Election’s Reverb: An Interview with Stefan Helmreich

The November 2016 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Gravity’s Reverb: Listening to Space-Time, or Articulating the Sounds of Gravitational-Wave Detection,” by Stefan Helmreich, who is Elting E. Morison Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editors Andrés García Molina and Julien Cossette conducted with Helmreich about the article, but also about a moment at which the social and political climate animates a visceral sense of urgency demanding us to review our priorities and reconsider or rediscover the driving forces of anthropology.

Andrés García Molina (AGM) and Julien Cossette (JC): The inaugural Sound + Vision section of Cultural Anthropology appeared in the midst of a long-in-the-making seismic shock to the U.S. political system, an election whose effects are still reverberating and will continue to reverberate through public culture. We know from email exchanges with you just after November 8, 2016 that you haven’t been in the mood to comment on the intricacies of gravitational-wave detection. So start wherever you like.

Stefan Helmreich (SH): Right. When you first asked me, on November 7, to meditate on supplemental content for my article on the sound of gravitational waves, I was thinking through a rereading/rewriting of the final sentence: “Gravity’s reverb is the sound of humans, listening.” What, I wondered, would be the stakes of revising it to read “Gravity’s reverb is the sound of humans, thinking”? I wanted to emphasize that my point was not a relativist or inspiraling phenomenological one, but rather one affirming and joining in the intellectual labor that my scientist colleagues had done to extract meaning from their work. I was preparing to elaborate on Donna Haraway’s (2016, 12) argument, from her just-published book Staying with the Trouble, that “it matters what . . . thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories” (2016, 12; see also Strathern 1992).

Returning to the book now, it is Haraway’s engagement with Virginia Woolf’s (1938, 62) Three Guineas that strikes me; Woolf’s text, written in the shadow of 1930s fascism, pressed this demand: “Think we must.” I think that demand has gathered sharp meanings in the wake of the election, which really does require some thoroughgoing thinking. So, yeah, since early November, I have thought about little other than how to think about this dangerous political moment. While some actions have seemed immediate and obvious to me, the question of thinking remains ongoing and unsettled (and see Wurgaft 2015 on “thinking in public”). My thinking about gravitational and sound waves, I must say, has been quite on hold.

Screenshot of the New York Times homepage, November 9
Screenshot of the New York Times homepage, November 9, 2016.

But an unexpected connection suggested itself to me when I returned to an early-in-the-day November 9 New York Times headline (and tweet) that read “WAVES OF EMOTION FROM COAST TO COAST AS TRUMP TURNS TO WORK OF THE PRESIDENCY.” What, exactly, I wondered, did those “waves” point to? From where did they emanate? What do they betoken? (And why did the notion of the wave appear again and again in the wake of the election—“populist waves,” “waves of nationalist sentiment,” “a wave of economic angst,” “a Catholic wave to White House win,” “a wave of angry white voters,” “waves of protest,” “a wave of hate crimes”?). The Times’s writers meant, presumably, to describe sentiments in motion, individual and collective (cue Durkheim). But the concept of “wave” in social description—as opposed to physics or acoustics or oceanography, where it can be given a precise mathematical representation—demands a different examination, especially for what it can and cannot tell us about political change. Or, for that matter, about the durability and never really attenuated character of regressive political forces.

To be sure, descriptions of waves of social transformation have been invoked both to describe putatively progressive change as well as to flag the rise of revanchist and fascist social movements. On the progressive side, think of waves of feminism (e.g., Hewitt 2010). Or, in recent anthropological theory, consider David Graeber’s (2013, 64, 108) book The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement, in which he writes, referring to Occupy and the Arab Spring, that “a wave of resistance [is] sweeping the planet,” an “insurrectionary wave.” Or, thinking about rightist social forces, consider what historian Philip Morgan (2002) has described as the two waves of fascism that roiled interwar Europe. Or, listen to the counsel of W. E. B. DuBois, who, in Darkwater (1920, 18), warned about emergent white supremacies around the world, which he called waves of whiteness: “Wave on wave, each with increasing virulence, is dashing this new religion of whiteness on the shores of our time.” DuBois points both to the travel of sentiments and to the movement of people who come to identify with new racial formations (here, a poisonous whiteness, formulated to disenfranchise and oppress those people not scripted into the category).

When social transformations are described in terms of waves, we should ask questions about causality. Who or what produces such waves, physical and affective? Are waves formed by large-scale historical structures, frameworks that overdetermine social action? Or, are they, rather, expressions of collective agencies fracturing previously stable structures and finding until now unrealized materializations? The figure of the wave in social commentary, I submit, is often invoked when structural, analytic, or causal accounts are difficult to settle upon (or, at other times, when there exist interests in obfuscating or naturalizing social processes that could in fact be explained or demystified by social analysis). In thinking through “Gravity’s Reverb,” I came to depend upon Stuart Hall’s work to examine how waves emerge into the world and into representation as articulations—conjunctures of the semiotic and the material—and, more, as projects of connection and mobilization that are never fully settled, that can reverberate with contradictions that may both strengthen and dissolve them.

What forces are being articulated in the waves reported in the New York Times’s headline, “WAVES OF EMOTION FROM COAST TO COAST AS TRUMP TURNS TO WORK OF THE PRESIDENCY”? Commentators of various stripes have proposed many plausible answers, and while many go some distance toward demonstrating the continued strength of categories of critical social theory, they also point to a need to keep tuning and amending cultural analysis. So: one developing critical account of Trump-resonant articulations hears them emerging from rage over Rust Belt economic adversity and an associated and wider desperation around damaged life and health chances—think opioid and suicide epidemics in marginalized rural and urban America—fastening these together with worries among some voters of falling out of the middle class, and then articulating these (variously, and never in lockstep) with racial resentment, white supremacist sentiment, commitments to patriarchy or to the patriarchal bargain, and new strains of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism (see, for one prescient analysis, Sunder Rajan 2016; see also Gusterson 2016 on the election as a referendum on neoliberalism, and Modatel 2016 on Trump and “waves of authoritarianism”).

These affects then attach themselves to a president-elect who offers, for some audiences, a sense that he is listening to them, even as he also speaks in what, to others, are obvious lies, unrepentant ignorance, disrespect for evidence, and idioms of hatred (think of the metaphor of the “dog whistle,” which many journalists use to describe how Donald Trump may be heard in a different register by his targeted audience than those outside it. The figure of the dog is worth inspecting for the insinuation that people hailed by the whistle are easily commanded. This is probably unfair both to people and to dogs; see Lempert and Silverstein 2016 on Trump’s speaking as a species of listening; see also Hall, Goldstein, and Bruce 2016; Luhrmann 2016; Stoller 2016).

Rumbling beneath the explicit and implicit voices of such articulations may be heard additional articulations, including those of petrocapitalist companies arranging laws and governance structures to secure future profit. Think of the struggle over Standing Rock (where, to make the sound connection, so-called sound cannons were used to disperse crowds by causing auditory pain). Counterwaves then rearticulate class justice, antiracist, feminist, and queer concerns with one another—at times linking these projects with transnational struggles against nativist populisms and authoritarianisms taking hold in the United Kingdom, in Turkey, in France, in Hungary, in Poland, in Thailand, and in the Netherlands, though at other times tuning out such global connections to assert strategically American exceptionalist claims about aspirational U.S. ideologies of equality and the rule of law. The waves here are not always unitary or in sync and may sometimes resonate unexpectedly with one another or with their opposites. Then, too, if many things can be articulated by waves, some of those articulations still remain outside direct perception or sense.

AGM and JC: That point reminds us of a moment in your article, in which you write about gravitational wave astronomy as “a way of making inhumanly scaled phenomena experientally available to the bodies of hearing scientists and their audiences.” In what you’ve just said, you’re also talking about scale, the scale of diverse movements and articulations, and how to apprehend them.  

SH: Right, and maybe I can switch into the key of sound and listening here. What do the articulations of which I’ve just spoken—the articulations behind “waves of emotion”—sound like? Are there sonic signatures of these forces? Can we audit the roiling world of pro-Trump and anti-Trump sound? Can we get our heads around the scale and temporalities of analysis we need here? What instruments are necessary to use? If astronomers listen for gravitational waves through interferometers, then what mediating devices do social scientists need to listen through to understand “waves of emotion”?

And a serious question here is: are critical anthropology’s listening instruments always the right ones? Even if we anthropologists and other social theorists listen, do we know what we are hearing? Just as gravitational-wave astronomers worry about mistaking what they call a “template-matching” vibration for a thing in the universe, so too we anthropologists should worry about only discerning our own analytic categories in the signals we audit. There’s a reason that the reverberant metaphor of the echo chamber has the purchase it does. Part of our task as anthropologists, it seems to me, is to figure out how to bring residual, dominant, and emergent articulations into audibility (some of this, for instance, can happen in the classroom). It may mean acknowledging that we cannot always or yet understand what is happening. Staying with the trouble means recognizing that telling signal from noise is no simple matter.

Still, while it’s way too early to settle anything on these points, it is possible to try to think—and to think about new ways of adjusting our tuning devices. I am inspired to think in terms of sound here by a paper written by an excellent student of mine a couple of years back in a sound studies class. In an essay on the sounds of the 2013 Gezi protests in Turkey, Duygu Demir observed that soccer chants were joining traditionally leftist chants in Turkish protests, signaling possible cross-political alliances, a kind of molten moment. She wrote:

I interpret these selected sonic phenomena within the Gezi protests as evidence for a new form of collectivity that in turn suggests a different kind of social movement and political expression. This new form of dissent, audible in the recordings, favors the act of listening, responding, and creating sound collectively.

Demir wrote from a more promising moment than exists in present-day Turkey, though I find the optimism of her analysis useful to keep in earshot, perhaps as many of us seek to forge resistance—everyday, legal, scholarly, sonic—to the ascendancy of Trump.

Sounds from the 2013 Gezi protests. Audio recorded by Duygu Demir. Photo by Taksim Olayları.

There are any number of sound studies scholars who have written on the sounds of crowds, and on how linguistic, paralinguistic, sonic, and musical emanations can be audited for their progressive, regressive, promising, or protean politics (e.g., Deaville 2011; Radovac 2011). Listen, for example, to Bob Ostertag’s musical transcription of a 1991 San Francisco protest against then-Governor Pete Wilson’s veto of pro–gay and lesbian legislation. Ostertag’s “All the Rage,” a sample-based piece that was later performed by the Kronos Quartet, reproduces whistles and chants (like “Queers fight back!”) into a composition that articulates the anger of a rebelling crowd and still today serves as a potent piece of political art (listen also to the ongoing work of Ultra-Red, an interventionist sound art group founded in 1994 by AIDS activists, dedicated to listening to and creating “acoustic space as enunciative of social relations”). Or consider Jonathan Sterne’s writings on student protests in Montreal in 2012, in which he draws from E.P. Thompson’s writings on “rough music” to suggest that cacophonous crowds can articulate community resistance to oppression. Sterne writes:

Rough music has greeted bank failures in Latin America and—most recently—Iceland; it was the sound of Spanish citizens opposed to their government’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq war. In Chile, protesters used pots and pans to protest Allende in the early 1970s, and later to protest Pinochet in the mid-1980s.

He is clear that such “traditions of rough music have no guaranteed politics,” that they may at some moments articulate counterprogressive politics dedicated to quashing difference and supporting supremacies. In Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Judith Butler (2015, 11), writing of Occupy, Tahrir Square, and other counterhegemonic gatherings, suggests that:

  . . . when bodies assemble on the street, in the square, or in other forms of public space (including virtual ones) they are exercising a plural and performative right to appear, one that . . . delivers a bodily demand for a more livable set of economic, social, and political conditions no longer afflicted by induced forms of precarity.

Butler (2015, 8) claims that “embodied actions of various kinds signify in ways that are, strictly speaking, neither discursive nor prediscursive.” This may aid in listening to such assemblies, but it should also be clear that that listening cannot always assume that the politics in assembly are necessarily progressive, as Butler herself clarified in a recent interview in Die Zeit: “Trump is emancipating unbridled hatred,” she observed. The question of the scale of public assembly does not answer the question of who or what is being addressed or enlisted in a gathering (there is also the matter of the physical shape and trajectory—linear, round, reticulated—that embodied assemblies might take; see Thorkelson 2016).

The sound worlds of Trump rallies were early on audited by the New York Times in a piece called “Unfiltered Voices from Donald Trump’s Crowds.” While this piece zeroed in on the hate speech delivered by Trump supporters, it also transmitted a sense of a crowd both disordered and ready to be regimented, perhaps into a fascist assembly (see Canetti 1984). NBC News, in an early audit of the sound training of Trump crowds, reported that, “A long message plays before each rally, instructing the crowd to start chanting ‘TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP’ if someone interrupts him.” There are old, old sound dynamics in the performing here (though I’d be curious to hear about dissonances that may have manifested in these crowds as well). And on the other side, too. One old-school example of an anti-Trump sonic (still important, even as broadcasting is not the dominant mode of transmission of sound these days) is the November 20 performance of the punk band Green Day at the American Music Awards, which saw them leading the crowd in chanting “No KKK, No Fascist U.S.A., No Trump.”

Protest against Donald Trump, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Protest against Donald Trump, Minneapolis, Minnesota, November 23, 2016. Photo by Fibonacci Blue.

A more heterogeneous collection of chants has so far marked anti-Trump protests—“Not my president,” “We reject the president-elect,” “Say it loud! Say it clear! / Refugees are welcome here!” “Black lives matter!” “Muslim rights are human rights!” and, as a call and response, “My body, my choice! / Her body, her choice!” But there’s obviously an analytic that goes beyond the physically copresent crowd that needs to be grappled with, since so much of the public presencing of the sound of political assembly travels via media—television, YouTube, and more (with all the dynamics of real-time versus delay that these articulations afford). James Deaville (2011), drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s writings on television, has reflected on how protesters since the Vietnam War have made themselves TV- and media-ready with finely tuned sonic messages and formats (recall Occupy’s human-microphone strategy, an enactment of what Deaville calls “collective vocality”). Yet these protesters have also found themselves manipulated, minimized, and caricatured by TV coverage, which has often sought to read diversity as disunity. Again, as I discuss in the quite different context of gravitational-wave detection astronomy, we have to think of what conceptual and material instruments need to be mobilized in order to transmit and to listen (where “listening” doesn’t only mean auditory registration, but something like articulated reception. [And there’s also such a thing as listening differently, or in opposition; think of the NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who refused at a 2016 preseason game to stand during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” explaining that “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color”]). Deaville’s compelling work on television and protests will want—and is, I’m sure, already getting—updating for a YouTube universe, for a different set of channels and technological articulations.

AGM and JC: Yes, these sonic articulations happen in part through infrastructures, media and otherwise. And, as Brian Larkin (2013) has observed, those infrastructures condition perception, operating through what you call in your article “human–technological–ahuman assemblages.” Expanding on what you have already said, what might emerge when we think about sound in this way?

SH: I am wondering what the sounds of a more fully articulated anti-Trump movement will be. What will be assembled? Will there be any central focal point, as there was for the “counter-inaugural” concert in January 1973, which had Leonard Bernstein playing Joseph Haydn’s Mass in Time of War for fifteen thousand people at the Washington National Cathedral in protest of Richard Nixon’s re-election? Will matters be more dispersed? What will the Women’s March on Washington sound like? Who will listen, and how? What will they hear?

Drawing upon international points of comparison, I think of the work of ethnomusicologist Ben Tausig, who writes of recent protest sound in Thailand and the Thai diaspora. According to Tausig, supporters of exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have operated in a range of factions that occupy various “sonic niches.” This is a nonmonolithic sound public, one important part of which is online: surely a zone where publics now congeal in ever-complicating ways. I think, too, of the work of sound artists Donia Jourabchi and Davide Tidoni, who sought to create “new strategies of designing the sound of political protest and protesting through the use of sound” in 2016 Poland. What sonic niches, to use Tausig’s term, will emerge in the United States and beyond? What niches can be created, as one part of thinking and acting against what looks, as I write this, to be a horrific amplification of the very worst of American kleptocracy, racism, misogyny, and class warfare? We need to make noise—effective noise, articulate sound, sound capable of reverberating and of jamming and undoing as much of this upcoming administration as justice demands.  


Stefan Helmreich would like to thank Andrés García Molina and Julien Cossette for this chance to reflect on the election. He would also like to express gratitude to Dominic Boyer, Duygu Demir, Michele Freidner, Raviv Ganchrow, Cymene Howe, Chris Kelty, Heather Paxson, Nick Seaver, Jonathan Sterne, Ajantha Subramanian, Chris Walley, and Ben Wurgaft for thoughts on this text as it came together.  


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