Erin R. Anderson and Trisha N. Campbell
In her 2012 polemic, “This Digital Humanities Which Is Not One,” Jamie “Skye” Bianco challenges a trend toward unreflective tool building in digital humanities, with its emphasis on the aggregation, mining, and visualization of texts-as-data-for-data’s-sake. Urging us to consider the question, “What do we do with the data?” (Bianco 99), she proposes a theoretically informed alternative of “creative critique,” which uses digital media and methods to not only break down, interpret, and reconstitute texts-as-data, but also invent new texts and new sensory experiences of textual remains or ruins (102). Importantly, this move toward performative, affective, and generative modes of digital practice is not simply a methodological one; it is profoundly ethical, with potentially far-reaching consequences on how we relate with one another and the broader material world. In other words, if we want to proceed under the assumption that making things in digital humanities might be one way of making humanities matter, then we must take seriously the relationship between making and ethics — indeed the possibility for making as ethics — through relational and material practice.
We find promise in the work of digital rhetoric scholar Anne Frances Wysocki (2010), who explores the rhetorical intersection of ethics and aesthetics in digital art and media. Starting from the premise that “our senses are persuadable,” she pushes us to think beyond purely rational and discursive notions of rhetoric to consider the role of bodily perception and aesthetic experience in our social formation as ethical agents (110). In this chapter, we take up Wysocki’s definition of ethics as not only a matter of right and wrong. Following her, we see ethics as a richly embodied, sensual orientation to the world that begins from the ways we inhabit our experiences. The many multimodal texts that we routinely produce, consume, and interact with in digital environments have the palpable potential to “shape our senses of selves by shaping our senses themselves” (95), providing a platform through which we might come to experience our bodies in new relationships and configurations. As Wysocki suggests, “By highlighting current aesthetic possibilities of our texts — digital as well as nondigital — we might practice having bodies that can alertly convert sensuous experience into ethical practice” (95).
Work by scholar-artists such as Bianco and Wysocki opens important inroads toward an “ethical turn” in digital humanities by taking seriously the relational encounter between a multisensory work or text and its audience (Bianco 97). If it is true, as Wysocki puts it, that “any text we compose engages us aesthetically” (110), then perhaps we, as digital artists and makers, must also attune ourselves to the ethical potential of our own encounters with the media and materials of our practice. In this chapter, we push the conversation about the ethics of making in digital humanities to consider not only the objects or experiences made (as they affect audiences) but also the act of making itself (as it affects a maker). What we hope to contribute is a close consideration of the relationship between digital artists or makers and the rich constellation of sensory and material, human and nonhuman actors that constitute the “data” with which they work. Grounding this discussion in our own experiences with creative-critical methods, we offer accounts of two digital audio projects that use performance as an attempt to make, speak, and feel with the recorded voices of others — the voices of convicted murderers (Campbell) and the voices of the dead (Anderson). By considering our durational, affective, and responsive encounters with the sighs, breaths, and vibrations of these voices, we explore the prospects for practicing new and important forms of empathy across human and nonhuman, social and material boundaries. We respond to Bianco’s provocation, “What do we do with the data?” by turning the tables and asking instead, What does the data do with us?
“Call Me a Murderer” (2015, 10 min., Digital Video)
Trisha N. Campbell
“Call Me A Murderer” is a born-digital performative and conceptual art piece that I made in concert with James, age 21 — a convicted murderer, sentenced to death for killing two men in a robbery — and his niece, age 14. It plays out over a three-part, multi-layered monologue, where James recounts why he committed murder, I recount with James, and his niece recounts her time with her uncle. Our three voices are layered, echoed, and intertwined as we each variously compete and harmonize our speech and breaths. Using Adobe After Effects, I matched each of our voices to their correlated waveforms — James’s dipping at deeper valleys than mine, his niece’s subtly pulsating in the background, and my own tenuously vying and aligning at various moments throughout the piece.
The voice recordings are part of a larger project, The Murder Networks, which is an archive of collected audio interviews, stories, newspaper articles, and social networks surrounding inner-city murder. I created the project to postpone blame and listen to the web of agential capacities involved in any act of murder. James’s recording is one such story. “It was a regular day,” as he says, when he and a friend thought they might try to get a little money. It ended in an unforeseen double-homicide. What makes his story even more complicated is that a local news source first collected his confession, archived it, and then released it to the public online, where it garnered an outcry of hateful comments about his immorality and depravity. James was, quite plainly, without a public display of empathy. I was struck by how he was cast as a misfire in an otherwise smoothly operating system, and I was drawn to and disquieted by the lack of empathy in part because it represented an invitation to respond differently. What we need, murder historian Karen Halttunen (1998) suggests, is an approach to murder as inseparable from culture, and not as a sociological, pathological, or criminological problem to be analyzed at some distance (Black 781). In this project, I was invested in the potential of digital art and experimentation to invite or imagine another response to James that departed from the popular narrative.
The process began slowly through a careful act of listening. As I sat for hours hearing James’s voice, I listened as he repeated, again and again, his story of the day of the murder. I listened to his anger; I listened as his voice broke; I listened as he sighed; and I listened, still, as he sat in moments of silence. I listened for so long that, as I closed my eyes late that first night, I could hear his voice repeating, “Tell my mama I love her, will you?” The meticulous nature of audio editing required long hours spent with James’s vocalizations, allowing careful focus on his peaked waveforms and offering repeated listening of his barely audible sighs. After a few days of this active listening, I found myself anticipating his words, voicing with him, and even taking in breath as he did. I began, then, to record and re-record myself with his voice, not in an exact imitation, but in an attempt to performatively reprocess his voice through my own body and recorded voice, to hear what I sounded like when I said his words or made his noises. I voiced with him in my own voice; I sighed with him in my own sighs. I used performance to enlist my own body in the production of confession. Because of how long I spent with the voice recordings, I can still tell the moment his voice begins to break, a moment that was not perceptible to me upon even the third passive listening, but is now undeniable because I voiced it with him. What followed from this process was an immersion in and among James’s obstinacies and rhythms — his “refusals as much as his invitations” (Greg and Seigworth 1). Even now, months later, as I sit quietly reading or attempting sleep, I hear James’s rhythm and intonation in my head and notice my own voice inflected with his during my less conscious moments of speaking.
Of course, I am not James. James is a young black man, born into poverty and violence. I am white and privileged. I live in a world where murder and violence are not part of my immediate reality, and in no way do I want to equate my own experience as a stand-in for James’s experience. There is an obvious limit to this work’s ability to address the deep social and racial injustices that have produced the material conditions in which James lived. What the work does invite is the affective confrontation of those differences. It is a radical attempt to imagine how we respond to the experience of another by trying to feel with them. While the heightened moral stakes of murder make it a particularly painful and complex boundary to confront, I am interested in how this practice can help us forge new lines of relations across vast social, cultural, and material divisions while also recognizing, addressing, and negotiating them.
Ultimately, this practice has affected, changed, and implicated me. Speaking very personally, James’s family was touched by my project and interest; however, the project did not help James in any practical sense, nor did it change him or his circumstances. Instead, it prompted a particular kind of listening and an altogether different response to suffering and violence. While the digital rendering of “Call Me a Murderer” took 23 total recordings — 23 times of listening and recording my own voice with James’s — it is not the final rendering that so impinges, but the active practice of making the piece, the long hours and the repetition, the time spent with James’s voice. It was only in the practice of working with and between our voices that I began to feel my relationship to James change and my own inquiry expand through the tiny divestments between making and thinking.
Toward a Posthuman Empathy
Empathy strikes us as a powerful framework for considering these forms of relational, affective encounters that we have come to experience through this project and the one that follows. As we work with the recorded voices of others, we confront our own experience of negotiating distance — the temporal distance between us and them, but also the cultural and material distance between our bodies. These lines can be difficult and even impossible to cross. Empathy as a practice allows us to discern the experiences of others — “experiences that might otherwise go unrecognized” (Halpern 94). Empathy must be applied and practiced, Jodi Halpern (2001) urges, in non-analogous contexts, where affective states, discourses, and experiences are dissimilar. It requires an “imaginative leap” (ix) or imaginative inquiry into the individuality and particularity of another, an act of imagination on affective and cognitive levels. And it bespeaks a long and difficult process, which begins by feeling with and thinking with another “whose circumstances lie far outside of our own” (Landsberg, “Memory” 223). Importantly, this move has implications that stretch beyond the relations between individual co-participants in our work to suggest social and political possibilities.
In addition to the humans behind the voices in these projects, a complex constellation of “other-than-human” (Barad 392) actors and entities impinge upon us and our relations. As we work with our materials, we begin to actually feel with them, too. To understand how our practice of empathy is intertwined with these myriad temporal, technological, and material phenomena, we find it productive to turn to Karen Barad’s (2007) notion of “posthuman ethics” (392). In a world of ubiquitous mediation, Barad argues, a “humanistic ethics can no longer suffice” (392). She revises Emmanuel Levinas’s (1981) ethical philosophy to include the “other than human” as well as the “human” (392). For her, to “have-the-other-in-one’s-skin,” as Levinas’s ethics suggests, means we cannot ignore the full set of possibilities that this encounter allows. What happens when the person who is looking back at me cannot see me or is mediated through an audio recording? What happens if my voice has no living referent? If ethical relations extend to the other-than-human, then our ethical responsibility cannot be limited to body-to-body, face-to-face, or human-to-human encounters, because the “very boundaries of the human are continually being reconfigured” (Barad 392), and it is precisely these new configurations to which we must attend. In these projects, we have come to understand ethics — and, by extension, empathy — as our ability to respond through and with these new entanglements and to do so through intentional digital practice.
While we are ultimately interested in how this model of practice-based ethics might function across a broad spectrum of compositional methods and materials, our two projects focus particularly on digital audio and, more specifically, the recorded human voice. Partly due to its unique relational quality, the voice offers a powerful inroad to the question of ethics. For philosopher Adriana Cavarero (2005), the voice possesses a capacity to bring us together in a special kind of reciprocal sensory encounter, where we are immersed in the vibrations of others while experiencing their “corporeal uniqueness” as a lived reality (207). On one hand, in its most common manifestation as speech, the voice is always directed outward, “destined for the ear of another” (7). On the other hand, because we hear not just anybody but a particular somebody who is “unique” and “unrepeatable” (9), the voice enables us to recognize and engage another as an “incarnate singularity” (7) — a body-like-me-but-not-me. In this sense, the voice serves a dual purpose, as that which unites us and sets us apart, inviting precisely the interplay between identification and alterity that empathy requires. In what follows, we discuss a second project that seeks to further extend Cavarero’s “vocal phenomenology of uniqueness” (7) beyond the idealized face-to-face encounter and into the realm of digital practice. We are interested in how our experiences with the recorded voices of others might offer a route to a new kind of posthuman ethical personhood, where “personhood is always collaborative, cutting across clear distinctions of materiality/discourse, technology/organicity, and bounded lifetimes/eternal deaths” (Stanyek and Piekut 18).
Our Time Is Up (2014, 45 min., Stereo Audio)
Erin R. Anderson
Our Time Is Up is an experimental audio drama, which tells the story of Jake and Helen McCleary, an elderly couple struggling to save their troubled marriage. The drama unfolds across a series of weekly therapy sessions, in which Jake and Helen sort through the messy details of their failing relationship — his infidelity, her degenerative blindness, and the everyday struggle to listen, be heard, and be loved. At the end, the couple confronts the decision of whether to end their marriage. In terms of narrative, the drama is fairly conventional, at times even predictable. But conceptually and materially, there is more to it than first meets the ear. Unlike a traditional audio drama, which is pre-scripted and then performed by the voices of live actors, this drama is composed from the archives of oral history and performed by the voices of the dead. The voices of the two main characters are constructed from audio recordings of oral history interviews with my late grandfather, Josiah Patton (1919–2009), and Juanita Bowman (1900–2000), a woman whom neither of us met. With the exception of my own role as the couple’s therapist, this drama is made entirely of words actually spoken by Josiah and Juanita — in their own voices, about their own lives, for the purpose of historical preservation. But, in this project, these words and voices have been deliberately disarticulated, recombined, and reanimated, so that they no longer represent, or even aspire to represent, the stories or intentions of their now-deceased speakers. Instead, they come together to create a new, shared story and an uncanny dramatic encounter between the living and the dead.
This project first emerged as an ethical provocation; it was a project I took on precisely because of the degree of discomfort it evoked. Inspired by musicologists Jason Stanyek and Benjamin Piekut’s work (2010) on the posthumous duet, I set out to explore the limits of prevailing ethical proscriptions against interfering with the voices of the dead. Through a case study of “Unforgettable” — a 1991 collaboration between Natalie Cole and her father, Nat “King” Cole, produced 25 years after his death — Stanyek and Piekut use Barad’s new materialist theory to argue that this duet is, in fact, a collaboration between the living and the dead (Stanyek and Piekut 18). By taking seriously the capacity of the dead to act and affect in their own right, through the vibrant “effectivity” of their recorded voices, these authors allow us to move away from familiar frameworks of representational ethics to imagine the possibility for a positive, generative “ethics of effects” (34).
At first, I will admit, I saw the possibility of collaboration with the dead as fascinating but a bit far-fetched for my taste. I was well aware of the ethical vulnerabilities of my project — and of the nonliving participants whose voices helped to bring it into being. Initially, I saw in Stanyek and Piekut’s approach a theoretical framework that I might apply to my practice at a certain level of remove in order to justify my ethical intervention to my audience, if not also myself. However, I did not expect to actually experience this collaboration at the level of embodied, perceptual practice. In fact, as I edited and imagined the drama, I not only became convinced of the “mutual effectivity” (34) that Josiah’s and Juanita’s voices contributed to the process; I actually began to feel myself forming complex attachments and relationships with my collaborators across the threshold of death.
In preparation for this project, I selected Juanita’s recording from dozens of recorded voices of the dead that I found in online oral history archives and assembled into a randomized playlist to keep me company on a solo cross-country drive. As I moved alone across the landscape over those four days, I felt strangely accompanied, as if each voice were somehow a warm body, sitting next to me and telling me stories. Of course, the voices did tell stories, and those stories were most certainly part of the connection that I felt. They also sang songs and spoke of distant wars in languages I could not understand. And others only wailed faintly and indistinctly from beneath the static of decades of tape decay. Yet, I still felt a certain closeness, a certain intimacy — not the deep, slow kind that develops over years of committed friendship, but the intense, fleeting kind that comes with the isolation and forced proximity of sharing a ride across the sprawling Montana Rockies. Certainly, from an ontological perspective, any notion of metaphysical “presence” here is deeply problematic. But, as Norie Neumark (2010) argues, we cannot help but feel some presence of a person behind the recorded voice of another. Voices afford an “authenticity effect” (95).
Of all the voices in the archive, I felt most connected with the voice of Juanita Bowman, whose energy and intensity would bring Helen’s character to life in Our Time Is Up. Over the weeks and months of the drama’s production, I listened to Juanita as no one had likely listened to her in decades, if ever — and certainly not since her death 15 years ago. Engrossed in the sound of every breath, every cough, every subtle shift in intonation, I listened to her in a way that I had never listened to anyone, ever. And, for someone I have never met, someone I never will meet, someone who died quietly when I was still a teenager in a suburb hundreds of miles away, I cannot help but feel as if I know her all the same.
Unlike Juanita, I did know Josiah during his lifetime, and I loved him for the lively, living, breathing, laughing, sobbing, sensitive, stubborn, proud, vulnerable person he was. But while I may have started this project believing that I knew my grandfather, in the end I was surprised to come to know him quite differently. Indeed, somewhere along the line, as I immersed myself in the painstaking listening and re-listening and editing and re-voicing that went into this drama, I actually started to feel like Jake and Helen’s therapist. As I sat and listened to the weighty heaves of Jake’s sobs or the sad notes of resignation behind Helen’s all-too-curt responses, I began to feel them as if they were my own. That is, I began to feel my own investment in their process: in my desire to comfort or heal, my impulse to reach out and put my hand on a slumped shoulder that was not there or, admittedly, to reach out and smack some sense into both of them. Then I would wake up to the sudden realization that I was, in fact, sitting alone in my apartment, or worse, in the middle of a busy café, wincing awkwardly or laughing under my breath or fighting back the tears that I felt, inexplicably, for two people who I knew were not “present” in any sense of the term, but whom I had somehow come to experience as if they were. Indeed, this was the most surprising, and most satisfying, outcome of my experiment — not the extent to which I was able to change these voices into something new, but the extent to which, in doing so, these voices changed me.
“What can we do, perceptually, to live well together?” (Wysocki 109). This, we believe, is the crux of the matter at hand. While our two projects differ in their impetus and methods, both of us came to experience a kind of closeness — or what Levinas (1987) might call “the ethical invitation to proximity” (Time 109) — through the practice of digital making. Here, we reimagine proximity as not just felt or even observed, but enacted via the constellation of machine and human, voice and vibration. Importantly, the invitation to proximity is not about talking to strangers, or being in the same room as another. It is not a physical proximity. It is about risking “contamination” (109) or implication through the blurred lines of us, them, me, her, our voices, and their voices. As Barad puts it, “Not only subjects, but also objects are permeated through and through with their entangled kin; the other is not just in one’s skin, but in one’s bones, in one’s belly, in one’s heart, in one’s nucleus, in one’s past and future” (393). In this sense, we are not responsible to know the other, but we are responsible to know and experience our entanglements. Such a proximal transformation is certainly possible through the act of reception, and we are invested in using our practice to move audiences toward such sensual experiences, reimagined lines of relations, and new forms of attachment. However, our primary interest lies in the extent to which our own experience composing with voices — and being composed by them — represents a particularly “intensified” or “heightened” (Wysocki 109) form of affective encounter, which may outstretch the experience available to an outside audience.
One of the fundamental differences between our own experience of these projects and the experience of a potential audience relates to the temporality of the encounter. A typical listener who approaches our work from the outside is unlikely to spend more time with these voices than the total running time of the pieces themselves and, given the present economy of attention, likely far less than that. Perhaps the most eager audience will return for a second listen. Yet, for the most part, the experience that such projects invite is brief, delimited, and singular. In comparison to the hours and weeks and months we spent with the voices that make up these projects—well, there is no comparison. This is not to say that an audience will not experience some form of intense, fleeting intimacy with the voices of James and Josiah and Juanita. However, there is a palpable difference between the kind of bond that develops over short, singular encounters between speakers and audiences and the kind that grows from more substantial investments of time, energy, and collective labor.
We do not mean to suggest that the connection between ethics and perception boils down to a simple question of duration: listen to someone’s voice for long enough and you will feel your connection to them. Rather, as Wysocki argues, “our senses are trained through repetition” (104). With this repetition in mind, perhaps there is something in not only the time we spent listening to these voices but also the way that listening unfolded — namely, the highly repetitious practice of listening and re-listening required by the compositional process. Perhaps such repetition enabled us to listen to these voices beyond the depth of the words and meanings they conveyed, to more closely attune ourselves to the surface-level vibrations of the voices themselves — vibrations that are, in the end, not people at all but rather paradoxical performances of personhood that bring together a fuller range of relations between human and machine, past and present, living and dead. And if we are ultimately seeking to open empathy to complex interrelationships with the many “other-than-human” entities that comprise Barad’s posthuman ethics, then perhaps our creative engagement with these materials offers a means to experience those interrelationships through conditioned sensory practice.
Furthermore, in making these projects, we were called to not simply listen to these voices through repeated, durational practice, but also respond in an act of “reciprocal invocation” (Cavarero 208). While the audience is invited to experience the “intimacy and intensity” (Neumark 95) of these voices, the works themselves do not, in any explicit way, prompt them to enter into the conversation. Of course, one might reasonably argue that such a reply would be inconsequential, since there is no conscious being on the other end to receive their response. At the same time, if we take seriously Wysocki’s argument that we must “learn to be bodies that somehow perceive not alone but socially” (107), then perhaps this act of reciprocal sociality — this act of response — does matter, in every sense of the term. Built into the methods of our practice is a requirement that we not only listen but also speak back — figuratively, but also materially and performatively, as we work to reprocess the voices of others through our own bodies and enter into mutual conversation with the voices of the living and the dead. This auto-affective sensation of feeling ourselves listen, and then feeling ourselves respond, suggests a powerful perceptual anchor for the kinds of empathic relations our practice enables. And while such ethical-aesthetic encounters do not require vocal performance, we are interested in further considering this embodied responsivity and its role in creative-critical practice. In the end, voice is only one of the many possible materials with which we might undertake this work. Ultimately, we are interested in how digital media — in their complex material entanglements with humans and machines, with selves and others, with “the living, dead, and not-yet-born” (Stanyek and Piekut 34) — might provide us with a powerful opportunity to both ground and expand our sense of “we” to account for a fuller range of ethical relations.
This challenge is, or should be, at the heart of our work as digital humanists. Yet it is not a challenge that we are likely to address by standing back and looking at the world from a distance. Rather, it calls us to surrender our incessant drive for meaning, mastery, and control. Most important, it asks us to slow down, to lean in, to attune ourselves to our interconnectedness with others and with the felt — and even the not-yet-felt — material world. This is where we end. And where we begin.
1. A note on human subject methodology: James, his real name, gave a recorded and public confession to his murders. With permission from him and his family, I edited and experimented with that confession. I also sought out James’s niece for an interview. I have omitted last names to retain the privacy of the family. While Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval was obtained for my larger project, and family permission was obtained for this experimental piece, I do not circulate the project here or anywhere because of my own ethical quandaries about using James’s voice or his niece’s as an object. However, I think the piece, the experiments within it, and the ethics around it are all productive for our own digital humanities practices.
2. For more on distributed agency and the question of blame, see Bennett.
3. See Miller. Digital production is “all about reprocessing the world around you” (29).
4. See Daniel, “Is it art or is it social work?” (177). For Daniel, the answer is always “both.”
5. See Levinas, Otherwise: “Proximity, difference which is non-indifference, is responsibility” (139).
6. See Anderson, where I have written about the ethics of this project in greater detail, reconsidering notions of cultural appropriation from a new materialist perspective.
7. For Jacques Derrida’s seminal critique of phonocentrism and vocal metaphysics, see Speech and Phenomena.
8. Conventional thinking on empathy suggests that it can be felt through transference from film to viewer, writer to reader. See Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory, for more on this.
Anderson, Erin R. Our Time Is Up. https://soundcloud.com/the-sarah-awards/our-time-is-up-by-erin-anderson.
———. “Reanimating the Archive: Collaboration and Performance with the Voices of the Dead.” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture 16, no. 1 (2016).
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———. Prosthetic Memory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
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———. Time and the Other. Translated by Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1987.
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