Alejandro Madrid: "Soundscapes, Sound Archives, and the 'Sounded City'" - Response by Marc Adam Hertzman

Monday, April 4, 2016

posted under by Ted Faust
[On March 31, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture "Soundscapes, Sound Archives, and the ‘Sounded City.’" The speaker was Alejandro Madrid, Associate Professor of Musicology at Cornell University. Below is a response to the lecture from Marc Adam Hertzman, Assistant Professor of History.]

Soundscapes Past, Present, and Future
Written by Marc Adam Hertzman (History)

I am extremely grateful for being invited to participate in this event, and for the chance to engage with this fascinating paper. Madrid’s critical appraisal of the Fonoteca Nacional brings to the fore questions about a number of perennially interesting, vexing topics—nationalism (and the “post-national”); the relationship between nation and city, rural and urban, and lettered and oral; new and old forms of cultural ownership and authorship; the “democratization” (or not) of cultural and political institutions and spaces; and the always complex personal and intellectual relationships that develop in “the field,” to name just a few. In ten to fifteen minutes it would be impossible to adequately address one, let alone all, of these topics. Aware of the limitations here I would like to elaborate three sets of questions that Madrid puts on the table for us.

In assessing the Fonoteca’s self-consciously “bottom-up” project, Madrid is skeptical. Drawing on Angel Rama’s foundational text The Lettered City, Madrid suggests that, whatever its intentions, the Fonoteca project reproduces power relations and hierarchies that its architects had hoped to challenge. This, Madrid points out, raises troubling questions for those who see in today’s wired world a newly democratic, egalitarian public sphere. Rather than pointing us toward a world of more access and opportunity for a greater number of people – not to mention the valorization of previously marginalized groups and traditions – the Fonoteca becomes instead emblematic of how even the most well-intentioned national projects so often turn into “top-down, civilizing” projects. As a result, and whatever its intentions (stated or real), the Fonoteca doesn’t lead to a “democratization of sound” and instead functions more as a wall between the “late capitalist” present and the utopian “post-national” future that Madrid refers to at key moments throughout the text.

His critique puts us face-to-face with some of the most important and challenging debates in Cultural Studies, Latin American Studies, and Ethnomusicology. And again, I’d like to talk about just three of those.

Beyond the Lettered City
The first of questions grow from Madrid’s stimulating delineation of the “sounded city.” As noted, the paper dialogues with and, I think, effectively critiques Rama’s Lettered City, as well as its critics. Envisioning intellectual and public spheres, and their attendant power relations and hierarchies, in sonic terms is all well and good, Madrid shows, but moving beyond the fetishization of literacy does not, in itself, do us any good, and in fact may in some ways be more pernicious, buttressing old pecking orders under the guise of revolutionary change.

Madrid’s argument resonates with – and also diverges in key ways from – Joanne Rappaport and Thomas Cummins’ award-winning Beyond the Lettered City, set thousands of miles to the south, in the colonial Andes, centuries before the creation of the Fonoteca.[1] One of Rappaport and Cummins’ most important contributions is the challenge they present to the very notion of binary literate and non-literate spheres. Contrary to the idea that some forms of expression and knowledge production are often understood, as Madrid puts it, as “pre-modern,” Rappaport and Cummins show oral and written forms to be conspicuously intertwined. In Europe and America, “town criers” shouted out written pronouncements and proclamations. Maps, painting, and khipus – woolen knotted cords used to keep records, share news, and convey or perform any number of tasks that we often associate with writing – all suggest that the binary between written and non-written forms of literacy is a colonial invention. We find a similar point, for example, in the Koran, whose texts originated in oral recitations.

One wonders, then, what makes today’s “sounded city” different than earlier ones. What exactly is unique about the moment in which we live? Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier suggests that the aural has intensified in the last two decades. Building off this idea, Madrid sees an “increasing relevance of sound culture within a sector of the educated middle and upper classes” and “a new epistemological model, one in which sound becomes as important as the written word in trying to make sense of the natural, social, and cultural world we live in.” “In a way,” he continues, “knowledge about sound and participation in alternative sound scenes have become markers of cosmopolitan intellectual distinction” that define Mexico’s “apparent postnational ‘sounded city.’”

These are provocative ideas, worth interrogating a bit further. How does the “intensification” that Ochoa Gautier refers to compare with the remarkable transformations in technology and modes of distribution that came with the rise of the phonograph and subsequent innovations in recorded sound at the turn of the twentieth century? Returning to the Andes and again going back in time, we find a truly vibrant, connected set of sonic universes in colonial Cuzco, what Geoffrey Baker calls an “urban soundscape” or a “sonorous city.”[2] How, then, does Mexico’s contemporary “sounded city” compare to those from hundreds of years ago? I ask not to suggest a trans- or a-historical reading, but rather in the hope of honing in more closely on what is and is not unique about the moment in which we currently live and in which Madrid’s paper is set.

Along with Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba, Mexico was at the forefront of sound recording technology during the first half of the twentieth century. But the power of sound far exceeded the nascent technology. Corridos, the “soundtrack” of the Mexican Revolution, functioned as what anthropologist Robert Redfield called the “newspaper of the folk.”[3] In what ways, then, does today’s “sounded city” differ from earlier ones?

Madrid emphasizes change especially among the educated and affluent in Mexico City. Here again, it would be interesting to also think about what came before, not only in 1970s and ‘80s, but the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, when Mexican elites, much like their counterparts across the Americas, took special interest in folklore and used new technology to capture and reproduce sound, often with ideas and goals that, at least on the surface, don’t seem that different than those of the individuals under consideration in this paper.

Moving on now to a second, related set of questions about the national and postnational…

The National… Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
In the paper’s opening pages, Madrid frames the history of national music archives with the example of Austria’s Phonogrammarchiv, “the first sound archive in the world.” As he points out, the intention there was to collect music from all over, a project he writes, that was “encyclopedic, civilizing, and largely imperialistic-nationalistic.” That last term, “imperialistic-nationalistic,” is very interesting, especially given the paper’s juxtaposition of the national and the postnational. On one level, it seems that the Austrian example leads us towards thinking about the ways that external imperial projects become reinscribed or reinvented within national borders. Does Mexico City, in this case, represent a kind of metropole to the rural interior? On another level, the Austrian project to collect music from around the globe makes us think twice about the meanings of the postnational. In my own work, I’ve explored the way that Brazilian nationalism, and the fight against musical poachers from Europe and North America, helped galvanize the domestic defense of musical and intellectual property right. As imperfect and even oppressive as it is, the national has represented a refuge and source of support for musicians in a way that the postnational may not. If there is a single question here it is what, exactly, does this postnational looks like, and what specific impact it has on age-old global imbalances and inequalities in the music market. And here I’m thinking especially of Professor Madrid’s edited collection Postnational Musical Identities, which delineates a number of possible postnational pasts, presents, and futures.[4] Which kind are we dealing with here?

Sonic Ownership
This set of questions leads us to a final cluster of issues surrounding musical property and ownership. Here, the work that Brazilian ethnomusicologist Carlos Sandroni has done on Mário de Andrade is especially useful.[5] Like Robert Redfield, the Lomaxes, Zora Neale Hurston, and so many other anthropologist-ethnographer-cum-music-collectors of the era, Andrade endeavored to understand and preserve Brazil through field research, interviews, photographs, film, and recorded sound. In 1938, he directed a Folklore Research Mission that sent researchers into the rural North and Northeast to gather music, stories, and traditions before modernity and urbanization would destroy these “pure” cultures. (Interestingly enough, one of the four main researchers, Martin Braunwieser, was born in Austria.)

The project was funded by the city of São Paulo and produced several books in the 1940s and ‘50s. For the next three decades, the collection remained housed in a city office. Researchers began to work with it again in the 1980s, and their work was facilitated by an agreement signed in the 1940s with the Library of Congress in Washington, which held copies of all the sound recordings. During the 2000s, CD sets and a DVD were published.[6] Sandroni, a widely respected scholar, worked with the collection until the late 1990s, when he moved to Pernambuco, one of the states that received Andrade’s researchers. His first thought was to make the archive public and to create new recordings in the same localities in order to study “continuity and change in traditional music,” with many of the same intentions as the Fonoteca.[7] He soon had a different idea. In 1997, he traveled to Tacaratu, a small town in the interior. Using the notes from the original researchers, and relying on elders in the community, he tracked down a son of two individuals who Andrade’s team recorded in the 1930s. Rather than make new recordings, he shared. “Before our visit,” Sandroni recounted later, “nobody in Tacaratu knew that their city had been visited 60 years earlier by researchers from São Paulo, much less that photographs and recordings made their were deposited in a cultural institution 3000 km from there.”[8] Putting in the painstaking work of tracking down those individuals recorded decades earlier, Sandroni replicated similar encounters not only with descendants but also the original musicians, some of whom had never heard the sound of their own voice on a recording.

These encounters, through which Sandroni in a sense repatriated sounds and images collected – taken – so many years earlier were invariably emotional and positive. They present interesting points of dialogue with the Fonoteca project, which I’d like to return to now to conclude:

First, Sandroni’s project represents an interesting counterpoint to the Fonoteca, and not just because it focused on returning rather than recording. As Madrid shows, the Fonoteca originally hoped that individuals and communities from around Mexico would upload recordings, thus creating a map of the national soundscape. But the lion’s share of contributions came from urban areas. And so, like Redfield and Andrade before them, the scholars who Madrid discusses set out to record the hinterland. For me, the issue of whether those recordings are “bottom-up” or “top-down” is only part of a larger story. Indeed, and as Sandroni and so many other ethnographers readily admit, this kind of encounter is inevitably rife with hierarchy and imbalance. I wonder, then, whether we might focus not only on those things but also now in terms of the possible futures that the recordings, however problematic, may have.

Some of the best possible futures might be post-national, but if the experience of Sandroni is any indication, that might be missing the point a bit, too. Many of the men and women who reencountered their music were proud to have been included in a project now being studied and celebrated as a rich chapter in national history. Less important than the impositions, blindnesses, and insensitivities of Andrade’s team was the ability to reconnect, now years later, with something that was theirs.

What repatriation or reclamation mean – legally, morally, emotionally – is exceptionally complex and exceeds, I think, the analytical payload of “the democratization of sound.” As Sandroni argues elsewhere – and as others, myself included, have suggested – Creative Commons and democratic, universal access to intellectual or artistic production can have unintended, even perverse effects, such as hurting or limiting the rights of artistic producers.[9] For all the value that open access has on the consumption side, it can be brutal for producers of few economic means seeking to stake their livelihood on the art they create, especially when those producers reside on the wrong side of persistent social-discursive divides: literate-oral, refined-popular, individual-collective, etc.

To close, I’d say that I think that the postnational and the “democratization of sound” are only parts of this fascinating story that cannot be fully understood or remedied in bottom-up/top-down terms and that instead must be confronted with more varied models and with an eye not only the past and present, but also the future.

I’m grateful to Professor Madrid for writing such a stimulating paper and bringing all these fascinating issues to the table.


[1] Joanne Rappaport and Tom Cummins, Beyond the Lettered City: Indigenous Literacies in the Andes (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2011).
[2] Critiquing Rama, Baker suggests that “music, sound, and performance” were “equally integral” to literature in the colonization and urbanization of the Americas.  “The ordering of the city [was] conceived and enacted not only in verbal but also in sonic terms, exemplified by the concept and practice of harmony.”  Geoffrey Baker, Imposing Harmony: Music and Society in Colonial Cuzco (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2008), 20, 22.
[3] He titled one chapter of his ethnography of 1920s Tepoztlán “Literacy and Literature.”  Mark Pedelty, Music Ritual in Mexico City (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 122, 124; Robert Redfield, Tepoztlán, a Mexican Village: A Study of Folk Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930).
[4] Ignacio Corona and Alejandro L. Madrid, Postnational Musical Identities: Cultural Production, Distribution, and Consumption in a Globalized Scenario (Lexington Books, 2007).
[5] Carlos Sandroni, “O acervo da Missão de Pesquisas Folclóricas, 1938-2012,” Debates, no. 12 (June 2014): 55–62; Carlos Sandroni, “Notas sobre Mário de Andrade s a Missão de Pesquisas Folclóricas de 1938,” Revista do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional, no. 28 (1999): 60–73.
[6] Sandroni, “O acervo da Missão de Pesquisas Folclóricas, 1938-2012,” 56.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 57.
[9] Carlos Sandroni, “Propriedade intelectual e música de tradição oral,” Cultura e Pensamento 3 (December 2007): 65–80.
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Alejandro Madrid: "Soundscapes, Sound Archives, and the 'Sounded City'" - Response by Jessica C. Hajek

posted under by Ted Faust
[On March 31, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture "Soundscapes, Sound Archives, and the ‘Sounded City.’" The speaker was Alejandro Madrid, Associate Professor of Musicology at Cornell University. Below is a response to the lecture from Jessica C. Hajek (Musicology).]

Whose City? Whose Sound?: Mexico’s Sonic Geography
Written by Jessica C. Hajek (Musicology)

This presentation focused on the case study of the National Sound Archives of Mexico (known as Fonoteca) and the experience of, knowledge about, and intervention in the sounded city. This work is a recent research endeavor for Dr. Madrid, but is clearly situated within his other works dealing with music and cultural studies, modernity, globalization, and music and dance in Mexico. This particular topic is also positioned within the discourses of performance studies, sound studies, and space/place.

Dr. Madrid began his presentation with a personal recounting of his introduction to Fonoteca in Mexico City. While teaching a sound studies seminar at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in 2013, Madrid planned a field trip for his students to the archive. To his surprise, what he experienced was a disconnect between the congratulatory tone of the archive’s guides and the skepticism of his students regarding the purported “democratic access” to its celebrated collections and sponsored projects. In focusing on sound-based collectives like the Fonoteca, the objective of Madrid’s presentation was to construct a new epistemological model that would consider sound as an equally important object of study as the written word in understanding culture.

In the first part of his lecture, Madrid examined how the collection methods of sound archives over the past century have shaped a sonic sense of our world. Madrid began by discussing the early endeavors to document sound in 19th-century Europe, which focused primarily on the encyclopedic capturing and documentation of the sound of traditional or exotic places. Madrid then showed that this was the model that Mexico attempted to recreate when opening its first audiovisual/sound archives in 1964—a model that represented a validation of the nation-state in a local, but patronizing and colonialist way. However, in an attempt to create something new with the opening of Fonoteca in 2008, the goals of this archive were to be more democratic, not only preserving the sound of Mexico, but also promoting educational programs to create a culture of listening and fostering participation among audience and artists alike. In order to discuss its varying degrees of success, Madrid introduced two of Fonoteca’s most prolific projects—the Sound Map of Mexico and the Soundscapes CD series. He posed the question: how did these projects identify and respond to the desires of its audience?
Sound Map of Mexico showing origins and quantities of sound recordings uploaded to the app
The Sound Map of Mexico project is an interesting case in point. Here, Madrid looked at an attempt to create a “community of listeners” and a “sonic geography” of Mexico. Beginning in 2010, everyday Mexicans were encouraged to record sounds of their own environments and upload it to the app. The catch? Fonoteca requested that the sound be in the style of “field recordings”—capturing the sound of a specific place in time including ambient noises—and not professional studio recordings. Not surprisingly, the community created by the Sound Map ended up skewed toward urban sounds, with currently 224 of 380 recordings coming from Mexico City itself. Even more interestingly, a majority of recordings from outside of the capital were captured and uploaded by Fonoteca staff.
The Soundscapes CD project elucidated even more how the actors involved in these archival endeavors helped to shape the documentation of sound through a process that Madrid referred to as “performing in the field.” To make his point, the contrasting approaches to the CD project under its two directors Jorge Reyes and Francisco “Tito” Rivas were examined. Under Reyes, Madrid discussed how the goal of the project focused primarily on an artistic perspective rather than an archival one in order to create an art music CD based on sounds captured in the field. Subsequently under Rivas, the project shifted its focus onto the process of collecting the sounds themselves. According to Madrid, these examples demonstrated two ways in which the field can be performed based on the role of the recorder in his or her environment. On the one hand, Reyes was more active in selecting locations and personally interacting with the sound environment. On the other hand, Rivas was more passive, focusing more energy on the pre-production process to target the desired sounds and then setting out to find them.

Fonoteca recording crew member for Soundscapes of Mexico CD project

However, even with his more democratic approach to the Soundscapes project, Rivas was still instrumental in determining what sounds were collected and heard. For example, a narco-military conflict in the State of Guerrero made it too dangerous for Rivas’ team to make recordings in certain locations. Could this be considered a refusal to listen to the sound of everyday violence in the lives of these people, or even a state-sponsored project ignoring state-sponsored violence?

In the final part of his presentation, Madrid used Angel Rama’s concept of “the Lettered City” to suggest a discourse of “the Sounded City.” Madrid claimed that the power of recorded sound stems from its sensorial and transmittable nature, suggesting that the “Sounded City” can be considered as a cosmopolitan epistemic model of post-national circulation of knowledge and cultural belonging beyond national borders. In returning to the case study of Mexico City, he asked two questions: What kind of Sounded City is at stake with Fonoteca? Is the archive recreating older models of behaviors or offering new alternatives? In conclusion, Madrid proposed that while although the experience of sound may be more democratic in 21st-century Mexico, the institutions and artists responsible for maintaining that sound are still the heirs of the 19th-century colonial model.


Translation: “Fonoteca National Sound Archive – 
We preserve sound memory for the future” 

In the case of Fonoteca, who then has decided what Mexico sounds like? According to Madrid, urban centers dominated the contributions to the Sound Map of Mexico. These sounds were supplemented by Fonoteca staff who strategically sought out the idealized fantasy of authentic sounds from the countryside. In instances when the reality of the countryside was in contrast to their desired image—as with the Soundscapes of Guerrero project—these sounds were avoided. Therefore, the epistemological implication of Madrid’s soundscapes project is to better understand the processes that result in the fragmentation and compartmentalization of local sounds as a consequence of focusing only on the aural within an otherwise multisensorial experience. Although this presentation represented only the beginnings of a larger project, Madrid intends to continue unpacking the implications of both the essentialist search for sounds and the naturalization of identity as a strategy to attract listening audiences.
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"Unflattening: Reimagining Scholarship Through Comics" with Nick Sousanis: Response by Carol L. Tilley

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

posted under by Roman Friedman
[On March 17, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted a lecture "Unflattening: Reimagining Scholarship through Comics" followed by a hands-on workshop, "Thinking in Comics." The speaker was Nick Sousanis, Postdoctoral Fellow in Comics Studies, University of Calgary. Below Associate Professor Carol L. Tilley's (Graduate School of Library and Information Science) response to the lecture.]

A Response to Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening
Written by Carol L. Tilley (GSLIS)

Slumped and bowed, they trudge in an endless row. Visionless humans, lacking not only eyes with which to see, but the ability to imagine something, anything, more. Nick Sousanis opens Unflattening with this nightmarish tableau. To me, these characters look broken and defeated, like prisoners of war. On a more metaphysical level, they are soul-less.But what has broken them? What has, as Nick nods to Herbert Marcuse’s (1964) One-Dimensional Man, “reduced [them] to the terms of this universe”? [1]


Industrialized society with its accompanying rationalization and technological determinism? Neoliberal education and its infantilizing fervor for high-stakes testings? The primacy, or as cultural historian Walter Ong might say, the imperiousness [2], of text that shapes our understanding of and engagement with the world? In Nick’s view, all are equal contenders for the source of these de-spirited creatures, who inhabit our contemporary society and “exist as no more than shades, insubstantial and without agency.” [3] We are those slumped and bowed, the sightless persons, or at least we are in danger of becoming them.

“Languages,” Nick writes, “are powerful tools...but for all their strengths, languages can also become traps.” He continues, “In mistaking their boundaries for reality, we find ourselves...blind to possibilities beyond these artificial borders.” [4] So it seems that we have not lost our eyes, but only that we are trapped inside a perceptual and intellectual ‘Flatland.’ Happily for us, Nick proposes an elegantly and deceptively simple solution: we must only learn new ways of using our eyes. We can escape the borders—unflatten our worlds—through visual education and multimodal thinking. Nick’s book, through its sequential, experimental, and wholly effective visual narrative, models the value of his proposed solution.

I met Nick online through Twitter in the winter of 2013. Our friendship was formed around comics. Although I’m a comics scholar, I don’t really study comics as artefacts or medium; I’m more interested in what people do with them. And as Nick was quick to tell me back in 2013, although his dissertation—the text that became Unflattening—uses the medium of comics, it isn’t really about comics. Instead it’s more about the value of interrogating our world through comics and visual media. We’re both comics scholars, but ones that tend to step a little outside the artificial borders for the discipline. It seems most reasonable then that I step a little beyond the perhaps expected intellectual boundaries for this talk to consider how the work of Otto Neurath—my current intellectual crush—might illuminate Nick’s thesis in Unflattening

Otto Neurath was a philosopher and social scientist whose lasting achievements grew from the ruins of World War I, a war that required Neurath’s hometown Vienna along with the rest of the nation of Austria to build itself politically and economically anew.  Post-World War I Austria was perceived to be lebensunfähig, unlivable. Despite the lack of food, fuel, and housing, and a tenuous government infrastructure, Neurath recalled these years fondly. “After the lost war,” he wrote, “there were more difficulties in the world, but more chances that things could change.” [5] Neurath, like Nick, saw hope amid despair, and both scholars believed that the visual is that source of hope.

In the early 1920s, Neurath established in Vienna the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum, the Social and Economic Museum. Neurath conceived this institution as one that appealed to the immediate needs that the Viennese had to understand and improve their individual and collective status. It was not a conventional museum; Neurath alternately described it as a “popular educational institute for social enlightenment.” [6] Rather than exhibits of machinery or dioramas of ancient times, Neurath’s museum used specially constructed charts alongside films, lectures, and similar tools as the focus. Unlike many of his contemporaries who privileged fine arts and classical literature, Neurath was inspired by the mass media’s engagement and efficiency in communication. [7]

Neurath believed that visual communication was key to emancipation. [8] As a socialist working in what was then a socialist government, Neurath viewed knowledge as a necessity if citizens were to gain full economic, political, and social rights. Like Nick, Neurath believed in the absolute imperative for people to be liberated from the boxes, tracks, and systems that constrain them. Where Nick proposes restoring our abilities to ‘vision’ the world, Neurath offered us new ways to see the world.

In his work at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum, Neurath developed and refined his vision for a system for “the metamorphosis of statistical material into pictorial sketches.” [9] He didn’t want simply to show how many widgets Austrian workers produced, Neurath wanted to “visualize invisible phenomena, that is, social and economic processes that were not accessible to the naked eye.”[10] Over the course of the next two decades, Neurath worked alongside mathematician and physicist Marie Reidemeister (who later became his wife) and artist Gerd Arntz to build the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics. Later Reidemeister renamed their language system Isotype, or International System of Typographic Picture Education.

Isotype does not eschew the use of text, but primacy is given to the pictograms. These pictograms are simplified images, comprising a vocabulary of sort, and can be combined, ordered, sized, aligned, and repeated to convey meaning. [11] Isotype: a visual argument; a basic juxtaposition of words and images in sequential form. [12] We wouldn’t mistake an Isotype chart for Nick’s work, but they arise from the same foundation.

The key to Isotype is the transformer. It is the transformer that enables the metamorphosis of raw data into visual arguments. [13] Neurath wrote, “A scientific specialist may be ever so eminent in his own field—indeed, he may even have high qualifications as an educator—but that is no reason for supposing that he necessarily knows what is the best way of translating his intentions into visual reality.”[14] The transformer oversees the translation process, serving as a partner to both scientist and designer, but primarily as an advocate for the learner. The transformer is “a sympathetic listener who gently refuses to go away” until the communication process is complete.[15]  It is probably not coincidental that Marie Reidemeister was both Neurath’s transformer and later his wife. There’s an intimacy and sensitivity required in the transformer’s work, much the same as what is required for a loving relationship.

Neurath’s museum and visual education projects led him to a partnership with Belgian Paul Otlet, a pioneering information scientist.  One of Otlet’s many aspirations was to create the Palais Mondial (World City), a global scientific information repository and cooperative resource network. While Neurath was skeptical of some of Otlet’s plans (and vice versa), they agreed to cooperate on a new project Novus Orbis Pictus, an atlas of human civilization, that combined Neurath’s interest in visual education and Otlet’s goals for information sharing. It’s worth noting that the project’s name pays homage to Johann Comenius, a Moravian theologian who created in the 1650s the first illustrated textbook, Orbis Sensualium Pictus. In the book’s opening, Comenius’ tutor apprises the student reader, ibimus Mundum, & spectabimus omnia. “We will go into the world, and we will view all things.”

Although Neurath conceptualized a new mode for scientific discourse and education, he did not live long enough to see it fully realized. In fact seventy years later, we are still waiting. In Reading Images, semioticians Kress and van Leeuwen propose that perhaps, “visual representation is more apt to the stuff of science than language ever was, or even that a science which is visually constructed will be a different kind of science.”[16] Nick’s work, which asserts that it is past time for the visual to have primacy over text, encourages us to discover whether a different kind of science happens. Some of my own work reflects on young people’s use of media and technology. For many young people, stories and information, narrative and content, matter far more than than format or platform. Thus, I have hope that while it may be too late for our generation of scholars to see the kind of radical social and scientific change that such a revolution in representation—a transformation to the visual—would bring, a future generation soon will.

In a reconsideration of Neurath’s contributions to visual communication, designers Michael MacDonald-Ross and Robert Waller provided an apt synthesis of the transformer.

“The message is humanistic: break down the barriers in the interests of the reader. Take responsibility for the success or failure of the communication. Do not accept a label or a slot on the production line. Be a complete human being with moral and intellectual integrity and thoroughgoing technical competence. Be a transformer.”[18]

With Unflattening, Nick is scientist, transformer, and designer all at once. Like Comenius’ tutor, he is leading us into the world, encouraging us to view all things. Moreover, he is showing us that comics themselves have the power to serve as transformers, bridging scholars and lay readers, encouraging all of us to break down barriers and be more than another slot filled on the production line.

References and Further Reading

Burke, Christopher, Eric Kindel, and Sue Walker (eds). Isotype: Design and contests 1925-1971. London: Hyphen Press, 2013.

Cartwright, Nancy, Jordi Cat, Lola Fleck, Thomas E. Uebel. Otto Neurath: Philosophy Between Science and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Comenius, Johann. Orbis Sensualium Pictus. 1658 (1887 edition). Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/cu31924032499455#page/n41/mode/2up

Kress, Gunther, and Theo van Leeuwen. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2006.

MacDonald-Ross, Michael and Waller, Robert, “The Transformer Revisited.” Information Design Journal 9 (2000): 177-193.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding ComicsThe Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

Neurath, Otto. International Picture Language: The First Rules of Isotype. London: Kegan Paul Trench Trubner, & Co., 1936.

Neurath, Otto. “Museums of the Future.” Survey Graphic 22/9 (1933): 458-463, 479, 484.

Ong, Walter. Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought. In The Linguistics of Literacy, edited by Pamela A. Downing, Susan D. Lima, and Michael Noonan, 293-319. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 1992.

Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Stadler, Friedrich. Written Language and Picture Language after Otto Neurath—Popularising or Humanising Knowledge? In Image and Imaging in Philosophy, Science and the Arts, volume 2, edited by Richard Heinrich, Elisabeth Nemeth, Wolfram Pichler, and David Wagner, 1-30. London: Verlag, 2011.

Vossaoughian, Nader. Otto Neurath: The Language of the Global Polis. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2007.
_____________________________________________

[1] Sousanis, Unflattening, 21.
[2] Ong, Writing is a Technology, 293.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid, 52.
[5] Burke, Kindel, and Walker, Isotype, 23.
[6] Ibid, 47.
[7] cf. Vossaoughian, Otto Neurath, 59.
[8] Neurath believed that knowledge was emancipatory (cf. Cartwright et al, Otto Neurath, 92) and because of his valuing of visual communication as a means of educating for knowledge, it fits that he would view visual communication as a tool for emancipation.
[9] Burke, Kindel, and Walker, Isotype, 63.
[10] Vossaoughian, Otto Neurath, 59.
[11] cf. Neurath, International Picture Language.
[12] cf. McCloud, Understanding Comics. Although I find weaknesses with McCloud’s definition in terms of what it excludes, it works well enough for this essay’s purposes.
[13] Burke, Kindel, and Walker, Isotype, 85.
[14] Neurath, “Museums of the Future,” 479.
[15] cf. MacDonald-Ross and Waller, “The Transformer Revisited,” 179.
[16] Kress and van Leeuwen, Reading Images, 37.
[17] MacDonald-Ross and Waller, “The Transformer Revisited,” 188.


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Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium: Panel 1, Samantha Frost & Hina Nazar - Response by Wendy J. Truran

Monday, March 28, 2016

posted under by Ted Faust
[On March 14, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium, highlighting the research projects of our current Faculty Fellows. The first panel of the day featured Samantha Frost, Associate Professor of Political Science and Gender & Women's Studies, and Hina Nazar, Associate Professor of English. Below is a response to this panel from Wendy J. Truran (English).]

The habit and habitus of subjectivity
Written by Wendy J. Truran (Department of English)

The first panel at the Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium, held on March 14 2016 brought two, seemingly very different, projects into conversation. Samantha Frost's project sought to shift our conception of the human animal. Hina Nazar’s project shifts assumptions regarding John Locke’s ideas on education from the long eighteenth century. Despite their projects’ apparent dissimilarity, both speakers focused on subjectivity. Both papers outlined forces which contribute to the creation of a political subject and addressed the limits of contemporary critical theory, offering ways to reconceive of its application in their respective fields.

Samantha Frost’s paper offered an ontological argument regarding the “it-ness of the body,” or what she called the “corporealization of culture.” Frost’s paper brought together the unlikely bedfellows of contemporary theory and life sciences in the service of creating a more nuanced, fleshy, multi-scalar idea of subject formation. Her discussion of the materiality of the subject was given in the form of ten theses, not all of which I’ll be able to cover here, but more information can be found in her upcoming book: Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New Theory of the Human. Life Sciences are trying to account for social influence, or as Frost put it, ‘how the social gets under your skin.’ Life sciences are finding evidence for what feminist theorists and literary scholars have long known: culture and imagination changes you. Scientific findings are demonstrating that even if the event does not take place, even if it is imagined, the effect can still remake biological matter. The formation of self must be thought of as a corporeal, social, and subjective phenomenon. Frost therefore offered a conception of a “biocultural human” (thesis four), which insists that, even at a cellular or hormonal level, “meaning shapes matter.”

Frost began by exploding the commonplace belief that biology is a stable substance, a fleshy given, when in fact - at the level of cells or genes for example – biology is very responsive to a wide range of influences. Going further, Frost pointed out that biological processes do not exist before the environment in which the subject functions. The biocultural organism is a dynamic system, living is a process. Frost offered this new picture in thesis one, stating that “all living organisms, including humans, are porous.” In addition, thesis three offers that “a living body is a temporally particular configuration of processes of composing and decomposing.” There is influx and efflux of environmental influences, such as toxins, nutrients and air-quality. Indeed all organisms are influenced by their habitus, and can be affected all the way down to the biochemical or even molecular level. What is key for Frost is that culture forms an integral part of the habitus, and therefore living bodies are always influenced by culture. The fleshy materialization of norms within living creatures means that we must think of the ‘environment’ as mental, emotional, social, cultural, biological, material, and even imagined. In the act of “composing and decomposing and recomposing” the human is open to influence and change. Not infinite change, Frost cautions, but change nonetheless, and therefore she asks, how might corporeal change be affected by social, political, and material changes in the environment? Whilst this increases the complexity of how we conceive of the human, both biologically and culturally speaking, it also allows for a new conception of the ways living bodies “inhabit place, history, and time.”

Frost cautioned that we must stop thinking about bodies as “stuff” and begin thinking of them as processes. She points out in thesis six that there is a lag, “the responses of biocultural creatures to bio-culturing are non-contemporaneous with their current habitats” and in thesis seven adds that “living organisms, including humans, are distinct from the habitats that culture them.” Past responses to previous habitats prepare biocultural organisms for future habitats, so that responses now can have a multi-dimensional sense of time: they may have immediate effects but also a futurity, lingering for generations. Thesis nine brought Frost’s work most clearly into conversation with contemporary theory: “Material environments shape biological processes as well as processes of identification, and social and representational environments shape biological processes as well as processes of identification.” She elucidated by suggesting that a living subject’s response to social norms or institutional inequalities have hormonal, neurochemical, immune-system consequences that then convert, for example, into habitual anger, or stress, or depression. So that to study subjectivity, Frost contends, means that we need to account for “all the biocultural constituents formative of living human subjects,” cultural and biological.


Something tremendously fascinating comes forth in Frost's theses: the idea that culture isn’t something ‘out there’ that may or may not affect the stability of the ‘in here’ of living bodies, but rather that the environment microbiologically shapes and reshapes the composition of the living creature, and the experience of inhabiting a body. Frost’s claims seem to extend the scope of responsibility for those who have the greatest influence on the habitus of each organism – which means each one of us. Depending on the scale by which we think of the habitus, we might think of influencing a biocultural organism’s environment as eating a nutritious meal, or ensuring that built environments have green spaces, or organizing politically for social justice for living bodies most at risk of permanent decomposition. Or as Frost put it in the Q&A: by thinking of humans as collectively responsible, thinking in terms of communities we might live in rather than the responsibility of the individual, we find the possibility of collective action at various scales of influence.

Hina Nazar’s paper “Locke, Education, and ‘Disciplinary Liberalism’” draws upon her book project entitled Educating for Freedom: Enlightenment Narratives of Autonomy, Gender, and Social Influence. Nazar focused on two discursive developments in the long eighteenth century – the rhetoric of education and the rhetoric of freedom, concentrating on the paradox of John Locke’s idea of “teaching freedom,” most explicitly discussed in “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” (1693). Nazar positioned her argument against scholars that she labelled the “disciplinarians": those who draw on Michel Foucault’s work to levy criticism against Locke’s ideas on education and liberalism. The disciplinarians suggest that the Locke’s conception of family, community, and system of education produces a disciplined child who can only reproduce the inherited performance of freedom, rather than be truly free. Nazar, however, complicates this reading by drawing on all of Locke’s work on education including “Of the Conduct of the Understanding” (1706) and "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" (1689). Whilst she concedes that there are certainly authoritarian strains in “Thoughts,” taking his work on education as a whole means that such discipline can be “transformed in an autonomy-friendly direction.”


Nazar points out that Locke did not think that freedom was an instinctive feature of the will, but rather the cultivation of habits. In refusing the binary of habituation versus autonomy, Locke offers a complicated (and inconsistent) vision of education producing free, rational subjects. It is this inconsistency that allows Nazar to find a means to reconcile Locke’s liberalism and his thoughts on education. Locke claims that our character is formed through our habits, and this is why the right education is so important, because without it “habits will still be formed” but they will be formed “without due regard to the duty to exercise one’s power of freedom.” Nazar identifies a split in Locke’s thinking and thereby offers two ideas of education that emerge from Locke. The first she called “child-responsive,” which conceives of teaching as educating children to attain future freedom. Second, “adult-imitative” sees education as teaching children to imitate adult freedom. The first, Nazar argues, is the more compelling when looking at Locke’s ideas on education as a whole.

Given that a child lacks reason, or the self-command to be reasonable (in Locke’s conception), is it possible to teach the habit of free thinking? What habits, Nazar asks, are autonomy-friendly habits? Early in “Thoughts,” Locke claims that until children have mastered self-command, which is a necessary condition for freedom, they must submit to parental will. Through compliance to adult reason, they are cultivating their own reason. This is what Nazar calls the “adult-imitative” model. On the other hand, his “child-responsive” model demands that educators “respect the given talents and temperaments of their pupils” and be responsive to each child’s “habits of desiring.” Parents, he suggests, should talk to their children as rational beings and encourage them to participate in a community of rational adults, so that self-command and a love of reason will develop in the future.

These issues still filter into our classrooms today: how do we teach individuals to be critical thinkers without telling them what to think? Locke in his “child-responsive” form, Nazar suggests, suggests we should emphasize “how rather than what to think.” One means of creating a free thinking child is by engaging others in “dialogue, debate, and critical reading” in order to form a greater awareness of how ideas are put together in general. Nazar argues that Locke’s subject is a more complicated figure than the disciplinarians allow, and that ultimately Locke offers a modest scope for autonomy. Nazar suggests, however, that this is a more compelling and accurate picture of Locke and education, and “of the freedom of the socialized subject.” Indeed, Nazar’s conception of the subject, like Frost’s, is one that is porous; that is capable of change. A subject who through a change of habit, or Frost’s habitus, achieves the possibility of limited autonomy. Read more

Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium: Panel 3, Derrick Spires & J. David Cisneros - Response by Ben Bascom

Friday, March 18, 2016

posted under by Roman Friedman
[On March 14, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium, highlighting the research projects of our current Faculty Fellows. Panel 3 of the day included Derrick Spires, Assistant Professor of English, and J. David Cisneros, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication. Below is a response to this panel from Ben Bascom (English).]

Citizens as Verbs: The Politics of Belonging in Nineteenth-Century and Contemporary American Citizenship
Written by Ben Bascom (Department of English)


As part of the Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium held on Monday, March 14, Derrick Spires (English) and J. David Cisneros (Communication and Latina/Latino Studies) shared portions of their current projects. Their fortuitous combination on this panel illuminated a series of overlapping interests, particularly highlighting how their scholarship reimagines the cultural work of citizenship as a workable ideal within the lives of marginalized groups—either from those outright disenfranchised as black men in antebellum America or those demarcated as transgressors of law through rhetorics of illegal immigration. Although they focus on disparate contexts and time periods, both offered insightful readings of belonging in the United States through focusing on citizenship as a cultural value that both contests and revises the state’s buttressing of rigid legal definitions. In this blog post, I will recap major portions of their arguments and illuminate a few questions that their work provokes.


Spires, a scholar of nineteenth-century African-American literature, titled his presentation “On Violence and Citizenship in Frances E. W. Harper’s American, 1854–1861” and in it he demonstrates how black nineteenth-century American writers pulled from histories of violence in order to produce revolutionary understandings of citizenship and belonging. Examining references to Margaret Garner in the poems of Frances E. W. Harper—the author of the first short story published by an African American—Spires shows how Harper appeals to scenes of violence in her writings in order to envision revolutionary, as opposed to sentimentalized, modes of citizenship. Harper conceived of a revolutionary politics based on everyday life, Spires contends, through mobilizing a radical sensibility that resisted a politics of right feelings as promoted by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. The thrust of Stowe’s argument is that sentimental representations of slavery can influence readers to “feel right,” in her words, through inducing them to shed tears of sympathy for the plight of the “lowly.” Instead of this model, Harper wishes to speak back to the subjecting and abjecting powers of slavery, actively reinterpreting the past and imagining new possibilities.

For Spires, Harper provides a crucial case study to think about black theories of citizenship because of the subtle differences between her 1854 and 1857 editions of Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. Where the earlier version includes poems that sentimentalize enslaved bodies as objects in need, the 1857 version moves to instead give voice to previously erased subjects: in the case of a poem about Margaret Garner, Harper actively gives voice to her calculated decision to pursue violent means to keep her children from a life of slavery. Quoting bell hooks, Spires calls this “the expression of our movement from object to subject—the liberated voice.” As such, the 1857 version works against dominant anti-slavery work, refusing to bridge an experiential gap between how it feels to be enslaved to instead expose the structuring devices that naturalize and normalize such dynamics. 

Between the years of Harper’s editions, Spires reminds, a series of violent encounters with slavery circulated in the print public sphere, from stories about John Brown and “Bleeding Kansas” to massive slave uprisings all over the southern United States, and of course to Margaret Garner freeing her child from a future life of slavery. In his overall project, Spires examines how sites of violence become understood as scenes of revolutionary practice in the writings of nineteenth-century African Americans, and so he collates these violent events under the heading of “the spirit of 1856” to associate black American responses to the limits of citizenship and the bondage of slavery with a metonymic connection to Patrick Henry’s iconic “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech from the era designated “the spirit of 1776.” Through arguing that Harper and other African-American writers were attuned to “the spirit of 1856,” Spires makes visible the ways sentiment and sentimentality hold at bay determinations to violent actions, the possibility of which disallows revolutionary change and possibility.

Spires had begun his presentation by distinguishing between the what and the how of citizenship, specifically clarifying that he is interested in a practice-based notion of citizenship in antebellum U.S. political culture that allows for the work of someone like Harper—doubly disenfranchised as a black woman—to be imagined as an engaged citizen. While it would be easy to locate within the canon of U.S. state and federal law how citizenship has historically been reserved for white (often property-owning) men, Spires instead is interested in how African Americans sought to fashion lives that expand and contest such static notions. Resisting conceptions of citizenship as a fully formed, self-evident category, Spires theorizes citizenship as a participatory practice, capaciously open to those who are ostensibly defined in negative relation.

Similarly wishing to trouble normative conceptions of citizenship, J. David Cisneros in “The Cruel Optimism of ‘Coming out of the Shadows’: Affect, Emotion, and Immigration Rhetoric” examines new imaginaries of citizenship as propelled through contemporary activist and protest work. Building from his current project, “Feeling Citizenship: Migration, Mobility, and the Movement of Affect,” Cisneros examines how feelings about immigration not only saturate the public sphere but also surface and rupture in significant ways—ways that both trouble and reify the state’s interests. The particular archive that he uses comes from the “Coming out of the Shadows” campaign, a series of videos and texts where undocumented residents publicly declare their outsider status with relation to the U.S. nation-state’s protocols of citizenship. Undocumented youth helped begin this project, Cisneros explains, and they drew from LGBTQ discourses around closetedness to highlight the vectors of queerness that inhere to the state’s interactions with policed populations.

The “Coming out of the Shadow” narrative emphasizes the tremendously brave act that is to publically declare one’s precarious status as an “illegal” resident, unprotected by the legal rights, recognitions, and prerogatives of citizenship. The conventions of this genre emphasize an emotionally powerful story that narrates an individual’s journey to the U.S., struggles to fit in and the overcoming of trials, and finally a gesture toward future hopes and aspirations. In one such video, an 18-year-old Colombian living in Queens, NYC declares her desire to become a teacher to bridge achievement gaps while simultaneously lamenting how her status as undocumented by the federal government prohibits her doing so. Such narratives transition from the negative affects of shame, fear, and anxiety to pride, empowerment, and dedication. Key to such narratives is the validation of a “good” citizen that undocumented individuals already are—indeed, that they are markedly different from the image media portray. “Next time you hear a bad story of an undocumented immigrant,” she concludes, “think of me.”

To trouble such hopeful associations, Cisneros suggests that even as these narratives may help shift public attitudes and emotions, they also rely on an optimism that might appropriately be understood as cruel. Indeed, Cisneros calls “Coming Out of the Shadows” a textbook example of what Lauren Berlant has equipped “cruel optimism.” “[C]ruel optimism exists,” Berlant avers, “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” Clarifying this point, Berlant goes on to describe this mode of interacting with the world as “a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic.” Within the rhetoric and lived-reality of extra-legal immigration, one’s desire for recognition from the very state formation that articulates one’s illegality further entrenches the vulnerability of such lives. Even as a politics of recognition may shift public opinion, the normative structures of belonging still impact their material lives, especially when desire for attachment and recognition actually opens one up to more precarious living.

Cisneros notes that national belonging and citizenship is the primary form of attachment in these “coming out” narratives. While such desires for citizenship, belonging, and normativity attempt to de-stigmatize illegality, they illustrate an investment in an unreciprocal relation, one where recognition is a one-sided endeavor. “Inside my heart, I feel I am American,” one narrative asserts: “I just wish I would feel loved back at some point.” But the U.S. nation-state is far more hardened in the heart to be moved by such declarations of feelings, Cisneros reminds, as the breakup of families have been key to the mass of deportations under President Obama’s administration. Instead, the nation-state has the power to indefinitely defer citizenship, refusing the appeal to feeling and recognition.

As an example that resists this self-defeating relationship of cruel optimism, Cisneros concluded his talk by a reading of Stephanie Camba’s “Walang papeles, walang takot! (No papers, no fear),” a short online text that challenges normative forms of citizenship. The story Stephanie provides doesn’t seek to prove she’s a good immigrant, nor does her narrative detail personal achievements, but instead she expresses a sense of precarity and a refusal to defer to “a system that ranks us in order and does not see us for our human qualities and complexities.” This text doesn’t pinpoint illegality as a problem that needs to be solved, but rather points at how the state’s subjection produces the very conditions it poses itself as being couched to solve. This example negotiates the normative attachments of citizenship itself without proceeding toward “cruel optimism,” interrupting the system while offering what Cisneros calls a “wary optimism”—a critical cruel optimism that refuses the self-defeated effort at recognition to instead refuse the interpellation of state power. Cisneros concluded by wondering if this mode of wary optimism could imagine something beyond citizenship, producing a new possibility outside the dynamics of state recognition that actually ground the problem in the first place.

Such questions are particularly resonant in the year of a presidential election where discourses of outright exclusion, the demonization of marginalized groups, and the active violence at political spectacle are not merely tolerated by the Republican frontrunner but encouraged. What I gain from both Spires and Cisneros is an invigorated perspective regarding the need to continually work toward justice when it comes to examining the limits and constraints of citizenship, specifically to think of citizenship as a verb—an action to be shared and extended, shaped and transformed—as opposed to an exclusive noun to be policed and normalized.
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Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium: Panel 2, Rini Bhattacharya Mehta & Michael Silvers - Response by Jessica C Hajek

posted under by Ted Faust
[On March 14, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium, highlighting the research projects of our current Faculty Fellows. Panel 2 of the day included Rini Bhattacharya Mehta, Assistant Professor of Comparative & World Literature, and Michael Silvers, Assistant Professor of Musicology. Below is a response to this panel from Jessica C. Hajek (Musicology).]

Immoral Noises: Bollywood Cinema and Brazilian Castrati
Written by Jessica C. Hajek (Musicology)

Rini Bhattacharya Mehta (Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and Religion): "Embracing the Noise: Bollywood and Neoliberal India"

This presentation provided a brief snippet of Mehta’s book manuscript Unruly Cinema: A Counterhistory of Bollywood, which is her contribution to the recent explosion in research interest on Indian cinema. Her contribution to this scholarship is the story of how Bollywood has continued to grow as an important aspect of Indian identity despite every attempt to control, reform, and refine it.

By centering on the case study of Shah Rukh Khan — “the biggest movie star you’ve never heard of” — Mehta explored the idea of being Indian in the world of cinema. In looking at the trajectory of the marketing of Indian cinema during the 20th century, Bollywood films can be understood as a consequence of economic liberalization and post-nationalism in India since the 1990s. Mehta suggested that this time period represents a shift from the view of the “immoral” pro-corporate nation-state in cinema to the identification of the success of capitalism with the success of the nation.

Her discussion was framed as a reverse chronology that investigated three points in time in the history of Indian cinema. Starting with Bollywood’s presence at this year’s upcoming Cannes Film Festival, Mehta demonstrated that there has been a recent and well-concerted effort to popularize and sell Indian cinema to a world market. Several organizations—including FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry) and the MIB (Ministry of Information and Broadcasting)—have been explicitly involved in marketing Indian cinema as a brand in order to make the country attractive to foreign investors. However, as she pointed out, the penetration of this market has only just begun.

The second point in time focused on the first Hollywood ventures into making Bollywood films in 2007. Citing a NY Times article, she noted that American film companies like Sony, Fox, and even Walt Disney began collaborating with Indian companies to make Indian films that would cater better to Indian audiences and compete with domestic pictures. Using the example of the Sony/Columbia release of “Saawariya,” Mehta showed how these Hollywood cinematic endeavors were in fact hardly distinguishable from Bollywood-financed films of the time.

The third point in time focused on the impact of the liberalization of Indian media in the 1990s in an attempt to answer the question of why Hollywood ventured into Bollywood in the first place. First, Mehta unpacked the relationship between foreign and domestic market saturation pre- and post-1990. For example, Coca-Cola was squeezed out of India and replaced by locally-manufactured Thumbs-Up in 1977. But after liberalization, PepsiCo entered the Indian market in 1991 and Coca-Cola bought Thumbs-Up in 1993 to compete better in the Indian market. Second, she looked at liberalization’s impact on Indian media, including an increased availability of private cable channels and imported Hollywood films dubbed into Hindi—such as “Jurassic Park” (1993) and “Speed” (1994). Whereas there had been resistance to foreign films in India since the 1920s that helped spur domestic consumption of local-language films, Mehta pointed out that after the 1990s, actors like Keanu Reeves were speaking Hindi in these films. How could domestic films compete?

At the same time that Hollywood films were saturating the Indian market, the increase in available cable channels also created an increased demand for new, local content. As a result of this, Mehta suggested that Indian film music underwent a kind of “MTV”-ization (emphasizing staging as much if not more than signing). The newly emerging middle class became the source of growing consumerism and confidence as a part of a new nationalist image of “Shining India.” This paved the way for a resurgence in the production of Indian-language content—along with Bollywood films—and the need for a supra-national Indian identity.

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Movie Poster of Bollywood Film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge [Source]

In conclusion, Mehta stressed the role of the Indian diaspora in particular as a strategy of economic development in post-1990s neoliberal India. With the example of the film “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” from 1995, Metha returned to actor Shah Rukh Khan as an example of the expatriate Indian as a central figure of Indian cinema. Following this, Mehta brought her discussion back to the critical year of 2007 with scenes from the film “Guru”—which premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. This film captured the realization of “Bollywood noise,” as we see the central character (loosely based on a successful Indian businessman) become the hero of the film and a source of national pride.

Michael Silvers (Assistant Professor in the Department of Musicology): “A Naturally Immoral Voice: The Story of Castrato Paulo Abel de Nascimento”

This presentation was based on an excerpt of the second chapter of Prof. Silvers’ manuscript Voices of Drought: Forró Soundscapes in Northeast Brazil, informed by recently completed ethnographic research on the subject.

By focusing on the case study of “natural” castrato Paulo Abel de Nascimento, Silvers explored how Nascimento carried the marks of his hometown of Ceará with him into the world. In doing so, Silvers unpacks the relationship between music and drought in Northeast Brazil as both a natural and social phenomenon and how this relationship pertained to identity construction and marginalization. Silvers suggested that Nascimento’s “immoral voice” serves as the locus for nature versus materiality and gender/race categories in Northeastern Brazil.

Silvers began his discussion by looking at the height of Nascimento’s career after returning from a world tour in 1985 and appearing in the 1988 classic “Dangerous Liaisons.” At the same time, he pointed to the contradiction of Nascimento embodying a “natural” castrato, who was also criticized for the strangeness of his voice. Silvers clarified that, in fact, Nascimento’s condition was not given to him by nature, but instead a consequence of a testosterone deficiency brought on by malnutrition—a so-called “stigma of hunger.”

Silvers continued his discussion by exploring the sociality and materiality of the voice. Interestingly, Nascimento referred to his own condition as a by-product of growing up in the state of Ceará in Northeastern Brazil not from a social standpoint, but a material one. Nascimento explained his condition by recounting how he was the 13th boy in his family (the youngest of fifteen overall—nine of whom died in childhood) and that therefore, there was no testosterone left for him. Nascimento also ascribed ethnic mixing as a cause of his natural voice.

However, these material effects on the voice also suggest social issues. Silvers explained how 20th century Brazilian national racial identity was steeped in the notion of racial democracy and the balanced miscegenation between Portuguese, African, and Indigenous roots. In contrast, the local identity unique to Ceará was based on drought and physical traits attributed to the population's mestizo (Portuguese and Indigenous) heritage. Therefore, Brazilian miscegenation from a Cearense point of view was responsible for the projected shame and prejudice that became associated with Nascimento’s voice. Thus, what was called “an immoral voice” by fellow Cearense Maestro Eleazar de Carvalho can be attributed to “chronic provincialism” and prejudice-filled art music institutions that had little room for otherness and non-gendered normativity.

Map of the States and Regions of Brazil [Source]

However, despite being marked by his hometown experiences with drought and hunger, Nascimento was able to achieve great success abroad. Silvers posited that this was due in part to a confluence of events that allowed Nascimento to transcend his local identity and tap into cosmopolitan values. First, by the 1970s, Nascimento openly identified as “homosexual” (a term that was still rare in Brazil, when Brazilians still preferred a variety of local alternative terms to categorize sexuality). Nascimento’s behavior stood in stark contrast to standard Northeastern gender norms where at the time, regardless of sexuality, masculinity was rooted in violence and bravery. Second, Silvers showed how Nascimento was also readily able to garner success abroad in the 1980s because of a resurgence of interest in historically accurate performances. In Europe and North America, the stigma of Nascimento’s natural voice was able to fit into current art music tastes. In other words, his “stigma of hunger” could remain invisible and be recast into the Western patriarchy. Read more

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