Gendered Voices & Social Harmony–My New Post at SoundingOut!

I’m extremely excited to be part of Liana M. Silva’s “Gender & Voice” series over at SoundingOut!. My piece went up today, and you can find it here. Though it’s focused on the role of “loud” feminist voices in post-feminist society, it also includes a rereading of Ann Carson’s “The Gender of Sound.” Students of that essay will be particularly interested in the way I show how Ancient Greek music theory informs the concepts she’s working with in that essay. Here’s an excerpt:

This “ebb and flow” is not a geometric proportion, but a frequency or statistical distribution that can be represented as a sine wave. As I have argued here, contemporary concepts of social harmony aren’t based in ancient Greek music theory, but on acoustics. For example, Alex Pentland’s theory of “social physics” or, “the reliable, mathematical connections between information and idea flow…and people’s behavior” (2), treats individual and group behavior as predictable patterns that emerge, as signal, from noisy data streams, just as harmonics and partials emerge from interacting sound frequencies.

In this context, “loud” feminist voices feel like they’re upsetting the ebb and flow, the dynamic range and variability, of information and idea flow. But the thing is, they aren’t upsetting the flow, but intensifying it: their perceived loudness incites others to respond with trolling, harassing, and other kinds of policing speech, often in massive scale. When philosopherCheryl Abbate told her students that it was unacceptable to express homophobic views in class, John McAdams, a tenured faculty member in the department where Abbate is a doctoral student, wrote a blog post accusing herof inhibiting the free expression of a diverse range of opinions. Her “loud” feminism masked the “healthy diversity” of opinions. McAdams’s post led Abbate to be targeted by a tsunami of harassment, from individuals emailing her, to social media attacks, to attacks from mainstream media and political organizations. When feminist voices make noise, patriarchy amps up its own frequencies to bring the mix back in proper balance so that patriarchy is what emerges from feminist noise. In this context, voices are harmonious when, together, their ebb and flow predictably transmits patriarchal signal into the future. Sophrosyne is a feature of voices that interact so that patriarchal power relations emerge from them: they might actually have an extremely high volume, but they feel moderate because they restore the “normal” ebb and flow of society.

When Dove and Twitter urge women to “speak beautifully,” they’re really demanding that women practice sophrosyne: that they make just enough ‘feminist’ noise without being too loud–i.e., loud enough to distort the brand image of Unilever and Twitter. So, even though ancient Greek concepts of musical harmony and patriarchy are vastly different than contemporary (neo)liberal democratic ones, each era uses its own version of sophrosyne to shape women’s voices into something consonant with a social order that privileges men and masculinity.