Spring is here!

The rain isn’t quite as piercingly icy anymore, crocuses are appearing, Vappu approaches … spring is coming! In my case, it came with a loud thud through the front door as some lovely new books arrived, some of which, rather fittingly, sport some very colourful birds.

I’ve written about the importance of birds in vocal science before – comparative biologists, in particular, had rather grandiose ideas about the similarities between rituals of mating and nest building in birds and humans (and seem to have been disproportionately prone to have pet parrots).

Judging by the covers of these books, very little seems to have changed – parrots are still front and center, and birds’ social lives, punctuated by communicative song, still hold considerable attraction for those interested in human practices of cohabitation and belonging. And yet, one searches in vain for a clever parrot to take the stage in these books (although Alex makes an appearance). Instead, I’m learning a lot about the territorial and expansionist qualities of avian vocal sounds.

As the blackbird starts singing outside of Vinciane Despret’s window (and therefore also in my life), questions about ownership, individuality and the self emerge. “Et tout ce que le merle avait pu, au cours de ces derniers mois, éprouver, sentir, tout ce quit connait jusque-là leur sens aux choses et aux autres s’agence à présent à une tout autre importance, impérieuse, exigeante, qui modifiera complètement sa manière d’être: il est devenu territorial”.

As it happens, I’m currently writing about the role of vocality and voices in nineteenth-century imperialism, and a lot of cheap conclusions could be drawn about cross-species vocal expansionism and territorialism (and who am I to resist a good metaphor?). Sadly, however, it doesn’t seem to be quite so simple, and so I will be delving into the murky pasts of ornithology for the time being, before I accuse birds of something terrible. Nevertheless, it’s good to keep in mind that biologists, ornithologists and us historians can agree on some things

“le ‘territoire’ est un terme qui n’a rien d’innocent et dont je ne dois pas oublier les violences appropriatives et les destructions quit ont configuré certaines de ses significations actuelles”.

The ambulatory scholar: research mobility in times of lockdown

I spent the past five months abroad. You might think that such a thing would be impossible, given current events, but it takes a greater force than a global pandemic to remove the demands of mobility for junior scholars. Besides, the trip was all planned, and funded, and my calendar cleared for it…so off I went.

Mostly, I am a great proponent of scholarly mobility. Despite the exhaustion, difficulties and the (sometimes outsized) effects extensive professional nomadism has had on my life, on the whole I think it has made me a more curious, better networked and more broadly informed scholar. Travel has taught me about research traditions and pedagogical methods I would not have known otherwise, it has encouraged me to become truly fluent in the languages I knew and even to pick up an entirely new one, it has forced me to be more sociable than I am by default and taught me to find well hidden reserves of confidence (or perhaps sheer bloody mindedness) to stand up in front of rooms full of strangers or (worse) attend many a reception where I felt thoroughly out of place. All in all, I love travelling. I’ve learned to embrace the slight discomfort of being a stranger and to wield that as an instrument for learning, and I owe so, so many of my best friends to the chance encounters mobility has afforded me. My tribe is a geographically dispersed one, and there is enormous joy in having the kind of social network on which the sun never sets.

Travelling in times of lockdown, however, has rather put my enthusiasm for mobility to the test. Without seminars to attend, lectures to go to, coffee breaks in which to meet colleagues or even the dreaded receptions to show up for, very little seemed to be left of university life when I arrived in Cambridge in September last year. (And let’s not even mention the damage the pandemic has done to any kind of social life outside of work).

and yet…

  • chance encounters somehow still happen. Reduced to a walkable radius around my house (and desperation for human contact can widen such a radius considerably) I ended up spending most of my time with scholars not in my field of research, but close to the fields I walked. People I would not have sought out otherwise, but who enriched my thinking precisely because their approach was so different and foreign.
  • scholarly exchange still happens, and without the ability to take notes (or to even sit down) conversations would turn, much more quickly, to the heart of the matter, to the stakes of our work, to why we are doing it all – even, especially, in the midst of a global crisis
  • change still happens. What I feared most, perhaps, as I saw my opportunities to visit archives, lecture halls and seminar rooms go up in smoke, is that I would miss out on what all my other research trips have always achieved: a change in how I look at my own research through a thorough engagement with ‘other’ modes of thinking, speaking and doing scholarship. But sometimes, it seems, a change of scenery and a healthy dose of good will is all that is needed to make that happen. (And for the archives…well, I’ll just have to go back)

Tietämätön mestari – or the art of not being fluent

Once upon a time, when training for my teacher education, I was made to read a number of pedagogy books. Most of them were pretty dull, to be honest, but one did capture my attention. Le maître ignorant, by Jacques Rancière, which tells the story of a late 18th century French professor who comes to teach Flemish students in Leuven, without sharing a language with them. The story has Joseph Jacotot and his students stumbling, feeling, probing, at times quite clumsily, into each others’ worlds. Learning occurs, but slowly, seemingly without plan or direction, and whether any teaching is involved remains unclear.

The past couple of weeks have reminded me of Rancière’s ignorant ‘master’ quite a bit, as I started participating in (and, nominally at least, ‘co-teaching’) an MA research seminar in Finnish – a language I don’t master nearly well enough to have a reasonable conversation in. And so what I do in the seminar cannot be called teaching by any stretch of the imagination, But I’m finding it a highly useful exercise in so many ways (quite apart from the obvious value it has in exposing me to a language I’m trying to learn).

  • every week, I’m forced to read something slowly, methodically, halted by frequent consultation of the dictionary. This is far removed from my usual practice: I’m a pretty fast reader, and reading with focus and efficiency is one of the skills I’ve developed most over the last decade or so. It’s what has kept me afloat in what can sometimes be a quite frantic life as a researcher. As a result, I’ve also gotten quite good at recognizing (and producing or improving) textual structure and tone. But none of that is available to me in Finnish. Unable to grasp subtleties, I am left with only content. It provides me with an odd sense of focus. “What is this text about?” is no longer a pedantic question about clarity or style. It’s a genuine problem to be solved.
  • It may be the only conversation in my life I actually give my full attention to. There is simply no room to multitask. In fact, I can’t let my attention slip even for a moment, because more than my lack of vocabulary, my inability to predict where any sentence will go, forces me to be completely invested in the present moment. This, I have learned (or perhaps remembered) is what fluency brings above all. Not so much the ability to express oneself without trouble, but rather to anticipate what others may say or do. When speaking a language I ‘know’, I’m formulating answers in my head as I listen to others, I quickly look up a reference whilst keeping half an ear tuned to the ongoing discussion, I balance the value of what I think I have to say against its potential damage to the natural flow of the conversation. There are no such niceties when I intervene in a Finnish conversation. I can’t tell when a sentence will end before it does – and I usually only figure out what it means when it has already become irrelevant in the conversation. Every statement I make becomes portentous – and therefore much more vulnerable.

It’s conversational role, I realized, I am no longer used to. Balances of power and comfort in academic conversations are complicated, and I’m rarely confident going into them. But I had forgotten what it’s like to be the least fluent person in the room. It’s a good reminder to get, once in a while.

I am speaking

“Mister Vice-President, I am speaking”

It is not surprising, perhaps, that the only words of Kamala Harris’ participation in a vice-presidential debate that we all heard, referred to the impossibility for her to do so unimpeded. Others have made and will make excellent contributions to conversations about the various difficulties of speaking while Black, mansplaining, the absence of women’s voices in politics and how all of these difficulties intersected for Harris during the debate (I for one will continue to listen to prof. Brittney Cooper)

Harris: Nationwide Mask Mandate Wouldn't Carry Punishment | Voice of  America - English

What struck me in the phrase, is the degree to which it spoke to modern feminist concerns – concerns that are deeply implicated in philosophies of individuality and a politics of institutionalized democracy.

The personal is political / I am speaking

One man, one vote / I am speaking

Can the subaltern speak? / I am speaking

Somehow, this phrase begs for repetition in a political climate in which getting one’s voice heard is considered so important.

Say their names / I am speaking

It has always intrigued me that this declaratory function of speech, its ability to make the speaker present

I am speaking / I am speaking

has to such a large degree been the terrain of female thinkers. From Hanna Arendt’s politicization of speech, over Gayatri Spivak’s concern for subaltern silence, to Judith Butler’s impassioned encouragement to give an account of one’s self. The reason is, perhaps, that such questions are infinitely more fraught, and the results more precarious, when public speech is launched from a female body. The woman who speaks knows that she might encounter, in debate and in life, an interlocutor so intent on not hearing her that she needs to identify her utterances as speech

I am speaking / I am speaking

these aren’t just random sounds, no matter how much, to you, it may seem like the buzzing of a fly you’d dearly like to swat.

A fly at the Harris, Pence debate has internet buzzing

Having to claim space for speech is hardly new for women, and particularly for WOC. That Harris’ ‘I am speaking’ struck such a cord now is perhaps due to the fact that neo-liberal ‘it girl’ feminist discourses are so explicitly built around women’s voices.

Following a long history of moral panic and sensuous discomfort over women’s voices – in which nymphs, mermaids and scolds have all been equally likely to be forcibly silenced – popular culture has now elected to celebrate female voices. Or has decided, at least, that they can be palatable enough to sell products.

Mike Pence may not be aware of it, but a lot of money can be made from declaring women’s voices powerful, valuable and beautiful. (The value of listening to them is a bit harder to calculate). A recently launched perfume even “invites each woman to celebrate her voice”.

I am slightly weary of such hot pink (and ableist) re-iterations of the equation between one’s voice and notions of an individual self. They are very firmly rooted in a political and philosophical traditions that has served women and POC very badly in the past. But I will happily celebrate the ubiquity of Lady Gaga from politics to perfume. She speaks to me.

The siren song of ‘giving voice’

“Listen as the past comes to life”, “Actors give life to figures from the past”, “with our research, we want to give a voice to the people history has forgotten”.

File:Marie-François Firmin-Girard - Ulysses and the Sirens, 1868.jpg
Ulysses and the Sirens (Girard, 1868)

When I tell people that I’m interested in the history of voice, I often have to immediately disappoint them. No, I can’t (and won’t) reconstruct speeches from the past, I can’t tell you what Napoleon sounded like, and I don’t have any historical sounds I can play for you so you can imagine you’re in Ancient Rome.

That’s partly because, the history of acoustic recording being what it is, we simply have not ‘sounding’ documents from this period, and ‘reconstructing’ the materialities and experiences of the past is impossible, But part of my firm negative answer to all these hopeful questions about reviving the sounds of the past is ethical as well. Recreating these sounds for the consumption of modern ears, I feel, would not only be inauthentic but also strip these voices from the important cultural, emotional and moral meanings they carried in the context in which they were uttered. My objection is somewhat similar to the ones numerous historians of photography have offered of the practice of colorizing. Sure, seeing historical pictures in colour makes them seem more familiar and seems to give us a more immediate access to the past – but only at the cost of ignoring a large part of the cultural, technological and aesthetic realities of that past.

How Amazing Colorization Of Black And White Photos Are Done
The relatable colorized president

Black and white pictures not only show us their subjects, but also a whole range of practices of photography, of seeing, of memorializing, of aesthetic choices and authorship. The same goes for non acoustic records of sounds and vocal utterances of the past. To suggest that those are merely inferior ways of representing sound disregards their value: their ability to also convey to us how sounds were heard, remembered, represented and given meaning in the past – to also hold the virtuosity of historical actors in their use of language across different media, revealing a rich tapestry of rhetoric, reported speech, literary beauty, creative spelling, unruly grammar,…on paper.

I was therefore both delighted and disappointed by the ‘Workhouse Voices‘ that now resound on the National Archives website. In it, letters of individual paupers are reproduced as images, transcriptions and as sound-recordings. In making these documents available to a wider audience, the website contributes to a more diverse, and vastly more interesting, understanding of daily life and its material challenges for ‘ordinary’ (for lack of a better word) people, who are so often forgotten in historical narratives. But by ‘voicing’ these letters (by unnamed voice actors whose contemporary decisions on tone, accent, or timbre are not explained) it also obscures the very real practice these letter writers were engaged in: putting their claims into written words (possibly with the help of others wielding the pen). The sound files, whilst seemingly bringing the past to life, create a fiction of audible supplication which may pull at the heartstrings of a modern audience, but at the cost of denying these writers the right to define their own voice.

White Innocence: Once More With Feeling

One year ago today, I sat on a stage in Finland and tried to explain the phenomenon of ‘Black Pete’ to an astounded audience. It never fails to depress me, to see how we are all so capable of seeing the inherent racism in someone else’s society, yet keep completely missing our own (a phenomenon that seems sadly true for both Finland and Belgium). In the months between now and then, I’ve been trying to grapple with my own blind spots, and particularly with how they may influence my work. It’s an uncomfortable reflection, and I’m not quite sure what conclusions I can or should draw. But the last week has brought some clarity.

You see, yesterday I was approached by a journalist from ‘back home’, the home of Black Pete and also, as it transpired, the place where a children’s song littered with racist slurs has now surfaced in a blurry video shared on social media. It shows a group of teens, engaged (somewhat halfheartedly) in a call and answer song describing ten cruel deaths. (I won’t repeat its derogatory language here, most will know some version of the song. Who dies seems to depend a lot on the colonial history of where the translation is sung). Someone had taken it upon themselves to ‘call out’ this group, and share the video from the group’s channel on their own pages, exposing it to a new audience and their cries of horror and disgust.

What did I make of it, as ‘an expert on children’s songs’ and history?, the journalist wondered. It led to some hilarity among my closer friends (really? they needed an expert to point out that slurs don’t lose their meaning if you sing them?) but I was rather pleased: here was someone, it seemed, who was cutting through the usual narrative of ‘tradition’ versus new political correctness, and was creating a space for colonial history and its tenacity through cultural artefacts in our discourses about race. So I wrote what I hoped was a nuanced response about how songs carry historical meaning, and how vaudeville from the segregated US made it to Belgium, and how the Black Lives Matter movement was tied into a long global history of colonial connectedness. The role of this particular group of teens seemed rather unimportant to me: so many instances of latent racism occur everyday, often in the form of an ‘old’ song or poem – no need to particularly point at them.

It seems I had misunderstood, however. What was at issue, mostly, was the exact date of the recording: according to the group in question, they were the victim of a ‘fake news’ campaign. The recording was made about a decade ago, when things were, they said, different and the song was considered acceptable. (A decade seems long to a teenager, I guess). What the journalist was producing was a ‘factcheck’ – something that has become increasingly necessary in a world full of conspiracy theories and misattributed quotes and images – and she had found her fact: the video was older than this recent post seemed to suggest. And so my carefully crafted story of colonial networks and the subtleties of singing as community building was rather surplus to requirements.

This wasn’t about long processes of change, it was about news…and this unfortunate (and rather insensitive) group of youths had now become the news. The title of the ‘factcheck’ gleamed with clarity, and was primed to draw attention: No, it stated quite clearly, they were no longer singing about killing N*s (the title of the song was fully reproduced in the title, slur and all). This was an important point, she explained to me in response to my dumbfounded reaction, because the racist nature of the song did not justify the ‘false’ story of spreading the video as if it were more recent. And the lengthy justification, by the group’s leader, that had also been included verbatim in the text was there because ethics demanded it: they had a right to reply.

She’s right of course…we can’t live in a world in which half-truths circulate, and long-forgotten youthful stupidity keeps haunting us after decades. But her insistence on the deontological code of her profession also brought home a sad reality: rules and regulations, and the best will in the world, do not magically produce valuable and truthful stories, and being conscientious about the rules does not turn us into fair arbiters of ‘fact’. (The conventions of the profession, it seems, had also trained her to value ‘catchy’ titles over avoiding hurtful language). And so there we were, two intelligent women, both beholden to the rules and demands of our respective crafts – frustrated at each other for being so stubbornly insistent on context, the fluidity of reality, and representation (me) and on fair and balanced research, distinguishing fact from fiction and showing ‘both sides’ of every story (her). Both, I think, invested in ethical behaviour within our professions and outside it, and yet so unable to come to an agreement on what that would look like. Unable to agree as well, I think, on exactly what the value and meaning is of a ‘fact’.

My mulish unwillingness to be part of what still strikes me as a pointless exercise in contrived ‘balance’ will mean, sadly, that I will be deprived of my five minutes of fame (I’m sure the nation will weep over this loss of opportunity to learn about 19th century song). However, the whole episode has crystallized for me what I am increasingly unwilling to do, even if the ‘rules’ of my profession often require it

  • I won’t reproduce language that has been used to intentionally demean, hurt and dehumanize historical actors, except in those instances were the argument is explicitly to deconstruct the terms. (Yes, this makes much of my work very difficult – the nineteenth century has produced a rather large number of very picturesquely unpleasant phrases).
  • I won’t take part in discussions on race, no matter how expertly and nuanced they are, in which white people argue about what is acceptable or what may cause offense among themselves. As a historian, and particularly one of the 19th century when so much of our ideas of ‘belonging’ and community were shaped, I believe I have valuable things to say about the contexts, trajectories and meanings of racialized power structures. Many of them will have to remain unsaid until the platform to have these discussions features more diverse voices.

Who knows, keeping my mouth shut may do me a world of good. I’m told it halts the spread of all kinds of nasty things.

I can see you, but I can’t hear you

As we are all going back to virtual school and the conference season is gearing up as well, my living room is once again full of echo’s of ‘can you hear me now?’, ‘you’re on mute!’ and more of such poetic interactions.

One would think that being a historian of sound is not particularly relevant to contemporary tech mishaps, but actually it turns out that some basic understandings of reverberation, vocal technique and sound reproduction, as articulated by Alexander Bell, Friedrich Helmholtz and Emma Seiler can come in quite handy in figuring out what the problem is. As a result, I now seem to have turned into the ‘sound girl’ on many a video call, instructing people to find a cushion or (amazingly) actually speak in the direction of their microphone.

My more tech-savvy colleagues in sound-studies and musicology are much better at these kinds of things, however, so for those who are still looking for advice on how to be audible, clear or perhaps even acoustically pleasant on zoom and in recordings, I’ve gathered some useful tips and tricks here:

  1. snuggle up with a blanket – it’ll do you a world of good, and avoid echo (check Jonathan Sterne’s excellent advice on reducing echo here: https://superbon.net/2020/06/17/recording-your-lectures-1-the-one-thing-your-can-do-to-improve-your-students-listening-experience/)
  2. keep everything brief – recording time, editing time, everything (https://superbon.net/2020/06/18/recording-your-lectures-2-the-one-thing-you-can-do-to-improve-your-recording-experience/)
  3. If you do commit to editing, figure out where all your audio and video input will be coming from (and check out Megan Lavengood’s advice on ensuring sound quality https://meganlavengood.com/2020/03/12/how-to-get-the-best-quality-audio-to-combine-with-your-voice-when-creating-video-or-video-chatting/)
  4. Use whatever technology you already have in your house, but use it well (check where your mic would like you to sit/stand). (If you feel you need to invest in more material, I direct you to Sterne again: https://superbon.net/2020/08/13/recording-your-lectures-3-gear-gear-gear/)
  5. If you are planning longer series of lectures, talks or stories, plan them well, and plan them as ‘spoken’ rather than written text (you can find some hints on how to do so on our podcourse-website: https://blogs.helsinki.fi/podcourse/)
  6. Speak clearly – and remember that speaking to a microphone is very, very different from speaking to a large room. Think more ‘telephone voice’ than ‘teacher voice’ (Jonathan Sterne has some hints on microphone technique https://superbon.net/2020/08/21/recording-your-lectures-4-techniques/)

Talking to machines

Langue learning app Duolingo has finally, very recently, launched its Finnish course. It’s a moment of joy for many, if the reporting on this event is to be believed : most requested course ever!

One does wonder why it took so long to develop a course for a language spoken by over 6 million people when Latin (spoken by none) had been introduced earlier. Perhaps the would-be classicists framed their requests better. Or maybe the longstanding myth that Finnish is a uniquely complex language and impossible to acquire stood in the way.

Either way, the course is here now, and we can all dutifully start to have conversations about ‘why this food is orange’ and other pressing issues.

Having had some Finnish lessons already, I’m now enjoying going through the basics at some speed–which is good for my confidence, but also leaves a lot of mental space for me to wonder about what it is, exactly, that one apparently needs to know when learning Finnish. Like any other language course, the duolingo one comes with a wild range of cultural peculiarities. We learn, for example, that mämmi is sweet and black, that many people ‘have sisu’ and that the sauna should never, ever be cold.


Furthermore, as the language learner is encouraged to look at the world from this exciting new Finnish perspective, they also learn to describe the neighbors.

In the world of Finnish duolingo, Estonian women are ‘nice’, Icelandic men are ‘handsome’ and Norwegians are Vikings. So far, so Nordic. Most of the cultural tropes are funny little finds, lightening the tone, and care seems to have been taken to at least avoid sexist and racist assumptions. The ‘professori’ for example is a bespectacled woman in what may or may not be a hijab (and a blessed relief from the parade of nagging mothers I’ve seen in my other courses to introduce the imperative).

What may be more confusing to new Finnish learners, however, are the assessments on different languages sprinkled throughout the course. ‘Is Finnish a large language?’, we muse collectively. ‘Is French a beautiful language?’ and ‘why is he speaking English again?’ (English, btw, appears to be an ‘important’ language).


These are, of course, the kinds of words one needs early on: big and small, long and short, pretty and ugly. But the obsession with ‘small’ languages, their relative importance and their ‘survival’ in a globalizing world exercises Finnish speakers more than most. Moreover, duolingo seems to take an oddly normative stance on what constitutes a language in the first place. Within 3 days of playing with the app, I was presented with the question ‘is this a language or a dialect?’ (a debate unlikely to occur between people with an 800 – word vocabulary, surely?).


Such normative ideas about ‘correctness’ in language are inherent in this kind of learning app – the whole exercise rests on the premise that there are right and wrong words, phrases and constructions that need to be distinguished. But I for one, am now anxiously waiting for the moment when my phone inevitably tells me off for having an ‘accent’ (or perhaps speaking a dialect).

Black Voices Matter

Can the subaltern speak? Throughout the last couple of years I (and my colleagues) have struggled with this question, over and over. Studying speech in ‘representative democracies’ tends to make it very clear very quickly that the representation modern democracies are willing to engage in, is woefully limited and selective.

The mere fact that we can delve into the obscure history of the ‘first’ speakers in European parliaments who were anything other than middle-class, male, Christian and white, as if they are a mere addition to the actual citizenry – the fact that in 2020 this can count as a scholarly innovation because we know tragically little about these pioneering voices – all of this shows just how unwilling my discipline has been to engage with Black voices.

The problem is, of course, not that these historical actors did not or could not speak. If there’s anything these last few days have shown us, it is that speakers raised in Black communities, whether they carry the legacy of the civil rights movement or not, are absolutely masterful, elegant and moving in their rhetoric.

Like many, I was left feeling angry, sad and utterly useless after hearing the Black voices that have been speaking out, again, this week. But I can at least teach myself to listen, and listen better.


(Join me if you want…on my reading list right now:

Molefi K. Asante and Stephen Robb, The Voice of Black Rhetoric, 1971

Elaine B. Richardson, African American Rhetoric(s), 2007.

Kate Ellis, Say it Plain, 2005)

…aaaaand breathe.

Having just narrowly missed knocking over a lamp in a well-intentioned attempt to get some exercise in my living room, it occurred to me that what the world needs now is not more chirpy, high-quality exercise video’s, but some nice calming Victorian instructions.

After all, Victorian doctors were usually undeterred by their immense lack of evidence, information or (in some cases) basic medical training and could therefore speak with amazing confidence. And what is more calming than a confident authoritarian directive? Moreover, since most of these confidently written instructions contained multiple contradictions, they are also excellent for convincing yourself that whatever you’re doing is already great, and doing wonders for your health. If current, beautifully researched, instructions for exercise may give you the impression that you’re so incompetent you can’t even breathe right, fear not! Our Victorian friends are here to tell you that your inefficient clavicular breathing is in fact a sign of your superior civilization – and therefore fully gives you the right to be overcome by a fit of the vapours and faint artfully onto a chaise longue.


So…breathe in and turn your back to your friends, family and colleagues in the name of social distancing

Emil Behnke 1897 (19)


Let your shoulders drop, and buckle over in your desperation at the state of the world

Emil Behnke 1897 (16)

Gradually realize that a defeatist attitude is no better than the pollyanna approach of some idiot you’re following on twitter, and half-heartedly try to get up again

Emil Behnke 1897 (21)

Get struck by the idea that in times like these, you may as well try turning to religion. Reach up to the heavens with newly found hope

Emil Behnke 1897 (18)

And finally…breathe out, and get some well-deserved rest after another rollercoaster of emotion and exercise.

Emil Behnke 1897 (1)


(note: this exercise routine is based on the work of vocal therapists Emil and Kate Behnke, who thoroughly disapprove of your clavicular breathing and strongly advise you to take up boxing or horse riding so you can grow a back bone)