Answering Machine, Auto-Tune, Spectrograph: Queer Vocality Through Sonic Technology

In academic and activist contexts, “voice” has long served as shorthand for inclusion, empowerment, and the like, occasioning bromides about having or not having a voice, giving voice to the voiceless, breaking the silence, and speaking truth to power. Such metaphysically inflected phrasings often serve to reinforce a binary between sound and silence at the expense of attending to other vocal modulations. This thesis first assembles calls by queer and feminist scholars for such nuanced portrayals of vocality; then, so as to answer those calls, it stages scenes of listening. I examine vocality through technology: by looking at how vocality is structured by enclosing technologies, which in turn structure relations and the reverse. More specifically, my thesis traces the ways in which vocality travels in the world by attending to three particular technologies through which the voice is filtered: the answering machine, Auto-Tune pitch correction software, and the sound spectrograph. This approach enables me to probe the distinct claims that specific sound technologies allow us to hold on one another-claims about mourning and loss, about calling and the promise of response, about the identification of individuals (or oneself) via the voice. Though my investigations span various archives, I center them on two characters: the performer Cher and her son Chaz, who is transgender. I do so to consider the ways in which a sonically inflected media theory can inform queer theory and vice versa, and to consider the particular relational dilemmas made incumbent upon subjects whose vocal trajectories are discontinuous, depart from normative pitch, and/or deemed an invitation to violence.

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Lilia Kilburn

About Lilia Kilburn

Lilia is curious about interactions between the voice and technology--everything from invasive vocal surgeries to Auto-Tune. In her work, she seeks to get at the ways in which writers can speak to the subtleties of the human voice through techniques drawn from ethnography, creative nonfiction, and audio documentary. Lilia has alternately lived near and far from her birthplace, Boston. She graduated from Amherst College and has worked as a graphic designer, a jukebox refurbisher, and a researcher in Cameroon and South Africa. Lately she's been at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics studying public discourse on autism, which dovetails with her broader interest in understanding how minority groups the world over contend with popular conceptions of their lives. She likes reading fiction aloud and really good mustard. Thesis: Answering Machine, Auto-Tune, Spectrograph: Queer Vocality Through Sonic Technology