Dissonant Records

Brief Summary | Chapters | Audio Recordings

Dissonant Records: Close Listening to Literary Archives (Coming soon from MIT Press!) demonstrates that the complexities of preservation, access, and use go far beyond digitization. Archival recordings are often damaged or exist on disintegrating media, are made inaccessible to a library technician or a researcher due to preservation or privacy concerns. These items might be just lost with vague labels in vast basement storage spaces. Protocols for access are disparate and confusing within and across institutions, and professional archival and library practices change from one generation to the next and from one professional to the next. Language-barriers, cultural traditions, and limited resources make creating access for global communities a challenge, especially in post-custodial archives cautiously trying to approach these concerns responsibly. In archival reading rooms (and university sub-basements), historical recordings are often dressed up as other media, text documents or books. Copies of the original recordings that used to be on glass or metal discs, reel-to-reel tapes, or audio cassettes are often now reproduced and made available on CDs that are still filed in manila folders or gray repository boxes. These boxes—made indistinguishable from similar boxes that hold original letters, pamphlets, and manuscripts—are placed on rolling carts at reading room tables alongside CD players, which, often out-of-date, may come with missing cords and broken headphones. These reformatted, copies of copies are delivered to patrons as if they are physically unique and informative, as if lifting them, holding them, or reading their covers will reveal their contents. Because listening to the recordings, which might entail hundreds of hours of real-time engagement, is prohibitive in under-staffed cultural repositories, the metadata that librarians and archivists create is often based on the limited information they find on old, incomplete, confusing, or wrong and unverified labels.

In literary study in the archives, listening happens less often than reading. Consequently, my primary concern in this book is to make possible new studies of new stories in literary history. I uncover archival practices and processes that continue to pose barriers to increasing forms of access and expression with heard and unheard audio recordings. I am concerned with the silences that surround these artifacts in the archive, because, as I will explain in the coming chapters, silence does not mean lack of presence, but rather silence can suggest the absence of resonance or a co-sounding with the perceptions, experiences and memories of historical and present-day listeners.

I do not presume to give voice to the voiceless in this book. The writers I discuss here—Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Anne Sexton, Gloria Anzaldúa—are well-known literary figures. They and the many scholars who have brought them to mainstream literary study from, in most cases, the fringes of thought have fought to be heard. I have chosen these authors as my focus in this book because they are known, and their histories are complex. I admire how they have pushed social boundaries and pursued complex approaches to landscapes that they had to navigate with care and creativity. By close listening to their archives, my goal is—first and foremost—to demonstrate a research practice with audio archives, but to do so in order that these authors’ lives and works are experienced in the fullness of their complexities, experienced in terms of their voicings as well as their silences. By focusing on “close listening” as a method, I seek to re-direct attention toward a different kind of listening in which details around artifacts, events, and technologies (and thus peoples and communities) that have been obfuscated by the practices and protocols of cultural heritage institutions are made resonant and meaningful to literary scholars.

As a literary scholar, I have been trained to read for significance by looking for differences like these. When I listen for resonance, I also perceive the dissonances. In common parlance, consonance typically represents stasis and resolution while dissonance connotes what is jarring, unsettling, and upsetting. Like consonance, dissonance is a subjective categorization of resonance, dependent entirely on context. The tritone, for instance, might be considered dissonant in church music, but essential in the 20th century avant-garde and in the form of a passing note in jazz. Listening differently in literary study can be generative for a postcolonial consideration of cultural registries where resonance indicates an alternative field of possible meanings produced by a shifting triangulation of agential forces, both human and material. Dissonance is a reminder that resonance can encompass discomfort, inequality, and contest. This is not a history of the archive, media, or technology so much as a consideration for understudied social and material modes of dissonance and resistance in literary culture that have been silenced by theoretical and practical norms.


  • Preface
  • Introduction: Records and Resonance in the Archives
  • Chapter One: Amplify: Close Listening to Silencing and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
  • Chapter Two: Distortion: Authority, Authenticity, and Agency in Recordings of Zora Neale Hurston’s Black Folk
  • Chapter Three: Interference: Silence and the Ideal Listener in Ralph Ellison’s American Novel
  • Chapter Four: Compression: Self-Expression and the Entelechy of Finitude in Anne Sexton’s Poem “For the Year of the Insane”
  • Chapter Five: Reception: Conocimiento in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Spirituality Recordings
  • Coda: Distant Listening and Resonance

Audio Recordings

Zora Neale Hurston, Works Progress Administration Recordings, Jacksonville, FL 1939

The 1953 Harvard Summer School Conference on the Contemporary Novel