Sonic Lessons of the Covid-19 Soundscape

It’s understandable to resist reading or thinking about Covid in late-2021, even as the Delta variant’s new surges are making headlines around the world. Covid has surrounded and overwhelmed us for over a year, and many people’s reluctance to engage meaningfully with it at this time is fueled by feelings of fatigue, mental exhaustion, and frustration. However, I urge in this post that we have a continued responsibility to sustain our sonic engagement and listen to what the Covid-19 soundscape teaches us.

Covid-19, as most of us now know now, is a virus caused by the coronavirus strain SARS-CoV-2. While the symptoms of Covid-19 are many and varied, one symptom seemed most vital and censorious—a nagging and persistent dry cough that became referred to as the “Covid cough” in everyday vernacular. The Covid cough became an intrusive and yet all too familiar presence in the Covid soundscape—an isolated acoustic environment that allows us to study its characteristics. For instance, investigations within the Covid soundscape have studied the noise annoyances of traffic, neighbors, and personal dwellings; have recorded the quieting of the usually bustling streets of New York City; have researched whale stress hormones linked to less noise pollution in our ocean waters; and have analyzed  the reception and aural imagery of sirens. I seek to add to this research by bringing the sounds of the Covid body (or a body perceived to have Covid) into the larger soundscape conversation.

It is of vital importance to attend to the Covid soundscape while we are still in it because the Covid soundscape is bound by time and place and is ever-changing. Once Covid is eradicated, our access to the sounds surrounding it disappear as well. So, I dwell in the soundscape where the Covid cough is still an everyday reality. With the Covid cough present in approximately sixty percent of Covid cases according to WebMD, the cough quickly became the virus’s warning bell, identifying who might be infected with the virus. In the early days of the viruses’ rapid spread in the United States, coughing became an acoustic red flag—a sign that danger could be near. So much about the virus and its spread was unknown, and the uncertainty heightened desires for control and reassurance. Because of this, we attended to coughing in ourselves and others, consciously and unconsciously, in ways we probably never had before.

“MTA Installs Plexiglass and Vinyl Barriers to Protect Employees and Riders During COVID-19 Pandemic,” Photo: Jessie Mislavsky / MTA NYC Transit, April 21, 2020 (CC BY 2.0)

All of this auditory attention focused on coughing is a process of listening. Different from hearing—perceiving sounds—listening requires attentiveness and consideration. Listening to sounds, as Ceraso states, “influences our feelings and behaviors as we move through the world” (176). I, like Eckstein and other sound scholars, insist that sound is an argument and that sounds have persuasive power. Sounds can evoke different responses from different people—perhaps your favorite song elicits painful memories for someone else. Listening then, can be personal. However, sound studies scholars know, and Covid-19 has amplified, that listening is also shaped by social and cultural contexts (Rice, “Listening”). During the pandemic, people listened to bodies in ways that were shaped by the news, the medical community, the culture, and the environment. While listening as a medical practice is used to diagnose and treat, the listening I refer to here is not one of compassionate care, but rather a practice of fear, surveillance, and othering.

For many people—in the United States, particularly white, hetero, cis-gendered, able-bodied, people—their bodily sounds came under social and cultural scrutiny for the first time——bringing up issues of autonomy and self-control. “It’s just allergies,” folks muttered while passing someone in the grocery store, just as a cough that could no longer be suppressed escaped their lips. Suddenly, as suspicious eyes were cast every which way, people felt compelled to disclose their medical histories to complete strangers in order to have their coughs—their bodily sounds—be deemed socially acceptable and their public presence allowable. Shildrick reminds us that bodies are leaky, but Western medicine and practice reinforce European-descended cultural teachings that our bodily boundaries should be secure (i.e. not leaky) and that otherness should be excluded. The “Covid cough” taught many of us for the first time that our bodies are leaky, noisy, and permeable, and they are not always under our command. Listening to our bodies took on an all-new meaning as we attended to our bodily sounds in hyper-vigilant ways.

Coronavirus Traveller May 14, 2020 (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK, Image by Tim Dennell (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Attending to the leaky, noisy nature of bodies, however, was certainly not new to everyone. Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line details the hypervigilance and rigid compliance long demanded of Black and brown bodies—often violently—by the white listening ear’s norms regarding “propriety” and personhood.  Ehrick’s concept of the “gendered soundscape” thinks through surveillance in regard to female-presenting bodies and vocal gender. Casillas’s notion of “listening loud(ly)” while Chicanx, Martin’s Black feminist soundwalk methodology , and Blake’s discussion of the “gas station voice” many trans people take on to protect themselves from attack reminds us that the stakes for surveillance are higher at the intersection of race, gender, class, sexuality, accent, and citizenship status, but that resistance can also be also quite powerful.

For individuals with health conditions, impairments, or disabilities, too, concerns about control and disclosure are not recent issues, as their bodies have long been listened to in ways non-disabled bodies simply have not. For example, for a time after my mother had emergency surgery for colon cancer, her body required the use of a colostomy bag. One day she and I were shopping in a department store when a sales clerk heard my mother’s body leak (i.e. make sounds that we’ve been taught to believe are only acceptable in private spaces and bathrooms). The sales associate listened to my mother’s body in a way that bordered on disgust and looked at her in a way that beckoned my mom to justify her leaky, fallible body.

This kind of listening—the surveillance of others’ bodies—is used to regulate and control bodies, and is a long-standing tradition in disability history. For instance, St. Pierre  highlights the embodied act of stuttered speech that is not only constructed by cultural norms but that challenges our cultural fantasy of the body as an invisible channel for communication and disrupts the disabled/able-bodied binary. Mills’s research on deafness and hearing technologies explores the irony and paradox that hearing aids and cochlear implants were invented to “treat” the invisible disability of deafness, but yet visibly mark their wearers. And while not explicitly writing of disabled bodies, Booth and Spencer contend that non-vocal bodily sounds are rhetorical and therefore create rhetorical challenges and provoke us into attempted management of the sounds our body produces. Individuals with impairments, diseases, and disabilities have long been listened to, scrutinized, and surveilled in these ways. Such listening is culturally bound and rooted in the ableist myth that bodies should be self-contained and controlled at all times.

As the Covid-landscape meant that our ability to visually surveil bodies was diminished due to masks, barriers, and plexiglass partitions, our impulse to sonically surveil became heightened. Thus, many of us listened differently.  Our fears of being surveilled were heightened by the fear of the Other—in this case, the fear of being othered as unwell. Our anxiety about the Covid cough was attached to ableism and the horror of being perceived as sick because, as Davis states, the “nightmare of the body is one that is deformed, maimed, mutilated, broken, diseased” (Normalcy: Link 7). The Covid cough reminded all of us that we are not as self-controlled and autonomous as we would like to think, and that we are all capable of being–or of becoming–a dissed (diseased or disabled), othered body, if we are not already.

“Lockdown LIfe -Coronavirus (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK,” Image by Tim Dennell (CC BY-NC 2.0)

But what if we could revisit the Covid cough and consciously listen to it in other, less fear-driven ways? If we move from listening to the cough as a surveillance practice and situate our listening as a critical rhetorical practice–a practice that examines the relationship of discourse and power and advocates for social change–then we can begin to think about what the Covid cough can teach us. Novak and Sakakeeny claim that sound only becomes known through its materiality. The Covid cough is indelibly material and embodied; it requires lungs and airways, breath and mucus. The Covid cough, distinguishable from other coughs, was described similarly by medical professionals around the world, reminding us that while listening is a highly cultured act, our sound bodies are comprised of blood, bones, and organs—substance that tethers our listening practices to a material body. We are, as Eidsheim claims in Sensing Sound, interconnected in material terms: “we cannot exist merely as singular individuals” (20). The stuff and guts of our material bodies reminds us of our connectivity, of our shared humanity, of our oneness.

The sound of the Covid cough, then, assures us of our vulnerability—a vulnerability precipitated by our lived, material body. It is important to note that not all individuals have been equally vulnerable. Individuals who are immunocompromised and essential workers, for instance, were much more susceptible to being exposed to the Covid-19 virus, as was anyone unable to work to home and many Black and brown Americans made more vulnerable by years of racist neglect by the nation’s health care system. But, still, no one is invincible. The sounds of the Covid-19 soundscape reify this truth and reinforce that through our material bodies, we are interconnected; we are all sound, and sounding, bodies.

“Lockdown LIfe -Coronavirus (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK,” Image by Tim Dennell (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Covid-19 brought, and is still bringing, daily horrors. The sounds of the Covid-19 soundscape are not yet absent from our consciousness or our communities. My hope is that by re-immersing ourselves into its soundscape, we can continue to remember that our fight against Covid-19 is a collective one and that we all have a shared responsibility toward our fellow humans. It is also important for sound studies to think critically and rhetorically about normalized listening practices and how those practices shape cultural understandings of what it means to be sick or disabled. Listening is not only an embodied practice; it also has bodily implications. While the Covid-19 soundscape heightened our awareness of our own vulnerability and, for some, their fears of “the other”—and (hopefully) some reflexivity on how one’s own listening can drive practices of othering—it also reassured many of our connectivity, for better or worse.

We remember those whose lives were lost to Covid-19. We listen to honor them and we listen to learn. . .and hopefully we can listen to one another with renewed empathy to build new collectivities that will forever change the Covid soundscape, along with the many other intersecting inequities that collectively brought us here too.

Featured Image: Coronavirus, Playground on Lockdown, Sheffield, UK, Image by Tim Dennell (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Sarah Mayberry Scott (Ph.D., University of Memphis) is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Her research centers on representations and rhetorics of deafness. Scott is particularly interested in how sound impacts the Deaf community and how multi-modal literacies can be of particular interest and utility. She explores these issues in her works, “Re-Orienting Sound Studies’ Aural Fixation: Christine Sun Kim’s ‘Subjective Loudness,’” (2017), “Disability Gets Dissed: How Listening Rhetorically with Cultural Humility Amplifies the Concerns of Disability Culture,” (2021), and “Toward a More Just Rhetorical Criticism Through Situated Listening” (in press).

1,000 pages of evidence for conservation actions

1,000 pages of evidence for conservation actions

This week, the sixth edition of Conservation Evidence’s flagship publication, What Works in Conservation, is published. What Works provides a freely-available, comprehensive overview of the expert assessment of evidence for the effectiveness (or not) of management actions collated within Conservation Evidence synopses. It is a freely-available resource for conservation managers, practitioners and policy-makers who want to incorporate evidence into their management decisions.

The exciting addition to What Works in Conservation 2021 is the inclusion of evidence for all mammals, with the addition of the Terrestrial Mammal Conservation and Marine and Freshwater Mammal Conservation synopses, as well as the 2021 update of the Bat Conservation synopsis (the Primate Conservation synopsis was added in 2017). This means that decision-makers working in mammal conservation across the world now have access to a free resource to help inform their work to conserve threatened species.

1,000 pages of evidence for conservation actions

What’s included?

Flying high - expanding the evidence-base for Bat Conservation

The 2021 edition of What Works includes the results from the assessment of the third annual update of the Bat Conservation synopsis. With new evidence published each year, and summarised in each edition of the synopsis, our revised assessments highlight the value of continually updating the evidence base for conservation. What Works 2021 includes new evidence for 29 conservation actions, 16 of which have changed effectiveness category from What Works 2020 as a result of the newly summarised evidence. This includes 11 actions, ranging from “Use non-lethal measures to prevent bats from accessing fruit in orchards” to “Prevent turbine blades from turning at low wind speeds”, where experts are more certain than previously that the action is beneficial for bats, and two actions where the new evidence remains too limited for a conclusion to be drawn. However, three actions are a little more complex. The use of prescribed burning had previously been assessed as “Likely to be beneficial”, but three new studies have highlighted potential harms, leading to the new assessment concluding there is a trade-off between the benefits and harms to bats of this action. For two other actions, “Deter bats from turbines using ultrasound” and “Breed bats in captivity”, the addition of new studies with mixed results has increased the uncertainty in their effectiveness, changing their assessment category to “Unknown effectiveness” (from “Likely to be beneficial” and “Unlikely to be beneficial”, respectively). This demonstrates the importance of continually building upon a comprehensive, global evidence base, which captures the variation inherent in biological responses to conservation actions.

1,000 pages of evidence for conservation actions

Deep dive - mixed results for Marine and Freshwater Mammal Conservation

Despite the popularity of whales, dolphins and seals, the Marine and Freshwater Mammal synopsis found a paucity of evidence for many proposed conservation actions. Where evidence does exist, the overall effectiveness of commonly used actions varied. For example, rescuing and releasing stranded or trapped marine and freshwater mammals, and installing exclusion or escape devices for mammals on fishing nets, were found to be beneficial, or likely to be beneficial, respectively. Other actions such as using acoustic devices on fishing gear and hand-rearing orphaned young of marine and freshwater mammals were found to have trade-offs between benefits and harms. Meanwhile, the translocation of marine mammals away from aquaculture systems, with the aim of reducing human-wildlife conflict, was actually found to be ineffective or harmful. This demonstrates the importance of gathering and assessing the available evidence, to improve the effectiveness and cost efficiency of future conservation efforts.

1,000 pages of evidence for conservation actions

Back on dry land - training marsupials for Terrestrial Mammal Conservation

Reading studies from around the world, and from over 70 years of conservation, we love coming across ingenious tests of conservation actions, as well as ingenious actions themselves. In the Terrestrial Mammal synopsis, we discovered that conservationists in Australia have tested whether naive native mammals can be trained to avoid non-native predators, such as cats and foxes. By comparing “trained” bilbies, which were exposed to a ‘mock attack’ by thrusting a dead cat at them and spraying them with cat urine, with “untrained” bilbies not exposed to an attack, researchers found that despite some evidence for changes in behaviour, there was no increase in long-term survival in the trained group. Our assessment concluded that the evidence for that action was too limited to determine its effectiveness, as there were only two studies and ideally this would be tested on a wider range of target species. The assessment was similar for evidence for training captive-bred mammals.

1,000 pages of evidence for conservation actions

Bringing it home - conservation in your back garden

Although many conservation actions included in What Works are likely to be carried out by practitioners or policy-makers, some can be implemented by the general public. In the Terrestrial Mammal synopsis, five studies tested the effectiveness of using collar-mounted devices (such as bells and neoprene flaps) to reduce the predation of wild mammals by cats, and the assessment found that overall, this was beneficial. Similar results were found for the same action in the Bird Conservation synopsis, but with only two studies, the evidence was assessed as being too limited to draw conclusions. The ongoing update to the Bird Conservation synopsis may provide more information for future assessments.

What Works in numbers

The additive nature of What Works in Conservation means that this new sixth edition is the largest that we have ever produced - for the first time, we have tipped over 1,000 pages. It provides an assessment of the effectiveness of 2,426 conservation actions, covering the results from 15 Conservation Evidence synopses (six synopses have not yet been assessed). The underlying evidence comes from 5,131 individual scientific papers, reports and book chapters, which have reported the results of their tests of conservation actions. And this isn’t just the result of work by the team at Conservation Evidence: 215 experts, practitioners and academics from all over the world have helped to assess the evidence in What Works in Conservation 2021, and we are enormously grateful to all of them for their extraordinarily valuable contribution to the project.

The first five editions of What Works in Conservation have been read online, downloaded (for free) or purchased as a book from the publisher’s website over 67,000 times. We hope that this sixth edition will generate thousands more reads, as conservationists around the world work to incorporate the evidence for what works in conservation into their decision-making, with the ultimate goal of enabling more effective conservation for the benefit of biodiversity and society.

Une couverture sanitaire universelle en 2030 ? Réformes en Afrique subsaharienne

Sous la direction de Valéry Ridde

Pour accéder au livre en version html, cliquez ici.
Pour télécharger le PDF, cliquez ici.

Cet ouvrage collectif rassemble les connaissances scientifiques les plus récentes sur les réformes du financement de la santé en Afrique subsaharienne, que ce soit à propos des politiques de gratuité, des financements basés sur les résultats ou des mutuelles de santé. Outre l’origine et le contenu de ces différentes politiques, les textes analysent les défis de leur mise en œuvre, mais aussi leurs effets et leur pérennité.

Tout en s’inscrivant pleinement dans le débat actuel sur la couverture sanitaire universelle (CSU), l’un des principaux enjeux de cet ouvrage est aussi de nourrir les réflexions au niveau national, du Sénégal à la République démocratique du Congo, en passant par le Sahel ou le Bénin. Ainsi, une quarantaine d’autrices et d’auteurs partagent, dans une langue accessible, leurs analyses rigoureuses et pour la plupart inédites, pour mieux comprendre le chemin qu’il reste à parcourir afin que la CSU devienne une réalité pour l’Afrique subsaharienne, n’en déplaise aux tenants de la nouvelle gestion publique.

ISBN version imprimée : 978-2-925128-08-3
ISBN PDF : 978-2-925128-10-6

DOI : à venir

827 pages
Couverture réalisée par Kate McDonnell, caricature de Damien Glez
Date de publication : juillet 2021


Table des matières

Blog: Performing the Archive: On Carla Gannis’s wwwunderkammer. By Natasha Chuk

I click on a weblink that prompts me to join a room. The room is dark and drenched in a purple hue: blue and red hexagonal tiles rotate along the perimeter. Large text reads “WELCOME TO THE WWWUNDERKAMMER.” Up ahead is a massive VR headset with portals in the place of apps revealing a map that allows me to transport to other rooms. There are 22 from which to choose. I click on one and enter. From there, the tour begins.

Time feels slippery as you explore New York City-based transmedia artist Carla Gannis’s wwwunderkammer (2020), an immersive virtual installation. At once anachronistic and futuristic, you’re both taken back in time and catapulted into the future. This is how one might describe the internet, a database, or any other collection of information, which is what the wwwunderkammer is at its core: an archive. Inspired by the 16th century wunderkammer (German for “wonder chamber”) of Western Europe, the wwwunderkammer is a cabinet of curiosities updated for the 21st century, as denoted by the work’s name, a cheeky reference to the world wide web. The original wunderkammer were a kind of proto museum that housed a curated selection of objects. “They were entire rooms,” reflects Gannis, “often filled with exotica, and then we run into the problematic sub-orientalism, exoticism, and of course colonialism.” References to art history, popular culture, and politics are a fixture of Gannis’s work, but she is careful to avoid reconstructing historical references and, instead, contextualizes them pluralistically, a “remixing” of history that speaks to her interests, which are, in her words, “vast, and large, and maximalist.” In contrast to its predecessor, Gannis’s wwwunderkammer reflects this sensibility toward openness and maximalism. She and I spoke at length, avatar-to-avatar, while teleporting around the wwwunderkammer together to discuss how it came together and how she plans to expand it.

As an interactive digital installation, the wwwunderkammer’s behavior is, by design, performative and unstable, resisting a centuries-old didacticism and power dynamic common to curation and collection practices. Rather than entering a fixed space of collected information, one gets the impression of entering a place that is meant to be meaningful but shifting. Like many of Gannis’s projects, wwwunderkammer is iterative, entirely or in part translated into evolving formats to accommodate different venues, platforms, and accessibility requirements, and thus yields different participant experiences. The work began in a brick-and-mortar setting with a debut at Telematic Media Arts gallery in San Francisco, USA in the fall of 2020. Comprising physical objects, prints, video animation, and XR (virtual reality and augmented reality), the exhibition was cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown. Like most things, the wwwunderkammer then went online: Gannis completely adapted the work to a virtual installation using Hubs by Mozilla, an open-source, customizable mixed reality VR chatroom accessible through headset or web browser. Being forced to move online was, in a sense, a useful fate for this project, as it then had the opportunity to not only engage but inhabit and enact the language of the internet more fully.

A screenshot of the runway leading to the game cabinet castle.

“It is an object of the internet with its own digital materiality,” says Gannis, who consulted her architect partner while creating the preliminary sketches of the chambers and access points of the virtual installation. Visitors can enter through multiple pathways. There is a lobby and a main gallery, both of which are organized to guide visitors toward different collections, plus a game cabinet castle entrance that leads you down a long runway toward a giant retro video game arcade cabinet. The environment references some of Gannis’s inspirations: the wallpaper inside the main gallery is a nod to Janet Murray’s pioneering Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (first published in 1997), the grid pattern on the “floor” is a reference to the science fiction horror film The Lawnmower Man (1992, dir. Brett Leonard); and “a cabinet of curiosities without a video game cabinet castle in the 21st century would be remiss,” quips Gannis.

There are references to popular culture, tech history, and science fiction everywhere. Gannis mentions Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s surreal TV series World on a Wire (1973) in passing, demonstrating her orientation toward speculative fiction. Digital objects line the walls of the main gallery and are perpetually animated, a stimulation of jittery GIFs. The names of content experts flash and link to pre-recorded interviews as hidden Easter eggs among the maximalist wall-to-wall collection. The vibrant aesthetic of the environment is owed to the use of high-key, saturated colors of mostly blue and red, which together form a bold purple. This color palette is a way to “subvert the formal or traditional architecture that we’re in right now.” One could say it’s also a way of pulling us inside our screens and into our long-term memories, accessing the fictional worlds of science fiction film and literature. The speculative fictional worlds of our collective imaginations are here reenacted.

The main gallery of the wwwunderkammer.

The sensation of mutability this produces is intentional. Having worked in a library — Gannis’s first job in New York was running the library at the New York Studio School — she acknowledges the limitations of archives as biased storage sites and narrow communicators of cultural knowledge and invites us to reconsider their static and didactic positions. “In terms of the experience itself, I like it being open to interpretation. You don’t see wall tags, things that are delineating what these different cabinets are, because I think of this as a visual language with a kind of surrealistic bent that is open to interpretation and has more fluidity in that way,” explains Gannis. In formally remaking the archive, she is in a sense rescuing the archive from itself by bringing it to life rather than allowing its contents to get lost in obscurity.

The wwwunderkammer does more than house information about history, politics, art, and cultural values. The work itself is performative. In this way, the wwwunderkammer performs the archive, not merely exists as one. This distinction is important. As we wander around the wwunderkammer together, Gannis clarifies how she thinks of each of the collections, which have their own locations, as places rather than spaces. “Spaces are more functional and serve a utilitarian function,” Gannis muses. “I feel that these are more places: they have a specific intent and cultural resonance.” Objects dance and jiggle in place, music pulsates, hyperlinks flash: all as if electrified by the material contents of the built environment’s infrastructure. The wwwunderkammer radiates an energy unique to the internet: an everchanging, dynamic place of cultural knowledge, both represented by the archivist and the archived. This is also advanced by the collaboration between Gannis and other artists and thinkers who’ve curated their own wonder chambers and given expert interviews with one of Gannis’s alter ego avatars. This phase of the project is about expanding the cabinets Gannis initially conceived based on the scholarship and expertise of others through interviews conducted by Gannis’s AI-controlled avatars, which are accessible from the main gallery. Charlotte Kent reflects on humor and the absurd; Leah Roh addresses the importance of sex positivity, and Regina Harsanyi discusses digital preservation. Gannis has plans to include additional chambers and interviews to increase the depth and breadth of cultural information offered through this evolving project.

A screenshot of Leah Roh being interviewed by Moira.

The wwwunderkammer is doubtlessly the product of a cyberfeminist ethos, which is a feminist approach to the use of and creation with technology that imagines and fosters alternative practices and politics toward operating differently in the world. One of Gannis’s cabinets features Lucille Trackball — an AI-based stand-up comedian Gannis created about three years ago — and is “dedicated to female-identified comedians from around the world, of different abilities and of different gender orientations.” Among other things, it’s a response to both the reinforcing of gender bias through female-sounding voice assistants in computing and the use of humor as a way for women to obtain agency. Lucille Trackball comedically interviews Charlotte Kent to talk more about the latter. AI, in this context, isn’t promoting a new commodity, rather a new interface and intelligence centered on humor. Likewise, AI is used to train the wallpaper lining of the shelves of the cabinets with image datasets Gannis created. Hardly noticeable without having it pointed out, it “speaks to the fact that almost all of our experiences today involve some aspect or mechanism of AI.”

The dark side of AI and computing sit in contrast to the high-key colors as crucial reminders of the reality and complexity of our digital environment and the world in which it is created. Though Gannis dispenses with labels and taxonomies that might restrict meaning, there are signs everywhere of her sociopolitical awareness. The word DECOLONIZE and a reference to Ruha Benjamin’s concept of the New Jim Code — discriminatory designs that encode inequity — flash alongside text that reads BLACK LIVES MATTER and an emoji wearing a protective face mask, among other signifiers of the past year and a half. In other cabinets, the word VOTE, an Etch-a-Sketch, a hashtag, a copy of Frankenstein, endangered animals, and other objects collectively and fragmentedly tell the story of life, death, humanity, society, politics, technology, and more.

As an archive, the wwwunderkammer performs the admission of its own limitations: it relies on the contributions of others, responds well to flexibility, and rejects the goal and claim of completion. These are markers of a unique kind of technical object that pushes against the established order in the age of the database, the primary mode of cultural expression and post-narrative device of the 21st century, to borrow from Lev Manovich. But Gannis’s work is additionally subversive in its attempt to decolonize the archive through its reimagining, shared authorship, and inclusivity. “We are faced with the reality,” writes Legacy Russell, “that we will never be given the keys to a utopia architected by hegemony.” As a work that performs the archive, the wwwunderkammer is designed to mutate and respond to various needs and prompts, being created in necessary fits and starts, which are sometimes presented in the form of a glitch or problem. Moving the work online is one important way to make it available virtually everywhere and for everyone, but even this has its limitations. Gannis recalls that an earlier iteration of the main gallery was created in a higher resolution, which prevented some visitors in Western Europe to easily access it, based on their connection. Gannis had to reduce the quality of the work, lowering the barrier to entry, to again conform to the language of the internet.

Here it’s easy to recognize hints of Hito Steyerl’s poor image. In her essay, In Defense of the Poor Image, she discusses the hierarchy of images and the neoliberal impulse to insist on the “aesthetic premise” of a “rich image” at the expense of sharing it. The tragedy of this snobbish inclination is that images are often rendered invisible, “disappearing again into the darkness of the archive.” Poor images, by contrast, are “popular images—images that can be made and seen by the many.” For Gannis, sacrificing quality benefits the masses, democratizing the image and thus rendering the archive an accessible place. Likewise, it doubles as a force against the possibility of feeling pedantic. “In a way, being less crisp, it gives more room for the intention of these kinds of constructions, these taxonomies not being static, not being fixed or completely clear.”

The wwwunderkammer behaves more like an archive for the people, a library open to all, than a proto museum, like its predecessor. The work, like every performance, will change and adapt, reflecting the material instability of the digital object as much as the culture, politics, and people it represents.

NATASHA CHUK is a critical theorist and writer whose research and interests focus on creative technologies as systems of language at the intersection of formality, expression, interface, and perception. She teaches courses in film studies, video game studies, digital cultures, aesthetics, and art history at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Out Now – Pandemic Exchange: How Artists Experience the COVID-19 Crisis

Theory on Demand #41
Pandemic Exchange
How Artists Experience the COVID-19 Crisis
Edited by Josephine Bosma

News reports on the Covid-19 pandemic seldom include how the virus and the societal lockdowns affect artists. A lively circuit of cultural events, meetings, and exhibitions has come to an almost complete stop, leaving artists often not just with a significant drop in income but also bereft of their vital and supporting social communities. Art writer and curator Josephine Bosma, feeling quite cut off herself after a year of lockdowns and too much screen time, saw both desperate and relieved outcries from artists popping up through the glossy algorithmic veneer on social media. She decided to reach out to some of the more outspoken voices. From this an interview project was born, which grew into this collection of heartfelt stories and brief reports from artists trying to survive the pandemic and sometimes finding unexpected ways to do so.

Authors: Annie Abrahams, Lucas Bambozzi, Dennis de Bel, !Mediengruppe Bitnik, S()fia Braga, Arcangelo Constantini, Tiny Domingos, John Duncan, Nancy Mauro Flude, Ben Grosser, Adham Hafez, Sachiko Hayashi, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Garnet Hertz, Jennifer Kanary, Brian Mackern, Miltos Manetas, Lorna Mills, Daniela de Paulis, Tina La Porta, Archana Prasad, Melinda Rackham, Michelle Teran, Mare Tralla, Igor Vamos, Ivar Veermäe.

Editor: Josephine Bosma
Cover design: Katja van Stiphout
Design and E-Pub development: Agnieszka Wodzińska
ISBN PaperBack: 978-94-02302-74-8
ISBN E-Pub: 978-94-92302-75-5

Institute of Network Cultures

This publication is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Pre-Order the book HERE
Get the pdf HERE
Get the Epub HERE

The Middle is Marching: Adam Roberts, on reading George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’

The Middle is Marching: Adam Roberts, on reading George Eliot’s 'Middlemarch'

by Adam Roberts

In a recent article in the Guardian, MA Sieghart records the lamentable disengagement of male readers where female-authored fiction is concerned. ‘MA’ stands for Mary Anne, but Sieghart is making a specific point in using the ungendered initials for her byline. ‘Female authors through the centuries,’ she notes, ‘from the Brontë sisters to George Eliot to JK Rowling, have felt obliged to disguise their gender to persuade boys and men to read their books. But now? Is it really still necessary?’ Her answer, sadly, is: ‘yes.’

For the top 10 bestselling female authors (who include Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood, as well as Danielle Steel and Jojo Moyes), only 19% of their readers are men and 81%, women. But for the top 10 bestselling male authors (who include Charles Dickens and JRR Tolkien, as well as Lee Child and Stephen King), the split is much more even: 55% men and 45% women. In other words, women are prepared to read books by men, but many fewer men are prepared to read books by women.

It's an arresting observation. I don’t mean to come across as merely boastful if I say that I happen to be in the 19%.  After all: I am a university professor (at Royal Holloway, University of London) specialising in the 19th-century and it would be a dereliction of professional duty if I ignored the women writers of that period. There might be a case to be made that the most significant English writers of poetry across that period were male, from Byron, Shelley and Keats through to Arnold, Tennyson and Browning—though there were some very interesting female poets writing in this period too of course—but it would be perverse to deny that the most important English writers of fiction were women: setting Dickens aside for a moment, the 19th-century novel is dominated by Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontë sisters and above all by George Eliot, one of the greatest of all novelists.

It’s an interesting question, assuming you accept my premise that 19th-C poetry was largely male, and the 19th-C novel predominantly female, as to why this might be. I think it has something to do with form. In a continuous tradition of Western culture and art from The Epic of Gilgamesh, through Homer, Virgil and Beowulf, and into medieval and Renaissance literature, what it means to be manly was front and centre. There’s really no shortage of art about manliness. But one of the things that the novel innovates is, precisely, the womanly. In opening the domestic, interiorised, femininized spaces to art, novels brought not just a diversity of topic but a focus on diversity as such into our collective cultural life. This centripetal, heterogenous and metaphorical (as opposed to metonymic) cultural logic continues to inform the novel in its manifold manifestations, which is why, even in an age of TV and cinema and video games, the novel continues to live and thrive.

I’m writing this blog because I, though a man, recently wrote a book about George Eliot—Marian Evans in her real-life—and her greatest novel, Middlemarch.

How did this come about? The proximate cause was that in 2019 I joined a collective reading-blog set up by Professor Gail Marshall of the University of Reading to mark the bicentenary of Eliot’s birth. Our group was partly comprised of academics and partly of ‘general readers’, and we worked through each of the novel’s eight books in turn, one per month. It was thoroughly enjoyable, but it was also an opportunity for me to refresh my sense of the novel—to get, in fact, properly close to it, to immerse myself in it. It really is as good as people say: Virginia Woolf in 1919 called it ‘the magnificent book’ and ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’. F. R. Leavis praised Eliot’s ‘sheer informedness about society, its mechanisms, the ways in which people of different classes live’ and called her ‘a novelist whose genius manifests itself in a profound analysis of the individual.’ Why would any man deprive himself of such a treasure, just because it was written by a woman? Truly, too many of my sex have a problem.

Working through the novel this way I came to realise that one seemingly trivial thing—that many of the specific quotations and allusions Eliot makes in this deeply allusive, quote-filled novel, have not been properly identified by scholars—opened the book to a number of more profound things. But the first of these things prompted that reaction in me that many people assume is characteristic of university professors: a pedantic, academical desire to track down all the references, allusions and epigraphs in the novel. So that’s what I did.

For a novel like Middlemarch this runs the risk, almost, of self-parody. One of the novel’s main storylines concerns Casaubon, the elderly scholar, formal, arid, ‘dead from the waist down’ (as Browning put it), obsessed with developing and writing ‘The Key to All Mythologies’—a huge scholarly project that he, small-minded pedant and pettifogger, will never finish. The novel’s heroine, the beautiful and intelligent Dorothea decides she wishes to marry him. Perhaps she really does fall in love with him—love is strange, after all; but more readers, I think, see her as overcome by her own idealism. She admires rather than loves Casaubon, and fools herself into thinking that she could help him achieve his great, scholarly goal. It doesn’t work out that way. After they are married, she comes to see that Casaubon’s project is hopeless, unfinishable, and Casaubon himself not a great man but an emotionally-withered husk, bitter, prone to jealousy. She has also come to know handsome young Will Ladislaw—a much more attractive proposition: passionate about changing the world through journalism and politics, not about dead civilisations and dusty libraries. But though the attraction between Dorothea and Will is manifest, it’s too late: Dorothea is a married woman now. There’s a third man: young, energetic, passionate about his project like Will—this is Lydgate, who comes to Middlemarch to work as a doctor, and who has grand ambitions for scientific and medical research and advances.

You can see my position. I’m neither young nor handsome, and my work on this book looks rather more like Casaubon’s desiccated pedantry than Ladislaw or Lydgate’s more commendable engaged pursuits. Still: I hope I was able to do something a little less Casaubonic with the material I uncovered, and to put together a more interesting reading of this magnificent novel.

As I was working through it, I began thinking about ‘allusiveness’ in a wider sense. Eliot was an unusually well-read and cultured person, surely the single most intelligent writer of the century. When she writes a novel that is studded and threaded with literary quotation and allusion, how do we read that? Do these things add richness and context, or do they merely baffle us? When Eliot cites Sappho and Pascal, Homer and Lucretius, perhaps the intertexts are offered in the tacit belief that readers will recognise and understand without the need of a prompt from an editorial footnote. Perhaps Eliot assumes an audience sufficiently well-read as to be able to walk with her, hand in hand, through her own richly informed allusiveness. This seems unlikely, and not only because Eliot’s own reading was capacious beyond most people’s. So how do such allusions figure?

The argument I developed in Middlemarch: Epigraphs and Mirrors is that these quotations disclose, rather than enclose. That just as Lydgate uses lenses and mirrors to anatomise the medical reality of the world, so Eliot’s epigraphs are textual mirrors, reflecting and magnifying certain key elements in the fine-grained, beautifully written and observed textual reality Eliot creates. This in turn reflects back upon her mimesis, her mode of realism—the way she sets out to reproduce the world in her art. Verisimilitude reflects the world back to us (as opposed to, say, science fiction or fantasy, which invent their own worlds, augmenting or embroidering the baseline reality) but those reflections are not simple reproductions of how things ‘really’ are: the mirrors of art have their own shapes, put their own emphases on what they portray for us. And in Eliot’s case, as I argue in this book, she works not only with textual ‘mirrors’ but lenses, magnifying and bringing into view beautiful details of human life and love, of personal growth and social embeddedness.

Middlemarch: Epigraphs and Mirrors argues for Eliot's distinctive and powerful realism, reading the mirror-like and lens-like effects of her complex allusiveness in terms of her mimesis. There are chapters on the novel's intertextualities via George Sand and Pascal, Sappho, 19th-century Science, Tolstoy and Zola, Rousseau, Homer and Sophocles, Goethe and Guizot, bits and bobs on paintings and music and bells, Brownian motion and Herodotus. But most of all it is a work of homage to a great novel, one everybody—man or woman—should read.

Middlemarch: Epigraphs and Mirrors by Adam Roberts is an open access title available to read and download for free here.

Klara Debeljak: Unveiled, a Mask Theory in Covid Times

During the first lockdown in March 2020, my whole family freaked out. We thought it was the end of the world. My brother traveled home to Europe from California where he was studying and for the first days, he wore a mask that I had never seen before. It was shaped like a bird’s beak, with two crossing strips of material and sort of pointy in the front. He reminded me of the plague doctors in the 17th century as he slumped around the house, his head drooped in the pointy mask. In those days my mother was scrubbing her hands so frequently with vinegar and bleach she developed a rash. It was chaos.

I teased my brother about it at the beginning until he told me “it’s an N95, my girlfriend gave it to me & they are impossible to get Klara. I can’t believe you’ve never seen one.”

So the mask, the mask actually makes me feel sexier. I walk down the street and each look I receive seems deeper and more intense. As if for lack of other signifiers the eyes become the one thing we can hook on to.  It also makes me feel safer, I can maintain eye contact longer than usual. I sense more longing somehow. I feel matrixi a bit, whooshing around with a secret purpose. I sometimes forget I am wearing it. I take it off when I realize, struggling on the bike to rip it off with some sense of urgency, even though it makes me feel warm and protected.  But I take it off out of some intuitive principle, to be a human. To expose my human signifiers.

The Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz observed that the resistance toward public mask-wearing in Europe stems from the theological roots of Western life. There is an innate belief that the truth is “unveiled”, and that the face is where our personhood is represented. The uncovered mouth betrays our deepest selves. The chancellor mused that this mask resistance is subtly linked to the European resistance to Islamic face-veiling. The act of unveiling features prominently in Christian liturgy, and this part of our history maintains that the only way to truly know God is to see him face-to-face. In Islam, Allah is veiled in light, and mortals cannot face him in this life. Similar to the Christian belief, to face him in the next life is considered the greatest honor and blessing and the only way one can know Truth.

The word mask in itself has sinister roots in different languages; the French word masque means ‘to guard the face’, in Catalan mascara mans ‘blackening the face’ and the Latin word masca means ‘nightmare’. No wonder covering one’s face is often identified with danger and criminality. The mask is used to hide one’s identity, one’s ultimate truth.  Worn to signal a threat to others from the safe confines of anonymity. Worn by bank robbers and hooligans. Worn by protestors and the French Black Block, an anarchist organization that move en masse, all dressed in black and their faces completely masked. They attack and damage storefronts and other symbols of capitalism, and when the police try to arrest one of the Black Block, the other members swarm around the policemen like locus and free their endangered comrade. They work as a hive, empowered by their lack of facial features and unique signifiers.

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was awkward wearing one. Often I felt judged by my radical liberal friends as if I was buying into this plot, this narrative our institutions impose upon us poor plebs. The mandatory mask as a critical stage in conditioning us to accept abuses of our liberties. For the greater good though. I also felt judged for not wearing one in a public space where everyone else was masked as if I was not doing my best to protect society. At the beginning of the pandemic, when we were still less accustomed to it, I received judgmental looks, whether I wore it or not. Or maybe I’m paranoid.

The mask itself has become a signifier, how you wear it and why, a mark of social recognition. The symbol of a mask is emotional, and a site for cultural and political wars. It is not purely a vessel of public health.

Todd McGowan, an American academic studying the politics of the pandemic writes: “Wearing a mask indicates a stance of universality, a liberal belief that you are never simply yourself but always extend into the other, just as the other extends into you.” Universality as a belief that society should be built around the principle of mutual protection. The masked symbolize their belief of being part of a larger tribe, a tribe that doesn’t recognize other masked people as isolated subjects but rather as intrinsically bound to each other. A vision of society that is distinctly anti-capitalist, fighting the prioritizing of isolated individuals as a critique of the ruling liberal philosophy.

According to McGowan, the conservative inclination toward rejecting the mask is in fact rejecting universality and the wider collective. A capitalist approach in the sense that each subject pursues their own identity and interests regardless of its effect on others. The reason why the mask is often ridiculed by representatives of conservative parties, like Trump, Bolasanaro, and the Dutch Thierry Baudet is that “the obstruction of universality is a precondition for the right-wing populist practices, which are based on acquiring an identity through the attachment to a national, religious or ethnic project.” The identity of universalism as demonstrated by the willingness to wearing a mask is thus a barrier to populism, as it offers a universal and inherently compassionate identity.

The added value of libidinal enjoyment drawn from the transgressive thrill of disobeying the social norm only makes the conservative populist agenda more potent, and the possibility of not wearing a mask more exciting.

Though polls do suggest that more conservatives reject masks, the main reason referred to regardless of political identification is the curbing of civil liberties. The term ‘psychological reactance’ aptly fits this phenomenon, which is described by S. Taylor and G. Asmundsonas as a “motivational response to rules, regulation, or attempts at persuasion that are perceived as threatening ones sense of control, autonomy and freedom of choice.”

The feeling of losing control can be universally applied to citizens struggling to see their impact within a quickly spiraling corporatized and digitally bureaucratized world. It’s too easy to draw the line between liberal and conservative, universal and particular, selfless and selfish. This analysis of separating the universalists from the individualists is general enough to make sense, but does not address the morphing boundaries of a post-truth era where the rules that governed political philosophy in the 20th century do not fully apply.

The anti-mask and anti-Covid regulation protests that unfolded all over the world in fact consisted of people across the political spectrum. As the New York Times reported when covering the Covid lockdown protests in Germany; “It was a bizarre mix of people: families and senior citizens were joined by right-wing extremists, some sporting swastika tattoos.”

The interesting thing that mandatory mask-wearing triggered was a union of the radicals, as demonstrated by the horseshoe theory. The horseshoe theory states that the political continuum is not linear but bent, like a horseshoe, with the most extreme divisions of each camp almost touching in their beliefs. Thus my radical liberal friends may draw information from radical right-wing news channels that support their theories concerning the negative and yet unknown long-term effects of vaccinations and the conspiratorial origins of the Covid battling regulations. Regardless of the outlandishness of most conspiracy theories, they are all tied to an unwavering distrust in traditional media which includes the distrust of traditional scientific methods.

The far ends of the polarized left and right are remote enough on the spectrum of political poles to unite in their belief which is essentially a deep distrust of the current governing organs and the whole political infrastructure in its core; ie. “the system”. The distrust of masks in this context represents crumbling faith in institutions and representative democracy itself and is a reflection not only on the pandemic but on the wider expanse of our political climate. There need not be complex psychological adjustments in mask marketing, because the core of the issue lies with the weakening pillars of confidence that are necessary for a well-functioning society; confidence in ourselves, confidence in others, and confidence in institutions.  All three constituents of that confidence condition each other – taking out one and the other two would implode and collapse.  (Zygmunt Bauman)

To be clear and on the record; the mask you choose and how you wear it can potentially protect people around you from exposure to your viral load.

Under-the-nose/around the wrist; The basic ones, the sheep. They follow regulations but when they wear the mask it is under the nose or somewhat loose, which has no effect whatsoever. They do not wear a mask to actually prevent the potential spread of the infection but do so because one must. They demonstrate their detachment from political engagement by passively following rules.

Ear danglers; the chillers. They slip their mask on fully when they see an elderly couple approaching who seem visibly scared. They don’t mind getting infected themselves and feel the corona crisis is overblown but what can you do.

Under-the-chinners; are in the same category as the ear danglers but different than the under-the-nosers. They show their disregard for prevention and wear it almost as an accessory, the cool-girl attitude of “hey, I’m wearing it ok?”. They enjoy analyzing the current political scape. They are not as radical as the position they choose to represent in these discussions.

The hidden pocket; those whose masks are stuffed in their pocket, so If they can’t enter the bus because the driver doesn’t allow them they pull out this grimy fuzzy thing and put it on in the most necessary of situations. They believe the corona is a farce and dream of living on a farm as a legitimate life direction. They hide their masks.

The real maskers; are seldom seen and far in between. They avoid real-life situations where one can get infected and are some of the very few maskers who are aware that one must never put a mask on any surface, and must exchange the old mask for a new one every four hours. They are aware that the homemade masks made of a single layer of cotton actually prevent no more the 10% of the potential viral load from infecting people in your spray radius. They do not wear cotton masks. You best believe they wear an N95 or a surgical mask and are the ones who carefully observe and analyze the masks others are wearing. Otherwise, they avoid eye contact.

The many hypocrites; are aware of these mask rules, and how ineffective improper mask-wearing is, and preach statistics of mask use preventing the wider spread of the virus. They randomly pick and choose the situations in which they wear their mask fully covering their face, and the under-the-chin occasions.

You probably know which type of mask wearer you are. There is no shame in any of these categories as we are all struggling to orient ourselves in this new era of (post) pandemic skepticism. Not reflected in our celebratory attitudes, the new old normal has a weird gleam to it, and we all know it. Although it is a relief to unmask and unveil our faces, revealing our personhoods to each other, this collective action is accompanied by tangible doubt. For instance, most people in San Francisco, where 90% of the population has been vaccinated, continue to wear face masks religiously, even though all the regulations have been lifted. The ultimate truth symbolized by our uncovered mouths has not been completely revealed after all. The reason the new old normal seems so shallow is because we have not managed to address our trust issues; we have glided over them for fear of having the same liberties we once took for granted swooped out from under our noses again, without having adequate resources to process the process.

Autism and Ethics: The Stories We Tell

Autism and Ethics: The Stories We Tell

By Flora Kann Szpirglas

Nowadays, when people are asked about autism, many of them could tell you that it is an innate and lifelong neurological condition that affects how a person lives in the world today, because it involves a number of sensory and developmental issues. Due to the greater diversity in representation of autism, for instance in TV shows such as Josh Thomas’ Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, or Netflix’s Atypical, it should be easier for most of society to understand autism. However, what people often might not be able to see from a distance is that autism also involves many ethical questions. Indeed, since autism has often been perceived as a disease that people should be cured of, or which should be prevented, autistic people have also been dehumanized or mistreated and misrepresented in the past. This is also why shows such as Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, or Atypical, which both have an autistic cast, are beneficial to our understanding of autism, as they both depict autistic people leaving successful and fulfilling lives.

Towards an Ethics of Autism explores these ethical issues through a range of methodological approaches, including history and psychiatry, neurology and biology, but also philosophy and therefore bioethics. What matters today to our understanding of autism is not simply to figure out what causes the condition and how to prevent it, but if we actually should do this. Should we try to prevent autism using prenatal screening and termination of pregnancy? Should we try at all costs to ‘cure’ or ‘improve’ autistic children when we know the condition is innate and will never go away? Should we give a diagnosis of autism to children in order to provide clarity? Should we diagnose adults with autism when they have already managed to live their lives successfully by learning various coping mechanisms and strategies, and might then see the tables turn by the stigma of their newly diagnosed condition, especially in the workplace? At the same time, autistic adults do appreciate this new identity and it helps them move forward.

One of the many ethical issue that is tackled in the book is that of language. Challenges related to communication and language are something people often associate with autism, for instance due to popular representation such as Pete, the brother of one of the main characters of the American novel series Gone (2008-2019), who is autistic and does not talk. After discussing previous theories about the speech issues experienced by people with autism, Towards an Ethics of Autism gives an insight into modern theories such as that of Laurent Mottron, a French psychiatrist, who suggests that autistic people could be hyperlexic and more interested in text and image. In their 2007 video In My Language Mel Baggs showed that autistic people have a different, perhaps more  direct way of communicating rather than a complete refusal to communicate, and this also appears in Life, Animated, a 2016 movie in which an autistic child and his parents managed to communicate through Disney characters.

After over ten years of research, Kristien Hens, a bioethicist from Belgium focusing on pediatric care, offers a new take on an ethics of autism. While previous researchers argued, based on questionable assumptions regarding autistic people’s presumed lack of empathy,that autistic people are ‘among’ us but not truly ‘of’ us, Towards an Ethics of Autism provides us with an inclusive approach that will give anyone the tools to approach autism not merely as a detached concept, but as an identity shared by many people throughout the world.

Towards an Ethics of Autism: A Philosophical Exploration by Kristien Hens is an open access title available to read and download for free here.

Critical bandwidths: hearing #metoo and the construction of a listening public on the web

“A focus on listening [with technology] shifts the idea of freedom of speech from having a platform of expression to having the possibility of communication” (K. Lacey)

One of the biggest social media event of the past decade, #metoo stands out as a pivotal shift in the future of gender relations. Despite its persistence since October 2017, #metoo is still under-theorized, and since its permutations generate countless hashtag sub-categories each passing week, making sense of it presents a conceptual quagmire. Tracing its history, identifying key moments, mapping its pro- and counter-currents present equally tough challenges to both data science and feminist scholars.

Meta-communication about #metoo abounds. Infographics and visualizations attempt to contain its organic growth into perceivable maps and charts; pop news media constantly report on its evolution in likes, counts, and retweets, as well as—and increasingly—in number of convictions, lawsuits, and reports. At the same time, #metoo has arguably created a discernible listening public in the way that Kate Lacey (2013) argues emerged with national radio: women’s stories have never been listened to with such wide reach and rapt attention.

How did #metoo create new listening publics? “#metoo” by Flickr User Prachatai, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The project I discuss here takes ‘hearing’ #metoo a step further into the auditory realm in the form of data sonification so as to to re-imagine an audience compelled to earwitness not just the scope but the emotional impact of women’s stories. Data sonification is a growing field, which from its inception has crossed between art and science. It involves a conceptual or semantic translation of data into relevant sonic parameters in a way that utilizes perceptual gestalts to convey information through sound.

Brady Marks and I created the #metoo sonification you’ll hear below by drawing from a public dataset spanning October 2017 to the early Spring of 2018 obtained from Individual tweets using the hashtag are sonified using female battle cries from video games; the number of retweets and followers forms a sort of swelling and contracting background vocal texture to represent the reach of each message. The dataset is then sped up anywhere between 10x to 1000x in order to represent perceivable ebbs and flows of the hashtag’s life over time. The deliberate aim in this design was to convey a different sensibility of social media content, one that demands emotional and intellectual attention over a duration of time. Given Twitter’s visual zeitgeist whereby individual tweets are perceived at a glance and quickly become lost in the noise of the platform the affective attitude towards “contagious” events becomes arguably impersonal. A sonification such as this asks the listener to spend 30 minutes listening to 1 month of #metoo: something impossible to achieve on the actual platform, or in a single visualization. The aim, then, is to interrupt social media’s habitual and disposable engagements with pressing civic debates. 

MeToo: It's About Power | Morningside Center for Teaching Social  Responsibility

A critique of big data visualization

To date, there have been more than 19 million #MeToo tweets from over 85 countries; on Facebook more than 24 million people participated in the conversation by posting, reacting, and commenting over 77 million times since October 15, 2017. In a global information society ‘big data’ is translated into creative infographics in order to simultaneously educate an overwhelmed public and elicit urgency and accord for political action. Yet ideological and political considerations around the design of visual information have lagged behind enthusiasm for making data ‘easy to understand’. At the other end of the spectrum, social media delivers personalized micro-trends directly and in real time to always-mobile users, reinforcing their information silos (Rambukkana 2015). Between these extremes, the mechanisms by which relevant local, marginalized or emergent issues come to be communicated to the wider public are constrained.

“A wordcloud featuring #metoo” by (CC BY 2.0)

With this big idea in mind, the question we ask here is what would it mean to hear data?  Emergent work in sonification suggests that sound may afford a unique way to experience large-scale data suitable for raising public awareness of important current issues (Winters & Weinberg 2015). The uptake of sonification by the artistic community (see Rory Viner, Robert Alexander, among many others) signals its strengths in producing affective associations to data for non-specialized audiences, despite its shortcomings as a scientific analysis tool (Supper, 2018). Some of the more esoteric uses of sonification have been in the service of capturing what Supper calls ‘the sublime’ – as in Margaret Schedel’s “Sounds of Science: The Mystique of Sonification.”

Who’s listening on social media?

Within the Western canon of sound studies “constitutive technicities” (Gallope 2011) or what Sterne calls “perceptual technics” embody historically situated ways of listening that center technology as a co-defining factor in our relationship with sound. Within this frame, media sociologist Kate Lacey traces the emergence of the modern listening public through the history of radio. Using the metaphor of ‘listening in” and “listening out,” Lacey reframes media citizenship by pointing out that listening is a cultural as well as a perceptual act with defined political dimensions:

Listening out is the practice of being open to the multiplicity of texts and voices and thinking of texts in the context of and in relation to a difference and how they resonate across time and in different spaces. But at the same time, it is the practice and experience of living in a media age that produces and heightens the requirement, the context, the responsibilities and the possibilities of listening out (198)

According to Lacey, a focus on listening instead of spectatorship challenges the implicit active/passive dualism of civic participation in Western contexts. More importantly, she argues, we need to move away from the notion of “giving voice” and instead create meaningful possibilities to listen, in a political sense. Data sonification doesn’t so much ‘give voice to the voiceless’ but creates a novel relationship to perceiving larger patterns and movements.

Our interactions with media, therefore, are always already presumptive of particular dialogical relations. Every speech act, every message implies a listening audience that will resonate understanding. In other words, how are we already listening in to #metoo?  How and why might data sonification enable us to “listen out” for it instead? In order to get a different hearing, what should #metoo sound like?

What should #metoo sound like? “de #metoo à #wetogether” by Flickr user Jeanne Menjoulet, Paris 8 mars 2018 (CC BY 2.0)

Sonifying #metoo: the battle cries of gender-based violence

It is unrealistic to expect that your everyday person will read large archives of testimony on sexual harassment and gender-based violence. Because of their massive scale, archives of #metoo testimony pose a significant challenge to the possibility for meaningful communication around this issue.  Essentially drowning each other out, individual voices remain unheard in the zeitgeist of media platforms that automates quantification while speeding up engagement with individual contributions. To reaffirm the importance of voice would mean to reaffirm inter-subjectivity and to recognize polyphony as an “existential position of humanity” (Ihde 2007, 178). This was the problem to sonify here: how to retain individual voices while creating the possibility for listening to the whole issue at hand. Inspired by the idea of listening out, myself and artist collaborator Brady Marks set out to sonify #metoo as a way of eliciting the possibility for a new listening public.

Sophitia Alexandra of the Soul Calibur franchise, close up from Flickr User Ngo Quang Minh‘s image from Soul Calibur III (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The #metoo sonification project intersected deeply with my work on the female voice in videogames. My choice to use a mixed selection of battle cry samples from Soul Calibur, an arcade fighting game, was intuitive. Battle cries are pre-recorded banks of combat sounds that video game characters perform in the course of the story. Instances of #metoo on Twitter presumably represent the experiences of individual women, pumping a virtual fist in the air, no longer silent about the realities of gender-based violence. So hearing #metoo posts as battle cries of powerful game heroines made sense to me. But it’s the meta layers of meaning that are even more intuitive: as I’ve discussed elsewhere, female battle cries are notoriously gendered and sexualized. Listening to a reel of sampled battle cries is almost indistinguishable from listening to a pornographic soundscape. Abstracted in this sonification, away from the cartoonish hyper-reality of a game world, these voices are even more eerie, giving almost physical substance to the subject matter of #metoo. Just as the female voice in media secretly fulfils the furtive desires of the “neglected erogenous zone” of the ear (Pettman 2017, 17), #metoo is an embodiment of the conflation of sex with consent: the basis of what we now call ‘rape culture.’

Sonifying real-time data such as Twitter presents not only semantic (how should it sound like) but also time-scale challenges. If we are to sonify a month – e.g. the month of November 2017 (just weeks after the explosion of #metoo) – but we don’t want to spend a month listening, then that involves some conceptual time-scaling. Time-scaling means speeding up instances that already happen multiple times a second on a platform as instantaneous and global as Twitter. Below are samples of three different sonifications of #metoo data, following different moments in the initial explosion of the hashtag and rendered at different time compressions. Listen to them one at a time and note your sensual and emotive experience of tweets closer to real-time playback, compared to the audible patterns that emerge from compressing longer periods of time inside the same length audio file. You might find that the density is different. Closer to real-time the battle cries are more distinctive, while at higher time compressions what emerges instead is an expanding and contracting polyphonic texture.

Vocalizations of female pleasure/affect, video game battle cries already have a special relationship to technologies of audio sampling and digital reproduction as Corbett & Kapsalis describe in Aural sex: the female orgasm in popular sound.”  This means that the perceptual technics involved in listening to recorded female voices are already coded with sexual connotations. Battle cries in games are purposely exaggerated so as to carry the bulk of emotional content in the game’s experiential matrix. Roland Barthes’ notion of the “grain of the voice”—the presence of the body in (singing) voice—is frequently evoked in describing the substantive role that game voices play in the construction of game world immersion and realism. In the #metoo sonification, I decontextualize the grain of the voice—there are no visual images, narrative, or gameplay; the battle cries are also acousmatic, in that there are no bodies visually represented from which these sounds emanate.

The battle cry in this #metoo sonification is the ultimate disembodied voice, resisting what Kaja Silverman (1988) calls the “norm of synchronization” with a female body in The Acoustic Mirror (83). As acousmatic voices, these battle cries could be said to exist on a different conceptual and perceptual plane, “disturbing the taxonomies upon which patriarchy depends,” to quote Dominic Pettman in Sonic Intimacy. (22). In other words, the sounds exist in a boundary space between combat sounds and orgasmic sounds highlighting for the listener the dissonance between the supposed empowerment of ‘speaking out’ within a culture that remains staunchly set up to sexualize women; something one can hardly ignore given the media’s reserved treatment of #metoo.

“Princess Zelda’s New Mouth” by Flickr UserMouthGuy2013, Public Domain

Liberated from the game world these voices now speak for themselves in the #metoo sonification, their sensuality all the more hyper-real. The player has no control here, as the battle cries are not linked to specific game actions, rather they are synchronized autonomously to instances of #metoo confessionals.  In fact, the density of the sonification as time speeds up will overwhelm listeners with its boundlessness; echoing how contemporary media treats the sounds of the female orgasm as a renewable and inexhaustible resource, even as reports of sexual harassment and gender-based violence continue to pile on in 2021. Yet we intend that the subject matter resists pleasure, rendering the sonic experience traumatic as the chilling realization sets in that listeners are hailed to accountability by #metoo. The experience should instead be unsettling, impactful, grotesque, and deeply embodied. 

Concluding remarks

Listening both metaphorically and literally goes to the very heart of questions to do with the politics and experience of living and communicating in the media age. In her paper on the sonic geographies of the voice, AM Kanngieser notes in “A Sonic Geography of Voice“: “The voice, in its expression of affective and ethico-political forces, creates worlds” (337). It is not just in the grain but in the enunciation that battle cries find their political significance in this sonification. As the hyper-real gasps and moans of game heroines animate individual moments of #metoo the codification of cartoonish voices resists being subconsciously “absorbed into the dialogic exchange” (342) of habitual media consumption. Listening to the sonification is instead an experience of re-coding the voice, reconfiguring the embedded meanings of game sound to a new and contradictory context: a space that challenges neoliberal appropriations of radical communication and discourse (348). This is not data sonification that delights the listener or simply grants them access to ‘information’ in a different format; rather it calls on the listener to de-normalize their received technicity and perceptions and to connect to the emotional inter-subjectivity of this call to action.

Most importantly, the #metoo sonification invites the auditeur to listen in, to take an active role in the reconfiguration of meanings and absorb their political dimensions. These are the stories of #metoo; these are the voices of women, of men, of marginalized peoples, emerging from the zeitgeist of Twitter to ask us to earwitness gender-based violence. We are a new listening public, wanting and needing to create new worlds. A critical bandwidth is the smallest perceivable unit of auditory change, in psychology terms. This sonification begs the question, how many battle cries will it take for us to end gender-based violence by fostering equitable worlds?

Featured Image: “Listen to What You See” by Flickr User Hernán Piñera (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Milena Droumeva is an Assistant Professor and the Glenfraser Endowed Professor in Sound Studies at Simon Fraser University specializing in mobile media, sound studies, gender, and sensory ethnography. Milena has worked extensively in educational research on game-based learning and computational literacy, formerly as a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Research on Digital Learning at York University. Milena has a background in acoustic ecology and works across the fields of urban soundscape research, sonification for public engagement, as well as gender and sound in video games. Current research projects include sound ethnographies of the city (livable soundscapes), mobile curation, critical soundmapping, and sensory ethnography. Check out Milena’s Story Map, “Soundscapes of Productivity” about coffee shop soundscapes as the office ambience of the creative economy freelance workers. 

Milena is a former board member of the International Community on Auditory Displays, an alumni of the Institute for Research on Digital Learning at York University, and former Research Think-Tank and Academic Advisor in learning innovation for the social enterprise InWithForward.  More recently, Milena serves on the board for the Hush City Mobile Project founded by Dr. Antonella Radicchi, as well as WISWOS, founded by Dr. Linda O Keeffe.

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