Voices Pt. 3: Dork-o-phonics (Jonathan Sterne)
April 13, 2022 |
Voices Pt. 3: Dork-o-phonics (Jonathan Sterne)
April 13, 2022 |
Jonathan Sterne is one of the most influential scholars working on sound and listening. His 2003 book, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, had a formative influence on the then-nascent field of sound studies. His 2012 book, MP3: The Meaning of a Format, was both a fascinating cultural history and a deep meditation on the purpose of compression technology in capitalism. Today, Sterne talks to Phantom Power about his new book, Diminished Faculties: A Political Phenomenology of Impairment (Duke UP 2022). Specifically, he tells the story of the “Dork-o-phone,” a vocal amplifier he wears to give talks or communicate in loud spaces. Jonathan explains why he wears the Dork-o-phone, what it’s taught him about voice, technology, and disability, and how his experience informs Diminished Faculties’ “phenomenology of impairment.”
All of this episode’s sound art and music are performed by Jonathan Sterne and/or groups he appears in:
- Cancerscapes: Recordings made during Sterne’s thyroid cancer treatment
- Volte: An instrumental post rock band
- The Buddha Curtain: solo electronic music
Jonathan Sterne is Professor and James McGill Chair in Culture and Technology at McGill University. He does research in sound studies; media theory and historiography; science and technology studies; new media; disability studies; music; and cultural studies.
You can read Jonathan Sterne’s cancer diaries at https://www.cancerscapes.ca.
Ethereal Voice: This…is…Phantom Power.
Jonathan Sterne [Spacey Voice]: The interior voice is at least as much imagined as a reflection of external phenomenon.
And if you have a voice and never heard a recording of yourself speaking, you probably know that the auditory perspective between your ears is like nowhere else.
A shifting interior voice is an index to something very different from a stable interior voice.
Mack Hagood: Hey, it’s Phantom Power, a show where artists and scholars tell stories about sound. I’m Mack Hagood, and welcome to part three of our three-part series called Voices, this time we’re featuring sound studies scholar, Jonathan Sterne.
It’s spring time in North America and one of the things that seems to be kind of thawing out is our anti-COVID policies. I don’t know, it feels like things are opening up again, hopefully for good this time.
And as I get back out into the world, one of the things that I’m encountering that I didn’t realize how much I missed is a murmur.
Or a hubbub.
or what sound designers call a Walla.
The sound of voice on voice on voice on voice
You can get it at an airport or in a crowded shopping mall, if those still exist. Or in a theater when you’re waiting for the curtain to rise, but as an academic dork, my favorite Walla is “the conference Walla.”
It’s that sound in the hallways of the conference hotel, in between the sessions and panels, when people are in the hallways, meeting each other for the first time or getting to know each other or greeting each other for the first time in a year, or animatedly exchanging ideas or gossip.
That Walla is just one of the things that lets me know that I’m at a conference. And it’s pretty cool and I’ve really missed it.
It definitely hasn’t been replicated online via zoom.
But conferences are back.
And if you happen to be a humanities academic of some sort and you’re finally able to go out to a real live face-to-face conference again, maybe you’ll run into Jonathan Sterne.
He’s professor and James McGill Chair in Culture and Technology at McGill University. Jonathan has published numerous influential books and articles on sound studies, media, science and technology studies, disability studies, and cultural studies.
And he goes to a lot of conferences.
But here’s one of the many interesting things about Jonathan. If you run into him at that conference, you might notice something unusual hanging around his neck.
Sterne: I wear this device around my neck. It is a portable personal speech amplifier, it’s basically a transistor radio with no radio and a microphone.
Now of course, today, people walk around with Bluetooth things in their ear all the time, but this is a much less sort of cool, modern microphone.
You see the headset mic is not like one of these like nice concert mikes that pop singers, user or something. It’s a sort of clunkier assemblage in a black vinyl simulated leather pouch.
And when people see it the question is, “What is that?”
Mack: In part one of this series, we talked about Steve DeBerg’s shoulder pad loudspeaker system, which allowed the NFL quarterback to talk over the roar of stadium crowds, despite a paralyzed vocal cord.
Well, very similarly, Jonathan Sterne uses his device to overcome the Walla of crowded indoor spaces.
Sterne: It amplifies my voice, so my voice comes from my chest and my mouth, and I use that for seminars. I use that for some meetings and sort of conversations, and then I used to take it to restaurants, but the problem is if you put anything in front of the speaker, like a menu, you get shrieking feedback.
And there’s no better way to silence a large restaurant than shrieking feedback.
Mack: As you may have noticed by now, Jonathan doesn’t think his personal speech amplifier comes across as the coolest thing in the world.
Sterne: Very quickly, I gave the device name, which is the “dork-o-phone,” which implies the “o-phone” part is like, you know, futuristic audio technology of the past, right?
It’s a very small transistor radio and it’s a “dork-o-phone” because it’s not cool.
It is a prosthesis that marks me as being in need of supplementation or having something wrong or different about my body, as opposed to say my glasses, which are functionally equivalent for my eyes, but are seen as a fashion accessory.
Mack: But this is Jonathan. His 2003 book, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, was a watershed event.
It didn’t just address the fact that audio technology was terribly understudied in the humanities. It also challenged cherished, humanistic assumptions about what listening is and what technology allegedly does to our listening abilities.
His 2012 book, MP3: The Meaning of a Format, was both a fascinating cultural history and a deep meditation on the purpose of compression technology in capitalism.
So, when people see Jonathan wearing a piece of sound technology around his neck at a conference, they get ideas.
Sterne: If I’m giving like a small seminar or something, when I’m visiting somewhere, and I don’t explain what it is, people think that it’s some kind of performative commentary on the mediality of the voice.
Because it’s me giving a talk, probably about sounds, and then I’m using this thing.
So of course, it is a performative commentary on the mediality of the voice, which is for those who are not professionals in our field, it’s simply to say there’s no such thing as a voice that’s not mediated in some way.
Mack: So, let’s hear the story of why Jonathan wears the “dork-o-phone,” what it’s taught him about voice technology and disability, and how his experience informs his brand-new book, Diminished Faculties: A Political Phenomenology of Impairment.
Sterne [Through the ‘Dork-o-phone’]: Breathe, Jonathan.
Mack: Diminished Faculties begins with a fragment of memory that Jonathan retrieved in his sleep about a decade ago. I asked him to read this opening passage through the “dork-o-phone.”
Sterne [Through the ‘Dork-o-phone’]: Breathe, Jonathan. Breathe Jonathan
I can see the lights of the surgical theater a raid above me. The lights are out of focus, they have halos like they’re doubling out from themselves.
I see the blurry outlines of bodies and surgical outfits around me. People are mostly standing still. There are machines making sounds. I hear the doctor’s voice imploring me to breathe.
I cannot breathe. I can move the muscles in my diaphragm, but no air is coming in or out. I think he walks around toward my head.
There’s a weird throttling sound that comes out of me or maybe it goes in. Somebody says to put me back under.
Mack: What Jonathan suddenly woke up remembering was a moment from a surgery related to his thyroid cancer when the surgeon awakened him to see if he could breathe on his own.
The strangeness of later awakening in bed with a memory that one can’t remember having experienced to begin with. Well, that was just one of the disorienting phenomena that he would encounter through cancer.
A series of experiences that showed him how the body-mind is something unsafe.
Something beyond one’s own control.
Sterne: So, in March of 2009, I was giving a talk at the University of California, San Diego. It was in a seminar room. The room was full, and the room was closed, and it was kind of stuffy.
And as the talk went on, I started to see stars and then I started to feel faint, and so I, like I grabbed on to the podium, and I held on as hard as I could, and I like powered through the talk.
This was, probably something from my MP3 book. And if anybody noticed they didn’t say anything to me. And then we went out to dinner and later that night in my hotel room, again, [I started] the room wasn’t quite spinning, but I started to see stars again and I was dizzy and lightheaded.
And so, I called the travel health people from McGill, they said, “Why don’t you go to the hospital, get checked out.”
So, I go to the very, very posh hospital in La Jolla and they do a CT scan on me and some other stuff on me.
They say, “You’re fine. You can fly home tomorrow. It’s no big deal, but it seems that something is compressing your trachea.”
Mack: It took months for the doctors back in Canada to identify the problem. But eventually they discovered a cancerous tumor, nearly three inches long, on Jonathan’s thyroid claim.
Sterne: Thyroid cancer, if you don’t know is quote unquote, “the good cancer.” Never say that to someone who has thyroid cancer, they hate it.
[Music by Buddha Curtain]
Mack: Fair. Because there really was nothing good about it. He had multiple surgeries followed by radiation, radioactive iodine therapy, oral chemotherapy.
They removed his thyroid, but it seems there was a slow creep of cancer into his lungs as well, which he and his doctors have been managing ever since.
He’s been dealing with this stuff off and on for 12+ years now.
Years of treatments with sometimes really rough side effects. In fact, even some of the treatments for his side effects had side effects.
Just one example, Sterne is also a musician. In fact, all of the music that we’re hearing today in this episode is by Jonathan or one of his bands.
But he’s had such terrible hypersensitivity in his hands that he’s had to wear special gloves in order to play his bass.
But one other thing to know is, and I’m not interested in creating what disability scholars and activists call “inspiration porn” here, but Jonathan really has approached his cancer as an object of curiosity, reflection, and even sonic art.
On his Cancerscapes website, you can find years of blog posts and even his Cancerscapes’ sound pieces, manipulated field recordings made in the hospital.
[Music by Buddha Curtain]
Sterne: Now it is May 2010. I’ve embarked on 30 treatments of external beam radiation. They’re not painful, but the cumulative effect is I’m told that my voice will again be reduced to a horse whisper, but that it will recover.
I decided to track its state each day as I entered the hospital for my treatment, the ambience changes.
Sometimes I’m walking. Sometimes I’m standing.
Mack: That’s one of Jonathan’s Cancerscape pieces recorded pretty early in his treatment, and I find it totally shocking. Because, I think I’ve known Jonathan for about 10 years now, and I’ve never heard his voice sound like that.
To me, this doesn’t sound like Jonathan. It sounds like the voice of a different person.
Is this something more like the voice Jonathan had before I knew him?
Or is it one of the many voices that he had when he was undergoing the most intensive period of his treatment?
Sterne: So, the first surgery, they took out the right lobe of my thyroid, but then they couldn’t find my right recurrent laryngeal nerve. The recurrent laryngeal nerves control your vocal cords.
So, most people have two and together they open and close the vocal cords.
Mack: Jonathan’s doctors prioritized saving his voice. He had a second extremely delicate surgery to remove the other half of his thyroid without damaging his remaining recurrent laryngeal nerve.
That surgery was a success, but he still had one paralyzed vocal cord, and what was left of his voice would still have to undergo the assaults of all of his subsequent treatments.
Sterne: I start working with a speech therapist and she teaches me how to talk and swallow again.
And I was keenly aware the whole time of my voice fluctuating, like basically from the moment I woke up in November of 2009, my voice was no longer a stable thing.
[Snippet from a Cancerscapes’ Sound Piece]
Sterne: It is Tuesday, the 8th of June. I have 13 treatments left, and this is my voice.
It is Wednesday, the 9th of June. I have 12 treatments left and this is my voice.
It is Thursday, the 10th of June. I have 11 treatments left.
[Snippet from a Cancerscapes’ Sound Piece Fades]
Sterne: It was constantly varying, and I mean, this is true for people with quote unquote “normal voices” as well. In the sense that, your voice wears out. You get hoarse from talking or yelling or screaming at a sporting event or something.
But, I think for most people, especially because of the cultural weight, our culture places on voices as an index of self, those variations are sort of explained away or ignored or seen as the deviation from my real voice.
Whereas what had happened to me is my voice had become variation.
[Snippet from a Cancerscapes’ Sound Piece]
Sterne: The interior voice is at least as much imagined as a reflection of external phenomena.
And if you have a voice and have heard a recording of yourself speaking, you probably know that the auditory perspective between your ears,
Is like nowhere else.
Now, imagine that that perspective is not available as a stable foundation for self-regard, but changes from day to day, and hour to hour.
Imagine you are attuned to sound and have grown up in a culture that hears voices as indices. A shifting interior voice is an index that something very different from a stable interior voice.
Mack: When your voice, when your exterior voice became unstable, became multiple, or at least its multiplicity became super readily apparent.
Intellectually, I’m sure you knew your interior voice was something of a construct, but it seems like the actual lived physical experience of that, I mean, led to an entire project.
So, obviously it had an impact on you.
Sterne: That’s totally fair to say.
Yeah, I’m just trying to think about how to explain this without psychoanalyzing myself. I mean, that passage is instructions as much to me as to the reader, because it’s something I have to constantly remind myself of.
[Music from Jonathan Sterne]
Mack: That passage from Diminished Faculties, shows Jonathan engaging with phenomenology, something I definitely would not have expected from reading his previous work.
Sterne: To say I wasn’t interested in phenomenology would be unfair. It was more like, I hate-read phenomenology.
Mack: To put it very simply, phenomenology is the study of how we perceive things and how we engage with the objects of our experience.
Traditional phenomenologists did things like sit at a table or grasp a hammer or listen to the sound of a room, and then they would try to isolate some kinds of universal properties about how we perceive and engage with the world.
Sterne: And the thing I didn’t like about phenomenology was it was generally white guys walking around in a room or sitting in a chair and then universalizing their own experience.
Mack: But more recently we’ve seen new phenomenologies emerge, ones that try to account for forms of difference.
Sarah Ahmed’s groundbreaking, 2006 work, Queer Phenomenology, explored the lived experience of people who are positioned as sexual and racial minorities or embody other forms of difference.
These subjects, Ahmed claims, are differently oriented to phenomena within a world that has not been shaped for them.
Stacey Copeland: It’s like nails on a chalkboard. I’m biased against myself, I guess.
Mack: In part two of this series on voices, Stacey Copeland investigated how patriarchy shapes the way that women experience the phenomena of their own voices.
Jonathan Sterne’s Diminished Faculties explores what he calls a political phenomenology of impairment, critiquing the ableist assumptions embedded in old school phenomenology, and asking what disabled bodies can teach us about our perception of the world, starting with the sound of our own voice, which our culture tends to associate with agency or ability itself.
Sterne: The way that a person’s voice sounds in their head is totally different from the way it sounds in the world.
It’s the first time somebody hears themselves on a recording on, a voicemail, on an answering machine.
It’s usually shocking. We’re kind of revolting.
Like most people don’t love how they sound when they hear how they sound outside their heads. And the weird thing about those recordings, even though they’re done by machines, in a way, they’re much more accurate representations of the voice than one’s own hearing oneself speak is.
Sterne: Which is utterly bizarre, right? Because we normally think our perceptions of ourselves are like the best perceptions and the most accurate, but in fact, at least with the voice, we are the poorest judges of the sound of our own voices, and that’s true for everybody.
The difference is, if you have a stable voice, you can sort of forget about that. Whereas if the voice is constantly shifting and shaky and something to which one must attend, then it becomes foregrounded and the sort of instability becomes a way of revealing some of the processes by which subjects are constantly shoring themselves up and maintaining the illusion of their wholeness or unity.
When in fact, they’re shifting and unstable from moment to moment.
Mack: I just wanted to kind of dig into this a little bit deeper, because I think, no matter how much I intellectually can challenge it in a number of different ways.
I still tend to think of myself as like there’s a little me inside of me, who’s kind of like a drive in the car here, and I think I associate that me, that self with the sound of my own voice, which as you point out is actually not the sound of my voice.
It’s the sound that I hear resonating through my skull and my body, which is a kind of deeper, more resonant thing than when I listened back to this podcast I hear. And yet, I also know that I don’t think at the speed of speech or I’d never get anything done, right?
So, I know intellectually that there’s some difference there between my voice and myself, but they seem so intertwined. And I can imagine that if my voice just started sounding really different every day or throughout the day, that that might be disruptive to that sense of self.
Sterne: Yeah. I mean, in extreme cases, that’s why vocal effects are so interesting, right?
Helium voice is always hilarious for people that don’t normally have helium voice, because your voice isn’t behaving the way it’s supposed to and even the voice in your head sounds different.
Puberty, right, in voices cracking and things like that are seen as subjects out of control of themselves, right?
And you can say the same thing either with auto-tune singing or out of tune singing. In both cases, it represents subjects not in full control and ironically in both cases, I think produces a kind of authenticity effect in the music for people that like kind of singing.
Whether we’re talking about this sort of authenticity, drenched indie guy singing alternative rock slightly off key, or we’re talking about the hyper-pitch shifted R& B singer.
I think in both cases, those, to the audience, signifies some kind of feeling or authenticity that’s precisely in the moment that the voice isn’t in control of itself.
Mack: Yeah, that’s wonderful.
Sterne: It could mean something completely different. I mean, if you don’t like the music, then it means something else, right?
I mean, you can just go on and on. They’re all these sorts of vocal effects that are tied up in regimes of listening that are all about attributing, subjectivity to the speaker.
It’s just a particularly striking instance of the way ideology works, right? That this thing, the sound of a person’s voice either in the air or through a microphone, becomes an index of all these other things about a person.
Like whether they’re in control of themselves, whether they’re believable, whether they’re relatable, whether they’re likable, whether they’re powerful, whether they’re weak, whether they should be taken seriously, whether they’re smart or dumb, right?
And this is before we get into things like accents, language, usage and subculture and things like that.
You know, Ahmed calls it an “acousmatic question.”
Who is this speaking when I hear someone else speaking?
And it’s an unanswerable question because
Mack: And I mean, and she really pushes that so far as to say that, um, voice isn’t really something that we have, right?
Like voice actually lives in the ear of the perceiver.
Sterne: Yeah, I, you know, I’m pretty comfortable with that. I mean, the inner ear of self-perception is just another perceiver. It’s one that you or I privilege when we’re like listening to the little me’s in our heads to use your term.
But, it’s certainly not more important than all the other subjects that hear our voices in a given day, week, year, or lifetime.
[Music from Jonathan Sterne]
Mack: So just to recap a bit here, Jonathan’s own instability of voice underscored that all of our voices are always changing. Which is something that we ignore in order to let the voice stand in for a unified and agentive self.
The role, the voice plays in Western culture is overdetermined by our liberal, individualist, ableist conception of subjectivity.
We like to think that we know exactly who we are. That we are unique, yet whole, and self-possessed.
Secure in our own self-determination.
We don’t want to dwell on the fact that we have no idea how to beat our own heart. We don’t even know how to breathe. We’re all just a contingency away from those things going awry.
And perhaps because of that suppressed knowledge, we think of those who are not in control of their body, mind, or voice as less than.
And almost perversely, this ableist ideology often comes wrapped in the rhetoric of voice. Which supplies some of our most touchy, feely, democratic sounding platitudes.
We speak of finding one’s voice, amplifying voices, giving voice to the voiceless, hearing a diversity of voices, voice is power. Voice is agency.
Well, in Diminished Faculties, Sterne challenges this kind of talk, this kind of conception of self.
[Snippet from Diminished Faculties by Jonathan Sterne]
Sterne: I will name the set of assertions about the voice as the ideology vocal ability and includes the following propositions, any one of which can figure and enact to the voice as a figure of agency and which together construct an ableist conception of voice.
One, there’s such a thing has “The Voice,” which is a universal faculty of human beings. It is one aspect that defines them.
Two, to understand the voices is to understand a fundamental aspect of subjectivity.
Three, the voice is a natural expression of an inner subjective self. As breath moves out into the world in the form of sound, so does agency. Therefore, having a voice is preferable to not having a voice.
Mack: This kind of ableist thinking is not only enacted in the ways we listened to others, it can even get built into the technologies that are intended to serve as vocal prosthesis.
Too often these technologies ignore aesthetics or expressiveness in ways that reflect disabled people’s stigmatized and marginalized status, even as they are supposed to ameliorate it.
Case in point, Jonathan’s “dork-o-phone.”
Jonathan’s speech therapist introduced him to the personal speech amplifier, while helping him to relearn speaking, swallowing and breathing during his recovery.
Jonathan, who has long been interested in the interplay between disability and communication technology, immediately noticed a weird combination of high price and total lack of concern for aesthetics that you’d never find in a mainstream consumer device.
The pleather neck pouch, the awkward looking headset microphone.
Not only did it not look worth $300, it also carried the air of stigma found in so many assistive technologies.
Sterne: I think actually a lot about design in disability, Graham Pullin’s Design Meets Disability, which came out in 2009, really influenced my thinking on this topic.
And that is that most prostheses that are designed for people with disabilities are presented as functional, and so the aesthetic side of it is not really considered.
You know, compare that with something like, this is the most cliched example ever in sound studies, but an iPhone where even the packaging, like the opening of the package is considered an aesthetic experience.
And Pullin compares this with, for instance, storage containers for hearing aids where the container is very not exciting, like you probably would get a more exciting container with a nice pair of earrings or cufflinks or something like that.
The container is just for the user, right? Like nobody sees that. But that shapes your own relationship to the object as you put them on and take them off.
And so that’s one of Pullin’s big points about design and disability is not just about other people’s view of it, but the designer’s view of the user, right? And this de-aesthetizing of a disability also suggests that prostheses or compensations for disability are primarily about function and function defined in normate terms.
For me, dork-o-phone is an ironic name. It is a, you could say it’s my tiny gesture of critical design around the device.
And I’ve experimented a little bit with alternatives, so far, I haven’t really found anything that is super promising for me, but maybe one day I’ll graduate to a “cool-o-phone” or something. I don’t know?
Mack: I think this also relates to a critique that you bring up about expressiveness and the entire idea that the voice is expressive and I loved [that] you cited Graham Pullin and Andrew Cook’s claim that a lack of variation in tone of voice can actually never be neutral.
That because we think that vocal impairment indexes some kind of emotional impairment or like a flat affect through the voice.
Could you maybe talk about that a little bit?
Sterne: Augmentative and assistive communication technologies for speech have traditionally focused on just audibility and legibility. In other words, the lexical meaning of the words and not any kind of pitch variation.
Stephen Hawking: The universe can spontaneously create itself out of nothing.
Moreover, we can calculate a probability that the universe is created in different states.
Sterne: And the result is that on the part of hearers, there’s often an attribution of flat affect, or not as much of a subject there to listeners. Or by listeners to speakers.
I mean, this is a bigger problem with disability. My favorite example of this is cerebral palsy, where people will assume that a person has cerebral palsy also has some kind of intellectual impairment, which is not often the case.
But because the person doesn’t move like a person without cerebral palsy and because it affects the sound of a person’s speech, there’s this assumption that there’s an impaired subject inside, or there’s an intellectual impairment to go with the physical impairment.
So, voice is used this way as an index of interiority. To express the variation in pitch and volume is heard to express the inner self of the speaker.
[Music by Jonathan Sterne]
Mack: At the start of this show, Jonathan Sterne mentioned the mediality of the voice. That there is no such thing as an unmediated voice.
Coming to the end of this series, Voices, I hope this insight has become a little more viscerally apparent. Voices are always mediated by the lungs, by the larynx.
Lips, tongue and teeth.
By the air.
By the headphones you’re listening to me on now.
And voices are always mediated by our ideologies. By the very belief that there is some unitary thing called “the voice” itself.
Because in reality, every voice is multitudinous. Its location is impossible to identify. It is interior and exterior. In our ears and all in our head. In the vocalist and in the perceiver.
The question of, “To home a voice belongs?” is deceptively simple.
Common sense tells us it belongs to the speaker, but the more you attend to it, the more you hear an infinite regress.
The Walla of the world.
[Music from Jonathan Sterne]
And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Huge thanks to Jonathan Sterne for being on the show.
We barely scratched the surface of his new book, really and it’s out now on Duke University Press (link in the show notes). Go get yourself a copy.
Today’s show was written and edited by me, Mack Hagood, with major editing assistance from Ravi Krishna Swami.
We heard music by Jonathan Sterne, Volt, and Buddha Curtain, all Jonathan Sterne projects in today’s, links in the show notes.
Phantom Power’s production team includes Craig Eley, Ravi Krishna Swami, and Amy Skjerseth.
And our Miami University Humanities Center Research Apprentice is Jason Meggyesy, who has been absolutely killing it with the transcripts. We are almost totally caught up with our transcripts. You can see those transcripts and links to some of the things we talked about and her today at phantompod.org.
You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Take care and see you next time.