By Glen Southergill, Montana Technological University
A church bell rings over the silence of a historic quarter that’s not yet awake but not fully asleep. The occasional walker may pass one of the many now vacant mining headframes rusting in the brisk Montana air. They now are dominant but once operated continuously. The walker may imagine the sounds of mid-twentieth century metal machinery grinding. Bells would have whistled loudly, but of a decidedly different nature than the church bells of today. Rather than a slow and peaceful melody of the sort now heard, those would have been sharp calls to changes of shift or perhaps of alarm. Workers would have scampered from the so-called nippers, or tightly packed small elevators that sent crews deep into the earth, adding sounds of bodies moving.
Like the tense industrial sounds of mineyards, the sounds of the spaces we occupy today retain profoundly rhetorical characteristics. On this subject, Caitline A. Blinder’s insightful “Attuning to Phonophobia” provokes her readers to ask questions. We/they may wonder what we subject ourselves in the soundscapes we occupy. What is it to become mindful of our relationships to sound? And, to what obligations do we have to help adjust our soundscape for the inclusivity and wellbeing of others?
In no small part, I admire the richness of Blinder’s interactions with scholars who have engaged in rhetorical sound studies. Her readings and applications of works by Steph Ceraso, Thomas Rickert, and Adam J. Banks all demonstrate a nuanced understanding of contemporary scholarship. From her theoretical framework, Blinder insightfully captures significant concepts as attunement, ambience, and embodiment. She then recognizes that individuals with sonic “neurodivergence” such as Hyperacusis experience soundscapes with notes of pain and tension. Her piece offers a promising synthesis between rhetorical and disability studies amidst sonic investigations.
However, her work does not simply recognize theory or discuss individual experience. She uses the unique affordances of sound to immerse her audience with an experience that resonates emotionally and physically. We feel anxiety with her as she authentically stutters as symbols clash. We experience the tension of a busy classroom hallway with her. We leave the piece feeling stronger with her as she summarizes her lessons learned.
Her conclusion proves especially noteworthy as she both places considerable agency in greater self-awareness and notes that the burdens are not the individuals to carry alone. Rather, those in positions of authority must construct spaces mindful of the various needs of writers in their charge. She states,
Because anyone, including myself, shouldn’t be the one who has to adapt. The classroom should also work to accommodate me. It should work to accommodate all members of the community.
To which I agree: it is important pedagogical advice to hear. The fields of rhetoric and writing studies would be wise to further study inclusion in sonic terms.
I now cannot imagine what it would have been to walk a crowded and loud mine yard. There would not have been the comfort of a tape deck of the sort Blinder used as she rode her bike to school at a younger age. There would have been no demands placed upon the operators of the space to manage noise more deliberately.
Fortunately, that is not a place and time in which we now work. As students and scholars of rhetoric, we can instead approach the sonic space with greater care and self-awareness. Without doubt, Blinder’s synthesis of disability studies, rhetorical theory, and sound studies demonstrates just how far the field has come—and can continue to go—in these regards.
I appreciate hearing her work, and encourage others to listen closely to it.