Hold the phone: Post-feminism, surveillance and music at Old Cabell Hall

Modern feminist Dr. Robin James (posed here in tribute to Laurie Anderson) presents “From ‘Video Phone’ To The Visual Microphone: Sound & The Ambivalent Politics of Feminist New Materialism” on Friday. Publicity photo. Modern feminist Dr. Robin James (posed here in tribute to Laurie Anderson) presents “From ‘Video Phone’ To The Visual Microphone: Sound & The Ambivalent Politics of Feminist New Materialism” on Friday. Publicity photo.

Have you seen the one where they catch the bad guy with an algorithm? This past August, an MIT research team announced a feat worthy of this sort of summer blockbuster. It found a means to re-create sound waves from soundless video; the team created a “visual microphone.” A demonstration of the discovery started with footage of nothing less than an empty chip bag videotaped through soundproof glass. Researchers then analyzed the visual micro-vibrations of the chip bag as sound waves from a song bounced off of it. Using an algorithm, they were able to re-create this song solely from the visual information in the video. In other words, they were able to retroactively listen in on a soundproofed area by enlarging visual vibrations created by sound waves.

Though it’s been months since the visual microphone was announced, the full implication of it remains unclear. It raises questions of privacy and certainly has the power to drastically change surveillance techniques. But how does it relate to our collective understanding of sound? And perhaps equally important, how does it relate to the 2008 Beyoncé song “Video Phone”? An upcoming colloquium hosted by UVA’s McIntire Department of Music will explore these questions.

An associate professor of philosophy and women’s and gender studies at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, Dr. Robin James will present her work on these themes at the event. “The presentation is about the relationship between, on the one hand the role of women in post-feminist society, and on the other hand the role of sound in contemporary philosophy,” said James.

Though her juxtaposition of these ideas might be unexpected, don’t let it intimidate you. “I am like any other academic—I do research. I listen to pop radio, I read music blogs, I look up songs and listen to them,” she said.

Each semester speakers like James are selected by committee, incorporating suggestions from graduate students and faculty within the department. “Many of our faculty and grad students take an interdisciplinary approach to music studies, so we’re interested in work that similarly crosses boundaries,” said UVA Assistant Professor Nomi Dave. “There’s quite a bit of interest in music and gender across the department.”

James’ presentation will draw from her forthcoming book, Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, neoliberalism, slated to be published in February 2015. “In the book, I argue that ‘resilience’ is the foundation of current ideals and norms of femininity,” she said. “So, for example, [pop] songs idealize women who have learned to overcome specific facets of patriarchy. This is really deceptive, because it makes oppression seem like an individual problem that individuals are responsible for treating, and not a broader social phenomenon. It makes it seem like patriarchy is over.”

This is the world of post-feminism, and we’re just living in it. Rather than empowering societal shifts, this type of feminism suggests that gendered oppression is not systemic, but personal—and that the ability or need to fight that oppression is equally personal. “Beyonce’s ‘Video Phone’ is a great example of this,” said James. “In the video, she kills men with cameras on their heads. She makes the ‘male gaze’ something that she, with the help of Lady Gaga, can put an end to.” MIT’s visual microphone similarly acts as a jumping off point for examining contemporary philosophy’s continued marginalization of sound in its abstract perspectives.

In contrast, James—who is also a musician—explained that “doing sound art helps me think materially about the objects, practices, experiences and phenomena that I’m analyzing theoretically. It’s like putting my money where my mouth is.”

Though she began college as an oboe major, she has since taken a more experimental and theoretical approach to her musical practice, echoing her academic approach. “I don’t just theorize about stuff like music, I use music to think through philosophical problems,” she said. “If you never step outside philosophy, your philosophical work will never capture the nuance of real life. I want my work to capture that nuance—I actually think it’s essential.”

Her interests in hands-on practice and Beyoncé should be a hint that James is hardly the average philosophy professor. “I’ve always worked at the edges of several fields: philosophy, women’s and gender studies, musicology and sound studies,” she said. “One thing this means is I have to be really good at, and careful to, translate specialized ideas from one field into terms comprehensible to non-specialists in other fields.” This also means that James is an accessible presenter with a focus on engaging people who are interested in music and feminism but might not have an extensive theoretical background in either.

James will present “From ‘Video Phone’ To The Visual Microphone: Sound & The Ambivalent Politics of Feminist New Materialism” on November 21 at 3:30pm in Old Cabell Hall.

What sounds can you see?

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