by Simone Sessolo
The rhetorician Kenneth Burke suggests that an audience is moved by the presentation of an author’s character through a process of identification. The piece is moving because the audience can identify with the speaking voice. Burke further explains that identification is based on three principles: identification is consubstantial, divisive, and always desired. Ashey’s project, Sounds of Silence (2013), effectively embodies Burke’s three principles, allowing the audience to participate in a condition with which the audience might be unfamiliar: being hard of hearing.
The audience of Ashey’s project would feel consubstantial with the narrating voice because the recording presents challenges: there are sound glitches and static noises throughout that force the audience to face a difficulty the effect of which is both practical and aesthetic: practical because the audience might need to rewind the recording and listen again, aesthetic because the glitches create a musicality and craft that go beyond the purposes of comprehension—the glitches have meaning as glitches, as something devoid of meaning.
Sounds of Silence is divisive because it separates the audience from the condition described and performed. Ashey’s work is directed to an audience that has good hearing, so it raises the awareness that the audience is not the subject described. While the audience identifies with the reality of someone who is hard of hearing, the audience also realizes the physical difference between creator and receptor. However, identification is strengthened by the lack of images through a screen that is constantly black. This being an audio project, the screen has only lateral implications. However, be it with a black screen or without a screen at all, what the piece offers is an absence: an absence of images that reflects and parallels the absence of sound in the subject matter of the project.
Furthermore, Ashey’s project expresses a desire that manifests itself as an affective force between author and audience. This desire is noticeable in the part about the table conversation: as the narrating voice desires to be part of the conversation and jump in and be consubstantial with the other dinner guests (belong to the same group), so the listening audience feels a desire to understand more, to participate more, and ultimately to speak (to jump in the conversation with the narrating voice). Burke suggests that the desire aspect of identification is what, ultimately, causes complete identification to fail, because it can never be completely fulfilled. This “failure,” though, in Burke as in Ashey, must not be regarded negatively. It is the failure of desire that forces the audience to step beyond identification and enter the realm of active argumentation, of persuasive efforts as allies to the cause of people who are hard of hearing. In this respect, Ashey’s piece calls for action: to consider policies that address diversity and promote a more equal society.
Aesthetically, Ashey’s Sounds of Silence might remind the audience of Derek Jarman’s experimental movie Blue (1993), which depicts the final days of Jarman as a terminally Aids patient. The movie presents a screen that is constantly electric blue, with only sounds and dialogues accompanying the viewer through the artistic experience. While the topics of Jarman’s and Ashey’s works are different, both projects sublimate absences into a presence of something else, equally painful, yet equally artistic: sound and vision. Perhaps it is appropriate that Ashey chose, as the end of the project, a self-recorded sound bite from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” (1964): the sound bite quietly and abruptly says “and the vision that…” And then the project stops. The absence of vision in the project reiterates that vision is what hard of hearing people rely on the most. Sound and vision, ultimately, help Ashey’s audience to identify with an absence.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. (21). Print.
Jarman, Derek, dir. Blue. Basilisk Communications, 1993.
Simon, Paul. “The Sound of Silence.” Perf. Simon and Garfunkel. Wednesday Morning, 3 A. M. Columbia, 1964.