Bergamo’s Poetry

The Blacksmith’s Feet:

Embodied Entextualization in Northern Italian Vernacular Poetry

by Jillian R. Cavanaugh

The essay begins:

How does one know if poetry is good? While there are many ways to answer this question, and as many arguments arising in response to each answer, here I take a linguistic anthropological approach to discuss the production and evaluation of good poetry and good poets—specifically vernacular poetry and poets—as social and cultural processes. I want to undertake, in other words, a cultural poetics or ethnopoetics, explicating a culturally specific structure of evaluation that depends on local understandings, practices, and values. Such projects have a long history in anthropology, at least since Franz Boas’s Introduction to the Handbook of American Indian Languages, which included an investigation of poetry as part of anthropological inquiry, and Edward Sapir’s writing on the anthropological importance of portraying a group’s aesthetics, or their “feel” for the rightness or wrongness of fit of form to function. To consider poetry as a social practice is to consider the local aesthetics within which such poetry comes into being, is evaluated, and circulates. As such, it necessarily means to consider the social positioning of genres as well as social groups, since any local aesthetic practices and standards are built upon connections across genres, environments, texts, speaking contexts, types of speakers and listeners, and modes of evaluation particular to a group.

This analysis focuses on the particular connections that are grounded in bodies, the bodies that appear in poetry and the bodies that produce poetry, as well as how these two categories may or may not align. Briefly, bodies enter into and engage with texts—they write, perform, evaluate, and listen to them—in culturally specific ways that are the intertwined processes of embodied entextualization. How bodies and texts are connected is embedded within local aesthetic systems, such that evaluations of good and bad poetry will at least in part be based on which bodies produce and encounter texts, how bodies are portrayed in texts, and how these two categories may or may not align with each other as well as with culturally specific aesthetic standards about bodies. Continue reading …

Piero-ScuriVernacular poetry is generally evaluated according to culturally specific aesthetic standards, what anthropologists call ethnopoetics. This article offers embodied entexualization—the culturally specific ways bodies are incorporated into as well as produce texts—as a means for analyzing how ethnopoetic systems reflect social and political histories and contexts. The poetry of the northern Italian town of Bergamo, and specifically a poem by a locally celebrated poet, Piero Frér, provides an illustrative case.

JILLIAN R. CAVANAUGH is Leonard and Claire Tow Research Professor at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is a linguistic anthropologist whose research centers on language, food, value, and the construction of meaning.

Celebrate International Women’s Day

With some rabble-rousing from our archives:

233The End of Educated Democracy
Wendy Brown



faculty-thompson-168x210The Evidence of Things Not Photographed: Slavery and Historical Memory in the British West Indies
Krista Thompson


grigsbyNegative-Positive Truths
Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby


img_0218_2Shadowed by Images: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and the Art of Surveillance
Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli


AnneHeadShot2Skins, Tattoos, and Susceptibility
Anne Anlin Cheng

Book Chat with D. A. Miller

Join a discussion with Berkeley professor D. A. Miller about his recent book Hidden Hitchcock 

Wednesday, Mar 8, 2017 | 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm
Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

Presented by the Townsend Center for the Humanities

No filmmaker has more successfully courted mass-audience understanding than Alfred Hitchcock, and none has been studied more intensively by scholars. In Hidden Hitchcock, D. A. Miller discovers what has remained unseen in Hitchcock’s movies, a secret style that imbues his films with a radical duplicity.

Focusing on three films—Strangers on a Train, Rope, and The Wrong Man—Miller shows how Hitchcock anticipates, even demands, what he terms a “Too-Close Viewer.” Dwelling within us all and vigilant even when everything appears to be in good order, this “Too-Close Viewer” attempts to see more than the director points out.

author photo in colorD. A. Miller is Professor of the Graduate School and the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. His recent books include 8 ½ and Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style. In 2013, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Miller has published on Hitchcock twice in Representations: “Hitchcock’s Understyle: A Too-Close View of Rope“ (121, Winter 2013) and “Anal Rope“ (31, Fall 1990).

Hazlitt’s Ephemeral Style

Talking with Texts: Hazlitt’s Ephemeral Style

by Tristram Wolff

The essay begins …

Since social life, like art, is a problem of appeal, the poetic metaphor would give us invaluable hints for describing modes of practical action which are too often measured by simple tests of utility and too seldom with reference to the communicative, sympathetic, propitiatory factors that are clearly present in the procedures of formal art and must be as truly present in those informal arts of living we do not happen to call arts. . . . Is not the relation between individual and group greatly illuminated by reference to the corresponding relation between writer and audience?

—Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change

Introduction: Mouthiness

When he wrote this passage, in 1935, Kenneth Burke was—as ever—looking for ways to persuade readers not only to observe written texts themselves as forms of social action but also to observe social action through what he called “the poetic metaphor.” According to this view, social life is a kind of “composition”: it is guided by questions of address (the “problem of appeal”); its “assertions,” as he puts it, must be “socialized by revision.” Though generally overlooked, the “communicative, sympathetic, propitiatory factors” foregrounded in art similarly bear the weight of social interaction (such “factors” belong, in the context of this special issue, to the indexical threadwork that allows “participation frameworks” to hang together). In the epigraph’s final line, Burke suggests that cultural-historical relations of a literary kind, as between “writer” and “audience,” revealing lines of separation imaginable between individual and group in a given social formation. Better remembered for arguing that literary forms bespeak and contest broader cultural convictions, here we are reminded that Burke also advocated thinking about social relations themselves through categories of verbal art.

In the work of British romantic essayist and political radical William Hazlitt (1778–1830), vivid accounts of the sociable worlds of everyday speech in early nineteenth-century London—in the tavern, parlor, pulpit, theater, or Parliament—are often likewise enmeshed in questions of literary form, in a comparable if unsystematic fusion of literary and social criticism. Burke’s comments (and the ethnopoetic and metapragmatic fields of research that Burke indirectly influenced) retrospectively help clarify that what enables Hazlitt so readily to assume continuities between literary writing and sociable ways of speaking is a version of the belief that language, whether literary or not, is active in and constitutive of the worlds around it. Moreover, the inseparability for Hazlitt of politics and style points to his intuitive grasp of the latter—in any of the discursive genres he analyzes, including his own writing—as practical activity.

In this he seems to have had an early sense of how, as V. N. Voloshinov emphatically put it, “poetic work is a powerful condenser of unarticulated social evaluations,” and reciprocally the way that “these social evaluations . . . organize form.” If the Marxist-inflected idea of language as practical activity elaborated by the likes of Burke and the Bakhtin circle aided later influential theoreticians of sociolinguistic practice like Erving Goffman, Dell Hymes, and Michael Silverstein in bridging analytic domains by offering theories of social discourse imagined through categories borrowed from verbal art (for example, performance roles, genres, meter), the point of departure for this article is to open backward onto a longer history of thought that presumes the mutual involvement of linguistic styles and social fractions. For this account, the prehistory of a literary sociology like Burke’s materializes in an earlier view of language as constitutive social activity. Though their narratives conflict in some respects, critics seem to agree that, for various reasons, views of language as historical, “public,” and active take recognizable shape in the literary era we now call romantic; indeed, one head of the difficult hydra called “European romanticism” was a rapid shift in available theories of linguistic change and interaction. Under romanticism’s monstrous shadow, then, this article zeroes in on William Hazlitt as one idiosyncratic precursor for language-in-use. Continue reading …

This article considers how the essayistic style of William Hazlitt’s printed texts produces, in its form, a critique of what it considers conservatism in speech and its uncritical reception. Situating Hazlitt in a longer history of thought that considers language a form of practical activity, I argue that the conversational character of Hazlitt’s writing is calculated not to resemble speech, but rather to take aim at speech’s false spontaneity.

Tristram-WolffTRISTRAM WOLFF teaches in the Comparative Literary Studies Program at Northwestern University. He was a cowinner of the ACLA’s 2015 Bernheimer Award for best dissertation in the field of comparative literature. He is currently completing a book on the poetics and politics of the linguistic root, titled Frail Bonds: Romantic Etymology and Language Ecology.

Pleasing Everyone

New from Jeffrey Knapp:

9780190634063Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood

Oxford University Press 2017

Shakespeare’s plays were immensely popular in their own day–so why do we refuse to think of them as mass entertainment? In Pleasing Everyone, author Jeffrey Knapp opens our eyes to the uncanny resemblance between Renaissance drama and the incontrovertibly mass medium of Golden-Age Hollywood cinema. Through fascinating explorations of such famous plays as Hamlet, The Roaring Girl, and The Alchemist, and such celebrated films as Citizen Kane, The Jazz Singer, and City Lights, Knapp challenges some of our most basic assumptions about the relationship between art and mass audiences.

Jeffrey Knapp is the Eggers Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and a long-term member of the Representations editorial board. He is the author of several books, including An Empire Nowhere: England and America from Utopia to The Tempest (1992), Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England (2002), and Shakespeare Only (2009). His essay “Throw That Junk! The Art of the Movie in Citizen Kane, included in Pleasing Everyone, first appeared in Representations 122 (Spring 2013)

A Hapax Legomenon in Kiksht

The Fieldwork Encounter and the Colonized Voice of Indigeneity

by Michael Silverstein

The essay begins…

Ethnographic and linguistic fieldwork generates inscriptions of various sorts and, in our contemporary multimedia world, in various modalities as well. A mode of Amerindianist fieldwork rendered canonical by Franz Boas and his students centers on native language texts taken down from dictation-speed informant speech and later translated and published in bilingual editions. In this philological enterprise on behalf of the otherwise unlettered, the goal was to establish through publication a reliable corpus bespeaking a culture’s—not merely an individual’s—cosmogony and reflexive historical consciousness, its members’ view of their sociocultural universe, no less than to provide sufficient primary verbal material for an inductive grammatical analysis of the indigenous language of the corpus of texts.

But of course even such a situation, bringing together a dictating speaker and a transcribing anthropological amanuensis, is a two-party discursive interaction. It is a social event in which individuals inhabit role relationships based on parameters of identity from which they are, as we say, relationally “recruited” to their roles in institutional circumstances that depend on wider background forces of sociohistorical reality. So the dictated material must perforce be read as a text precipitated in and pointing to (“indexing”) a complex and multilayered interactional context, to be treated no differently in this respect from the transcripts we make these days from videotaped interactions for purposes of sociological and anthropological analysis of their dynamics. In such analysis, we understand the self-contextualizing power of discourse to be semiotically parallel to that of pantomime. In both, much of what is interpretable in the interval of multiparty engagement is built up rom individual gestural acts and from the sequencing and chunking, the metricalization, of whole segments of behavior, whether verbal or kinesic, from which an addressee must reconstruct a cultural context in which the textual form—gradually coming, over space-time, to be “entextualized,” that is, rendered coherent as text—comes to make cultural sense (and by making cultural sense, affords one or more interpretations of what is going on). The relationship of any feature of text to its cultural context is, semiotically speaking, dynamically indexical; at every instant, such features of talk or movement point to an already in-play sociocultural frame and to one about-to-come-into-being, the first licensing the “appropriateness” of the occurrence of some textual feature, the second entailed in-and-by its very occurrence. The second is the so-called performative meaningfulness of what speakers do with words (as with kinesic motions), the social acts we understand their performance will have effected as social actors of particular characteristics in particular circumstances. Such indexical reading is central to discerning a generationally new kind of historical consciousness and hence indigenous voice in the long-ago event of fieldwork encounter on which I concentrate.

Peter McGuff, aged about thirty in the summer of 1905 and a speaker of Kiksht, the easternmost Chinookan language along the Columbia River—as well as of Klickitat Sahaptin and English—dictated a short text to the anthropologist Edward Sapir that the latter published in 1909 in Wishram Texts. A doctoral student working under Boas at Columbia University, Sapir published the text along with much other material spoken by far older speakers, principally Louis Simpson, then, in 1905, aged about seventy-five. As someone who has also done fieldwork on the language, in the 1960s and 1970s with a number of Kiksht speakers roughly of Mr. McGuff’s generation and life experiences, I have returned to this text several times in relation to the state of the language as I observed it now forty and more years ago, closer indeed to Mr. McGuff’s usage than to Mr. Simpson’s. I would like here to focus attention upon a grammatical hapax legomenon in Mr. McGuff’s dictation, a unique textual occurrence in the whole Sapir collection in fact, and to contextualize its occurrence in respect of the McGuff-Sapir interaction and what it seems to reveal about Mr. McGuff’s generational experience in the rapidly encroaching colonial context of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Native American reservation life. Continue reading …

This essay follows the indexical (context-indicating) clues of linguistic form in spoken Kiksht (Wasco-Wishram Chinookan) and reconstructs the emerging poetic or metrical structures of a long-ago Kiksht-mediated encounter during anthropological linguistic fieldwork, memorialized in a published text. In this way we can hear something of the voice of a Native American speaker coming to grips with the impact of social and cultural change in the American settler state of the turn of the twentieth century.

MS_photo_00MICHAEL SILVERSTEIN serves as Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics, and Psychology at the University of Chicago, where he is also Director of the Center for the Study of Communication and Society. In addition to long-term work on indigenous languages and cultures of northwestern North America and of northwestern Australia, with Michael Lempert he has published Creatures of Politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency (Indiana University Press, 2012).

Language-in-Use and Literary Fieldwork

Editors’ introduction to our new special issue, Language-in-Use and the Literary Artifact (free for a limited time on Highwire)

Language-in-Use and Literary Fieldwork

by Michael Lucey and Tom McEnaney

The introduction begins:

Literary critics and theorists often shy away from talking about writers and readers as people who put language to use. Instrumentalized reason, positivism, and other watchwords warn against turning a literary artifact into mere data or information, or making it part of an exchange of language that is not exclusively aesthetic in nature. At the same time, when critics seek praxis in literature, speak about the performative attributes of a text, or discuss how to do things with words, they usually treat whatever text they are considering as a stable object. The contributors to this special issue of Representations are all interested in language-in-use as it applies to different kinds of linguistic artifacts and to text understood as the dynamic product of an interactive process. We take it that even the most literary of artifacts can be considered from this point of view. It is possible, for instance, through a kind of “literary fieldwork,” to discover the kinds of dynamic, social, indexical, and context-based negotiations of literary and cultural value that will be at stake in the essays making up this volume. Such negotiations are inevitably present in and around literary artifacts because those artifacts are made of language, and because in using them more language is frequently produced. Even in the midst of an argument for literary autonomy by someone taken to be a key spokesperson for the idea (Gustave Flaubert) we can locate the dynamic relationality of language-in-use and see how it is relevant to the texts he produced.

In late 1875, six or so months before her death and while he was working on his Three Tales, George Sand and Flaubert, in the letters they were exchanging, were having a discussion about the function of literary form. “It seems to me that your school is insufficiently attentive to the substance of things,” Sand wrote in mid-December, “and that it remains too much on the surface. Being so caught up with form, it slights substance.” Flaubert, writing from Paris, had informed her a few days earlier that while in the capital he tended to see the same group of associates on Sundays—Ivan Turgenev, Émile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, and Edmond de Goncourt—and he had asked her if she had any thoughts about the writing of a couple of people on the list. It was in her response to his query that she offered her opinion about the failings of his “school.” In his reply to her letter, he insists that he is doing his best to have no such thing, and he distinguishes himself from his associates by saying that they “strive for all that I scorn, and are only concerned in a mediocre way by the things that torment me.” He elaborates:

I consider technical details, local pieces of information, really the whole historical and exact side of things as quite secondary. Above all I seek Beauty and my companions have only a mediocre concern with that. I find them unmoved when I am ravished with admiration or with horror. I swoon in the face of phrases that seem to them entirely ordinary. Goncourt, for example, is delighted when he overhears in the street a word used that he can then stick in a book. Whereas I am most pleased when I have written a page without assonances or repetitions. (Correspondance, 513–14)

No empirical fact finding, no linguistic fieldwork for Flaubert, it would seem. He and his colleagues cannot form a school because their writing practices are too divergent and are based on different structures of taste.

This passage from Flaubert’s letter to Sand caught the eye of Pierre Bourdieu, who cites it in The Rules of Art in a discussion of the kinds of formal work that manage somehow to bring social reality into a work of art, to register some aspect of the social world. Part of what Bourdieu sees Flaubert doing in this passage from his letter to Sand is making a claim for the ways both his aesthetic agenda and his artistic practice are distinct from those of his contemporaries with and against whom he constructs his own aesthetic point of view, his own writerly practice.

Language, we could say, provides the occasion for its users to be distinctive when they use it, in many ways and across different scales, and in both oral and written forms. To varying degrees, Bourdieu suggests, some of us might “sense the meaning that the possible which the writer is in the midst of realizing may acquire from its being put into a relationship with other possibles.” Or, as he would put it in one of his last seminars on Édouard Manet, in March 2000, “To understand someone who makes something, it is necessary to understand that they aren’t making something else. It’s as simple as that. It is a lesson that comes from structuralism: a phoneme only exists in relation to a space of other possible phonemes.” All the information a phoneme carries, it is able to carry because of the difference between the way it sounds and the way other phonemes sound (or the way other people saying the “same” phoneme sound). Bourdieu is interested in the information that works carry because of the way they differ from other works around them (and perhaps even from works a writer only imagines to exist). Meanwhile, Flaubert’s difference from Zola, his difference from Goncourt, is not only something that he asserts in writing to Sand; it is a difference that makes its way into his work. It informs the work, and the work thereby harbors formally a relation (an indexical relation) to the works it somehow manages not to be like.

Bourdieu’s concept of a field of cultural production involves both makers and critics in conceiving a constantly evolving set of works and the complex indexical relations between those works and also between their makers, relations that themselves become discoverable through critical forms of fieldwork and archival inquiry. Yet his interest in the way a literary work might index, might register the social world around it, involves more than relations to other works in the same field of cultural production. The work done on language by writers such as Flaubert can, for Bourdieu, enregister the wider social world in which it comes into existence in innumerable ways. Bourdieu is interested in the specifics of Flaubert’s writerly practice or, perhaps better said, what transpires because of the specifics of that practice. Flaubert may not wish to be associated with the “realists” around him, the ones who want to describe minute technical details of what they have observed, or who collect snippets of spoken language with which to ornament their books. Yet for Bourdieu, Flaubert, perhaps despite himself, achieves a “realist formalism.” Bourdieu notes that in certain circumstances, in certain hands, “it is pure work on pure form, a formal exercise par excellence, that causes to surge up, as if by magic, a real more real than that which is offered directly to the senses and before which the naïve lovers of reality stop.” This more real real of which Bourdieu is speaking is the reality of the social world and all its immanent tendencies, the reality of the social topography we all move through with varying degrees of practical skill, the reality of the distinctions and distances that exist between different actors and different positions within the social field. The contours of that social world, and the distribution of people and positions within it, we might say, are indexed by formal elements of the work that it is possible to decipher using what Charles Sanders Peirce once called collateral observation. That term appears in Peirce’s 1907 essay “Pragmatism,” where he refers to cases in which “the whole burden of the sign must be ascertained, not by closer examination of the utterance, but by collateral observation of the utterer.” And, we might add, of the context in which that particular person makes that particular utterance.

It is precisely this difference in attention, from the referential or signifying aspect of a sign to its social function, that motivates the contributors to this issue. The writers we’ve gathered here begin from the somewhat obvious assumption that both texts and their makers are shaped by the forces that also produce the social world around them. Certain makers of texts, by the work they do in making them, reflect upon, or uncover, or recover (in a process Bourdieu calls “anamnesis”) the relationship between the writing they do and the way the social world is shaped and has shaped them. What does it mean, or what does it involve to find in certain formal features of a work (for example, the frequency or rarity of repetitions and assonance) aspects of its relation to the structures of the social world from which it emerged? How would one understand a literary artifact—a novel, for example—to operate within such a system? “The novel as a whole is an utterance just as rejoinders in everyday dialogue or private letters are,” Mikhail Bakhtin once wrote, adding a few pages later that “of course, an utterance is not always followed immediately by an articulated response. . . . In most cases, genres of complex cultural communication are intended precisely for [a] kind of active responsive understanding with delayed action.” Such an understanding involves the positing, the discovery (with the aid of Peirce’s collateral observation, of fieldwork) of an array of indexical relations between that novel and other utterances (obviously not only novels) with which it could then be said to be in some kind of dialogue. What that dialogue might be concerned with is an open question, and might substantially change what, at first glance, a novel or some other literary artifact might be said to be “about.”

For the contributors to this issue, one key implication of these remarks from Bourdieu, Bakhtin, and Peirce, taken all together, is that particular formal features of a given literary work (or other kinds of crafted utterances) can be taken to index aspects of the social world in which it or they originated. And the formal features in question are remarkably diverse. Noticing them depends on the work that is done to establish the context in which that indexical function can be perceived. If Bourdieu liked the contrast between Flaubert and Goncourt that Flaubert somewhat snidely drew (“Goncourt, for example, is delighted when he overhears in the street a word used that he can then stick in a book”), it is surely because Goncourt can be taken to represent a kind of naive empiricism in the face of social reality, whereas Flaubert’s hostility toward such empiricism counterintuitively helps him to produce works that register some other version of reality in more astute, if less easily discoverable, ways.

Our contributors are all interested in the way linguistic artifacts are linked by various indexical modes to surrounding social worlds, the worlds in which they originate, but also the worlds through which they circulate over time. Part of what various aspects of the form of these artifacts and their subsequent entextualizations do is to indicate, to give us the means to understand some thing or things that are happening in the worlds in which they originate and circulate. This way of looking at form asks that we discover in its features the places in a work through which it is attached to, and contiguous with, a variety of contexts from which much of its value and meaning come. Continue reading (free for a limited time on Highwire)…

This introduction offers an initial account of the usefulness of an interdisciplinary encounter between the fields of linguistic anthropology and literary/cultural studies and, in doing so, introduces a series of key terms from linguistic anthropology and its way of studying language-in-use as a locus in which culture happens: nonreferential (or social) indexicality, entextualization, and metapragmatics. It establishes a set of common attitudes toward language and cultural production found in work by Bourdieu, Bakhtin, and a number of linguistic anthropologists (Michael Silverstein in particular). It suggests three analytical levels on which such an interdisciplinary encounter might take place: analysis of (1) works that themselves show an interest in language-in-use (for example, novels by writers such as Proust, Eliot, or Dostoevsky); (2) the “interactive text,” of which any given literary artifact could be said to be a precipitate (one construal of Bourdieu’s approach to an author like Flaubert); and (3) the role of the ongoing uptake of given language-based artifacts in maintaining and altering their meanings and values.

IMG_lucey_22MICHAEL LUCEY is Professor of Comparative Literature and French at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently working on a project titled “Proust, Sociology, Talk, Novels: The Novel Form and Language-in-Use.”

thumbnail_Tom-McEnaney+Faculty+PhotoTOM McENANEY is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. He is the author of several articles and the forthcoming book Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas (Flashpoints Series, Northwestern University Press, 2017).

New Special Issue: Language-in-Use


edited by Michael Lucey, Tom McEnaney, and Tristram Wolff

Number 137, Winter 2017 (free for a limited time on Highwire)


Now available

Introduction: Language-in-Use and Literary Fieldwork

The Fieldwork Encounter and the Colonized Voice of Indigeneity

Talking with Texts: Hazlitt’s Ephemeral Style

The Blacksmith’s Feet: Embodied Entextualization in
Northern Italian Vernacular Poetry

The Metapragmatics ofthe “Minor Writer”: Zoë Wicomb,
Literary Value, and the Windham-Campbell Prize Festival

Transducing a Sermon, Inducing Conversion:
Billy Graham, Billy Kim, and the 1973 Crusade in Seoul

Real-to-Reel: Social Indexicality,Sonic Materiality,
and Literary Media Theory in Eduardo Costa’s Tape Works


Talk on the Future of the Public University

The Future of the Public University – Christopher Newfield and Carol Christ in Conversation

Sibley Auditorium, UC Berkeley, 2-4 pm, February 1, 2017

Presented by the Berkeley Faculty Association

Open to the Public

The public university is facing unprecedented challenges: mounting budgetary pressures and a more hostile political climate. Two distinguished commentators will discuss the path the public university has taken so far, and possible roads ahead.

CHRISTOPHER NEWFIELD is Professor of Literature and American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His most recent book, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, focuses on the post-2008 struggles of public universities to rebuild their social mission.

CAROL CHRIST is the Interim Executive Vice-Chancellor and Provost of the University of California, Berkeley. A Professor of English specializing in Victorian literature, she is Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

For more on the issues facing the public university, see our special issue The Humanities and the Crisis of the Public University (Representations 116), edited by Christopher Newfield, Colleen Lye, and James Vernon, and in particular see their critical introduction “Humanists and the Public University.”

The Sound of Contemporary Music in China

Affective Listening as a Mode of Coexistence: The Case of China’s Sound Practice

by Wang Jing

The essay begins:

Any creative act or event is first of all a response to the immediate physical and spiritual context of one’s life. How does sound practice reveal its practitioners’ and listeners’ relation to their immediate living contexts? How do affective elements (those from the West, past and present, and those imagined, encountered, and constructed) transfer in sound practice? What kind of affective force does the work enact and generate among its listeners and between them and the environment? These are the questions with which I am most concerned in this article.

In contemporary Asian countries, including China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia, among others, the term “new music” is used to refer to nontraditional music practiced in non-Western cultures. The adjective “new” is implicitly synonymous with the West and the modern. Thus we often hear that Asian sound practitioners are imitating what has already been done in the West. This kind of discourse is largely based on the technological development and theoretical concepts (as stated in English) that are impotent to capture the affective and intellectual dimensions of Asian sound practice. This article will focus on China’s in particular.

Look for Cinderella’s Glass Slipper

The Western history of sound art and experimental music often starts with such events as the futurist Luigi Russolo’s manifesto, the sound poetry of the Dadaists, Marcel Duchamp’s anti-retinal art, Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète, and John Cage’s 4’33”. Also frequently cited in this history are Alvin Lucier’s experimentations with the varied physical characteristics of sound, Murray Schafer’s world soundscape project and acoustic ecology, and other variations of sound practice in the music and art worlds, including its aesthetic connections in experimental theater and American minimal art and land art, as well its sociopolitical connections with Fluxus and futurism. Though still controversial, sound art has in recent years found its way into museums, galleries, and the art market on a global scale.

Like most of China’s sound practitioners, I learned about these names, movements, art practices, and concepts through books, articles, videos, online radio programs, and exhibitions. This relatively well-documented history of sound art and experimental music in the West, as well as the relatively comprehensive system of criticism, education, funding, residencies, and exhibitions or festivals provide something of a glass slipper by which sound practice can be measured in China.

What sound art is and who owns its “intellectual property” remains a mystery upon which light is occasionally shed during public conversations and criticism. At the 2pi Festival, an experimental music event, the critic Ruyi Li commented that Chinese musicians are making sound art in a rock music way. China’s early sound practice did indeed originate from the underground rock music scene, a unique derivation that deserves further analysis. In a workshop titled “Chinese Experimental Music” in the Department of Sound at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011, an audience member asked, “What’s the role of the West to China’s experimental music?” Fan Wang’s response, “The West is a condiment,” elicited a laugh. Wang, known as the first experimental musician on the Mainland, holds a strong personal sonic aesthetic, which is hardly ever explained properly well stated and translated. He is an autodidact, often playing with instruments, tools, synthesizers, and software in his own instinctual way, like the bricoleur described by Claude Levi-Strauss, whose “universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand.’”

I am not suggesting that we should abandon existing Western sound practice and theories, nor am I suggesting that we look instead for authentic Chinese sound. As the Hong Kong-based sound artist and scholar Samson Young points out, “The pursuit of an authentic Chineseness in contemporary Chinese music runs the danger of essentialism.” He suggests that authenticity should be treated as a productive strategy, a form of strategic essentialism using the example of the Buddha Machine project. The Buddha Machine was created by the duo FM3, the musicians Zhang Jian from Beijing and Christiaan Virant, originally from the United States, but a resident of Beijing since the age of 18. The group adeptly combines the traditional guqin with electronic instruments. However, the duo is more keenly interested in making commercially successful electronic music than in developing sound aesthetics or the social aspect of the art of sound. Without denying the value of commercial electronic music practice in China, I will be focusing on noncommercial sound practice here. Continue reading …

This article proposes that China’s sound practice does more than simply provide cultural content for already existing sound making and performing formulas. Beyond this, it also affords “affective listening,” a mode of listening that acknowledges the coexistence of the somatic, relational, and spiritual relations among participants and the environment.

1127030458-1071677195WANG JING is Associate Professor in the College of Media and International Culture at Zhejiang University, China, and a sound events curator in the Chinese cities of Hangzhou and Shanghai.