“Soundscapes of Power”: Attending to Orality, Communicating Class, and Hearing the Humor in Dwight Conquergood’s “Voice”
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320 Lisa Merrill “Soundscapes of Power” Attending to Orality, Communicating Class, and Hearing the Humor in Dwight Conquergood’s “Voice” “Voice” is often used as a metaphor for individuality, agency, and point of view. Readers of this collection are fortunate to be introduced to Dwight Conquergood’s work through his unique voice that resonates in his writing . Engaging, powerful, and replete with wry wit, Dwight’s voice compels readers to consider the ethical dimensions of performance in formal and informal cultural, social, juridical, and academic settings, and, in so doing, to take responsibility for redressing the power imbalances in our world. Transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries (which Dwight Conquergood identified in racialized and power-­ inflected terms as “an apartheid of knowledges”), Dwight’s work often highlighted the importance of the oral and aural dimensions of performative encounters, particularly the ways oral performances “register and radiate dynamic ‘structures of feeling’ and pull us into alternate ways of knowing that exceed cognitive control” valorized by dominant and dominating groups.1 Therefore, in this brief essay, I have chosen to examine the power of Dwight Conquergood’s voice by briefly looking at the power of “voice” in his work. Few embodied behaviors are as indicative of in-­ group solidarity as the spoken word. In his article “Rethinking Elocution: The Trope of the Talking Book and Other Figures of Speech,” Dwight described this as “the common currency” to which poor, illiterate, and enslaved persons had access. Dwight explored the classed and racialized dimensions of “the power of popular speech . . . its unruly embodiments . . . its coarse and uncouth features” in this work.2 Drawing on the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, and James Ukawsaw Gronniosaw , among others, Dwight examined the ways formerly enslaved per- critical responses  321  sons narrated their experiences with the dialogic power and strategic value of reading aloud as a specific material practice within racialized contexts; as such, “giving voice” was predicated on gaining access to the literacy originally denied them. In other work, Dwight explored Frederick Douglass’s injunction to readers who wanted to understand the horrors of slavery that, instead of reading about it, they listen, in silence, to the grief and sorrow in slaves’ songs, so as to “analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of [the listener’s] heart.”3 Whether in his research with Cambodian refugees, inner-­ city street gang members, or incarcerated persons on death row, Dwight honored oppressed persons’ voices. Respecting his own working-­ class heritage —­an identification that he and I shared—­Dwight was particularly attuned to and committed to subverting “the soundscapes of power within which the ruling classes typically are listened to while the subordinate classes listen in silence.”4 But Dwight was also committed to examining (and, for those fortunate enough to have known him personally, to exhibiting) what Adriana Caverero has described as the “sonorous materiality ”5 of actual embodied voices, particularly in their classed, raced, and gendered dimensions. In Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong asserted that “because in its physical constitution as sound, the spoken word proceeds from the human interior” permeating the bodies of listeners “and manifests human beings to one another as conscious interiors, as persons, the spoken word forms human beings into close-­ knit groups.”6 Passing from one person’s body to another’s, sounds emanating from what Roland Barthes described as “the grain of one’s voice” simultaneously express a speaker’s insider status as a member of a given group and animate and create a sense of community among those who listen. Dwight’s work highlights such embodied community-­ building by oppressed persons as well as acknowledges the performative and strategic oral code-­ switching oppressed persons are often enjoined to perform. Actual, material voices are ephemeral. Necessarily missing from this collection of Dwight Conquergood’s essays is Dwight’s actual voice; its cadences, timbre, and resonance; his deft performances of irony, communicated through precise and subtle shifts in intonation, and his trickster ’s pleasure in mimicry; all of which he deployed so masterfully in person. It is that I miss the most. Those privileged to have met Dwight and heard him speak encountered those dimensions of his work. But readers of this text can recognize, along with the powerful arguments in Dwight Conquergood’s essays, what Walter J. Ong has identified as “the heavy oral residue” of voice present in literary texts in the forms of 322  cultural struggles formulary structures, antithesis, balance, and alliteration, and so readers may experience...


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