Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

Twelve hours later I’m still being stalked by this film. The Mexicans Are All Right I think it was called. A withering portrait of self-absorbed adults from the point of view of two adolescents, if I have understood correctly. In one scene – surely a fable in which the audience is meant to recognize itself – one of the adults realizes her Third World employee had been enjoying some sneaky glimpses of her adulterous romps while he should have been working in the garden. She’s unsettled by his expression and challenges him. ‘That’s not a look,’ he says. ‘It’s my face.’

Whatever. I woke this morning from the richest dream-world I had been in for a long time. I was briefly flung together with a former partner. We were both so concerned not to give in to our old feelings, there were some tender caresses and a strip of flesh, but mostly we circulated independently during what seemed to be a holiday reunion weekend. We were out and about, catching performances at a festival of some sort, then returned to a house our friends had rented. Or perhaps it belonged to the parents of one of them. There was some uncertainty about the sleeping arrangements. Nervously, I bought a pack of cigarettes for the first time in months and smoked one. I went out and came back as it was getting light, a little drunk and dripping wet, frantically trying to locate my bag so I could put on some dry clothes, in the end finding only a shirt that wasn’t quite long enough to be decent.

The epilogue featured me sitting on some steps in warm sunlight. I was in the centre of a small town, among people I knew, taking photographs of their children, and some poorly-dressed kids I hadn’t seen before, who unexpectedly walked into shot. ‘Street arabs,’ I called them, hoping they would not miss my irony.

Shall I Compare Thee to a Hampshire Town?

In an appealing article on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Don Paterson speaks up in favour of a more direct, personal response to the poems, against some of the more forbidding works of literary critics. Yet he lets slip a rather extensive knowledge of their Elizabethan context which he then seems to assume his reader shares. As if we’re all clued up on the names and addresses of Shakespeare’s known associates. ‘The trouble,’ he says, ‘is that it’s impossible to read the sonnets without speculating on identities.’

Well not for me. But then again I know as little about Tudor England as I do about…

Quite why I resolve the momentary dilemma of having to choose just one thing from the vast gunny sack of my ignorance by lighting on modern Basingstoke is something of a mystery. Perhaps the home of the Automobile Association and the Macmillan publishing firm ranks quite high in the list of British placenames that proverbially suggest a certain comic mediocrity. And for those who would say that it’s not too difficult to imagine Basingstoke if you haven’t been there, that a quick visit to a small library or a well-aimed search query should reveal its essential features if not its deepest secrets, I would refer them to my birthplace. In twenty years I acquired a high level of psycho-geographical mastery of its back streets, playing fields, waste grounds and cul de sacs. But of most of the neighbouring towns and villages I saw little beyond the main roads that passed through them, oblivious of the unexpected turns and confusing junctions that would have no doubt greeted those strangers who dared to alight from the bus, overtaken by a sudden impulse to explore the unknown.

The nearest I’ve been to Basingstoke was during the few summer months I spent in Reading in 1979, lodging with a Ukrainian couple near Cemetery Junction. Twice, I think, some friends with a car drove me to a country pub off the A33 and a bracing walk on a day that may or may not have resembled the one the author of Sonnet 18 had in mind when he penned its first line.

Listening to Britain

I remember as a kid taking enormous pleasure out of prodding a sleeping body and discovering what kinds of noises I could provoke, like the odd groan or whistle, then getting up close for an earful of a rumbling tummy or restless fingers. Imagine if you could do that with a whole country, I thought, prowling round it like Gulliver in Lilliput, bending down to listen to its secrets.

Well now you can. I have just been idly plucking feathers from a Google Map and listening to the sound escape. I started off drinking coffee at Heathrow,Terminal Three. Then I caught the sound of dogs in suffolk and arctic terns in Shetland, overheard bikers outside a cafe on the A4074 and someone opening a garage door on the Black Isle. I went on a ghost train in Blackpool and a boat cruise in Cardiff Bay. I waited for Prince Charles in Todmorden before baling hay in Gloucestershire.

This is the UK Sound Map, a fascinating new project run by the British Library, which invites people to contribute short field recordings that together will form ‘a permanent public record of everyday sounds.’ Launched in July 2010 as a pilot study in the Sheffield area, it now welcomes submissions across the United Kingdom. Boosted by some favourable publicity (notably a plug on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in August), it has received nearly a thousand contributions so far, including some from me. I’ve particularly enjoyed those of olyerminefelixbadanimaledirolrockscottage and the ubiquitous, eavesdropping mythalatte.

Audioboo

Contributors must sign up to Audioboo. Of the several sites that host user-submitted sound recordings (such as freesoundMySpaceBandcampSoundCloud or the Internet Archive), Audioboo is one of the easiest to use and the only one, to my knowledge, that allows you to submit material direct from a mobile device. With the growing popularity of smartphones that offer not just the ability to record sounds but also a wi-fi or 3G internet connection that allows you to upload the recordings you have made, this seems an obvious choice.

Audioboo has been designed for the spoken word, and this means it has a number of limitations as a repository of field recordings. The first is sound-quality. While you can also upload sound recordings made on any number of sophisticated devices if you transfer them to a computer and use the standard web interface, most submissions to Audioboo seem to be made on smartphones. Although it does seem possible to connect a good-quality stereo microphone to, say, an iPhone (I’ve never tried but the Blue Mikey and the Alesis ProTrack both claim to solve the problem), in general most use the built-in mono microphone that was designed for phone calls and voice memos. Not only is it low quality it is also quite hard to protect from the sound recordist’s enemy number one, wind noise (but, as a post on the Sound Map’s blog helpfully points out, you can reduce this with the judicious use of a sock).

The second major limitation is the way Audioboo does not provide the means for users to describe their files. You can give them a title, provide tags, link them to images, and locate the place of recording on a map. But anyone used to submitting images or audio to, say, YouTube or Flickr or SoundCloud, will be frustrated that you can’t write a little something about, for example, when you made the recording (it only records the date and time you uploaded it), the circumstances, the equipment you used, the sounds themselves and what they might be if not immediately recognizable. There are two ways round this problem. You can comment on your ‘boo’ in your own voice in the recording itself (for a good example listen to auralexplorer‘s reflections on a field behind her old house). Or you can use the commenting facility on the website. But either way this information doesn’t form part of the data record itself, and therefore does not appear (not even in abridged form) when you come across the boo on the map or when it is embedded in a third-party website, when it might look like this:

You would need to click on the (invisible) link on the Audioboo logo to be transferred to the boo’s original page to get any contextual information about this recording

The tagging feature is useful. Anyone wanting their audioboo considered for inclusion on the UK soundmap should simply include the ‘uksm’ tag. This means anyone can browse the list of submissions. But many users also add other tags – as the soundmap blog has recommended – that help people find recordings with a specific theme or context (such as football or horses or seaside or night). To search by location, the best place to start is the map itself, although you have to drag and zoom in and out to get somewhere in particular. (The search facility has not worked the times I have tried, so I can’t tell how it handles queries by placename or postcode).

Whose everyday?

But what of the recordings themselves? The British Library seem to have taken the decision to be as unprescriptive as possible. Beyond an injunction to ‘record your everyday surroundings’, it says very little. It does tell us that the recordings will form the raw material for a research project (in association with the Noise Futures Network) that will engage with ‘artists, industry, educational bodies and policy makers’. But that is all.

This lack of prescription only increases the weight of expectation carried by the name of the project itself. Even though the project relies, exclusively it would seem, on unsolicited contributions, one might expect it to strive for a certain level of comprehensiveness and consistency. If I bought an OS map that left blank all the ground above 500m I would have good reason to ask for my money back. What would be an equivalent omission on a sound map? A map in which most of the contributions came from North London or one which featured only barking dogs or market traders would not, I assume, be considered a success. A sound map of the ‘United Kingdom’ – and one, moreover, co-ordinated by a publicly-funded body such as the British Library – cannot avoid being judged in terms of its ‘representativeness’, even though no such claim is being made, and even though there could be no way of objectively measuring it.

So how ‘representative’ of Britain are the sounds submitted so far? Are there too many recordings of some and not enough of others? Whose ‘everyday surroundings’ are being documented here? Some tentative – and necessarily subjective – observations follow.

Firstly, and perhaps unavoidably, some ‘found’ sounds are much harder to record than others. In some cases, to make a recording – even discreetly – would be considered rude or impractical. This no doubt explains why recordings made in relatively anonymous public places (stations, shops, streets, parks and so on) predominate over those made in more personal, private arenas (such as birthday parties, weddings, funerals, meetings, changing rooms, nurseries) or in circumstances in which the would-be sound recordist may be otherwise engaged (jogging, cycling, driving or operating heavy machinery). And there may be places where any kind of recording is pretty much ruled out – prisons, courtrooms, detention centres come to mind – though I’m sure it won’t stop some people trying.

Secondly, one has to consider the demographic of a smartphone user; perhaps more specifically a smartphone user who is sufficiently geeky (and sociologically-inclined) to make field recordings, upload them and tag them. It would probably be safe to say that such a group is not as diverse as the population as a whole. And no doubt this is one reason why the soundmap so far has many more recordings of trains, restaurants, festivals and supermarkets than it has of buses, betting shops, benefit offices and hospital wards.

Britishness

But there is a third factor that might be said to reduce the chances of the sound map capturing the rich variety of British soundscapes, and this is harder to pin down.

Even when the first two factors are taken into account, there is something extra that inclines contributors to select particular sounds over others as worthy or appropriate to record and submit to a ‘UK Sound Map’. One thing that makes it harder for the map to be representative of the UK is, paradoxically, the influence of powerful common sense notions what is ‘typically British’.

Now, we all know that these notions are vigorously contested. They are tossed around in every debate on citizenship and immigration. Certainly they are quite varied and subject to change. Take George Orwell’s attempt in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ (1941) to capture ‘the English scene’, which here, not unusually, stands in for a somewhat larger entity (his population count would suggest that the ‘we’ embraces the Scots and Welsh too):

Are there really such things as nations? Are we not 46 million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.

Notice how easily this list could be translated into recordable sounds. Most of them, however, are not readily available to the roving smartphone user of today, which shows how dated these attempts to nail Britishness often are. You only have to place it alongside this one from Hanif Kureishi (responding to a similar list offered by T S Eliot) in a report on Bradford written for Granta magazine in 1986.

If one were compiling such a list today there would have to be numerous additions to the characteristic activities of the British people. They would include: yoga exercises, going to Indian restaurants, the music of Bob Marley, the novels of Salman Rushdie, Zen Buddhism, the Hare Krishna Temple, as well as the films of Sylvester Stallone, therapy, hamburgers, visits to gay bars, the dole office and the taking of drugs.

This vision is old enough to feel dated in its turn. But if nostalgia is an essential part of Britishness then it’s not surprising that Orwell’s list seems to have greater resonance. At least with certain conservative politicians, like John Major who quoted from it in a speech in 1993 – though he had the women ‘cycling’ rather than ‘biking’, presumably in case we imagined them in leather jackets and crash helmets.

Could we say that the same preference prevails among the contributors to the UK Sound Map? Apart from the preponderance of a wide variety of nature sounds (birdsong, the sea, wind, and rain), in terms of culture it does seem that the British soundscape is closer to 1941 than 1986. A little more up-market and hi-tech perhaps but just as monocultural. Of the many clips that feature people’s voices, there are almost none in a language other than English.

But perhaps more decisive is what the two lists have in common. Despite their glaring differences, they both imagine Britain from the point of view of a consumer or passer-by. Even Orwell’s clogs and lorries are heard by a bystander rather than the people wearing or driving them. Similarly, the sounds of the map are overwhelmingly those associated with leisure outside the home.

The sounds of the workplace – especially those off-limits to the public (factories, call centres, farms, offices, warehouses) – are almost entirely absent, as are those of the family home (another kind of workplace for some). It’s why the occasional samples of, say, typingcavity wall-fillingteeth-brushing and ironing stand out so much.

It would seem that a call for contributions to a national map inclines people to think of sounds associated with public spaces – with public transport easily the most popular category. This is not just a question of convenience. It’s as if only these sounds could qualify as being nationally significant. Perhaps most people only feel ‘British’ (if they do at all) when rubbing shoulders with strangers when out shopping, commuting or attending large-scale cultural events.

The map’s basic guidelines encourage contributors to think of ‘what your home, leisure and work environments sound like’. Can it be that this inclusive category of the ‘everyday’ (in which all three have their place) is trumped by the rather more discriminatory filter of ‘Britishness’ (dominated by just one of them)?

All these exclusions are perhaps unfortunate, but they are not inevitable. Consider them as a challenge. But the only way you’re going to really break the habits that are beginning to surface in the map is to hand out recording devices to a lot of people who would never dream of contributing to such a project. I wonder if their sounds might be the most interesting of all.

Improv

L’homme a deux oreilles, l’oreille animale et l’oreille idéale (Victor Hugo).

This afternoon I went to see the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. They were playing live to a series of short films by Hans Richter, one of the lesser-known artists associated with the Dada movement, though arguably one of its best chroniclers. I have owned a hardback copy of his Dada: Art and Anti-Art since I was seventeen. With Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music, which I must have acquired around the same time, it became a kind of bible on which I swore an oath of fidelity to the avant-garde. We have had our ups and downs over the years, but we’re still together, which must count for something.

They introduced me to a whole continent of strangeness whose existence I had until then only suspected, although the authorial voice in both books was perhaps a little too mild-mannered for their subject matter. And this came back to me when talking to someone after the screening. She said she expected something a bit more risky and unconstrained from the ensemble. At least that’s what the word ‘improvised’ suggested to her.

And I can see her point. At the end, the band took questions from the floor, and most of them were about how they rehearsed and planned and organized their improvisations. One film, they decided, would be accompanied by mainly long notes; the next by short. For another they chose to use ‘conduction’ in which one member of the group used various signals to convey rhythm and pitch to the others.

Maybe by lifting the veil on their working methods, they gave the audience too much information, making the performance sound more constrained in retrospect than it actually was. From where I was sitting, that collective discipline of listening and responding to others was almost infectious, but it didn’t stop the music feeling unpredictable.

In any case, while you might be able to legislate the shape of a performance, you don’t have control over the audience. The man sitting two seats away from me snored throughout, though with such a pleasing range of timbre and such comic timing, I began to wonder if he wasn’t a member of the ensemble after all.

And for the first half hour or so, the orchestra was joined, unofficially (of this I was sure), by a small infant, who did his or her best to imitate the staccato woodwind or tremolo strings. His mother – with a courage that I doubt I could have matched – remained in the auditorium long enough for the annoyance of some listeners to become audible, adding a ostinato of faint sighs, snorts and sucking of teeth. After disappearing through the exit doors close by, she bravely returned twice, though the child was not silent for long. The second time, I heard someone behind me whisper – just a little too loudly perhaps – ‘For fuck’s sake!’ But once they were gone for good, there were moments in some of the quieter passages, when you could hear an abbreviated cry echoing in a corridor far away.

That’s improvisation.

International Diplomacy

Outside Haiti, the world’s mainstream media rarely take notice of the country’s elections. Even after the January, 2010 earthquake, the attitude pretty much stayed the same. They continued to repeat the standard line that it is a failed, corrupt state, kept afloat by foreign donations and NGOs. Whatever the result in November’s poll, none of this would change.

But then their interest in the election was sparked once Wyclef Jean hinted that he would stand, a hint confirmed on 5 August. Along with 33 others, he waited for the decision of the Conseil Électoral Provisoire (CEP), Haiti’s electoral council, for confirmation that they would be eligible to stand.

The decision was expected on Tuesday 17 August, but at the last minute it was postponed until the Friday. And when it came, the press were all aflutter: Wyclef had been disqualified – although 14 others had too, leaving only 19 candidates to appear on the ballot papers in November.

The next day, in the Miami Herald appeared a piece entitled Banned from ballot, Wyclef remains an inspiration by Edwidge Danticat. In it she admits to initially feeling excitement at the thought of his candidacy. Wyclef had helped to put Haiti back on the front pages again, and no doubt for some he was a refreshing outsider compared to the stuffy intellectual elite.

A cultural outsider maybe, but a political one? His subsequent criticisms of the CEP (subsequently expressed in song) were related to the rejection of his own candidacy, not that of others. And he certainly had nothing to say about its decision to exclude Haiti’s largest political party, Fanmi Lavalas, from the Senate elections in April last year, a decision condemned in an open letter (pdf) to Jose Miguel Insulza of the Organisation of American States and Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations. The ban remains in force for this year’s elections.

Of course, too stringent criticism of the CEP would undercut his own position in the unlikely event that they reverse their decision. If participating in the election in itself would not be an index of his support for the ruling elite, his notorious remarks in support of the armed rebels who helped overthrow the democratically-elected Aristide in 2004 (which he has not retracted) should leave us in no doubt. And indeed not one of the candidates is guiltless on that score, which is another reason why Haiti Liberté has called it a sham election.

Danticat remains silent on these matters. Perhaps she is too close to her friend to criticize him in public. I am reminded of another Caribbean woman writer seemingly losing courage when the opportunity to take a stand comes available. When Jamaica Kincaid visited Tel Aviv in January 2004, Haaretz reported her response when asked for her thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

‘In my opinion, it would be rude to come as a guest into someone’s home and tell him how to live,’ she says. ‘I have opinions, but I express them in private. I am only a guest here.’

The analogy between visiting a country and visiting someone’s house is rather forced, to say the least. And in any case, if you discovered that your host was keeping someone prisoner in the basement, you might just think this warranted more than a raised eyebrow.

Reading between the lines, though, she perhaps betrays her opinions all the same. After all, if she wholeheartedly approved of the Occupation she wouldn’t have to worry about telling her hosts ‘how to live.’ But if that is all we can take from this report of her visit, these are slim pickings indeed. One could hardly talk of an bold intervention here.

Danticat on the other hand hints at much more. Her piece indirectly points up a number of other reasons why Wyclef might not be perfect presidential candidate: his poor French, questions about the probity of his Yéle foundation, and indeed his problematic residency status. And yet by not making a meal of them, as a friend, her words may indeed carry weight, and she reminds him – in public and therefore in a way that would make it harder for him to – of his duties. He should bow to the decision gracefully, not to incite violence, and to concentrate on doing what he does best – being a musician and a roving ambassador for the country.

Still, the question remains whether Haitian intellectuals have been unduly reluctant to embrace the cause of popular democracy. The thinly disguised attacks on Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Lyonel Trouillot’s novel Bicentenaire (2004) and Raoul Peck’s film Moloch Tropical (2009) are perhaps the best-known examples (and taken to task by Le Monde du Sud/elsie-news and Kim Ives respectively).

Danticat’s writings are politically much more ambiguous. Her memoir, Brother, I’m Dying (2007) sympathetically records her uncle’s radicalism. He embraced Aristide in the late 1980s, seeing in him a version of Daniel Fignolé, ousted by François Duvalier in 1957. Fifteen years later, now an old man in poor health, he was eventually forced to leave Haiti when some of Aristide’s supporters (wrongly) accused him of collaborating with UN forces and police. In her account, Danticat distances herself from the loaded term chimères, used to demonize Aristide’s supporters, although her choice of nouns in her reference to anti-Aristide ‘groups’ and pro-Aristide ‘gangs’ arguably closes that distance.1

Similarly, perhaps, her narrative of events of 2004 in the essay ‘Bicentennial’ in Create Dangerously (2010) avoids celebrating Aristide’s departure from office (and subsequent exile in South Africa) without actually describing it as a coup d’état.2

Given the prevailing balance of power, such apparent even-handedness cannot help but bring comfort to the forces that brought an end to Haiti’s precarious decade-long experiment with democracy. It would be hard to think of such reticence among an older generation of Haitian writers, such as Jacques Roumain and Jacques-Stephen Alexis.

Part of the reason must be the legacy of thirty years of dictatorship, during which any form of political dissent within the country was practically impossible, and clearly forced writers and artists to express their resistance indirectly. And another factor must be that – as a dyaspora living in North America – writers like Danticat (as she clearly indicates in her latest book) are caught between the expectations of fellow Haitian-Americans (who frequently take issue when her characters aren’t sufficiently ‘representative’) and the demands of those back home (who feel that as someone who has left the country she has no right to comment on its political scene).

In his book on Aristide and the Lavalas movement, Peter Hallward argued that ‘the great majority of intellectuals and academics in Haiti are conservative as a matter of course,’3. If that is true, then equivocation is hardly sufficient to tip the balance. As Chris Bongie observes (pdf), it seems, in the wake of a ‘natural’ catastrophe and a ‘humanitarian’ crisis, that ‘taking sides’ is entirely inappropriate. But it is precisely under such circumstances that dominant versions of ‘historical truth’ take hold, blocking the full range of possibilities – or electoral candidates – that lay claim to our consideration.

Notes

  1. Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (New York: Vintage, 2008), pp177, 150-1.
  2. Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist At Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), pp97-105.
  3. Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment (London: Verso, 2007), p194.

The Payback II

Responsibility for the spoof Bastille Day announcement promising the repayment of Haiti’s ‘independence debt’ to France (covered in an earlier post) was claimed by a group called CRIME.

The original website at diplomatie.gov.fr was taken down by the authorities, but was quickly replaced by one at diplomatiegov.info and the video of the announcement can now be viewed here.

On 16 July, a message from the @DiplomatieFR twitter account stated:

« Le Comité pour le Remboursement Immédiat des Montants Envolés » d’Haïti (CRIME) takes credit for a hoax carried out on July 14.

The acronym works in English too, standing for the Committee for the Reimbursement of the Indemnity Money Extorted from Haiti.

At a press conference in Montreal on 22 July the group promised more action according to this report in the Winnipeg Free Press. And then the issue seemed to disappear from the news.

But on 16 August an open letter to Nicolas Sarkozy was published in the French daily Liberation urging France ‘to pay Haiti, the world’s first black republic, the restitution it is due.’

The letter was reprinted on CRIME’s own website, both in Frenchand English with a full list of signatories. The issue was also covered by BBC News, the Guardian, and the Toronto Star.

That the signatories included French scholars such as Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière may have brought some comfort to Tontongi, the author of La France doit restituer à Haïti la rançon de l’indemnité (which seems to have been written before the letter was published), who noted the disappointing response of formerly progressive intellectuals such as Régis Debray and René Depestre to Aristide’s renewal of the claim for restitution in 2003.

The substantial article draws on the detailed arguments made by Anthony D Phillips regarding Haiti’s Independence Debt and Prospects for Restitution (pdf) which demonstrate the solid legal case behind Aristide’s claim. In 1825 President Boyer ‘agreed’ to pay a 150 million franc indemnity to compensate French planters for the loss of land and slaves as a result of Haiti’s independence.

The legality of this agreement could be challenged on several grounds: the fact that negotiations were shadowed by the threat of French military force; the dubious basis on which the amount of the indemnity was arrived at; and the already-established consensus among the colonial powers that slavery and the slave trade were morally wrong – as evidenced by the abolition of the slave trade by Britain and the United States in 1807, the commitment to extend abolition in the Treaties of Paris that ended the Napoleonic Wars; and even the (albeit short-lived) abolition of slavery by the French government itself in 1794.

Furthermore, when it became clear that Haiti could not make the scheduled repayments (it had to borrow the first two installments from French banks), in 1834 the government appointed a commission to review the arrangement. Although the Dalloz Report declared the original ordinance unlawful and argued that it was the responsibility of the French government to compensate the planters, a replacement treaty imposed a schedule that was scarcely less crippling.

Phillips examines the legal grounds for restitution in the light of successful ‘unjust enrichment’ claims made by Holocaust victims against Swiss banks, and by American states against tobacco corporations. He concludes:

In the recent movement toward addressing historical injustice through legal and political action, Haiti’s Independence Debt makes a compelling case. The historical background presents a sympathetic story of profound tragedy and unfairness. The story well fits the traditional elements of a cognizable unjust enrichment claim and presents strong arguments against dismissal on procedural grounds. As part of a concerted, multi-disciplinary approach, a claim for the Independence Debt could realize some relief for the modern-day people of impoverished Haiti and perhaps deliver justice for one of history’s most tragic wrongs.

The Christian Science Monitor reprted on 17 August that the French Foreign Ministry had dismissed the petition. But the article makes the following interesting observation:

French officials did not address the legitimacy of the debt, with analysts saying such an admission could open a flood-gate of former colonial claims. France, for its part, has steadily requested that Moscow recompense a group of French investors that prior to 1917 put vast sums into the Russian rail system. Lenin declared the debt void under Soviet rule. But recently Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin agreed to reopen negotiations.

According to a post on The dangers of sovereign debt default, the Soviet government settled with British holders of these so-called Czar Bonds in 1986 ‘because the Soviets wanted to get hold of large amounts of Czarist money frozen in 1917 that was still sitting in British banks.’ And while the Yeltsin government compensated French bondholders to the tune of $400 million in 1996, many have argued that the amount should have been much larger. And the Association Fédérative Internationale des Porteurs d’Emprunts Russes (AFIPER) continue to press for what they argue is full restitution of the bondholders’ investments. (See also this article in Le Figaro in July this year).

If the holders of Czar Bonds are as much victims of violent breaches of international law and custom as the Haitian government, then there is an embarrassing inconsistency in the French government’s response to their claims for restitution. But even if the Haitian petition that the government ignores is based on arguments as strong, if not stronger, than those that led to Russian compensation in 1996, what makes such claims compelling is not the logic of their arguments but the relative standing of the two parties in the dispute. In some circumstances, France can compel Russia to bow to international pressure in ways that Haiti could never duplicate in her dealings with France.

But this is not something we are likely to hear the Foreign Ministry say in so many words.

Currently Reading

I’m normally reading two books at any one time. Sometimes three, and occasionally four if I have a collection of poetry on the go or a new issue of a journal I intend to read cover to cover. But right now, for a variety of reasons, I seem to be mid-way through more than a dozen. How did this happen?

Some of them go back to last year. Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery and the Philosophy of History (2007) was a recreational read – recreational in the sense that it was not directly related to anything I was currently writing. And I’m not sure what prompted me to buy it (although I’m glad I did). Possibly I thought it might help me think through some of the issues to do with representations of time in an essay on Moby-Dick I had set aside since giving a talk about it in 2004. The bookmark – a folded sheet of A4 scribbled with pencilled notes (such as ‘IB’s own reconstruc of the Zong case & its participants is an actuarial one – Qbp46’) lies between pages 54 and 55, as it has done since December when I needed to begin work in earnest on several projects with looming deadlines.

First I had to make some final revisions to an article on a vodouchant in response to comments by the editors and the publisher’s anonymous readers. One suggested I refer to Madison Smartt Bell’s All Saints Rising (1995), the first volume of his trilogy on the Haitian revolution, because it quoted the chant in question. I knew of the book, and had been meaning to read it for years, so I now had the excuse I’d been waiting for. The chant did indeed appear on page 118, although I’m not sure there was anything unusual about it that would merit more than a passing mention in a footnote. I ploughed on for another twenty pages, according to the slip of paper, hardly scribbled on at all, for I don’t take easily to historical novels. And this one seemed to take just a little too much pleasure in the depiction of violence and suffering, and robbed the story of the narrative impetus I was expecting. I found the non-fictional accounts of historians more gripping, even if C L R James’ The Black Jacobinsor Aimé Césaire’s Toussaint Louverture only hint at the nitty-gritty detail of the day-to-day struggle.

Other things I wanted to revise in the paper included my translation of a passage from Frédéric Marcelin’s Thémistocle Epaminondas Labasterre (1901). The scene, featuring the adolescent protagonist’s encounter with young women washing clothes in a river, appears quite early on and I’d sped past, firmly intending to finish the novel at the time – two summers ago now – but, well I must have been sidetracked by something or other. It’s a fascinating read, reminding me a little of Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, and while I did tinker with my English version, I didn’t have time to resume the narrative, and this will have to wait until later this summer.

With the vodou chant out of the way, two other obligations took their place. One was a paper on the ‘Liberty or Death’ motif in the Age of Revolution for the Caribbean Enlightenment conference at Glasgow University in April. I never got to deliver it in the end, as I was taken ill two days before and spent a week in hospital. I’d completed the reading I had set myself for this, except for Laurent Dubois’ A Colony of Citizens (2004). I notice I was still several chapters short of the one entitled ‘Vivre libre ou mourir!’ when Haemophilus influenzae type b breached my defences. I’ll return to this when I return to the draft in October and begin to work it into a more substantial piece, if I can.

Alongside my wanderings in the world of political slogans and the Hegelian dialectic, I had been converting a conference paper into a more substantial essay on the literary geography of a tropical hotel. For months I’d been pursuing various themes (the hotel in fiction, travel writing and cultural theory; the philosophies of space; acoustic geographies; heterotopia) like a pup licking bone. Now the full-length text has been emailed to the editors (to be returned for revisions in due course, no doubt), a few half-chewed morsels remain on the bedside table.

One is Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1958), a classic that has some intriguing remarks on sounds that I never used: ‘It is a salutary thing to naturalize the sound in order to make it less hostile,’ he writes, thinking of the way the noises of Paris that keep him awake at night can be transformed into an ‘ocean roar.’ It is waiting to be resumed at page 38 at some point later this year.

Another is Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969): an enormously rich narrative that takes off from the arrival of a US-funded research team hoping to make a difference to an impoverished community on an island in the Caribbean. Project leader Saul, his wife Harriet, and assistant Allen take up residence in a guest-house run by the loquacious Merle, who straddles the racial divisions of the newly-independent country and serves as the ideal ‘cultural broker’ for the visitors.

I had read Marshall’s first novel before, but the friend who recommended this was so on target. I’m only a third of the way through, but it is clear why the guest house should be such an appropriate setting for this Proustian anatomy of the postcolonial condition, this dissection of the souls of white folk. Each time I pick it up, I read less pages, not wanting it to end.

An ongoing project to outline an imaginary anthology of Haitian travel writing – travel writing by Haitian authors, that is, rather than writings about Haiti – has required me to read or re-read a number of fictional works in which the theme of exile and homecoming loom large. But I have also been trying to track down the motif of the everyday in Haitian literature, going back to the oral tradition of the lodyans, recently revived in Georges Anglade’s Rire haïtien / Haitian Laughter (2006), a bilingual edition that combines several smaller collections of these mini stories in one volume.

It’s a book that is best suited to dipping into now and again, which means it will be beside my bed for some time. With Dany Laferrière’s Vers le sud (2006), my task is to compare it with his earlier work, La chair du maître (1997) of which this is a revised version, named after the film that was based on some of the stories in the first. At first glance Laferriere has removed ten chapters and added five, not to make it more like the movie, but rather to respond to it, in turn. A sequel, even.

I have read the first novel in Marie Chauvet’s Love, Anger, Madness (1968) trilogy, now appearing in English translation for the first time, and now anxious to read the rest of it. But I’m not sure if I should really finish Rene Depestre’s Hadriana dans tous mes rêves (1988) first. I’ll decide once I reach the end of Marshall’s masterpiece.

Joe Moran’s On Roads (2009) I’ve nearly finished: a brilliant cultural history of the road in 20th-century Britain, especially the impact of the motorway in the 1960s. And quirky too, from its attention to things normally taken-for-granted, such as signage and road-numbering, to the discreet count-down symbols (used on motorways to mark the approach of junctions) that appear in the page-headers towards the end of chapters.

The poetry volume I have on the go – Sean Borodale’s Notes for an Atlas (2003)– is prose rather than verse, but demanding enough that it can only be read slowly in short bursts. Described as a ‘370-page poem written whilst walking through London’, it is divided into twenty-five sections, capturing the experience in a series of highly fragmentary impressions of things seen, read and overheard that could almost be absorbed in any order, for the pleasure of the text is in the changing rhythms and startling similes and metaphors that endow each moment with a fragile beauty.

Oh, and there are the latest issues of Studies in Travel Writingand Small Axe that I’ve only had time to flick through so far. I am particularly looking forward to the interview with Merle Collins.

Keynotes, Signals and Soundmarks

Today (Sunday 18th July) has been designated the first World Listening Day. An initiative of the World Listening Project it aims to ‘to celebrate the practice of listening as it relates to the world around us, environmental awareness, and acoustic ecology.’

The date was chosen because it is the birthday of R Murray Schafer, the Canadian composer who founded the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver in the late 1960s. His book, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (1977) was a path-breaking attempt to create a vocabulary and analytical framework for thinking about – and listening to – the everyday sounds around us. He defined features of the soundscape such as the keynote (background sound, often emerging from the natural environment), the signal (foregound sound, designed to attract attention), and the soundmark (unique and of special significance to the community).

I found some fascinating observations here. I was particularly taken by the idea that the tonal centre of soundscapes dominated by the buzz and hum of electrical equipment varies according to the frequency adopted by the country in question (eg 60 Hz in North America, 50 Hz in Europe, ie. B natural or G sharp).

But his argument is so closely tied to a narrative of disappointment and decline (from rural idyll to urban alienation), Schafer comes across as a bit of a prematurely grumpy old man (the book was first published in his 40s) who is not prepared to appreciate the rich complexity of the sounds of the city.

There are some exceptions. For instance, he does seem to have succumbed to the romance of railroads. And he can’t quite bring himself to condemn the drone – a keynote of industrial soundscapes and yet valued by ancient musics and religions. But when he asks: ‘If we must be distracted ten or twenty times each day, why not by pleasant sounds? Why could not everyone choose his or her own telephone signal?’ – you doubt that he welcomed the ringtone revolution when it eventually came.

The project’s study of Vancouver was documented on a double LP released in 1973, and subsquently re-issued on CD entitled Soundscape Vancouver with addtional recordings made in the 1990s, allowing listeners to register changes in the city’s soundcape over the intervening twenty years.

While a concern to salvage sounds which are disappearing no doubt continues to motivate those engaged in soundscape research, many of them also have an ear for emergent sounds. Not just new sounds or new combinations of sounds that transform the soundscapes we inhabit but sounds which only become clearly audible through the use of new recording techniques. The Interpreting the Soundscape CD curated by Peter Cusack (and included in a special issue of Leonardo Music Journal) – which may serve as a useful introduction to more recent work – includes underwater recordings of the North Atlantic, amplfied insect sounds, and the electromagnetic signals emitted by security gates.

User-Generated Content

Such field recordings remain the province of specialists. But with the wider availability of portable recording equipment (built in to laptops and smartphones) and means of distribution (via email, phone messaging and online public repositories), people are capturing the sounds they hear around them more than ever before. Including myself, though I am fairly new to the game. Three online repositories I have used include:

  • The Freesound Project: field recordings make up a large part of this vast repository of user-contributed sounds. The recordings are often high-quality, you can add geo-tags, and with many uploads furnished with detailed descriptions and useful keywords it is easy – and fun – to search. If you want to listen to station announcements or an indoor badminton court or a hospital trolley or someone passing through immigration at O’Hare airport or (hell, why not) next-door neighbours having sex, this is the place to go. But the interface is forbidding and uploading files is not for the faint-hearted. Those who take online social networking for granted may find it annoying that you can’t flag recordings as ‘favourites’ or ‘share’ them with a single click, and there is no embedded player.
  • SoundCloud: field recordings form a very small proportion of the material uploaded to this site which is dominated by music, but try browsing (moderated) groups such as Binaural Recording or Field Recordings. The quality of recordings is high, you can ‘favourite’ and ‘share’ tracks easily, and a mobile app allows you to listen (but not upload files) away from your computer.
  • Audioboo: field recordings form a very small proportion of the material submitted here and searches for those tagged ‘fieldrecording’ yield only a handful. You can ‘favourite’ and ‘share’ and geo-tag boos easily. With its mobile app you can upload recordings made on smartphones, which seem to form the vast majority and are consequently of low sound quality, and most of them resemble voicemail messages left by mistake. But I do like this bumble-bee and this sumptuous aural panorama from a Tokyo rooftop.

If Freesound is the best place to search for recordings, SoundCloud is probably the best way to share them, and if you have an iPhone (preferably with a third-party attachment that will allow you to use a decent microphone) and want to share some audio immediately, then Audioboo is essential. I have not used SoundTransit or ipadio. The London Sound Survey has made a useful comparison of all these services.

While these repositories are not much more than searchable databases, they do offer ways of easily finding sounds related to a common location or theme, through the use of tags and keywords or (more formally) by creating ‘sample packs’ (Freesound) or user groups (SoundCloud).

But field recordings are often made for (or made use of by) specific projects, which give rise to a more systematic presentation of material. For example, they might be a contribution to a sound map, or document a soundwalk, or form part of a series of sonic postcards.

Sound Maps

A sound map may be something you draw yourself, as a way of focusing your attention on what you can hear around you, following these guidelines, for example.

But sound maps may also be collaborative projects in which users are invited to submit recordings tagged with the location in which they were made, and which are then linked to an online map. Typically, these projects are city-focused, such as those for Barcelona (uses Freesound), the Basque CountryLondonMadridMontrealSeoul (uses Audioboo) and Vienna (uses Audioboo). Soundcities is wider-ranging, as the name suggests, but many clips are very short.

More ambitious and systematic is the British Library’s UK Sound Map(uses Audioboo), currently restricted to the Sheffield area, but with plans to extend across the whole country later this year. Dizzying in its global scope (and randomness) is the Radio Aporee: Maps project, which has made a special appealfor contributions of recordings made today so as to create a mosaic of audio snapshots for World Listening Day.

There are other location-based showcases of field recordings that (so far) have not linked them to online maps, although this would seem to be an obvious development. For example the various ‘favourite sounds’ projects in LondonChicagoBeijing and elsewhere. Or the fascinating collection in Mexico’s Archivo Sonoro (like this recording made in Viveros metro station, Mexico City).

Soundwalks

What is a soundwalk?

The soundwalk is a practice of focused listening in which one moves through an environment with complete attention to sound. Any environment, at any time of day or night, can provide space for soundwalking. Sometimes the walks are guided by a written or verbal instruction (a “score”) and sometimes not. The participants may walk blindfolded, or stand still, or move in response to the soundfield. Sometimes the walker activates the soundscape – “playing along” with the sounds – using the voice, musical instruments or objects encountered along the way. On occasion the walks are recorded and other times they are simply free form ambles through sound filled places. The walks are usually followed by an informal conversation about the experience.

This definition is provided by City in a Soundwalk which invites people to follow its suggestions for soundwalks in New York City or offer proposals for more.

There are useful guidelines for undertaking a sound walk on the Urban Sound Ecology website which hosts recordings of such walks in Toronto and plots them on city maps, as part of its ‘research initiative dedicated to exploring, examining, and understanding the sonic spaces of Canadian cities.’ They are now also working on a Vancouver map.

For more general reflections on the subject, the new Soundwalking Interactionswebsite may be worth keeping an eye on.

Soundwalks are usually local initiatives that are not widely publicized, but many are being organized for World Listening Day (follow this comment thread for more details).

And I’m not sure they need to be always on foot. A simlar spirit informs the annual invitation to complete a circuit of Birmingham (England)’s circular No 11 bus route and document the experience.

Sonic Postcards

Sonic Postcards is the name of an education project in the UK pioneered by Sonic Arts Network (now part of Sound and Music). Its aim is ‘to encourage pupils to engage with their sound environment and be creative with ICT.’ The website showcases the results of each school project (usually with several postcards from different pupils) and includes the results of exchanges with schools in China, Switzerland and Catalonia.

But sonic postcards would be a good name for any short recordings, often produced in a series over a period, but not tied (as most contributions to sound maps or documentations of soundwalks are) to capturing the sounds of public places. They might be more interested in sounds of more personal significance – to the individual or community who heard or made them – and exhibit a kind of intimacy that the other forms of presentation lack. Freed from what can sometimes be a curse of trying to be ‘representative’ of a place, they are more likely to give us sounds which are interesting for their own sake.

For this reason, I enjoy Headphone Commute’s sound postcards, which often have tiny stories attached to them, such as the one featuring a busking violinist at Grand Central Station or the close-up of a dog… drinking.

And while these postcards are issued on a seemingly ad hoc basis, there are other similar series which gain impetus from self-imposed rules, such as Taylor Deupree’s 2009 project, One Sound Each Day (with recordings, for example, of him making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in July or misting the houseplants in December).

Or the One-Minute Vacations created by the quiet american. Try out some ‘voodoo ice cream’ in Benin and then join the football crowd in the San Siro stadium in Milan (from Year Five).

Happy World Listening Day!

The Payback

On Wednesday, many people were taken aback by an announcement from the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of a new ‘framework initiative’ that would return the 90 million gold francs paid by Haiti from 1825 to 1947.

This indemnity has long been a bone of contention, pressured as Haiti was to pay ‘compensation’ for the loss of colonial property in return for international recognition of the newly independent state.

When the Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, brought up the question once more, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the death of national hero Toussaint L’Ouverture in a French cell in 1803, his counterpart Jacques Chirac was not impressed.

Even though two years earlier the French parliament had recognized slavery as a crime against humanity, the official response to the bill for $21,685,135,571 and 48 cents (its modern equivalent, with interest) was brusque, even bad-tempered. The foreign ministry commissioned a report on Franco-Haitian relations, which dismissed the claim for reparations as anachronistic and mocked the way in which Aristide had presented it.

There was precious little support even in the left-wing press in France, leading the Haitian writer Louis-Philippe Dalembert to pen an article in Libération wondering why intellectuals in the land of Hugo and Zola had all turned into foreign ministers whose main aim was to defend French interests. Dalembert was no friend of Aristide, and doubted whether Aristide was the best person to raise the issue, but he insisted that the demand for the restitution of an ‘immoral and iniquitous debt’ should not be allowed to be forgotten.

And indeed it has not. So despite Aristide’s enforced departure in the coup of February 2004 and Gerard Latortue’s prompt reassurance that the ‘illegal’ and ‘ridiculous’ claim would not be pursued, when Nicolas Sarkozy visited Haiti in February this year, he faced angry protests demanding that France pay up and help return Aristide to office.

The announcement of 14 July did not, then, come out of the blue. But, only a day after the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of a ban on wearing the Islamic full veil in public, it was unexpected, to say the least. And, of course, it was too good to be true.

In a manner reminiscent of the tactics of Les Liens Invisibles or The Yes Men, the announcement was carried on a site imitating that of the French Foreign Ministry, backed up by a news releasepurporting to be from Agence-France-Presse.

‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,’ goes Gramsci’s slogan. For those with too much of the latter, the news may have prompted a flurry of excitement, but disappointment would inevitably follow. Those with an excess of the former may have taken some cynical delight in pointing out that the website was ‘fake’ or a ‘hoax’, as if it were therefore of no further account.

But both responses miss something interesting. It is no more ‘fake’ than a play or a film. The point of the excercise is not to kid people that something has taken place but to make it seem strange that something hasn’t. We might think of it as a kind of historical re-enactment but of the future rather than the past.

It stages a possible – or alternative – future, by composing a plausible statement that combines the language of neo-liberalism with that of France’s long-standing democratic traditions, without making reference to the claims of Aristide and his supporters.

In doing so, it invites us to imagine a rationale that would allow France to do a U-turn without losing face. Anyone reading the statement would find it hard to dismiss it as giving in to ‘illegal’ and ‘ridiculous’ demands. And thus the demand – whose symbolic importance should not be underestimated – is kept alive.

Sweetest of all perhaps, it has forced the Ministry to deny that it is planning to do anything so noble and to declare that it is considering legal action against those who dare to imagine such a thing.