“Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies” is my first special issue since coming on board as editor of American Quarterly (AQ), and it certainly exceeded all my expectations. As the guest editors, Kara Keeling and Josh Kun, point out in their introduction, the call for an AQ issue devoted to sound studies generated almost ninety submissions—a record for a special issue for this journal by a long stretch. The seventeen essays that were subsequently selected for this volume represent a wide range of scholarly thinking on sound—from nineteenth century noise ordinances to the abstract beauty of sound to the relation of Johnny Cash to Native American soundscape—and signal to the readers of AQ of the critical role of sound in the broad field of American studies.
The idea for this special issue came about because both Keeling and Kun are on the AQ Managing Board, and had noticed an increase in submissions that had to do with a broad notion of sound. Music studies have long been fundamental to American studies, but sound—and the sensuous acts of listening and hearing—have just recently been attracting a wide range of scholarly attention.
The ability to generate sonic matter—to listen, to hear some sounds and not others—involve practices and forms of labor, as the editors note in their introduction, that engage in and revolve around relations of power. These power relations enforce certain kinds of inclusions and exclusions, involving gender, race, class, sexualities, and other formulations of identity, points of contact, and instances of conflict. Sound is understood in this issue as a cultural form with a material force and the studies here occasion examinations into the sonic and aurality as processes of economic, social, and political negotiations.
For instance, the cover image for this issue is from an installation by sound artist Stephen Vitiello, titled “Fear of High Places and Natural Things.” Vitiello works with recording as well as installation, and his method involves the altering of everyday noises into visual installations that consciously forge soundscapes. In his art, Vitiello explores the relationship between sound and motion, using these installations as a means to both sonically generate and aurally record movement. This is a transformation that is intended to shift and change our perception of the quotidian; for us to re-imagine the environment in which we exist when we listen or hear creatively and critically. From a vastly different perspective, the back cover image, a nineteenth century anti-noise ordinance flyer, also asks us to take a moment to listen. The image of George Washington, with a finger to his lips, and the words “Quiet Please” may have been a call for [End Page v] citizens of New York City to dim the chime and clatter of nineteenth century urban life, but the production of, and value placed on, proper forms of sound emission and reception still strikes as important to life as experienced in the twenty-first century.
This is what the essays in this volume do as well; they transform our perception of what we have understood to be sound: listening, hearing, and imagining. The work in the following pages of this issue represents important contributions to a uniquely American studies conversation about sound. But while the words on the pages hold political, social, and cultural meaning, when we read, we do not always hear, or are not invited to actively engage aural perception. We wanted to create a volume on sound that also involves the acts of hearing and listening. As part of this issue, then, we have established a supplementary website with audio, film clips, images, and other media files that accompany several of the essays included in the issue. While reading, then, one can also listen and watch a 1920s telephone training film, or listen to “Back Door Man” while reading an analysis of the song. You can access this site at http://www.press.jhu.edu/journals/american_quarterly/special_issue.html and later on our website at www.americanquarterly.org.
Putting together this special issue required a great many people to labor together. With the record number of submissions, the guest editors quickly found themselves...