.” And then, with barely a beat, Belcourt continues, “Most of the time writing a book seems incompatible with this.”4
In my own classes, this tiny beat is where we settle into conversation as a class, sharing musings from our positions around the room about the impasse that Belcourt is flagging here. “What is the incompatibility that Belcourt is identifying?” I ask, as we reflect on the conditions by which a settler professor has assigned a book that contains passages like this one. There is no acousmatic question to pose when a sound or a text shifts the terms by which it might be audible or legible to others. Rather, conditions of reading and discussing themselves emerge as problems. As Margaret Kemp puts it, in the first response of this symposium, there is an archive and also a container to the modes by which we read, choose texts for students to read, and engage with others through reading, writing, and conversation. “What is the container designed to hold?” Kemp asks. “Who made the container? What does the container exclude?”
These questions draw us into the exchanges that make up this symposium, and they also get to the heart of the project of Sounding Bodies. Cast as a container, our disciplines form us into the kinds of teachers who presume we know what “counts” as teaching and learning. We become shaped into some version of a gatekeeper, assigning texts from specific archives and producing texts in turn. This is one reason for my own enthusiastic response to Cahill and Hamel’s co-written book, especially in terms of its creative and transdisciplinary willingness to rethink the forms of disciplines themselves: its sustained focus on the forms and practices by which training occurs, from professional theatre and voice settings to our various institutional classrooms, brings the sonic aspects of these sites to life, as well as their ethical and political stakes.
Bringing feminist philosophy and theatre studies together, Sounding Bodies engages sound and sound studies in order to think through concrete somatic practices—like voice and the pedagogies by which voices get trained; like ears and the import of how listening practices take place; like soundscapes and the interplay between voices, hearing, and systemic modes of injustice. As Antonio Ocampo-Guzman’s response makes clear, the disciplining work that makes up voice-training is, itself, a matter of impassioned and particular vocational discipline: investing in a teacher like Kristin Linklater brings along with it a set of epistemological and somatic practices. Ocampo-Guzman captures the stakes of the feedback loops between one’s own training and the practices by which one goes on to train others. These stakes take on the valence of existential commitments, given how fully these practices can shape the terrain of what counts as teaching and learning, and, indeed, what gets excluded as meaningful forms of engagement.
What rarely happens, when it comes to exchanges about pedagogy or teacher-training, is what unfolds in Cahill and Hamel’s response to Kemp: a naming of how disorienting it can seem to feel unaddressed, at least in terms of one’s expectations about an exchange. Teachers, whether in the classroom or in a professional setting like a symposium, are not often hailed into this kind of vulnerability. And so another reason for how much I enjoy and will enjoy teaching Sounding Bodies has to do with this openness in the book itself to difficulty, disorientation, even impasse. Where Ocampo-Guzman brings us to the affective terrain of dedication, even devotion, to a pedagogical practice, Kemp shares how it felt, somatically and epistemologically, to inhabit a classroom-space as a student whose voice was not hailed, and whose insights required other tools or containers that are not available. Through this first-person reflection, Kemp shifts the terms of exchange, as Cahill and Hamel fully enter into questions about invitation, exclusion, and even silence.
In turn, Jack Leff, in the fourth response in this symposium, directs our attention to many other forms of container at play in sonic scenarios: the microphones that amplify a speaker’s voice, for example, and the affective valences by which speech or silence generate meanings not reducible to the contents of a declaration. Leff then turns to an example of dissonance—a megaphone, put to use by activists inhabiting public spaces in resistance to state-powers. Bringing feminist science and technology studies into the conversation, Leff’s response works beautifully alongside that of St. Pierre’s. (For readers who might assign this symposium to students, my suggestion is to pair Kemp and Ocampo-Guzman’s responses, so richly inflected with queries about pedagogy and training, and then to pair St. Pierre and Kemp’s responses, which turn the focus towards the materialist systems of (dis)ability and technology).
As St. Pierre notes in the second response, Sounding Bodies is a book that expansively and persuasively examines problems that have preoccupied many of us for a long time—and, indeed, St. Pierre’s own new book, Cheap Talk: Disability and the Politics of Communication, is the focus of a forthcoming Syndicate symposium. As a feminist project, Sounding Bodies models a generosity of prose—with first-person stories and collaboratively written analyses—that many readers will find engaging and exemplary. By turning feminist philosophy itself into a practice, a mode to scrutinize and reflect upon, Cahill and Hamel provide those of us in philosophy, in particular, a deeply promising way to confront our own practices, from teaching to everyday interactions.
Nina Sun Eidsheim, The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 24.↩
Margaret Price, “Time Harms: Disabled Faculty Navigating the Accommodations Loop,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 120, no. 2(2021): 263.↩
Jill Stauffer, Ethical Loneliness: The Injustice of Not Bering Heard (New York: Columbia, 2018), 69.↩
Billy-Ray Belcourt, A History of My Brief Body (Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2021), 95-6.↩
Voicing My Quiet
Sounding Bodies: Identity, Injustice, and the Voice. The title of this work by Ann J. Cahill and Christine Hamel intrigues me. As a performing artist and theater teacher (voice, speech, and acting) whose instruction is rooted in social justice, I was fired up to dig in.
The italicized portion of the following statement squelched the fire: “Our aim as coauthors in initiating this scholarly conversation embracing two distinct fields (feminist philosophy and theatre studies) is to focus on the politics of voice and to increase attunement to various forms of vocal injustice” (1). This declaration awoke in me a pot of questions that has been simmering on the stove for the past thirty years.
During the late 1980s, in a large lecture hall with more than one hundred and fifty white female students, I sat between two African American friends and classmates in my very first feminist philosophy class. We three—the only Black students in the class—were from the Northeast, Midwest, and Deep South regions of the United States. The three of us never spoke within the container that is the class/room. This non-speaking was partially because there never seemed to be room for our voices or thoughts. Inclusion needs to be intentional in a class with over one hundred and fifty students. The instructor did not “intend to include” us. It was also partially due to the fear of reprisal if we fully expressed our thoughts. What would happen to our grades if we disagreed?
So, it surprised two of us (or perhaps even all three of us) when Kim Branch arose matter-of-factly from her place between us and addressed the room with the same nonchalance with which the white students engaged. “What is all the fuss about?” she said. “I don’t even see why this is a subject at all. My mother, grandmother, and great-gran have dealt with this stuff all their lives! Y’all acting like these ideas are news. Like you thought them up. These ideas have been part of my life forever. Is it because you just noticed it, put a label on it…is that why it’s now important to study—important to change?”
After class, I recall Kim shaking while voicing, “I just had to say it…I just had to speak.” Responding to Sounding Bodies, I feel a lot like Kim Branch did on that day thirty years ago. I struggle with feminist philosophy as a lens through which to enter this book, as well as my personal art and craft of teaching.
Before embarking on this essay, I tried to put that experience—that weight of my personal relationship to feminist philosophy—away. I don’t think about feminist philosophy much. But reading the words stirred an anxious physical response in my chest (or heart). Secretly, I wished I hadn’t said yes to writing this response. I had hoped to put my personal response away quickly and get into the very rich research that is a part of this book. But I couldn’t. I had to reconnect with the roots of the physical response before I could rigorously engage with the entire book.
I have a lot in common with author Roxanne Gay, who admits in her ground-breaking book Bad Feminist that it is not useful in the world we live in today to freely accept, without interrogation, the term “feminist philosophy.” On March 4, 2022, I did a keyword image search for the term “feminism,” and this image emerged early on:
TIME—past, present, and future. TIME lingers here. The photo hit me in the gut. Like this photograph, the term “feminist theory” has an archive that needs attending. What is the unspoken historical structure in this image? What is the relationship between the settled body of Gloria Steinem and the space she inhabits in this photo? The ease in her body and face are equally welcoming and troubling. See how the floor, which in this photo looks cloud-like, supports the anti-war protest language (or is it?) that she effortlessly holds.
In this essay, I am meditating on how to enter the term feminist philosophy. I am picking under the space around the seated Steinem as well as the red frame that holds the image. The quote from the book’s introduction is on repeat in my brain: “Our aim as coauthors in initiating this scholarly conversation embracing two distinct fields (feminist philosophy and theatre studies) is to focus attention on the politics of voice and to increase attunement to various forms of vocal injustice.”
“Focusing attention” through the lens of feminist theory requires me to interrogate that lens as an archive and a container. What is the container designed to hold? Who made the container? What does the container exclude?
Revered African American thinkers and artists such as Toni Morrison and Fred Moten insist that the African American autobiographical voice holds a place as theory in intra- and inter-disciplinary fields within the academy. I feel the same, so starting this response with an autobiographical narrative is natural to me. However, I am an African American female performing artist. And what I am actually politely saying is that, culturally and academically, many people may feel I don’t have the credentials—or, as one colleague of my current institution said, I “don’t have the scholarship to participate in critical dialogues.” Mirroring my undergraduate experience, my voice is rarely brought into academic and philosophical rooms. So, participating in this dialogue is a first for me. I acknowledge the intention of Cahill and Hamel to bring a new voice into the academy to rigorously interrogate the archive that rests behind the history of marginalization and in light of the current political and social unrest (too soft of a word) that threaten the nation and the world. I appreciate the opportunity to participate and voice my quiet.
For me to move forward, I needed to move back and find a new relationship with “feminism” as a philosophy. I could go way, way back to Phillis Wheatly or way back to Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton at Seneca Falls in the interest of addressing years of erasure in scholarship and history. I offer these names for those who don’t know how they to connect the subject at hand. If you are reading this and don’t know these names, you should look them up. But in the interest of time, I will just go back to Audre Lorde, who in the 1970s led the way in questioning the fears that arise when difference is acknowledged. She made this point often: “Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways to actively ‘be’ in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.”1 I love this statement. It applies directly to the work that Cahill and Hamel contribute to the field of voice pedagogy and practice. With this statement, Lorde, like me, is questioning the idea of feminism and asking more of those who consider themselves feminist. Since there is no way for me to un-feel the dis-easy messiness this term stirs in my body, I question what Cahill and Hamel have set out to do in their book. I wonder: how one can question attunement to various forms of vocal injustice without first troubling the lens of “feminist philosophy” as an archive that historically holds within its own frame “various forms of vocal injustice?”
To rigorously engage with Sounding Bodies, I gathered my friends beside me, just as I had in my undergraduate class. Now, however, my friends are no longer quiet. They are vocal across time and disciplines. My friends are my imagined colleagues—those whose scholarship, interests, and curiosity have helped me parse through my dis-ease to update and reimagine the term “feminist theory.” I had conversations with these friends in the form of reading the works of bell hooks, Jennifer C. Nash, Christina Sharpe, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and Cherie Moraga, to name a few. I also refreshed my relationship with civil rights activist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989.
While “intersectionality” is defined in Sounding Bodies, it is helpful to reiterate that it describes how systems of oppression overlap to create distinct experiences for people with multiple identity categories.2 The legal roots are important, and, in acknowledging the metaphorical value of the term, it is important to acknowledge Crenshaw’s own thought (as labor): “Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them.”3 In Black Feminism after Intersectionality, Jennifer C. Nash offers this additional and necessary reflection:
To enter the work of Sounding Bodies, I had to listen for and hear the many voices of the Black feminists whose scholarship and voices are imbedded in the scholarship but have been “disappeared” by the academy and by those who call themselves feminists.
Saidiya Hartman’s “speculative histories” practice offers another way to listen to Black feminists. Hartman’s work is the product of years of wading through heaps of handwritten notes on the backs of photos, police records, post cards, love letters, bills, eviction notices, and other found materials. She mingles her findings to write what she calls speculative fiction, bringing the ambient sounds and minor keys of Black life into the room. Reading her work, I couldn’t help but exclaim: this is feminist voice theory and pedagogy. The texts engaged here are a type of autobiography that, when excluded from feminist philosophy, represent disappeared black intellectual labor and thought. And here, Jennifer C. Nash’s words become even more salient:
My thoughts fall into free jazz…
Even when quiet
Even when disappeared.
A strategy among strategies for
As I continued to write this essay, I started to feel like a kind of feminist who was developing a “Black feminist after intersectionality, post-Black Lives Matter”-type of feminist philosophy. I realized that for me to fully “be in the room/salon,” I need to engage in the recovery work of the feminist archive that has been disappeared by universities, the academy, and scholars.
I agree with the call to action that is Sounding Bodies:
I agree with it, and add my voice, saying: we, as colleagues, have work to do. This work starts with and must remain with questioning the framework, questioning around the framework, and questioning in a detailed manner what is holding the frame. Dear reader, to know who I am, know that I am responding to Sounding Bodies through my lens as a Black feminist after intersectionality and post-Black Lives Matter, engage in the recovery work of Black and Brown critical thought.
The anxious feelings this book woke within my heart have started to relax. Part of the importance of this book is that it asks a willing, curious reader to examine the book as an abundant text filled with useful and challenging materials presented by both authors. It invites readers to examine the lens through which the material is presented as an opportunity to deeply examine oneself as academic, artist, teacher, and human being. I suggest that from this self-examination, you may discover your own strategy for reimagining your work and yourself, as I have.
Emerging from Sounding Bodies, I embrace my own lens: Black feminism, after intersectionality, within Black Lives Matter, engaged in the recovery work of Black and Brown critical thought. It is my framework and dialectical strategy as I embark on re-shaping existing pedagogies and inventing new approaches for voice training.
Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches of Audre Lorde (Berkeley: Crossing, 1984), 111.↩
Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991), 1241–99.↩
Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, no. 1, Article 8, 149.↩
Jennifer C. Nash, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality (Duke University Press, 2019), 5.↩
Nash, Black Feminism Reimagined, 5.↩
3.21.23 | Ann J. Cahill and Christine Hamel
Response to Margaret Kemp
Among the many helpful contributions that Kemp has made to this conversation is the reminder to pay attention to—and indeed, for authors to, in a complicated and perhaps limited way, be accountable for—the ways in which phrases, words, references, etc., can hit bodies. That one phrase, “feminist philosophy,” stopped Kemp in her tracks, bringing to mind memories of painful and frustrating acts of erasure and exclusion, and “stir[ring] an anxious physical response in [her] chest (or heart)” reminds us that there is no such thing as a purely cognitive, ideally neutral exchange of ideas. We generate and receive ideas much as we generate and receive vocal sounds: as embodied beings, embedded in long-standing patterns of injustice, with histories that are older than our bodies. More to Kemp’s point: as co-authors who identify as white cishet women, we relied on the tools of feminist philosophy without a sufficiently explicit recognition that that academic discourse remains deeply marked by the habits, norms, and values of white supremacy, and that it is possible to name and challenge that heritage while simultaneously lifting up the crucial contributions that women of color have made to the field. Powerful though it may be, white supremacy has never succeeded completely in the erasure that it seeks, and so the task of dismantling the racism that has shaped feminist theory includes (but is not limited to) recentering feminist philosophical conversations on contributions made by people of the global majority of all genders. As we tarried with Kemp’s comment, we found ourselves reflecting on ways that structural and interpersonal dynamics—and perhaps more to the point, dynamics that muddy the structural/interpersonal distinction—shape lived experiences of sharing and receiving even the most theoretical of insights.
One of our responses to Kemp’s comment that we ended up reflecting on extensively was a peculiar disorientation. Where in Kemp’s response, we wondered, are our ideas? Where are the questions and commentary on the terms we had coined, insights we had generated, arguments we had made? We were listening for a certain orientation and direction, and found ourselves flailing a bit in its absence, and that flailing, imbued by a sense, if we’re honest, of not receiving that which we had expected, created a barrier to receiving what Kemp was offering. Kemp interrupted the rhythm of our thinking, our argumentation, our academic/intellectual breath.
It was only in the process of becoming aware of our expectations, of what we were listening toward, that we could register them as both problematic and limiting. After all, although Sounding Bodies challenges some forms of academic discourse, particularly in its use of multiple disciplines and co-authorship, it is certainly legible within academic conversations, and becomes so by participating in conventions that have been used to exclude entire social groups. That legibility, that discursive belonging, is directly related to our expectations. We presumed to be replied to in kind. But to be replied to in kind would necessitate, or at least make more likely, the perpetuation of those very exclusions. In order to be able to receive Kemp’s response, then, we needed to put aside those assumptions and become able to hear other kinds of insights.
That experience inspired us to think about different forms of barriers that can exist between and among interlocutors. Kemp ran up against a barrier in our work, a barrier of systemic exclusion and erasure that she needed to grapple with before she could engage substantially with our thought. We ran up against a barrier in hearing her critique, a barrier clearly manufactured by the whiteness of academic discourse that promises the kind of attention that requires the bracketing of the experiences of excluded groups, including people of color. We are grateful that in both cases, those barriers could be addressed in ways that (we hope) forward both justice and deepened understanding. But we’re also aware that not all barriers are pernicious, and not all should be overcome. For example, in Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies (2020), Dylan Robinson informs the reader early on that there will be sections of the book that settler readers are not invited to read, stating “if you are a non-Indigenous, settler, ally, or xwelítem reader, I ask that you stop reading by the end of this page…The next section of the book…is written exclusively for Indigenous readers” (Robinson, 25). Consistent with the work’s analysis of settler listening practices as persistently extractive, the barrier that Robinson constructs is an attempt to protect indigenous knowledge from consumers who almost certainly do not have the capacities to receive it in a just and helpful way.
(Cahill, in a solo voice) In a small reading group that was reading Hungry Listening, I heard and shared different experiences with this exclusionary move, rare in its orientation toward settler readers. My own experience consisted of, on the first read of the book, skipping over the named sections in a conscious choice to honor the author’s request. When returning to the book in preparation for a meeting of the reading group, having forgotten which sections were subject to this request, I started leafing through the book, and wondered why there were no notes in the margins of certain pages. Had I failed to do the reading assigned by the group? (A horrific thought for this dutiful group member.) It took me a couple of minutes of starting to skim the material before I realized my mistake, a mistake that horrified me again; this was a serious transgression that I regretted. The two other members of the reading group, neither of whom identify as indigenous, had also skipped the sections, but knew other non-indigenous readers who had fairly blithely ignored the author’s request.
(Return to co-authored voice) Robinson’s barrier puts the lie to the rarely challenged claim, a claim deeply embedded in the norms and values of a distinctly white liberalism, that the sharing of ideas and knowledge should take place with little or no accounting for and of social and political positionalities that shape capacities. If Kemp’s response helps to remind us that words impact bodies differently, Robinson’s request allows us to understand that not all knowledge is for all bodies. Exposing indigenous knowledge to extractive settler listening practices opens both the knowledge and indigenous knowers to epistemic violence and injustice, and potentially to direct and/or physical violence and injustice (if that claim seems hyperbolic, we recommend Hungry Listening for an extensive treatment of those causal links). Can settlers learn to receive indigenous knowledge in just ways? Perhaps; but surely the first step in that learning process is countering the settler sense of entitlement that rails against any epistemic boundary. The settler reader who ignores Robinson’s request almost certainly cannot receive the knowledge in those sections of the book justly.
(Hamel, in a solo voice) Kemp’s response to Sounding Bodies illuminated the ways in which academic discourse framed by its own history of social and political exclusion can live in the body of the reader in immediate and visceral ways. It also provided a context for understanding that this critical work is a dialogue between people in relationship; and in the case of Margaret and myself, we have trained as actors in shared spaces, have been mutually led in workshops by each other, have even been teaching colleagues briefly at the same institution, and have become friends. The nature of the acting method that we both continue to train in and explore is psychophysical in nature; and not only do we share ideas as colleagues, but we share practices as bodies who breathe, sound, imagine, and feel. Our academic discipline (theatre/performance) is one that directly accesses bodily memory, felt sensations and emotions, and the dynamics of relationship.
There can be a real tenderness and vulnerability in the exchange of challenging ideas, particularly in a professional friendship. As artists who have a strong intellectual bent, both Margaret and myself straddle spaces that tend not to easily align; in Chapter 6 of Sounding Bodies I refer specifically to the ways in which voice/acting trainers have felt excluded from Academic Discourse and have historically held anti-academic bias. And yet, this straddled space we inhabit is one that seems to blur the neat and tidy divisions between the artistic and the academic, the personal and the professional, sounding bodies and the written word. There were high personal stakes at work here; and in writing this piece to a friend there was I believe a fear that Kemp’s words might be taken personally on my part. In a very real way, I believe we both had moments of holding our breath, full of feeling, eager to connect and clear the air.
Central to this conversation are the ways in which expectations, assumptions, and beliefs have both been framed by long histories of exclusion, and continue to be felt in an immediate and bodily way that seem fundamental to the questions and investigations at the core of the book. Importantly, it is in this response that I am interested in what breath can provide in my responsibility (in a literal sense, too, of an “ability to respond”) to such critique: breath to imagine a reframing (a rewriting?) of the introduction to the book that might help remove barriers to access; breath to acknowledge with ease that we could not, and did not, as white authors, write Sounding Bodies outside the stream of white supremacy and its effects, and breath in not being at all surprised that we could in ways continue to be a conduit of it.
And so I now write—full of gratitude—not only to have received a response from Margaret that was so deeply felt, personal, and challenging to an easy assumption of access, but that she took the risk to ask a colleague and friend to consider the ways in which the very history of the discipline of (feminist) philosophy in academic discourse had a weighty presence in her reading and how carefully she navigated that weight in her generous written (and spoken) response.