Pounce #1: LISTEN

Release date: March 15, 2016
Issue: #1
Edition: 20 copies
Cost: $5
To purchase: Email pouncezine@gmail.com with your shipping address and an email address that I can send an invoice to via PayPal. Once I receive payment, I’ll ship you a copy. sold out

Notes on this issue:

The subject of this issue is listening and archives. It asks the question: what if we think about collection and archival processes (broadly construed) as a kind of listening organ, the cochlea of culture?

It’s less of an essay on this subject than it is a formal experiment, as you can see in the video above. In addition to paper ears and plastic basilar membranes, each copy includes a speaker made with tissue paper, a bit of copper, some wire cut from an old stereo, and a replacement headphone jack that I bought at RadioShack.

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To use the speaker, you plug the jack into a sound-emitting source (like a laptop; the signal from a phone usually isn’t strong enough) and place a magnet under the tissue paper. Your typical ceramic magnet won’t work; you need a neodymium magnet, sometimes labeled “rare earth.” These can be dangerous to ship if not properly shielded, sticking to the inside of mail trucks and wreaking all sorts of havok, so unfortunately I can’t include one with the issue. Luckily, though, they are cheap and readily available at local hardware stores. (I bought my set at Home Depot for around $4.) The sound from the speaker is faint, but given that the zine doesn’t include any amplifier module, it’s surprising to me how loud it can be.

It’s just copper, some tissue paper, and a magnet! And it’s playing recorded music! Our world is bananas!

If you’d like to make your own simple speaker — and you definitely should try it — you might start with this tutorial on creating an embroidered speaker or this tutorial on paper speakers. I attempted fabric before switching to paper. The speaker was loudest when I embroidered a small, tight coil of conductive stainless steal thread (purchased at Radio Shack) on a piece of silk.

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You might intuitively think a stiffer fabric would be louder, but the floppier and more tightly knit the better, in my experience. This is because the speaker’s fabric or tissue paper is your medium: it’s an intermediary between the electrical signal coming from your source on the one end, and the electrical signal sent to your brain via the auditory nerve on the other. This medium’s vibrations are caused by the slight movements of the conductive thread as it is variously attracted to and repulsed from the magnet; these vibrations of the fabric in turn cause the air around it to compress and decompress, creating sound waves that travel to your ear. There, these sound waves move your eardrum, which moves the tiny bones behind it, which then transmit this movement to the fluid in your cochlea. The cochlea, essentially a tiny mechanical frequency analyzer, sorts out the frequencies and sends that information to your brain. (Big props to my friend Josh Stohl, an electrical engineer who designs cochlear implants by day and plays drums by night, for helping me play around with different fabric speakers as I asked endless n00b questions about audio engineering and the ear.)

In short, it’s just (“just“) a series of material transformations — a bunch of stuff whose unique properties interact in interesting ways with other uniquely-propertied stuff. Like all technologies. So simple — and yet so complex!

To play audio on the embroidered speaker, I used leads to connect each end of the coil to a cheap bluetooth speaker module that I had busted open. You don’t need to use an amplifier, strictly speaking, but it does make it louder.

I was teaching Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms around the time that I began playing with these little things and found that the process really brought into relief his oft-cited distinction between formal and forensic materiality. The formal materiality of electronic audio has become very familiar to me through software like Audacity or ProTools; I have a mental map of what an audio signal looks like as a manipulable digital object, and a basic understanding of how that representation will relate to the sound I hear. But the forensic materiality of digital audio — its existence as a series of wires that transmit a signal from my iPhone to a pair of earbuds that will then turn that signal into nuanced shades of sound — has always been opaque to me. Until now! It is my hope that playing around with this issue cracks open the black box a bit for you, too.

Thanks for reading.

beginning again*

I started my blog diapsalmata in 2007 under the pseudonym Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, a famous fake entry in the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia. At the time, I needed the pseudonym, since my participation in anything resembling “scholarship” felt, like the fictitious name from which I took my name, a bit inauthentic – a parody driven by a bookish curiosity but fundamentally inexpert. As I shed my inherited beliefs about how scholars worked (looked, talked, performed), I peeled away my own pseudonymous cover, too, and began penning entries under my own name.

If you’ve ever written in public, you know well the fear and freedom that comes from this moment. Assigning your name to something as its creator forces you to take credit for what you say, in the sense of both being responsible to and for it (an ethics of communication) and naming as your own the work that you do (a claim to labor). These are powerful and empowering moves; they create a space to acknowledge and to be known among a group of peers, entangling your own words in a web of collective practice. Yet even as authorship binds you to others, it also asks you to extricate your individual threads from the common cloth – to delimit what is mine from what is yours, what “counts” for me from what “counts” for you. It’s the first move toward staking a claim to an idea, a phrase that’s come to characterize argumentative writing, but which of course comes from America’s land-grabbing era of “rugged individualism,” when any pioneer might declare ownership of a piece of property by marking its boundaries. The act of owning your work always wavers between these two poles – on the one hand, bearing the gift of responsibility; on the other, the curse of possession.

The push-and-pull of authorship, and ownership, bred in me a desire to express more than novice curiosity and interest, and I began feeling the tug to mark myself through my blog. I staked claims within a few disputed territories, contributed my voice to some debates within digital humanities (tempests in tea cups, more like it), even composed the kernel of what would become an MLA talk and, eventually, a prize-winning article; and while, overall, these were formative experiences, my interest in the type of argumentative discourse that blogs seemed to foment quickly waned. I began using it to post images I was collecting on Pinterest, or readings of texts I would probably never publish on, but which I wanted to talk about anyway. As its moorings slackened, diapsalmata began to lose a sense of purpose and direction. Months passed by with no posts, and what was once a source of pleasure and pride became one of guilt. My last post, written out of a vague sense of obligation toward this thing I had so long neglected, was created with little joy in February 2014. I’ve written a few drafts toward entries since, but nothing that (I want to say) seems disputatious or interventionary enough for the now somewhat stabilized genre of the scholarly blog. No open letters, no calls to arms. I suppose it could become a space for announcements, reposts, and research progress reports, as many academic blogs have become; but this seemed a sad denouement for a space that I had once cultivated so carefully.

Around the same time that my blog was going silent, my partner Phil Torres and I began a little endeavor we somewhat ridiculously called Project Project. On summer nights when the weather was dry, we would set up a projector in darkened corners of Durham and mix old films and found footage to sound. We played Jacques Drouin’s landmark pinscreen animation Mindscape on the now-demolished green wall by the Pinhook, and cast Christoph Malin’s gorgeous timelapses of the night sky across the side of the Trotter Building in Old North Durham. Each video mix was set to music that Phil composed, and punctuated with clips like Allen Ginsburg’s funny and touching live reading of “Hum Bom.” We never advertised, only showed up on the nights we felt like it. Sometimes, only two or three people stopped to watch, other nights a small crowd would form, bringing blankets and wine and pillows to watch visual syncopations dance over peeling paint in the humid Carolina night.

Although I came into the project with my own prejudices, as one always does, I quickly learned not to anticipate who would take the time to pause with us. Often the thickest-rimmed of the professoriate would glide right by, while the frat kid on a date would sit for hours, asking me about every odd fragment of film, thrilled simply to be experiencing something new. People would tell us stories about the space we were reanimating – how it used to be this, once was that, and now is a desolate spot in the midst of a growing population of newcomers, often described as Yankee transients drawn to Duke and UNC (but Duke especially). By hearing them, I grew to love the Triangle area as one grows to loves a home, and to respect my own complicated place within its long history. Since people often asked us what we were doing, I made a zine about the videos and music we sampled and passed them out for free to anyone who stopped by.

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Despite what a massive pain in the ass the project was logistically – dragging 100-foot extension cords across dark alleys, begging power from nearby businesses, risking rain and theft; once, a Mercedes ran over our PA system in Chapel Hill (!) – we continued because it felt more meaningful and even more real than my scholarship felt to me at the time. Here was a form of “writing” in public that didn’t treat authorship as a form of possessive ownership, but rather as an invitation into a shared experience, where the audience participated in the co-production of that space’s meaning. Here, an un-professionalized intellectual curiosity could flourish.

diapsalmata: a phrase that I borrowed from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, and which means something like the pause between (dia) musical refrains (psalmata).

Since then – and since my last blog post – I have graduated and started a position in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC Chapel Hill. As the dust settled on a year of change, I began to think more seriously about what I wanted the next stage of my publishing (making public) life to look like. And I realized just how much I’ve missed have a self-published space for the exploratory, the personal, the weird, the fragmentary – where I could collect all those clippings cut from the edges of my more disciplined work and patch them into something else, something not so neatly contained.

So I’ve decided to start, on the one hand, a collaborative digital journal called thresholds; and on the other, a zine. This space is dedicated to the zine. It’s called Pounce, a word taken from the powder used to smooth unsized writing surfaces, to dry ink, to transfer a printed image to cloth– but also a verb, the act of jumping and seizing with sharp talons. Pounce’s theme is media history, especially questions about how we can engage in an intersectional history of media technologies. I have chosen this theme because it’s one that obsesses me right now, as I develop my research on women of the seventeenth-century community at Little Gidding and their cut-up biblical Harmonies into a larger digital project on feminist, media-archaeological histories of print, and how those histories might inform practices in digital humanities.

I’ll also be using this zine project to experiment with the collision of print and various electronic technologies. For the first issue, I built a speaker from fabric and conductive thread, generally following these tutorials, as a way of testing the limits of the codex, text and textile, as a platform for sonic reproduction.

Future issues may be similar. So much of computing today is hidden behind sleek aluminum unibodies that hide technology’s messy inner workings; working directly with the copper, silk, and magnets that produce technologies of reproduction is for me a means of pushing back against planned obsolescence and the pervasive rhetoric of innovation to reconsider the imbrication of different technologies. I’ve spent so much time studying how other women have used scissors and paste to develop “new ways of printing” across time that I guess I thought it might be fun to try it myself.

The zine, of course, offers up the perfect host genre for this work. Zines have always embraced the grain of remediation as part of their aesthetic. Rather than exploiting humans for technological innovation, zine-makers exploit technology for human innovation, cheerfully hacking xerox machines in service of building underground, off-the-books intellectual networks. It is this ethic of media experimentation, of sharing a learning process rather than professing expertise, that I wanted to embrace in this project.

But there’s another reason I turned to the zine. In the wake of several rattling social media events last year, I’ve been feeling burned by the open exposure of the web. I’ve found myself policing my own words on social media more and more, which is truly a disgusting feeling — to be torn in two within oneself, the one side demanding that I should say what I want, place a stake in the ground, stand up for the thing I believe; the other fearing what will come in my @mentions if I do. I really, really, really hate this feeling. I can’t stress this enough. For me, it is the opposite of a productive exchange of ideas. At the same time, I still believe the radical openness of the web offers a platform whose implications for scholarship have yet to be fully exploited (if they ever will be). The genre of the zine has helped me navigate these fraught feelings around open networks by offering up a form in which “open access” does not mean “unfettered exposure” but rather is grounded in a network of mutual sharing and participation. It offers a more nuanced, striated space of participation, where i can connect with new non- and para-academic audiences without feeling overexposed. We – I – could learn much from this.

Finally, I’ve turned to the zine out of disillusionment with the state of digital publishing in academia. I recently co-edited a collection of digital sound scholarship with Mary Caton Lingold and Darren Mueller, and while we readily found a university press to publish this project’s print spinoff, we couldn’t convince anyone to publish the online collection – despite the fact that we had already solved all the usual problems: namely, we had ample funding to design the thing, and had guarantees from Duke Libraries to archive it. We kept hearing that we needed to produce our project in WordPress or Scalar for it to be publishable (!); our clean, simple, cross-browser-friendly HTML5 was too much to handle within an increasingly ossified digital publishing architecture. As a result of these experiences, I’ve come to think that print is actually a much more flexible, capacious publishing format right now than most digital platforms. And in fact, we’re seeing more experimentation with length and genre in journal articles or even monographs than we are with digital books from academic presses. It frustrates me that this is the case; but so it goes.

tl;dr: It remains hard to take risks. I have found myself wanting a space to continue to experiment on my own terms. Hopefully this hybrid print/digital zine project will be that space.

I don’t know how often I’ll publish, or if subscribers will have to pay a nominal (as in, $1-$5) fee yet to get a print copy. I’m working things out as I go. But if you’re interested in following along, please subscribe to the left, and I’ll be sure to keep you updated.


* I don’t know where this new phase of my career will take me, but I know it won’t be anywhere without the support of all the like-minded weirdos who have exchanged ideas with me over the years. Thank you. Special thanks to audiences at BABEL 2015 and the Undergraduate Research Network in the Humanities conference at Davidson College for listening to portions of this post and the first issue while it was in draft. I appreciate the invitation to discuss these ideas with y’all.