- Introduction: Listening to American Studies
Why is it so difficult for so many people to listen? Why do they start talking when there’s something to hear? -John Cage in the documentary Sound
I remember everything I’ve ever heard. Every dropped nickel, raindrop drip-drop, sneaker squeak, and sheep bleat. Every jump rope chant, Miss Mary Mack Mack hand clap, and eenie meanie chili beanie oop bop-bop bellini method for choosing who’s it. I remember every sappy R&B radio lyric and distorted Hendrix riff. Every Itzhak Perlman pluck and squishy backseat contorted make-out session. I can still hear every Hey you, You the man, and John Philip Sousa euphonium toot and every tree rustle and street-corner hustle. I remember every sound I’ve ever heard. It’s like my entire life is a song I can’t get out of my head.—Paul Beatty, Slumberland
Now I will do nothing but listen...—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself ”
As we began to work on this special issue of American Quarterly, we were introduced to 2487, a sound art installation by the Mexican artist Luz María Sánchez. Originally commissioned in 2006 by ArtSpace San Antonio, 2487 began as a gallery installation but now lives on as a digital online composition. Its title comes from the 2,487 of the estimated 8,000 people who have died while trying to cross from Mexico into the United States since 1993, and the piece consists of recordings of Sánchez speaking each name in her own voice. With a single mouse click to start the performance, the recordings are played back according to a randomized score of alternately halting and accelerating rhythms, unpredictable silences and overlaps, sudden delays and hurried repetitions, a score that corresponds, she claims, to “organic patterns much like migration patterns themselves.” Making sound signify migration patterns and thereby helping us to know and feel migration differently, Sánchez creates a sonic litany of the lost and the vanished that both speaks their otherwise silenced names—cold clerical entries on Border Patrol and human rights organizations’ databases—and keeps their memory alive through sonic performance. Sánchez speaks and records the 2, 487 names so that not one of [End Page 445] them remains unspoken or unrecorded, so that they become part of a composition other than silence.1
2487 foregrounds some of the key impulses that originally encouraged us to call for this special issue on sound. What role can sound play in analyzing contemporary debates around empire, immigration, and national culture? Where is sound in the cultural and political legacies of “American” culture and where is it in the long history of U.S. nation-building? What role have hearing and listening played in “American” formations of race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, community, and class, and how has the birth of recorded sound in the late nineteenth century informed those formations? How are new sound technologies and sonic media practices impacting “American” identities in the age of globalization? What are the political economies of sound? Does citizenship have a sound? Is there such a thing as what Henry David Thoreau described in Walden as “the broad, flapping American ear”?2
We wanted to explore these questions from within the field of American studies at a moment when the study of sound and listening is suddenly more ubiquitous than ever. There was a time when the study of sound as something beyond a scientifically measurable set of frequencies and vibrations was the obscure domain of a small cadre of ear-obsessed scholars who gathered quietly at conferences, squeezed papers on sound cultures into their otherwise non-noisy research agendas and publishing records, rallied behind cries of “sound matters!” and “listen!,” all while united by a collective sense of marginalization by the nagging dominance of the visual, that perennially repeating champ in the battle of the senses. In the west, choosing to study sound has always been choosing to take the silver. Vision has traditionally been linked to reason, knowledge, science, truth and rationality; sound is ‘seen’ as fleeting and ephemeral, mystical, subjective and contingent. The former gives...