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  • Sound and ActivismListening and Responsibility
  • Jesús A. Ramos-Kittrell

Can sound be a platform for activism? Beyond the possibilities of articulating cultural discourses of representation, can sound intervene to trigger changes in the status quo of those withstanding the pressures of marginality? These questions lie at the core of this themed issue of Americas: A Hemispheric Music Journal, shedding light on the political potential of sound and aurality to contest the asymmetrical effects of power.

In the last decade, scholars have alerted us to how the neoliberal movement of capital not only de- (and re-)territorialized identity discourses through the global circulation of practices, symbols, meanings, and people; this flux also underscored the importance of aural messages in the production of cultural capital in globalization. This "intensification of the aural," it has been argued, points to the increased importance of sound and aurality to frame the experience of modernity.1 In our current global cultural moment, such intensification has made graphic print and silent reading just one instance of the process of signification.2 Yet, as with any text, aural records are sensitive to power imbalances that permeate the social relationships in which writer, reader, and text move. In this regard, Karen Dubinsky and Freddy Monasterio remind us that cultural texts can remain framed in the signifying logics of exoticized difference. In their piece about Cuban music without Cubans, the authors warn about how cultural exoticism can pin identitarian discourse in a politics of difference, where identity emerges only in relation to commodity value, moving in a symbolic economy of desire. In contrast, Olivia E. Holloway broaches aurality as a performative strategy to redress cultural symbols and the narratives they articulate. In her piece about women and feminist activism in capoeira, the author reads cultural practice not as a peripheral representational discourse. For female capoeira practitioners, music and sound enable performative spaces to intervene traditional male capoeira narratives. Performance rewrites capoeira as a cultural text and reframes gender in response to women's intervention. Thus, aurality and performance revalorize capoeira's discursive potential. [End Page vii]

As active elements in the production of narrative, language and text are both sensitive to power tensions. The institutional arrangements that organize dynamics of collective bargaining in society establish a protocol through which to communicate with the state. This protocol produces a sanctioned semiotic field for the circulation of messages and symbols, thereby threading culture through the logics of power that structure the public sphere. Sound, however, can unsettle language by opening symbols and texts to collective interventions that reinterpret meaning. In his piece about music and communism in relation to the music of Hans Eisler, James Parsons broaches songs as texts where listening can become a political act. Parsons shows that in his songs, Eisler sought to enable listening as a critical response cutting against the grain of poetry, through which audiences could resonate with him politically. As the author shows, Eisler did not seek complacent sympathy from an artistically fulfilled listener. Rather, the composer set a text so that the listener could take it as a point of action against ideological persecution and marginality.

Parsons suggests that, insofar as all texts remain open—for only the reader can complete a text by materializing its message through action—a text is the very staging of desire amid social and power relationships. This is important to consider, especially when scholars have contested the idea of sound as a more democratic point from which to express the experience of modernity.3 For while the intensification of aurality has certainly decentered modalities for the encoding and reading of messages, this has resulted in the establishment of institutional protocols for the articulation and voicing of discourse, the enhanced circulation of different media formats notwithstanding. Control over recording technologies, as well as formats and platforms of mediation, has reproduced power tensions meant to discipline the very condition for speech. What can we say about sound and aural enactments that contest such logics, or that lay outside this purview? What about those instances that bring into relief the mechanisms of oppression that structure and censure communication, and make discourse vulnerable to violent silencing?

Insofar as language and...