3. Another Way to Write About Politics? Narrative and Sensory Resources of Ethnographic “Sound Scraps”  


The remarks above raise the crucial question of what constitutes a corpus of materials, and, ultimately, an archive of ethnographic research. I would argue that the outlines of what can best be incorporated or not shift over time. This means that elements left out in early investigations can be “recovered” for new research questions or in the light of new theoretical and/or epistemological influences. The process through which questions develop is itself strongly marked, inductively, by the empirical work.


As regards acoustic data, anthropologists often need to start out by acquiring sensory interpretive frameworks – situated and historical in nature – in order to be able to understand certain aural dimensions of social life. In order to delve into the sounds of the research milieu for purposes of anthropological analysis and writing, they must first forge and train their “ethnographic ear” in order to grasp the subtle or even imperceptible aural dimensions of politics in the making. As Vincent Battesti argues, ethnography is akin to an “embodied apprenticeship of the sensitivities at work, to the practice of decentring their sensory universe to learn that of others” (Battesti 2017: 766). 


What is audible is also part of a political process of construction and assignment of meaning that, in countries such as Mexico, has been and continues to be shaped by colonial power relations. Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier, for example, shows how the colonial period in Colombia was marked by multiple, contrasting acoustic practices, many of which made no sense or were not audible to the local elite who described, judged, and theorized about them. Yet, contemporary ethnographic work often offers no alternative to these colonial logics of sorting that delimit and reduce the possible aural field, a state of affairs that makes clear the need for decolonial practices of listening motivated by an awareness of one's own listening positionality (Robinson 2020).


As a first step in this direction, I gradually began to recognize the ethnographic value of a wider palette of sound recordings made in Oaxaca, and I also began to think about other acoustic details in my recordings, such as intonations or silences. Ethnographic work, as a cognitive and practical experience, goes well beyond the collection of material; it is also a matter of listening, of intersubjectivity. Thereforea useful heuristicethnographic method is to pay attention to the non-discursive dimensions of the political – such as silences, hesitations, and alterations in the voice – which can signify important aspects of power and domination relationships and conflicts. Regarding this aspect, I draw on the pioneering work of Keith Basso (1970) who noted that among the Apache of Arizona whether or not a person decides to talk provides a clue to the status of the people present and the nature of the relationship between them. Gérôme Truc (2016) has analyzed, in the United States and Europe, how “minutes of silence” can be an effective form of resistance and protest. On another non-discursive level, Lila Abu-Lughod (1986) has explored, in the Egyptian context, the way in which women's embodied vocal performances can carry a resistance to norms, a sharp critique of colonial and gender power relations. In the context of Oaxaca, discursive ellipses and almost inaudible voices tell us much about the links between private experiences, power relations, and conflicts. 


An example of this is occurred during an exchange I had with a Zapotec bilingual Indian teacher from Oaxaca. As we discussed power relations within the teachers' union and the communities in which she worked, she was evasive about some aspects of her experience as a woman in these contexts. She concluded the exchange by saying: “Calladita se ve mas bonita” [We are much prettier when we keep quiet]. This interaction gave me the opportunity to question the nature of these ellipses, of these parts of experience that were kept silent in both social and ethnographical relationships. What is being silenced here, what forms of domination and even violence against indigenous women who, like her, have partly overcome the social norms of gender and race that permeate local and national contexts? Looking at politics through sounds and silences is thus a way to acquire knowledge that is embodied, in sensibilities and in local history, an epistemology with the capacity to reveal a “corpo-politics of knowing/feeling/understanding” (Mignolo 2013: 183).[4]


Finally, I am also interested in “technical” scraps. In an interview, Yann Paranthoën, a craftsman of radiophonic writing, described and analyzed an occurrence of defective sound recording: “There was a loose cable. And when I initially listened to the tape, I thought: ‘It’s bad, there’s a technical fault’; but the more I listened, the more I thought: ‘But that’s what is interesting about this sequence, because our problem will be apparent, because our tape recorder is gradually breaking down’” (Paranthoën 2009: 122). The advantage of a sound captured live on a mobile phone, a tinny telephone voice, a sound crackling through a loudspeaker, is that they can situate the ethnographic analysis and narrative in the immediate conditions of investigation: for example, when an anthropologist is recording a scene and someone interrupts the recording with a question about the methodology or when the sound recording of a conversation is constantly interrupted by shouts and whistles from outside. These kinds of recordings have the virtue of showing the contingencies of the inquiry, together with the presence of the anthropologist in relation to and negotiation with the subject of exploration. 


Listening, recording, and archiving sound are fundamental political practices. They are governed by regimes of audibility marked by social, historical, and political processes. And more, an examination of the distribution of sound in the public sphere and the values ascribed to it in the light of sound sensitivity regimes reveals the links between sonic expression and political processes.


In the future, I would like to examine in greater depth the value of sound-based ethnographic writing about politics that incorporates the variety of sound scraps described in this text. I would argue that these kinds of aural documents can offer a fertile methodological path to a reflective as well as political angle of anthropological writing.