Jonathan Sterne on his book, Diminished Faculties

Interview by Toni Nieminen

Toni Nieminen: First, congratulations on Diminished Faculties, what a wonderful read it was! I find your form of writing very interesting. The mixing of different voices and genre-specific stances, that you flag through linguistic and stylistic means, is such a creative way to engage with the reflexivity of one’s positionality as a researcher. Two examples stand out: in chapter three you provide counterexamples to the historically and ideologically constructed, yet compulsorily imagined connection between voice and the mouth, by constructing an imaginary art exhibition (where the reader is being seduced by textually expressed sensorial nuances) and then you end the book by providing an impairment handbook to the reader rather than a conventional conclusory discussion. Both passages are brilliant. Could you elaborate on where you came up with the idea to style your book in this way, where are you drawing inspiration from? What possibilities for and limits to academic writing does such a form gesture at?

Jonathan Sterne: Thank you for reading, thank you for the kind words, and thank you for these great prompts to think more about this work. A couple general thoughts on style. Someone told me that this is in some ways very much a “full professor” book. I don’t think I could have written Diminished Faculties in my early 30s, when I wrote Audible Past; maybe someone else could have, but not me. Disability Studies has also changed a lot over the last decade and a half. There is much more work on technology and media, and some of the theoretical discussions have really taken major steps forward.

Both chapters that you mention actually began from stylistic impasses. With the help of research assistants and friends, I had collected a large body of artwork and art-adjacent representation of the voice that was in a sense beyond the mouth for Chapter 3. It was meant as part of the same project as Chapter 2, since that’s all about the dork-o-phone displacing the point of emanation for the voice. I have a few close art historian colleagues and the original plan was to write something about it all in the visual culture studies tradition. But I couldn’t come up with a good thesis. At the same time, I was really looking for a way to extend my critique of the ideology of vocal ability. So I tried a show-and-tell approach.  At first the art exhibit was a conceit, but it got more and more serious. After the first round of review, Zoe de Luca, who designed the layout, suggested I take it really seriously. A writing discipline like that always works really well for me. So, we borrowed the layout from another museum and designed the exhibit which she drew, and Darsha Hewitt re-drew. Darsha is an artist who does a lot with sound technology, but also has a drawing practice. Then I rewrote the chapter in the second person, like an exhibition guide. It was also an interesting exercise in representing accessibility in image description and the like.

The conclusion presented other interesting challenges. The original version of the book ended with Ya-Ya vomiting on me and the haiku at the end of Chapter 5. That’s how I wanted it to end, but all the reviewers wanted a conclusion. I asked friends and my social media feeds: what are the best conclusions to academic books you’ve ever read?  It was crickets! At least in my constellation of fields, conclusions aren’t a high art form. I had recently read Jenn Lena’s Entitled: Discriminatory Tastes and the Expansion of the Arts, which has a fantastic conclusion in part because it doesn’t really have an expansive introduction. I realize I was in the same situation. But while I wanted a didactic conclusion, I didn’t want it to look like a mirror function of an introduction. In my other work, I am often reading technical writing and documents, and of course there is also a tradition of workshops, workbooks, and such in gender and sexuality studies. So, I don’t know exactly how I came to the user’s guide idea, but once I did, I decided to follow it as meticulously as possible, just like in the imaginary exhibition chapter. It is in some ways the perfect didactic form for this project. I asked Darsha to illustrate because she’s skilled in technical drawing, and I liked the illustrations in the Madrona Labs software instrument manuals, which are in turn derived from the manual for the Buchla Music Easel, an early portable synthesizer. But it wound up going a whole other direction: the illustrations are all Darsha and not really modelled on either manual. I might someday have a book on obsolescence in me as I have been fascinated with the phenomenon of user manuals for new products that include instructions for disposal, so that also had to be in there.

Toni Nieminen: In the book, you argue that illness, impairment, disability, and debility are all conditioned by a divergence from medical or social norms as well as by an ideology that always prefers ability. You gesture at how this preference might be political but is more precisely orientational – that is, felt, lived, and negotiated – an argument I find convincing. However, you choose to center impairment and decenter disability in your analysis. Can you elaborate on this choice; how does it reflect your own positionality and what do you expect to either add to or play down within the social model of disability, and by extension Crip studies, by focusing on impairment?

Jonathan Sterne: I think the benefit is a) a wider net to capture aspects of debility and disability that aren’t always at the foreground elsewhere in the field and b) a more vigorously constructivist and realist account of the material and experiential dimensions of both categories like disability, debility, and impairment. I am hardly the first person to note the constructedness of impairment as a category, and yet, one still finds a lot of writing in the field that holds on to a nonconstructed basis for disability. Concepts like Tobin Siebers’ complex embodiment and Alison Kafer’s political/relational model try and synthesize the fact that things like pain are real, and that disability is ultimately tied up with cultural classification, histories of institutionalization and stigma, and politics. I am convinced by that perspective, but what often happens in practice is that ideas that used to be mapped onto disability, like “the inability to do something” are simply displaced onto impairment.

All that said, I wrote the book to sit on the shelf next to lots of books about disability. I wouldn’t want to privilege impairment or decenter disability beyond my text or as some kind of general theoretical principal or political commitment. It’s part of a massive mosaic.

To answer the me part of your question, Diminished Faculties necessarily bears the marks of my own positionality. When I began the book, I wasn’t even sure of my own place in the various orbits of impairment and disability; that status changed during writing as I went on my cancer meds, and I am now as clear as one can be about my own identifications. That’s one of the reasons why it’s written as it is: it is not a book about my trauma, my grief, my therapy (apart from speech therapy) or my own marginalization. Textually, I feel like that is space better occupied by others. As my blog shows, I’m not a terribly private person, but there’s a difference when I’m writing for a scholarly conversation. My contribution is more circumspect, intentionally. It is deliberately intellectualizing some dimensions of experience. But it also reflects my own intellectual and political biases. It took a lot to get me to the point of writing about myself for others. I was dragged back into phenomenology while shuttling in and out of consciousness in both the personal and political senses of the term. It sort of happened to me. Friends really had to encourage me to write the first part of the book; I was reluctant. And at first, I also resisted phenomenology—someone actually had to tell me to accept that this is what I was doing.

That also put me in a very good position to recursively apply the theory of disability to the theory of disability: so much writing in disability studies is resolutely affirmative regarding disability experience, and implicitly operates as if that experience is immediately available to the person having it, even as the same scholarship mounts a vigorous critique of the ideology of ability. Almost all of the great disability studies mounts a critique of the self-sufficient subject, but in the field, we still often suspect that critique when discussing categories of experience. Along with everything else, we need a place from which to interrogate the category of experience, which is one of the through-lines of Diminished Faculties. Because I’m privileged enough that (at least in this text) my experience doesn’t require an additional demand for validation, I was in a good position to experiment with that and consider the problem. That’s my job in this book. It is definitely a moment of looking inward, rather than outward. Other writers have other agendas: I don’t think it would be fair to place that particular interrogatory burden on top of Sami Schalk’s Black Disability Politics, Aimi Hamraie’s Building Access, or Michele Friedner’s Sensory Futures.  

Toni Nieminen: You argue that phenomenologists are better off thinking of experience as something conditioned by contextuality and situationality rather than universality. However, and this might sound like a conventional counterargument to such a statement, to state something about anything requires some universally-ish mediated and shared categories of experience in order for communication and interaction to take place. What is your take on this dualism, and how can impairment phenomenology be modelled and geared to support a political struggle for Disability justice (if this is even the point), which as a political movement – despite being a cluster of multiple, spatially and temporally located ones – has historically drawn upon collectively and publicly shared notions of experience?

Jonathan Sterne: I don’t think you need a universal category or agreement for communication to happen. You need some kind of alignment among positions in order for agreement about reality to happen, that someone reading me will think I mean what I think I mean. But that’s not universality. Differences in positionality also produce communication, though it may be a form of productive understanding or conflict. Disability studies is particularly fertile ground for phenomenology and for communication theory because the experiences of disability are so radically different. For instance, I have lots of shared political affinities with autistic people, but I’m pretty damn allistic, so phenomenologically, we are pretty far apart. I absolutely love Remi Yergeau’s Authoring Autism but the first time I read it I Did Not Get It. I had to work at it. Similarly, I find the writings in Deaf Studies very illuminating for my work on sound, but I have a very different experience of and relationship to my own hearing.

I’m no social movement scholar, but as far as I can tell, the Disability justice movement is more about shared political goals and affiliations. I think those probably come more out of shared classification, and in some cases voluntary identification. People claim disability for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they may want to; other times they may have to as a form of self-advocacy; other times they may have no choice. Still others never claim the term at all, as Alison Kafer reminds us.

I’ve moved in both worlds, and sometimes the intellectual necessities are fundamentally different. Sometimes the alignments aren’t clear until after the fact. Sometimes scholarship and activism can work in concert. In this way, disability studies is like other fields that have emerged as a response to political projects: there isn’t one ideal alignment between scholarship and activism. I wouldn’t want “immediate usefulness to activists” as a litmus test for scholarship, just as I wouldn’t want “theoretical correctness” as a litmus test for activism.

As an activist, one needs a theory of the situations in which they are operating, a theory of change, a theory of communication, and a theory of practice. These all change depending on context, positionality, prior experience, and so on. That kind of theoretical work emerges more from practice and mentorship in the first instance and can be enhanced with reading.

Sometimes scholarship can speak directly to those needs, as in action-research, or collaborative work. Sometimes the connections are orthogonal and surprising, which is also good and important. But scholarship also affords the opportunity from a retreat from some of the pressures and immediacies in which activists find themselves. At the same time, it is often more caught up with the politics of knowledge. This has been my experience touring Diminished Faculties. Because of my prior work, I’ve found myself with audiences who know almost nothing about disability or disability studies. I also find that talking about disability to disabled audiences is also an important moment for political work within the academy: it’s about transforming spaces that have historically been structured around ableism.

Toni Nieminen: Your book can be posited as an auto-ethnographic account in that your own experiences of living with cancer have shaped and enabled you to think about experience in a fragmented way, whereby change and contingency become the point of departure in experience and perception. Considering some criticisms of auto-ethnographic writing (who gets to say what, when and why), do you reserve impairment phenomenology for those living with impairments, or is it accessible also to the non-impaired? If so, how does the project change in the process? Further, and this is something you gesture towards in the concluding handbook, do you think that impairment phenomenology can be used as a research tool across disciplines?

Jonathan Sterne: This is a fantastic question! I think about this a lot. Who can and should write about impairment and disability? Anybody can. More people should. All are welcome. But as the saying goes, “nothing about us without us.” Writing about disability starts with reading work in disability studies. There is an awful lot of sanctioned ignorance among ableds, which is how you get neo-eugenic access policies and disability simulations, as well as scholarship that uses or engages with disability from an ableist frameworks. So, the first step is struggling to overcome that sanctioned ignorance.

I don’t think there should be a passport for writing about anyone, but there is a responsibility to the group you are studying, and a moral requirement of social solidarity if you are in a privileged position with respect to them. In the humanities this is often personalized around the charisma and ethos of the intellectual—as in, to be wrong is to be morally deficient. I hate that, but I also understand it. For disabled people, the emotional stakes can be amplified because the personal and political are commingled, and we are so often represented by others against our will, especially in institutional contexts. Our challenge as scholars is to resist this impulse to completely personalize position-taking, while being attentive to the fact that universities and the field of academic writing are very ableist spheres, which often crowd out and systemically exclude disabled people. Right now in universities, we have a situation where most of the claims to putative expertise on disability come from nondisabled people. We have to ask how such a fucked-up result came to pass and what it will take to transform that situation. We need to deal with this in concert with other challenges our institutions are facing around their ongoing racist, colonialist, cis-sexist, and heterosexist histories. It is perennially unfinished work.

As I mention above, I don’t use the label auto-ethnographic for Diminished Faculties, though I’m also a believer in Barthes’ “author is dead” thesis, and others will categorize me as they like and I’m fine with that. My resistance to the term is that I think all ethnography involves the position of the ethnographer (so ethnography without a reflexive turn on the ethnographer is bad ethnography). There’s also a systematicity and intentionality to ethnographic research that’s absent in Diminished Faculties. It’s a very fragmented text both in terms of subject matter and method.

Toni Nieminen: I like how you describe fatigueness not as a medical outcome but as a relational phenomenon and an act of refusal. Can this reading of fatigueness be aligned with other impairments and what does this tell us about the reality of refusal more broadly? Here, I would be particularly interested in hearing your thoughts about disabilities and impairments other than those you discuss in your book, that is, fatigueness, hearing or speaking – for example, how about neurodivergence?

Jonathan Sterne: On one level, I think there is a specificity to all disabilities (and all theory) that can’t be ignored. My training in cultural studies kicks in and I’m always tempted to say, “this is not meant as a universal theory; it’s a set of ideas that can be transported and transformed, or abandoned as needed.” Impairment theory is at best inspirational literature. Neurodivergence and fatigue are pretty different, and both fall both inside and outside the parameters of disability, depending on what we’re talking about.

At the same time, fatigue phenomenology also highlights the weight of the world that brings people to a political position of refusal more broadly. In that sense, it might help elucidate a dimension of the politics of refusal that has been generally downplayed, because of the affirmative politics of self-assertion in most texts that perform refusal. I understand the necessity and even urgency of that work. As with my comments on impairment above, my hope is that this would sit next to other texts on refusal, not supplant them.

From the disability studies side, many impairments and disabilities might also have their own possibilities for a politics of “already having refused”; or a politics that is somehow complementary to that framing. Autistic writing often comments on the absurdity of neurotypical social life; one could read refusal into that without too much effort. Depression and ADHD also have elements of refusal built into their modalities of interacting with the world. Though these are also great examples of the limits of universalizing my theory: to take an example from ADHD—and I’m writing as a neurotypical here—my sense from talking with people and reading is that a phenomenological state like hyperfocus requires its own theorization. It could be read as a kind of refusal, but maybe it’s better understood as some kind of hypercommitment?  I don’t know. I definitely hope to explore these questions in more depth.

Thanks also to Meesh Fradkin for comments on a draft of my responses.

Daniel Fisher on his book, The Voice and Its Doubles

Interview by Georgia Ennis

Georgia Ennis: Throughout your book, you follow both the imaginations and instantiations of an Aboriginal voice in radio media, which ultimately unite your discussion of different musical genres and sensuous sound worlds on the radio, as well as the institutional contexts that have shaped Aboriginal media production. What are these different conceptions of the voice, and how do they interact with each other? 

Daniel Fisher: I spend some time in The Voice and its Doubles introducing GR, a remarkable vocalist who fronted the Warumpi Band, one of the first Indigenous rock bands to break into so-called mainstream airwaves in Australia. He was an electrifying performer, and many say he out-sang and out-danced the heavy hitting rock singers of his day, think Bon Scott or Mick Jagger. But when GR sang, he did so in indigenous Australian languages as often as he did in English — code-switching frequently in performance, singing and calling out the languages of his different audiences. The Warumpi Band was taking shape just as the Aboriginal media associations that I write about were gaining traction, and they were one of the first groups to be recorded and routinely played on Indigenous radio, as well as on national non-Indigenous stations. GR’s presence knocked people out, and his recordings still do. That’s the kind of voice that I focused on at first that drew me to want to think about sound, music, and radio here. Both in performance and as recorded sound it gave material form to the power and value that people so often ascribe to the voice and resonated with both the complications and the excitement that people found in the cosmopolitan worlds of contemporary northern Australia. So it was for a time a kind of paradigm for many of what Indigenous popular music could become and how it might bring together, or sing across, multiple audiences.

Nonetheless, it was immediately evident that GR’s voice, replayed or perhaps remediated as recorded sound, sits beside a wide array of other highly consequential indices or avatars of the voice including statistics and marketing surveys, digital renderings of the voice on a computer screen, and the discursive figures that tether a whole range of policy and advocacy, that is, voice and voicing functions as tropes for agency and power and culture itself. It was also evident that Aboriginal media institutions were themselves kinds of media, were themselves understood as the material embodiment of a voice — and in fact had been crafted and funded as such by the advocates and architects of self-determination in recognition that the political subject of Aboriginal Australia cannot easily be reduced to the individualized, liberal subject. These all then are the ‘doubles’ of my title, the different instantiations or avatars of the voice that could generate excitement and passion as well as unease or friction, avatars that could at times haunt the sounded or spoken voice by making apparent some contradictions between liberal forms of recognition and the different forms of political subject taking shape across northern Australia.

Insofar as the doubling of the voice in sound, text, and institution allowed it portability and measure, it became subject to governmental solicitation or cultivation, and at times this led to some discomfort for my interlocutors. For my part, it seemed as important to try to understand the different kinds of interests in and listeners for such content by playing on the multivalency of ‘auditory’ and ‘audit culture’ — asking whose listening, for what, and in whose interests? It was very clear that the voice was tied into these different and at times competing or agonistic projects, and that it was enclosed in a range of ways.  This all lent exchange value within a quite specific field of cultural production. I do ultimately privilege GR’s voice, its transduction as recorded sound, and the ways it continues to move people today. But I also had to make sense of the different ways in which voice acquired a kind of abstracted value, to understand how all these different avatars of the voice moved and came to matter across a range of institutional and other domains.

Georgia Ennis: You describe three central meta-pragmatics that support indigenous media production in Australia, which you define as “giving voice, sounding black, and linking people up” (2016:4). What does it mean for Aboriginal media to “sound black,” and why does it matter for producers and listeners? How is this imperative for media connected to broader discussions about alterity, indigeneity, and transnational blackness?

Daniel Fisher: In the book I describe some generational differences in terms of what people felt that Indigenous radio ought to accomplish, and what people believe are the kinds of sounds it ought to privilege. There was a self-evident character to several of these — that it should give voice to Indigenous Australians, that it should link people up over a range of historical ruptures and contemporary distances, and that it should, as people said, sound black. With respect to this last, what is understood to sound black is both self-evident and also somewhat underdetermined in that no single sound or timbre or figure suffices, so this demand entails a kind of excess that makes it ripe for reflection, and at times contestation. This is amplified by the ways that affirming black identity in Indigenous Australian media making also has a particular history, one complicated by the pragmatics of Indigenous rights based activism, the turn from civil rights to Aboriginal rights as the ground on which to understand and pursue forms of social justice. Some of my older interlocutors, for instance, argued that to uncritically embrace a shared blackness through the consumption and valorization of afro-diasporic cultural forms was to miss or diminish the cultural singularity of Australian and Pacific Indigenous cultures by courting what they understood to be some risky logics of racialization. So even if many people I know see this character, ‘blackness,’ as something unfolding, and counter the equation ‘blackness is’ with a more contingent sense of the historical and emergent affinities between Black Pacific and Black Atlantic experiences, many also understood this as a figure that can complicate, and perhaps undercut efforts to achieve recognition as Australia’s first peoples.

I found myself amidst conversations animated then by this somewhat generationally inflected tension between people finding deeply meaningful ways to connect to Afro-diasporic musics and popular culture, but also having trouble recognizing themselves in that popular culture, and concerned about the ramifications of such identification both pragmatically, in relation to a political struggle, and existentially, in relation to senses of self, to Indigenous cultural reproduction, to the ways that one might understand one’s relationship to an affecting musical form and its power. I came to understand this imperative that radio ‘sound black’ as an impasse at which efforts to craft radio programming led to recurring discussions about what blackness meant, and how it might or might not relate to indigeneity, to sovereignty, to a community’s history and to its future.

Georgia Ennis: Readers might be surprised that in a monograph about Aboriginal Australian radio you do not write a great deal about media in Aboriginal languages. Indeed, early on you explain that for multiple reasons, “Indigenous radio often, paradoxically perhaps, lacks what might be termed appropriate ‘Aboriginal content’” (2016: 50). Rather, you focus especially on the cultural poetics of country music on Aboriginal radio. Why, and in what ways, has country music emerged as such a powerful genre for Aboriginal radio media?  

Daniel Fisher: The first place I spent serious time in Australia was both the biggest Aboriginal radio station in the country, and also one of the biggest and most prominent country music broadcasters. At the time, as I detail in the book, the families who started and ran this station were looking for funding support to amplify their educational work with respect to young Indigenous people in Queensland and northern New South Wales. This meant that they were increasingly entangled with government education agencies and the attendant oversight that comes with acquiring accreditation as an educational institution, and they were also bringing a lot of young Murri kids into the station from around the state to learn broadcasting, the history of Indigenous music and its relation to cultural activism, and the histories of their different communities. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to experience something of this education and socialization alongside of them. Learning about Australia’s intense audit culture, the ways bureaucratic rule marks cultural production in this place, and learning about country and other musics and their history in Indigenous Australia all came together in this space.

Of course Aboriginal engagements with country music have a history that exceeds the walls and political life of this institution. The genre offered a first platform for Indigenous popular musics and also a framework for some of the first Aboriginal protest musics. Jeremy Beckett’s work in the 1960s with Dougie Young, Clinton Walker’s history of the genre in South East and Central Australia, and writer Gayle Kennedy’s recollections all make clear that this was a place of radical cultural intimacy, a place for recognizing one another and giving voice in this form to a set of shared experiences — of movement, labor, dislocation and displacement — that are some of the ready-made themes of the genre as a commercial form. But there is more than simply collective effervescence in these experiences of music making and listening. First, country music is the radio genre par excellence. The genre takes shape on the airwaves, and the airwaves acquire materiality in the carriage of this genre’s musical form. As I detail in the book, if country is big in Aboriginal communities, it also has just a huge non-Indigenous Australian audience. This made it an ideal platform for many of the people I knew whose activist work was dedicated to reaching a mass audience, to making Indigenous perspectives more widely understood and appreciated. And there is more here too in the genre to do with nostalgia, loss, and urbanization. Country music doesn’t just thematize the loss of something like a rural place or a way of life, it can also thematize its own passing, so that as an affecting form country music becomes itself a site of nostalgia, it remembers itself, so to speak. So, many of my friends and interlocutors listened to this music and it took them not simply to another time or place, but also to histories of shared listening, to lives lived with records. It’s a very capacious genre. People love to talk about it, think about it, listen to it, and sing it, and some of the very great highs and rewards of this research were when they did so with me.

Georgia Ennis: Ethnographies of media often highlight production or reception, but not both. However, methodologically, your research seems to have privileged mediatization as the site of ethnographic understanding.  While you focus a great deal on production, you also consider the reception of different media forms, particularly country music. Did your fieldwork include a specific focus on reception, or did this attention emerge from your research with media producers? Has your focus on mediatization allowed you to overcome the dichotomy between production and reception, or do you see such a divide in your work?

Daniel Fisher: Mediatizaton was a central epistemological and methodological framework for the research, more significant in my thinking and questions than either pole of the production/reception dichotomy. But this isn’t to say that I didn’t find productive ways to think with or through the latter. A good deal of work before mine has made the point quite forcefully that the figure of the ‘audience’ is already troubled by its place in media institutions themselves, that media producers are themselves media consumers, and also that the divide between these two moments, as it were, can both be quite consequential ethnographically, crucial for how our interlocutors understand what media are and what they ought to do (as we see in work by Lila Abu Lughod and Faye Ginsburg, to name two prominent examples). This is to say that people have for some time been considering that dichotomy as a methodological and ethnographic question, as a feature of the domains in which they are working, a matter of interest and praxis by our interlocutors. In my work the capacity to empirically define and fix an audience did not present itself as an enormous methodological obstacle, insofar as the audience wasn’t simply something out there as an object that I must uncover, but was always around me, and on one level already there in the institutions, forms, and media artifacts themselves.

I was also spending time in places where this divide could seem minimized by a sense of relatedness between the producer and her audience. I was also moving back and forth as you suggest between sites of production and reception, that is, studios and concerts, cars and clubs and homes, and spending time with people who were themselves listening and often talking, showing with their voices both denotationally, as it were, and in performance different aspects of their listening. So as an empirical, observed phenomenon, reception or consumption or audition, that was very much a part of the world I was engaged in. On the other hand, we can say that the audience exists in part in the form itself, in its appeal, as a proposition or structuring principle. I would underscore that one needs to take care not to confuse the appeal or address of any given media artefact with its purchase, but I was nonetheless quite interested in thinking with form and with media artifacts, in asking what kinds of testimony they might give as kinds of social beings, actants, or agents. Engaging with different media artefacts in conversation with my interlocutors, and learning how to produce these artefacts alongside of them in institutions dedicated to fostering and amplifying an Aboriginal voice was also a means to listen in this way, and it led me to different conceptual questions clustering around problems of mediatization, of mediatization as the co-implication of different forms of mediation – for example, kinship’s capacity to codify or legislate relations and their implications, radio’s capacity to make kinship itself iconic of Aboriginal distinction, and of mediatization as a way of understanding how this exchange remakes radio and the voice itself.