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.↩