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The Wolf(e) Tone: An Exercise in Listening

10 Apr

Grandfather Singing “The Guilford 4” 

“Believe that we too love freedom and desire it. To us it is more desirable than anything in the world. If you strike us down now, we shall rise again and renew the fight. You cannot conquer Ireland you cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom: if our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom then our children will win it with a better deed.” — Patrick Pearse

“The history of what could be called revolutionary subjectivity should be written.” — Michel Foucault

A trip home from the hospital in a winter snowstorm after chemo treatment has me bone-tired and depleted. I’m sitting in the back of my grandparents’ car; these grandparents that have raised me after my father’s coma (from which he later returned–back from the almost-dead, where he lives now on the interstices of almost-life) and my mother’s flirtation with suicide and affairs with rehab clinics around New York and back again–always, back again. My grandfather puts in the Wolfe Tones CD, and I’m half-listening, half-dozing off as our car navigates through the snowy roads of Long Island. The Wolfe Tones are named after Theobald Wolfe Tone, a leading Irish revolutionary figure who started the 1798 Irish Rebellion. Suddenly, my grandfather begins singing loudly and I’m awake, sitting up and smiling, to a song that I remember hearing him sing as a child but never understanding the lyrics. The name of the song is “The Guilford 4” and the lyrics my grandfather sing along to are as follows:

Behind those English prison walls

So innocent and tortured all

They call for justice and for peace

and a chance to live again

for in their dark and lonely cell

There’s no justice, there’s no freedom bell

For those Irish men and women there

in prison without crime

So free the people let them go

You can’t hold them anymore

But remember too it could be me or you

Behind those prison walls

He interjects after the lyrics “But remember too it could be me or you” to add, “It could be Meghan” and I chuckle here (see 1:04). Quickly, I’m removed from the space of listening (or “pricking up the philosophical ear”) to the lyrics, to hearing my grandfather’s joke–a part of his Irish humor that sweeps me briskly away from a moment of pain that refers to a tense moment in Irish history. Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Patrick Armstrong, and Carole Richardson (later known as ‘The Guilford Four’) spent fifteen years in English prison for IRA bombings in 1974 in Guilford, England; they were sentenced under false confessions made days after torture by the Surrey police.  My grandparents, my father and his siblings, having all been a part of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) until 1980 when they immigrated to the United States, relate to these lyrics differently than I do… but I’m still listening.

As Jean-Luc Nancy writes in Listening, “To be listening is to always be on the edge of meaning.” (7) It is to “capture the sonority rather than the message.” (4) Is is possible, then, to listen (in the Nancian sense) to revolutionary songs: songs that depend on the message? Perhaps more important than this question is one that Foucault poses in his later years of writing: is revolution even desirable? Foucault states, “You know full well today that the problem is whether revolution is desirable”. Perhaps, revolution is desirable in that it enters the subject into politics and not politicking (something Foucault warns against). Foucault engages in a language of rights that does not appear in his earlier works (in fact is mostly resisted). This is arguably because of Foucault’s understanding of power and how it operates. Foucault is particularly interested in the micro-level workings of power; he is not talking about monarchical power, in which sovereignty exists as an ‘absolute.’ The management of possibilities in monarchical power is transparent. What is more interesting for Foucault are the power structures in an apparently ‘free’ society (e.g. in liberal democracies). The foundational mechanisms of power specifically point to the “way in which some act on others” (137) and how those actions upon actions mark the transition to management–the management of individual bodies and, more broadly, the population. So certainly, revolution (which for Ireland is not exactly happening within a ‘liberal democracy’ but in a state of colonial occupation) isn’t what makes power interesting. However, Foucault’s later question about the desirability of the revolution is a critical one in thinking about cultural memory, intervention, and the community of the governed–the multiplicitous. As he states in Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collége de France, 1977-78, “No more or less that that which is born with resistance to governmentality, the first uprising, the first confrontation.”  My question, which stems from the query over revolution’s desirability, is this: what does song do to the revolution and, more specifically, to revolution’s desirability?

The ‘live’ performance of my grandfather over the recorded performance of the Wolfe Tone’s enacts a kind of dissonance in listening and hearing. What are the words of the revolution, the beats and tones and notes of the revolution, doing to me in this moment of my post-chemo self in the back of our car in 2012? Am I even listening? Was my grandfather’s interruption into the song (“It could be Meghan”) a call to history? Was it a call for my own involvement in this revolution that is so deeply tied to my own cultural and to Ireland’s collective history?

In music, a wolf tone occurs when a note matches the natural frequency of the body of the instrument, creating a continued artificial overtone that aids in amplifying the frequencies of the original note. This tension between the original and artificial note that produces the wolf tone is very much like the tension that occurs between the live (original) performance of my grandfather singing and the recorded (artificial) performance of the Wolfe Tone’s CD. The uneven frequencies create a friction that causes my grandfather to pause and interject: It could be Meghan. It could be me or you.

New post up at Bully Bloggers

21 Jan

Justin V. Bond singing at Occupy Wall Street

Over at Bully Bloggers, I’ve posted the short MLA presentation I gave on Justin V. Bond and Occupy Wall Street. In it, I am thinking, feeling really, my way through some ideas about Nancy’s concept of being singular plural, the occupation movement, and the transgender grain of the voice.

I’m Gay

27 Apr

Over at NPR, Ann Powers and I sort out the Lil B kerfuffle.

And in other queer hip hop news, we’re celebrating Big Freedia‘s EP by re-watching with this unintentionally hilarious video of Diplo on a cool hunt to locate the Diva of Sissy Bounce in deepest, darkest New Orleans.

New articles

25 Mar


Winding down my visit to Chicago for the Cultural Studies Association Annual Meeting, where I was on a plenary on political affect with Lauren Berlant and Patricia Clough, company in which I felt truly humbled. I spoke on Lady Gaga‘s political activism, which I will speak on again next week at Cornell U. Before then I will have to take into account the fallout over her latest single “Born This Way” in Malaysia, where some deejays have been censoring the gay affirmative lyrics. Odd that Malaysia is also where Adam Lambert had to clean up his act a little on his recent international tour. While I should be (and am) upset by this censorship of gay content, I am equally interested in Malaysia’s apparent appetite for sexual risqué musical content, despite the putative restrictive codes of its moral gatekeepers. I’d like to know more about queer culture and pop culture there than I currently do.

My two new articles are out, and both are on music, blackness, and queerness. Links below to full PDFs. The first is my contribution to a special issue of Criticism on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, edited by Erin Murphy and J. Keith Vincent. My article, “Trapped in the Closet with Eve,” employs Sedgwick’s thinking about paranoid and reparative readings to interpret the Trapped in the Closet series of videos by R. Kelly.

My other new article is from the special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies (congratulations to new editors Gustavus Stadler and Karen Tongson) on Michael Jackson (congratulations to special issue editors Tamara Roberts and Brandi Catanese). My article, “Have You Seen His Childhood? Song, Screen, and the Queer Culture of the Child in Michael Jackson’s Music” looks at cinematic and musical figurations of lateral childhood in Michael Jackson’s short films. I have to say that with both essays I feel privileged to be in such fine company. Too many  to mention but I must not I found Tamara Roberts contribution to JPMS and Cindy Patton‘s essay in Criticism to be particularly rewarding. Well worth seeking out.