In the month of May 2022, Stellenbosch University came to a virtual standstill, as the university community attempted to come to terms with the racist urination incident at the Huis Marais residence. But another incident at Stellenbosch University in May has received less media attention: a student at a dance hosted by the Faculty of Law requested that a Bollywood song be played upon which she was allegedly verbally abused. The Cape Times reported that the request for an “Indian song” (in the context of a playlist that was perceived to be “predominantly white”) led to an altercation with the DJ and a white student who wanted, instead, to hear another “Afrikaans song”. The latter allegedly responded with “abhorrent, racist and defamatory comments that are offensive and degrading”, according to the Juridical Society of Stellenbosch University.
Reflections on transformational practices at universities in South Africa as it concerns the arts have thus far focused almost exclusively on visual culture. At Stellenbosch University, significant work has been done in this area, resulting in the acceptance of a policy on visual redress in 2021, various visual redress initiatives on campus and a number of important scholarly publications. What the Law Dance incident and the reporting thereof foreground, though, is the seemingly uncomplicated and pervasive linkage between race and song and the little-discussed role of sonic culture in the incubation of racial thinking.
Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s reflections on atmoterrorism provide a theoretical underpinning for a notion of “sonic redress” as an anti-racist agenda at South African institutions. The twentieth century, Sloterdijk argues, has been characterised by the explication – through terrorism – of the “atmospheric conditions” that enable and sustain life, the pertinent example being the advent of gas warfare during World War I.Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres, trans. Wieland Hoban, vol. 3: Foams (Plural Spherology) (Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2016). Terrorism, according to Sloterdijk, can be defined as attacks directed not at the body, but at the air and the environment around bodies. Air terrorism, in particular, makes manifest an aspect of living which had once only been a latent or naïve knowledge; it is the operationalization of a monstrous knowledge of how to make environments unbreathable or unliveable.
Conceptualizing the sonic as “atmospheric” in this sense, significantly raises the stakes for audible culture at a tertiary institution concerned with transformation. It suggests that the vibrating clouds of air around us may just be toxic or may be manipulated in some way to sustain certain forms of being while suppressing others. In this sense, the Law Dance incident posits that audibility may form part of a latent, immersive and potentially prejudicial and injurious sonic epistemology, making sonic bias an insidious form of racism no less dangerous than outrageous overt acts of degradation like urinating on a fellow student’s belongings. But the affective and performative aspects of racial thinking in sound and its entwinement with the basest of bodily functions is potentially even more sinister.
In the first part of his Spheres trilogy, Bubbles, which deals with human intimacy structures, Sloterdijk discusses the fetus encased in its mother’s womb as the primal scene of sonic discrimination. Essentially, Sloterdijk argues, the womb is a resonant psychoacoustic space where the beginnings of subjectivity emerge in relation to and in resonance with the mother’s voice. As the mother speaks to the child, the first touch between them is a sonorous one, and the ear develops in a responsive manner as the first proper organ of touch. Sloterdijk refers to this condition of the incipient human as bathing in a “Siren State”, where, much like Odysseus strapped to the pole, it is invited into the world by its mother’s first greeting, tailor-made for this particular embryonic being. In this primal welcoming, the mother’s voice is distinguished from all others in what can be thought of as the original attention economy. It is not so much that the gurgling of the mother’s digestive system and the myriad other sounds that enter the sonosphere of the womb vie for attention with the maternal calling, as that the sound that will later take the name “mother” defines itself from the outset as more significant than others, in the way it addresses itself uniquely as a welcoming to the ear that is being formed, which responds in kind by developing that particular ability to be addressed. “It is as if the voice and the ear had dissolved,” writes Sloterdijk, “in a shared sonorous plasma – the voice entirely geared towards beckoning, greeting and affectionate encasement, and the ear mobilized to go towards it and revived by melting into its sound.”Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres, trans. Wieland Hoban, vol. 1: Bubbles (Microspherology) (Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2011), 512.
In the process of sonic absorption, the fetus learns a basic discernment that points to an incipient selfhood: the ability to listen or not to listen. If, Sloterdijk muses, the fetus should have sufficient neurological equipment to record and retain this early auditory input, “such neural ‘engravings’ or imprintings would then – like acquired acoustic universals, so to speak – prestructure everything yet to be heard.”:
Through prenatal auditions, the ear was equipped with a wealth of heavenly, acoustic prejudices which, in its later work in the noisy pandemonium of reality, facilitate orientation and especially selection. The wonderfully biased ear would thus be capable of recognizing its primal models at the greatest distance from the origin.Sloterdijk, 1: Bubbles (Microspherology):507.
Conceiving of hearing as the primal sense of discrimination suggests the possibility of a “sonospheric” or “psychoacoustic” entrainment of racialized bodies via the ear and that music might be fundamentally involved in this affective attunement towards racial thinking and in the stranglehold of race and racism on public life. Reconceptualizing racism and race identity in this way – as “technologies of affect”,Derek Hook, ‘Affecting Whiteness: Racism as Technology of Affect (1)’, International Journal of Critical Psychology 16 (2005): 74–99; Michalinos Zembylas, ‘Rethinking Race and Racism as Technologies of Affect: Theorizing the Implications for Anti-Racist Politics and Practice in Education’, Race Ethnicity and Education 18, no. 2 (2015): 145–62. as Derek Hook argues – is particularly discomfiting in the case of sound, because music so often signals to people a safe zone, that primal sense of being and feeling “at home”. Indeed, the insidiousness of race thinking is that it infuses empty racial categories with embodied meanings: race survives as a “felt identity”Divya P. Tolia-Kelly and Mike Crang, Affect, Race, and Identities (London: Sage, 2010)., a contingent, affective “event”Arun Saldanha, ‘Skin, Affect, Aggregation: Guattarian Variations on Fanon’, Environment and Planning A 42, no. 10 (2010): 2410–27., and a set of “seemingly ‘prediscursive’ forms of attachment and belonging” that come to feel “robust” and “substantial”.Hook, ‘Affecting Whiteness: Racism as Technology of Affect (1)’. What is more, the coupling of sound and embodied identity is also sometimes legitimately put to work to create immune systems or sonic incubators within discriminatory contexts. So, for example, Nathan Trantraal writes of how he felt festooned in his office by the alleged discriminatory atmosphere at Stellenbosch University, and how he re-enwombed himself, so to speak, by playing loudly “his own” music as an act of defiance and self-preservation.
George Rawick once noted that racism “feeds on underground streams of sensibility”.George Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972), 128. This passage is also quoted by David Roediger in The Wages of Whiteness. Attending to sound and sonic cultures as political, historical, social and individual atmospheric agents – and especially to how sound informs the embodiment of race and the collective moods that create and sustain racist prejudice – opens up new agendas for sound studies and for transformation initiatives aimed at dislodging structural racism at South African universities.
|1.||Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres, trans. Wieland Hoban, vol. 3: Foams (Plural Spherology) (Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2016).|
|2.||Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres, trans. Wieland Hoban, vol. 1: Bubbles (Microspherology) (Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2011), 512.|
|3.||Derek Hook, ‘Affecting Whiteness: Racism as Technology of Affect (1)’, International Journal of Critical Psychology 16 (2005): 74–99; Michalinos Zembylas, ‘Rethinking Race and Racism as Technologies of Affect: Theorizing the Implications for Anti-Racist Politics and Practice in Education’, Race Ethnicity and Education 18, no. 2 (2015): 145–62.|
|4.||Divya P. Tolia-Kelly and Mike Crang, Affect, Race, and Identities (London: Sage, 2010).|
|5.||Arun Saldanha, ‘Skin, Affect, Aggregation: Guattarian Variations on Fanon’, Environment and Planning A 42, no. 10 (2010): 2410–27.|
|6.||Hook, ‘Affecting Whiteness: Racism as Technology of Affect (1)’.|
|7.||George Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972), 128. This passage is also quoted by David Roediger in The Wages of Whiteness.|