A few quick thoughts on Stadlers’s “The Whiteness of Sound Studies”
Gus Stadler published a smart and needed critique of the whiteness of sound studies as a discipline. It’s a great piece, and not just because it quotes me, lol. I wanted to post a few informal reflections on the piece, and expansions on the comment he quoted in the article.
I take Stadler’s point to be, in part, this: as the newish field defines and has defined its object of study, “sound,” its overall failure to situate both sounds and its process of inquiry in the context of white supremacy (and patriarchy, cisheterosexism, the embarrassed etc…) means that “sound” (and “listening,” “voice,” and other focal concepts for sound studies) in fact naturalize white cisheteropatriarchy. Sound studies is, effectively, an epistemology of ignorance.
And while such epistemology of ignorance might be technically dysfunctional, it’s totally and absolutely “socially functional” (to use Charles Mills’s term–see p. 18 of the Racial Contract), and pretty clearly intellectually and academically functional. The intellectual and cultural whiteness of “sound” and “listening” and “voice” are what make this new interdisciplinary field legible to established disciplines (Oh, you’re reading Merleau-Ponty? Great! Give your paper on sound at SPEP), which is where most of us find our jobs and teach our classes, and to other institutional aspects of the university.
One thing I’m particularly worried about is the way sound is sometimes presented as Modernity’s repressed or oppressed “other” that sound studies then rescues and gives voice to. Sound studies thus presents itself as both a kind of intellectual savior of the academy’s Other, and as revolutionizing and reinvigorating staid disciplinary fields. This is the same sort of thing that Nietzsche and Derrida did with “the feminine” (see: Spurs), that Mailer and Lomax did with blackness and black culture…it’s the old tale of saviorist appropriation. (I have further thoughts about this here.) When thinking about and working with sound puts is in relationships with the same people and institutions that the academy has traditionally privileged and encouraged, sound studies reaffirms the academy’s whiteness, and intellectually reaffirms that same old epistemology of ignorance; it appears innovative in name only (the nominal object of study has shifted to sound, but it’s still the same privileged people and institutions that are the actual focus). When thinking and working with sounds puts us in relationships with people and institutions that the academy has traditionally devalued, ignored, and excluded, then, and only then, will work in sound studies stop being an epistemology of (white, cisheteropatriarchal) ignorance.
Stadler identifies “the implicit message that no sound-related topics other than black music have anything to do with race.” I think we need to spend more time with this. I worry that music is somewhat of a ghetto in sound studies, not “hard” or “rigorously” sonic enough (because music is fun, because music is an established discipline and thus not as cool or new or apparently radical). If this is true, then the general confinement of both race and black culture to discussions of music further reinforces the whiteness of the field’s center.
Sound studies kinda found me. I’ve been in academia for fifteen years (I started graduate school in fall 2000), and I’ve always been kinda doing my own vaguely legible thing somewhere in the aether between feminist philosophy and what was called, back when I started grad school, new musicology. I’d always struggled for a term to capture my AOS (area of specialization), mainly because I didn’t understand my work to have much, if any relationship to what goes on in the subfield of the philosophy of music. Sure, I’m talking about music, and I’m a philosopher, but both the theorists and the musicians I discuss and the kind of questions I ask have about as much in common with what’s current in the philosophy of music as, I dunno, Rihanna’s Instagram does. More bluntly: (a) I’m interested in work by white women, black women, non-black WOC, black men, queer and gender-non-conforming people, (b) the political perspective from which I think and write takes liberalism to be the problem, not some radical political possibility.  So, I’ve been writing about theory and music and sound for more than fifteen years, and when the discourse of “sound studies” came along, I thought, FINALLY here’s a subfield where my work fits–in part because it includes the things that push me to the margins of philosophy, and definitely waaaaay out of “the philosophy of musc.” So maybe what I’m saying is: well, sound studies isn’t as white as philosophy, but, uh, in the end that’s mostly just:
 Even though Rawlsian liberalism is white supremacist and patriarchal (Mills, Okin), back in the 1960s Rawls’ totally conservative political position was, within the field of philosophy, in fact totally radical (see Mills and McCumber on this). Mainstream philosophy in the US was so deeply conservative that even super conservative Rawlsian liberalism was seen as a radical and risky break from rigorous philosophical objectivity. That was fifty years ago. Fast forward to 2014, and Rawlsian liberalism is presented as a radical, indeed critical intervention in mainstream philosophy of music. It’s not particularly helpful for me to engage the philosophy of music because I’m starting from a completely different set of assumptions about what both politics and philosophy are and ought to be. The things they’re talking about won’t help me think about the questions I’m trying to ask. More continentally oriented work on music is generally always figure-centric (Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze, Nietzsche, and Idhe-inflected Heidegger, mostly), and, to my knowledge, never talks about Top 40 pop. So again, there’s this disjunction between the “philosophical” questions philosophers of music discuss, and the questions I’m interested in pursuing…the latter of which generally involve gender/race/sexuality, and this has a lot to do with that disjunct…