‘Once You Start Listening You Can’t Stop Hearing It’

[Piece for The Wire’s issue 352 on ‘Words and Music’, June 2013].

Nina Power

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Once you start listening you can’t stop hearing it. The voice – female, or female-sounding at least, pre-recorded ‘real’ voices or mechanised tones, or, often, a weird cut-up mixture of both, dominates the sonic landscape. From the supermarket checkout machines with their chaste motherish inquiries (‘have you swiped your Nectar card?’) to repeated assertions regarding the modes of securitised paranoia (‘in these times of heightened security’), the female voice operates as a central asset in the continued securitisation and control of contemporary space, cutting across what little is left of the public realm and providing the appearance and the illusion of efficiency, calm and reassurance in commercial environments. It is estimated that 70% of recorded voices in the UK are female, or female-sounding. We all know this vocal tone, because we have no choice but to know it: it spans a narrow range between reassuring and relatively high-pitched, though ever-efficient, to deeper, more refined and sales-oriented: from clipped bus stop name announcements to Cadbury’s Caramel bunny and Mark’s and Spencer’s ads that sound like you’re wading through sexy gravy.

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Soft Coercion, the City and the Recorded Female Voice

[A version of this text was published in The Acoustic City, edited by Matthew Gandy and BJ Nilsen, JOVIS Publishers, 2014)

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Four questions to begin with: What is the pitch of the neoliberal city? How does the pitch of the city construct images of and for the humanity that travels through it? How does gender relate to control of this space – corporate, commercial, privatised space and the few remaining places we might (often erroneously, or perhaps nostalgically) refer to as “public space”? How does the soundscape of the city relate to forms of control – what I will call here “soft coercion” – that often goes unnoticed, or at least blends into the background and becomes simply part of the tapestry of the urban sonic environment, alongside the whirr of traffic, the babble of the crowd, birdsong, sirens? We may think of the sound of the city as somehow being ‘neutral’ on its own terms, or at least cacophonous enough to escape linear description, but by paying careful attention to the patterns of urban sounds we do more than simply listen: the over-familiarity of certain sonic tropes starts to tell us something key about the way in which both gender and control are constructed and reinforced.

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Towards a Feminism of the Void

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In October 2015, Audrey Wollen posted a picture on Instagram with the message ‘a PSA brought to u by ur local chapter of Female Nothingness’. The picture comprises a black and white composite image with the words BEWARE MALE ARTISTS MAKING ARTWORK ABOUT EMPTINESS/NOTHING DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU/GIRLS OWN THE VOID/BACK OFF FUCKERS!!!! next to crudely crossed out images of a John Cage manuscript, and works by, amongst others, Yves Klein (Le Vide (The Void)), Bas Jan Ader (Broken Fall (Organic). Amsterdamse Bos. Holland 1971) and Robert Barry, (Inert Gas Series: Helium. Sometime during the Morning of March 5, 1969, 2 Cubic Feet of Helium Will Be Released into the Atmosphere, 1969).[1]Wollen’s piece, alongside her ‘Sad Girl Theory’ (where she states, and I agree, that ‘the sadness of girls should be recognised as an act of resistance’[2]), is brilliant, both for its immediately blunt but recognisable vantage point, its militancy and its humour. ‘GIRLS OWN THE VOID’ – but what, we might ask, pushing past the humour, does it mean to own (the) nothing? A nothing that is possessed and taken away at the same time. Wollen’s synonymy – emptiness, nothing, void – and the defensive possessive ‘BACK OFF FUCKERS!!!!’ posits an ironic essentialism on two levels: the very idea of owning nothing, and the idea that ‘girls’ have a privileged insight into the nothing by virtue of being ‘girls’. It is precisely the sort of joke/non-joke that cannot be fully articulated, because it takes place on the very terrain of representation itself, which is also where sex and language do their obscure work. In this sense the joke morphs into something much more serious, revealing once again, that all jokes are acts of aggression, even in defensive formation.

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Some New Pieces

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Image of Nazi typewriter, including the ‘SS’ symbol (accompanies the e-flux article)

I haven’t updated in a while. In the meantime, there are quite a few new recent pieces available on and offline (links where available).

You can also find my writing on music every month in The Wire.

SUBVERSIVE PASOLINI: LA RICOTTA AND THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW—A DISCUSSION

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with Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Nina Power

[Note: this dialogue took place in 2012-13. It was due to be published by a film magazine, but fell through for reasons beyond the control of the authors. Thank you to Geoffrey Nowell-Smith for permission to publish it here in 2017]

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith: Pasolini has often been described as a Catholic Marxist but his Marxism was always unorthodox and he was never a Catholic although brought up in an environment permeated by the imagery and values of Italian Catholicism. Like most people on the left in Italy in the 1950s he was strongly anti-clerical (not surprising given the profoundly reactionary role played by the Catholic Church in Italy in the period) and it is only in his poetry that another side of him appears—an identification with suffering as experienced by the oppressed and potentially embodied in the figure of Christ. Then in 1958 the election of Pope John XXIII was a massive force for change—in Italian society, in the Church, and in Pasolini himself. Catholicism became something to engage with—as myth (in the noble sense of the word), as culture, as ideology, as a political force that was not necessarily quite so reactionary as it had been or seemed to be throughout most of preceding Italian history. Continue reading

Radical Empathy: Politics and Emotion

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‘Radical Empathy: Politics and Emotion’ (this text is the basis for a talk I gave at Roehampton on 9th November 2016, the day of the election of Donald Trump as US President)

by Nina Power

Thank you for coming. What I want to talk about today is part of a projected bigger project (or at least a medium-sized project) that concerns the role of emotion in political and theoretical life. The idea of ‘radical’ empathy stems from the idea of trying to grasp the problem by its root (as in radical feminism’s emphasis on male violence and patriarchy as root explanatory tools). This interest in empathy was partly stimulated by reflections on political organising, in particular the idea of getting people to ‘care’ about the suffering of others in a direct political sense, and here I’m thinking in particularly about campaigning around deaths in custody where, despite the obvious injustice involved in instances where families and friends have lost loved ones – often people of colour – at the hands of the state, and time and time again receive no recognition of any kind that this has happened – no apology, no compensation, no prosecution of the state agents involved, or in the rare cases where there have been prosecutions, no guilty verdict in the courts. Continue reading