An Empty Hall Echoing: Sound and the Self in William Wells Brown’s Clotel

THESIS by Lex Nalley


The sonic environment of William Wells Brown’s 1853 novel, Clotel, is staged so that the seemingly unified, bounded body is submerged in scenes of non-sovereign experience, in which the boundaries of the body are continuously violated. This violation is most clearly seen in the body of the slave, Clotel, who occupies a complicated novelistic and political space of subordination and subversion. Within the novel, groans, cries, muffled whispers, suppressed murmurs, anonymous dins and pointed screams make up copresent atmospheres of sound, voice and aurality, which work to elucidate scenes of non-sovereignty within a particular socio-historical soundscape as they pass through bodies, are heard and unheard, and persist with and without intent. In an analysis of Frederick Douglass’ 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Fred Moten argues that it is through the “phonology of the very screams” of the slaves that the “way into the knowledge of slavery and the knowledge of freedom” is opened, suggesting that rather than functioning as an ancillary feature of language (as suggested by Ferdinand de Saussure), sound articulates and anticipates the material relations of subordination.[1] If the slave is indeed “the commodity that speaks,” and a captive’s subjecthood is a condition of their signification within a system of exchange, then it is through the irreducible shrieks, cries, and barely audible whispers and groans that the slave writer might signify to a polis committed to their continued enslavement.[2] Both Douglass and Brown wrote from a historical moment in which slavery was a fact of the everyday and their writing worked to restore “the terror of the mundane and quotidian” that underpinned slave life in the United States.[3] Indeed, Moten identifies the irreducible shriek of the tortured slave as a sort of anacrusis, suggesting that it is through a mode of what I will call anticipatory listening that the slave body is organized and signified. Hortense Spillers asserts that the slave body is marked by its reducibility and its exchangeability, which projects the slave into a future-perfect temporality in which they will always already have been an outright commodity within their particular political landscape.[4] Listening to both the voice of the slave and to the aural body of Clotel allows one to map not only the figurative atmospheres of political and social life, but also what occupies the space between bodies, what is heard, and what is silent.

Sound extends into everything. Omnipresent sound, panaurality, or always sound, as described by Douglas Kahn in Noise, Water, Meat, is comprised of the tumbling ambience of audible and inaudible sound that persists always, penetrating every instant of the quotidian. That there are sounds that we don’t hear doesn’t mean that they aren’t happening, though. Panaurality mirrors the rush of time in which all things, noticed and unnoticed, happen. All sound on the other hand, is bracketed within a particular social and historical space, and is attended to through specific sites and modes of listening. This stratum encourages an ethics of listening that requires awareness and negotiation of one’s location in a social and historical space, and implies a requisite attention to what is audible and inaudible within a particular historical soundscape. For Kahn and others, the study of sound includes “sounds, voices, and aurality— all that might fall within or touch on auditive phenomena, whether this involves actual sonic or auditive events or ideas about sound or listening.”[5] By extending the study of sound into the seemingly silent medium of the novel, proper attention can be focused on that which is audible and inaudible in a particular historical moment. For after all, silent reading isn’t at all silent; as novels moved from the social sphere of public reading to the private sphere of silent reading, the reader’s voice has remained audible in the mind. Indeed, modern science has found evidence of “high frequency electrical activity in auditory areas” of the brain, indicating that the brain experiences a sort of aural hallucination while reading.[6] The narrative voice of the novel, the sounds of fictive atmospheres, and the voices of history extend to inhabit the mind of the reader.

Critical readings of Clotel tend to focus on the use of voice in the novel, be it Brown’s own narrative voice or Clotel’s decided absence of voice. William L. Andrews suggests that there were three phases of experimentation with the narrating voice in black literature in the 1850s: first, sincerity was overtaken by “a harsher, more extreme mode of address, which claimed its authority by violating the properties governing literary speech”; second, the “monologic voice of black autobiography underwent a ‘dialogization’” which allowed “the text to be infiltrated with voices other than that of the narrator”; and finally, “the most radical vocal experiment in nineteenth-century black American writing, that which introduced the fictive voice into the tradition of African American literature.”[7] For Andrews, Clotel’s fictive role is re-presentational rather than representational; in other words, she is represented not as an actual historical figure, but as a “fictive member of an identifiable class of persons.”[8] Andrews identifies the fictive voice as emerging from a marginal space of “authenticatable history on one hand and unverifiable fiction on the other,” which imbues the novel with enough flexibility to point to previously unspeakable facts of slavery. Brown’s criticism of the institution is blatant throughout:

What words can tell the inhumanity, the atrocity, and the immorality of that doctrine which, from exalted office, commends such a crime to the favour of enlightened and Christian people? What indignation from all the world is not due to the government and people who put forth all their strength and power to keep in existence such an institution? Nature abhors it; the age repels it; and Christianity needs all her meekness to forgive it. Clotel was sold for fifteen hundred dollars, but her purchaser was Horatio Green. Thus closed a Negro sale, at which two daughters of Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of American Independence, and one of the presidents of the great republic, were disposed of to the highest bidder![9]

The re-presentational position adopted by Brown allows him to occupy a critical space from which he is able to forcefully denounce slavery while evoking sympathy from his reader. Brown’s voice remains audible throughout the novel through frequent critical interjections regarding the institution of slavery. The above passage reflects this critical distance in its forceful passivity; the series of introductory questions speaks from a futural point in which the monologic voice comes to demand and answer from its audience.

While Andrews’ analysis points to interesting questions of authenticity in Clotel’s narrative voice, Clotel’s voice is notably absent from his discussion—and the novel. Andrews suggests that Brown’s concern with a flexible authenticity was essential in keeping his captivated reader mindful that the novel before him was fictive, not fictional.[10] While the sentimental novel often makes claims of authenticity by inserting supposed primary documents such as newspaper clippings and letters, Andrews finds this feature of “natural discourse” to be especially significant in Clotel.[11] For Andrews, the power of Clotel lies in its representation of the authentic voice of history. Despite this focus, throughout his analysis of voice and discourse in the novel, Andrews fails to attend to the actual voices and moments of discourse between characters.

Voice is often synecdochally tied to agency in that by having a voice, one is able to “speak up” or be accounted for within the social and political sphere. The realm of the polis, notes Hannah Arendt, concerned itself only with action and speech; “to be political, to live in a polis meant that everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence.”[12] The voice that articulates words and persuasion contains both sound and language, and it is both sound and language that can do violence to the body. Clotel’s mother, also sold at the auction that day, has “looked forward with pride to the time when she should see her daughter emancipated and free.”[13] Her mother looks forward to a point where Clotel will-have-been freed, but this process is only possible through Clotel’s sale upon the auction block: The auctioneer announces, “Miss Clotel has been reserved for last because she was the most valuable. How much, gentlemen? Real Albino, fit for a fancy girl for any one.”[14] Clotel is a body divided and reassembled out loud. Standing silently upon the auction block, her features are announced by the auctioneer and assigned value by the crowd; she is first identified as a light-skinned, pretty girl of good temper, and the auctioneer is answered back with a bid of five hundred dollars from the crowd. She is then announced as having a good character, morality, and chastity, which collect higher and higher bids. She is at last sold for fifteen hundred dollars:

The bones, muscles, sinews, blood, and nerves of a young lady of sixteen were sold for five hundred dollars; her moral character for two hundred; her Christianity for three hundred; and her chastity and virtue for four hundred dollars more.[15]

Through the auctioneer’s prompting call and the crowd’s enthusiastic return, (ironically “in a city thronged with churches, whose tall spires look like so many signals pointing to heaven”) Clotel’s fictively marketable interiority is brought outside of her body, divided up for sale, and made a part of her total worth in an economic system that is closed to her.[16] Her body is subject to this echoic division before white male consumers and other slaves, and her fractured and reassembled self is sonically returned to her through the sounds of the ordeal moving through her. Jack Halberstam attends to Moten’s attention to the call and response of a crowd: “You are always already the thing that you call for and that calls you.”[17] Here is a scene of anticipatory listening, in which Clotel’s body is always already commodified, where the noises of the scene reiterate her reification. Furthermore, Halberstam notes, the “call is always a call to dis-order” and the desire to find harmony in the “extra-musical” noise of the crowd points to the arbitrariness of what is considered harmonious, and how a particular historical moment defines its particular modes of sense-making. Clotel the commodity “discovers herself, comes to know herself, only as a function of having been exchanged, having been embedded in a mode of sociality that is shaped by exchange” as she stands upon the auction block, waiting for her soon-to-be husband to purchase her.[18]

In this scene, beyond the echoic, sound is staged as the way in which a body is broken up, causing the experience of non-sovereignty or non-self-containment as sound penetrates the unbounded body. As Steve Goodman notes, “an ontology of vibrational force delves below a philosophy of sound and the physics of acoustics and toward the basic processes of entities affecting other entities.”[19] Goodman adds that the vibrational excesses that move between entities create a relational mesh “in which discreet entities prehend each other’s vibrations.”[20] Indeed, her appearance “created a deep sensation amongst the crowd.”[21] Clotel is standing upon an auction block before a large, loud crowd whose incessant din clamors indifferently over her tearful existence: “Laughing, joking, swearing, smoking, spitting, and talking kept up a continual hum and noise amongst the crowd; while the slave girl stood with tears in her eyes.”[22] These most bodily sounds surround Clotel, increasing with each call of the auctioneer, seemingly feeding on the charged atmosphere of the space. Sound needs a medium to function, and as Madalina Diaconu suggests, atmospheres overcome the distances between bodies and allow the individual to become closer to the collective organism.[23] In this scene, atmospheric sound collectively increases in volume and intensity as Clotel’s body is systemically positioned as a commodity within the collective scene. Lauren Berlant notes that it is the noise of the political soundscape that produces an “affective binding” of a listening public, and at the auction, the listening public is tuned to particular sounds and deaf to others.[24]

Two further levels of sonic violence strike Clotel on the block: first, linguistic or discursive violence occurs as the auctioneer assigns incommensurable value or meaning to the parts of her body and character. She is discursively produced as a commodity, which functions to disturb her sense of agential selfhood. As she stands with tears in her eyes, “at one time looking towards her mother and sister, and at another towards the young man she hoped would be her purchaser,” Clotel’s selfhood is projected outward, towards her soon-to-be vanished family and soon-to-be husband/purchaser.[25] Additionally, the din of the crowd articulates a pronounced indifference to her fate as such a commodity, through which she incurs a psychological sort of violence. Laughing, spitting, and talking, the crowd’s noise not only compounds its particularly violent manifestation of capitalism, its noise drowns out the sounds of the body it destroys, rendering Clotel not silent, but inarticulate within the particular soundscape. Moten suggests that “the inarticulation of the resistance of the object” doesn’t deny its aurality, but in this scene, Clotel goes unheard.

Secondly, the noise of the crowd reverberates through her body in the thunderous response to the auctioneer. Not only is her body touched and vibrated by the sounds of the crowd, she is also explicitly not a part of the crowd and her own sounds are drowned out. This is not a simple dichotomy of silence versus noise; instead, this scene points to how sound can at once demonstrate the inclusivity and exclusivity of subaltern subjectivity. Clotel’s sounds are not heard, but they are present and part of the din; her commodified blood, bones, and sinews vibrate with her own heartbeat at the same time as they reverberate with the sounds of the crowd. She is at once a part of and apart from the crowd: a part of the noise, apart from their political desire that excludes her. This is not to say that she does not share in their desire to be a part of a political body, just not a political body from which she is excluded.

The first time that Clotel speaks, it is in “words scarcely audible.”[26] Addressing this inaudibility, Martha J. Cutter argues that although the text can be read for the possibility of female agency, “Clotel intertwines freedom, activity, and masculinity to formulate a definition of subjectivity, with the concurrent result that women often fill the place of the not-free, the passive, and the objectified.”[27] Indeed, the problematic silence and passivity of the women in the novel suggest a decidedly masculine-anchored view of agency and freedom. Clotel, the slave daughter of Thomas Jefferson, is torn from a life of relative comfort and freedom with her mother and sister and sold to a man that supposedly intends to give her freedom and marry her. After many years living as husband and wife (though not legally recognized), Horatio, Clotel’s husband, marries a white woman to pursue a life in politics, selling Clotel to a slave trader at his new, legitimate wife’s urging. Clotel is forced to part with the daughter she has with Horatio, as Horatio’s new wife decides to keep the girl as a house servant. Clotel eventually escapes from her new owner disguised as a white man, but during her attempt to return to Virginia in order to get her daughter, she kills herself as a means of escaping her pursuers. Rather than having an absolute lack of agency, I would argue that the women of Clotel, and Clotel in particular, experience what Berlant might call a “frustrated sovereignty” that straddles the boundary of subject/object.[28]

After Horatio purchases, marries, and has a daughter with Clotel, he begins to court politics—and the white daughter of an important member of the town. Upon hearing the news, Clotel is overcome with feeling, growing dizzy and faint. Not only is her heart breaking, her safety in the world is about to be compromised as she will no longer have the protection of a white member of the polis. Her heart sinks within her: “at length, in words scarcely audible, Clotel said: ‘Tell me, dear Horatio, are you to be married next week?’”[29] In a barely audible voice, Clotel speaks for the first time in the novel. Cutter marks this moment as yet another instance of Brown’s patriarchal vision of freedom in which the woman has no voice, but I would hesitate to reduce the scene too quickly on that account. As seen in the auction scene, slavery produces an objective relationship to the self, affecting how Clotel hears herself so that even if she were to speak, she would hear herself described objectively and thus hear her speaking self as an object, outside of the language of the crowd. When she speaks to Horatio, her owner, her voice becomes a sonic event, the passing of air through the throat. Citing Hans Jonas, Adriana Cavarero notes that “what sound immediately reveals is not an object but a dynamic event in place of the object.”[30] Similarly, Mladen Dolar describes the voice as the “non-signifying remainder resistant to signifying operations,” suggesting that the throaty whisper traces the boundary of binding signification and objectification.[31]

In this scene, we are faced with several issues regarding voice: first, there is the question of autonomy and whether or not the voice points to absolute bodily presence or absence; secondly, there is the problem of affective invasion, in which Clotel’s affect is transmitted both audibly and inaudibly to the environment around her, and thusly, to Horatio, who weeps openly; and finally there is the silent voice of the law that determines the legality and legitimacy of their relations. Dolar argues that the voice can be read as a communicative vehicle, an aesthetic object, and as the pinnacle of the process of articulating thought: “This gives rise to a spontaneous opposition where voice appears as materiality opposed to the ideality of meaning.”[32] In other words, Dolar argues that the voice is the element that “does not contribute to making sense” and that beneath the seemingly present voice lies “the silent sound, the soundless voice” that is understood as purely relational, defined by what it is not.[33] Dolar notes that like power and language, the voice works within a relational matrix in which there is always a remainder, an excess of legible meaning. Clotel’s barely audible whisper demonstrates something of this sort. When she confronts Horatio about his impending marriage, she is at once contesting and acquiescing to the voice of the law, which states that her union to Horatio is illegitimate and unrecognizable. Her voice also produces an affective excess that is transmitted to Horatio, who “covering his face with his hands…wept like a child.”[34] But, Dolar also recognizes the voice as auto-affective, so that when Clotel’s voice is choked for utterance, she is at once stunting and reaffirming her own affective experience.

Tears function as a sort of “devocalized logos” so that when Horatio weeps like a child, there is a decidedly bodily response; like the choked whisper, tears bring that which is inside, outside.[35] Tom Lutz points to the Cartesian functionality of tears in which “tears are the result of purely physical processes” but adds, “those processes are set in motion by responses that are at their core ethical.”[36] Clotel cries because when Horatio is legitimately married, their union will be delegitimized in her mind (though it is already illegal) and from her location in the public sphere, love and law are incommensurate. Horatio, on the other hand cries because he can’t have it all, and his tears are too those of genuine disappointment. Cathartic crying allows Horatio to momentarily communicate with Clotel within the bodily register, but dissolving tears does not dissolve the law. She quickly removes herself from his presence so that when he looks up from his weeping, he finds himself alone:

Oh, how the moonlight oppressed him with its friendly sadness! It was like the plaintive eye of his forsaken one, like the music of sorrow echoed from an unseen world. Long and earnestly he gazed at that cottage… He caught a glimpse of Clotel, weeping beside a magnolia, which commanded a long view of the path leading to the public road. He would have sprung toward her but she darted from him and entered the cottage.[37]

The reflective moonlight silently echoes his sadness “like the music of sorrow”, a music that goes unheard in the world of law and language. Their tearfulness occurs on the pathway to the public road, pointing to the exclusive boundaries of public and private bodily response. After Horatio confirms that he will be marrying the white woman, Gertrude, Clotel refuses to see or speak to him again. Her response is not one that he expects. In fact, he is surprised at the “storm of indignant emotion his words excited” for although “her bones, and sinews had been purchased by his gold…she had the heart of a true woman.”[38] Cutter notes that the “true woman” who adheres to the principles of love and virtue is foregrounded in the novel, positioning women as relational figures that allow male characters to remain powerful.[39] And yet, Horatio’s tears betray his male agency; he had expected to marry Gertrude and continue his relationship with Clotel without incident, but Clotel refuses to bear witness to his disappointment. Tearful responses to disappointment can be seen as what Berlant calls “gestures that define living as responsiveness to the urgencies of the ongoing moment” and the tears in this scene suggest a particular urgency to maintain male agency within a disturbed social order in which the commodity speaks back.[40]

Tears, like sound, have the ability to communicate at the level of discourse and at the level of noise. For instance, Clotel’s tears with Horatio are quite unlike those that fill her eyes when standing upon the auction block. From within the din of the crowd, Clotel’s tears well up silently, but silence is far from silent. Instead, Kahn argues that silence is “all the sound we don’t intend” and the tears that spring to Clotel’s eyes point to a momentary loss of control or emotional sovereignty; she stands stoically, but begins to “leak” emotion, as it were. This silence includes the unintended tears that result from the reality of slavery: Clotel is being purchased by her lover, yes, but she is also being permanently torn from her sister and mother. Unintended tears, unintended noise, both point to the ways in which the body can feel foreign within specific historical soundscapes. By leaving the field of sound between them, Clotel withdraws as a sounding board for Horatio; without Clotel, he is dejected, leaking, and incoherent. Clotel’s sounds, though nearly silent, do however transfer to those around her. Leaving Horatio to weep, she returns to her cabin to cry alone, “tottering with faintness.”[41] When she is revived by her daughter, Clotel “clasped the beloved child to her heart with a vehemence that made her scream…the gloomy atmosphere of their once happy home overclouded the morning of Mary’s life.”[42] By releasing her emotions into the atmosphere, Clotel sets herself at the edge of the collective soundscape, which will prove vital in making her escape—and ultimately in ruining it.

Clotel capitalizes on her foreign body in order to escape the South. Her skin is nearly white and her new master has cropped her hair short as a punishment and she jokes that she “would make a better looking man than a woman.”[43] Dressed as a white man, she and another slave, William, travel as master and servant upon a steamship to the North. What Clotel cannot disguise, however, is her womanly voice. A newspaper correspondent reports that as “a believer in physiognomy” he feels compelled to watch his mysterious shipmates, reading their outsides for indicators of their insides.[44] What betrays Clotel, however, is the unintended womanly noise of her voice, which cannot sound in the male sphere she attempts to occupy: “thus, the grinding sound of power relations are heard here in the way noises contain the other, in both senses of the word.”[45] Her voice appears as disruptive noise to the newspaper correspondent because it appears as coming from outside of his social soundscape:

There was something so mysterious and unusual about the young man as he sat restless in the corner, that curiosity led me to observe him more closely.

He appeared anxious to avoid notice, and before the steamer had fairly left the wharf, requested, in a low, womanly voice, to be shown his birth, as he was an invalid, and must retire early: his name he gave was Mr. Johnson.[46]

Clotel is still a part of the soundscape nonetheless: “humans perceive the world while being within the world; they are implicated within it and are not somehow outside looking on or in.”[47] The uneasy sensation of sound penetrating one’s soundscape from the outside can account for Clotel’s “othered” position; listening is a process of sense-making, and sounds without sources don’t make sense, spurring a terror that can be attributed to the ontological disturbance that occurs when a sound is not connected to a visualized object. As a slave, Clotel “trembled at the sound of every footfall” lest her new owner was bringing violence and further violation upon her. This phenomenon, described by Michel Chion as the acousmêtre, “derives mysterious powers from being heard and not seen.”[48] Jean-Luc Nancy, suggests that in the definition of resonance, “one system subjects another near its own frequency to vibration,” and that “to sound…is not only to emit a sound, but it is also to stretch out, to carry itself and be resolved into vibrations that both return it to itself and place it outside of itself.”[49] Clotel’s body is acousmatic in its inscrutability, rendering her both terrifying and terrorized. The resulting splitting of the self is compounded not only by her location within a sonic space, but also by repeated and personalized trauma. When Clotel is in disguise and makes no sound, she is able to travel freely throughout the South. She even returns to the town where her daughter still lives, visiting the small cabin where she once lived with Horatio: “Old remembrances rushed upon her memory, and caused her to shed tears freely.”[50]

Abstract sensations cause anxiety due to the very absence of an object or cause. Goodman describes the atmosphere constructed by sound as an “architecture of dread,” where “sounds without sources overwhelm the subject” and “frustrate perceptual compulsions to allocate the cause of a sound.” Without a perceptible source, the imagination produces one, “which can be more frightening than the reality.”[51] Ludwig Feuerbach named the ear “an organ of fear”, and Ralf Biel and Manuel Borja-Villel remind us that the ear served as an essential “early warning system against enemies and dangers of every description.”[52] In this economy of acoustics, the only discernible sounds for Clotel are those that describe her body as a commodity, as a slave. This excess is what makes sound, unlike sight, a particularly insidious kind of violence.[53] Back on the auction block, Clotel’s body has been reinscribed in excess, leaving her out of phase with herself and thus left without agency in that moment. Her subversive body, the body of a mixed-race female, is violently torn asunder and rebuilt within the economy of the slave-trading South. Her body contains the blood of the ruler of the country and the blood of the ruled, and it is in part the incongruence of her form that renders her a particularly desired commodity within the economy. This economy is largely constructed sonically, and her escape from it requires a sonic fluency as well.

Clotel employs narrative and atmospheric sounds to address the linear nature of memory while incorporating repetitive exogenous sound such as the singing of slaves.[54] Sound, argues David Toop, is a type of haunting— its spectral qualities articulate a “present absence,” and listening is therefore a “specimen of mediumship, a question of discerning and engaging with what lies beyond the world of forms.”[55] The sounds of Clotel play with the physical and narratological echo, asking one to consider how repetition produces resilience, and how physical space shares a reciprocal relationship with sound. A moment that best highlights this attempt is the moment in which a slave owner’s daughter, Georgiana, and her suitor overhear the slaves singing a sad song. As they listen, the din of nature is drowned out by the swell of voices. As they listen, they recognize the voice of Sam, their favorite and seemingly happiest slave, singing about dreaming of being free and the suffering he has endured in his life:

The animals and the insects in an adjoining wood kept up a continued din of music. The croaking of bull-frogs, buzzing of insects, cooing of turtle doves, and the sound from a thousand musical instruments, pitched on as many different keys, made the welkin ring. But even all this noise did not drown the singing of a party of slaves, who were seated near a spring that was sending up its cooling waters…By this time they were near enough to hear distinctly every word; and true enough, Sam’s voice was heard above all others.[56]

The architectural movement of these sounds goes from three-dimensional to two-dimensional to three-dimensional in the move between the cyclical, the linear-temporal, and the performative-spatial. This occurs at the narratological level but at the register of the listener as well; sound defines space, and in this instance the sound of the description of space fills up the listener’s environment, passes through their body, and reverberates off of the boundaries of the space they occupy. Music exists as a bracketed time to listen, and Georgiana and her companion do just that, waiting to leave until the song is finished, a choice that Georgiana’s companion, Carlton, regrets for the song is “anything but pleasant.”[57] Georgiana refuses to leave, however, insisting, “it is from these unguarded expressions of the feelings of our Negroes, that we should learn a lesson.”[58] When Carlton suggests that the slaves are happy, she turns to the primacy of the sounds of the song as evidence that they are not:

You may place the slave where you please; you may dry up to your utmost the fountains of his feelings, the springs of his thought; you may yoke him to your labour, as an ox which liveth only to work, and worketh only to live; you may put him under any process which, without destroying his value as a slave, will debase and crush him as a rational being; you may do this, and the idea that he was born to be free will survive it all. It is allied to his hope of immorality; it is the ethereal part of his nature, which oppression cannot reach; it is a torch lit up in his soul by the hand of Diety, and never meant to be extinguished by the hand of man.[59]

Here, the novel posits a relationship between sound and sympathy that articulates how sound emerges from the interior of the body and at times, escapes from certain modes of subordination. Sam’s voice overcomes the noise of nature and the noise of the political to strike at the heartstrings of Georgiana and Carlton, assuming the persuasive power of the emotional. At first moved towards the voices by their beauty, Georgiana and Carlton are moved by the voices through the interiority that they reveal. Here, song functions as a less threatening way to express emotion that can produce certain kinds of sympathetic feeling. It is at first the sound, not the words that draw Georgiana and Carlton closer. Edouard Glissant argues that for the dispossessed, “the word is first and foremost sound. Noise is essential to speech. Din is discourse.”[60] For Georgiana and Carlton, the song of the slaves seems to emerge from the noisy din of bullfrogs, birds, and insects, harmlessly woven into “the apparently meaningless texture of extreme noise.”[61] Affect is discursively and sonically transmitted through the atmosphere to the listeners, who will soon decide to set the slaves free.

Teresa Brennan argues that “feeling” the atmosphere, or experiencing the anxiety, anger, or sadness that seems to permeate certain spaces is more than a social or psychological phenomenon but is also physiological: “the transmission is also responsible for bodily changes…The ‘atmosphere’ or environment literally gets into the individual.”[62] She suggests that although it has been “all very well to think that the ideas or thoughts a given subject has are socially constructed, dependent on cultures, times, and social groups” but that we are particularly hesitant to accept “the idea that our emotions are not altogether our own.”[63] Brennan suggests that Cartesian notions of the bounded body should not be taken for granted and that the distinction between a subject and their environment is psychologically complex and biologically artificial: “at this level, the energetic affects of others enter the person, and the person’s affects, in turn, are transmitted to the environment.”[64] In this sense, the individual feels the affects of others, has an affective response and projects it into the environment. This sets the stage for a complicated system of affective immersion, conversion, and transmission that both shapes and is shaped by the subjects within it. Brennan primarily explores this complicated exchange by examining affective transmission in its clinical, pathologized state, but also points to the sensory as an additional location of analysis.

In Listening to Nineteenth-Century America, Mark Smith urges his reader to consider how “sounds and their meanings are shaped by the cultural, economic, and political contexts in which they are produced and heard,” which means that the opening sounds of Brown’s historical novel Clotel quite seriously represent the sonic, and thus political, environment of the time.[65] Brown’s objective is to re-present the problem of slavery to garner the empathetic sentiments of his white, nineteenth-century audience. Smith suggests that even by writing about the sounds of suffering, readers are struck by the affective imaginary. For example, Smith cites the Quaker Angelina Grimké’s 1838 address to the Massachusetts state legislature in which she describes the “sound of the lash and the piteous cry of the slave.”[66] Smith argues that by aurally constructing the experience of slavery, those who read of her account in the following days and weeks were then able to imagine the snap of the whip, a human cry, and the once unimaginable suffering of slaves in Grimké’s native South Carolina, and that sound’s potent force allowed for her message to reverberate in such a way as to impact those who were until then unpersuaded by abolitionist rhetoric. Additionally, by pairing a sonic environment with the violent institution of slavery, Grimké identifies the equalizing effects of the sensorium. Creatures hear and are heard, when one is hurt, one cries out and others hear. Grimké’s testimony allowed for the voices of the tortured to be carried both northward and into this moment, today, to ears that hear. Indeed, Smith asserts that no one in antebellum America could claim the “heard world utterly harmonious– strains of discord were everywhere” and it is this discord that should be listened to in order to gain the most complete view of America before and after the Civil War.[67] Smith argues that the invasion of the South brought with it the alien sounds of Northern industrialism along with the sounds of warfare, ushering in a disruptively sonic sociopolitical change. This change brought with it a disrupted temporality of fear in which the event caused not only fear of violence in the present, but fear of the alien northern past becoming the southern present. At the same time, these sounds meant the liberation of human lives within the context of extreme violence.

This historical soundscape requires a particular type of listening so as not to reinscribe the scene with the same sounds of subordination. Instead of pure repetition, this reading of history is echoic—distorted over time and space—and its own event. For as Brown notes, “The evils consequent on slavery are not lessened by the incoming of one or two rays of light”.[68] This movement requires that the listener be situated in an act of what PT Clough calls enactive witnessing, in which “the unspeakable is not forgotten but is also not remembered…remembered in the multiplicity of time.”[69] Clough continues that it is not the content of the spoken narrative as much as it is the sound itself that is to be witnessed, the “accompanying rhythms of affect—the punctuated, pulsing beats in sound.”[70] Sound, by working to define space, takes on a rhythmic ordinariness that exists even in the most horrific sonic portrait. Terror may indeed enter through the ear, as Goodman suggests, but it is renegotiated there as well. In the chapter, “Death is Freedom,” Clotel leaps from the Long Bridge over the Potomac; she is for the first time purely silent. This silence is perhaps her most articulate moment, however:

[God] had determined that an appalling tragedy should be enacted that night, within plain sight of the President’s house and the capitol of the Union, which should be evidence wherever it should be known, of the unconquerable love of liberty the heart may inherit; as well as fresh admonition to the slave dealer, of the cruelty and enormity of his crimes. Just as the pursuers crossed the high draw for the passage of sloops, soon after entering upon the bridge, they beheld three men slowly approaching from the Virginia side. They immediately called to them to arrest the fugitive, who they proclaimed a runaway slave. True to their Virginian instincts as she came near, they formed in line across the narrow bridge to seize her…For a moment she looked wildly and anxiously around to see if there was no hope of escape. On either hand, far down below, rolled the deep foamy waters of the Potomac, and before and behind the rapidly approaching step and noisy voices of pursuers, showing how vain would be any effort for freedom. Her resolution was taken. She clasped her hands convulsively, and raised them, as she at the same time raised her eyes towards heaven, and begged for that mercy and compassion there, which had been denied her on earth; and then, with a single bound, she vaulted over the railings of the bridge, and sunk for ever beneath the waves of the river!

Thus died Clotel, the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, a president of the United States; a man distinguished as the author of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the first statesmen of that country.[71]

In the silent depths of her watery death, Clotel has finally found “alleviation of what is hard to manage in the lived real.”[72] Gayatri Spivak identifies suicide as “a message inscribed in the body when no other means will get through.”[73] As enactive witnesses, we witness this moment as echoic pure voice. Like Clotel, the mythical Echo is doomed to silence, only repeating back the sounds that surround her, and though many would read her as a subordinate figure without agency, Cavarero shows how Echo repeats as voice without logos. Rather than communicating through the “devocalized logos” of tears, Clotel is finally reduced to pure voice, free to sound across time and space. Cavarero asks us to consider how the primal cry of the infant “unknowingly entrusts itself to a voice that responds.”[74] Clotel’s leap from the bridge functions in a similar manner, crying out as the most purely human voice, free of the confines of law and man. Rather than the restrictive silence that Clotel experiences through much of the novel, this performative silence speaks for millions. Though the final scene of Clotel’s life culminates with her ultimate bodily silence, the water churns, the slave hunters shout, and her final embodied gesture erupts as a galvanizing vocality that might reach the doors of the nearby White House and the ears of a sympathetic reader. Like the bodiless, mythical Echo, Clotel’s echoic capacity allows her voice to travel beyond the depths of the churning Potomac to suggest the possibility of an acoustic reparativity that might resonate within the political and social sphere that ultimately killed her. Sound has the capacity to move through and beyond socio-historical and political boundaries and it is through sonic analysis that the sentimental slave novel opens the way for knowledge of slavery and freedom.


[1] Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 428.

[2] Moten, In the Break, 155.

[3] In the April 17, 1851 edition of the North Star, Douglass wrote a testimonial supporting the work of Brown, asserting that though a “despised, degraded, whip-scarred slave” but a few years earlier, he now wrote in such a way as to make even a man educated under the best circumstances proud (Clotel 39). The testimonial was published as The Narrative of the Life and Escape of William Wells Brown, and later included as an introductory and supplemental story ; Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection (New York: Oxford UP),4.

[4] Hortense Spillers, Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2003).

[5] Douglas Khan, Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999), 4.

[6] “Silent Reading Isn’t So Silent.” Scientopia, January 23, 2013.

[7] William Andrews, “The Novelization of Voice in Early African American Narrative,” PMLA (1990): 24.

[8] Andrews, “Novelization”, 26.

[9] William Wells Brown, Clotel (New York: Penguin, 2004 ed.), 50-51.

[10] Andrews, “Novelization,” 26.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 26.

[13] Brown, Clotel, 48.

[14] Ibid,, 49.

[15] Ibid., 50.

[16] Ibid., 9.

[17] Jack Halberstam, introduction to The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 7.

[18] Moten, In the Break, 215.

[19] Steve Goodman. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, (Boston: The MIT Press, 2010), 81.

[20] Ibid., 83.

[21] Brown, Clotel, 49.

[22] Brown, Clotel, 50.

[23] Madalina Diaconu, “Patina-Atmosphere-Aroma: Towards an Aesthetics of Fine Differences,” Handbook of Phenomenological Aesthetics, 137.

[24] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke UP, 2011), 224.

[25] Brown, Clotel, 50.

[26] Brown, Clotel, 88.

[27] Martha J. Cutter, Unruly Tongue: Identity and Violence in American Women’s Writing, 1850-1930, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999), 150.

[28] Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke UP, 2008), 13.

[29] Brown, Clotel, 88.

[30] Adriana Cavarero, For More Than One Voice: Towards a Philosophy of Vocal Expression (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005), 37.

[31] Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 15.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Brown, Clotel, 88.

[35] Cavarero, For More Than One Voice, 33.

[36] Tom Lutz, Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears (New York: WW Norton and Company, 1999), 75.

[37] Brown, Clotel, 89-90.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Cutter, Unruly Tongues, 151.

[40] Berlant, The Female Complaint, 12.

[41] Brown, Clotel, 91.

[42] Brown, Clotel, 91. 91

[43] Ibid., 141.

[44] Ibid., 145.

[45] Kahn, Noise, Water, Meat, 47.

[46] Brown, Clotel, 145.

[47] Kahn, Noise, Water, Meat, 27.

[48] Michel Chion,

[49] Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening, (New York: Fordham UP, 2007), 77.; Thanks to Julie Beth Napolin for drawing my attention to this passage.

[50] Brown, Clotel, 178.

[51] Goodman, Sonic Warfare, 66-69.

[52] Ibid., 6.

[53] A basic understanding of sound is this: Vibrating matter is at the source of every sound. An object is struck, which causes air molecules to be shoved outward against other air molecules, compressing the air. The vibrating object moves back inward, leaving a space where the air is thinner than normal. As the source continues to vibrate, waves of compressed air molecules move outward, followed by pockets of thinner air. If the waves come into contact with an ear, they cause the eardrum to vibrate, and the brain interprets the vibrations as sound. Sound, unlike sight, is impossible to cut off from a body, as even with impaired faculties, waves can continue to pass through the body.

[54] The ear’s vestibulum is of course key to the body’s attempt to maintain equilibrium, and this function is articulated through vibration and one’s position in space. The project traces a narrative of trauma, its symptoms and reverberations, and recovery through spaces and relationality; the proprioceptive extends beyond the spatial, bodily register to one of time as well. The vestibular system detects both linear and rotational movements, which is the same combination of movements attributed to the rhythm of time and space by Henri Lefebvre.

[55] David Toop, Sinister Resonance (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010), vii.

[56] Brown, Clotel, 124-5.

[57] Ibid., 127.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Brown, Clotel, 127

[60] Edouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse (Richmond, University of Virginia Press, 1989), 123.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004), 1.

[63] Ibid., 2.

[64] Ibid., 8.

[65] Mark Smith, Listening to Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 7.

[66] Ibid., 3.

[67] Ibid., 13.

[68] Brown, Clotel, 179.

[69] Patricia Tencenito Clough, “Reflections on Sessions Early in an Analysis: Trauma, Affect, and ‘Enactive Witnessing,’” Women & Performance (2009), 151.

[70] Ibid., 156.

[71] Brown, Clotel, 185.

[72] Berlant, The Female Complaint, 5.

[73] Gayatri Spivak, “Terror: A Speech After 9-11,” Boundary (2004), 96.

[74] Cavarero, For More Than One Voice, 169.


Works Consulted

Andrews, William L. “The Novelization of Voice in Early African American Narrative.” PMLA, 1990: 23-34.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

—. “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency).” Critical Inquiry, 2007: 754-780.

—. The Female Complaint. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Brown, William Wells. Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

Cavarero, Adriana. For More Than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression. Translated by Paul A. Kottman. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Chion, Michel. Acousmetre. May 10, 2014. (accessed May 10, 2014).

Clough, Patricia Tencenito. “Reflections on Sessions Early in an Analysis: Trauma, Affect, and ‘Enactive Witnessing’.” Women & Performance, 2010: 149-159.

Cutter, Martha J. Unruly Tongue: Identity and Voice in American Women’s Writing, 1850-1930. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi , 1999.

Diaconu, Madalina. “Patina-Atmosphere-Aroma: Towards an Aesthetics of Fine Differences.” In Handbook of Phenomenological Aesthetics, by Hans Rainer Sepp and Lester Embree. London: Springer, 2010.

Dolar, Mladen. A Voice and Nothing More. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.

Glissant, Edouard. Caribbean Discourse. Richmond: University of Virginia Press, 1989.

Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kahn, Douglas. Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999.

Lutz, Tom. Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.

Moten, Fred. In the Break. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Moten, Stefano Harney and Fred. The Uncommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions, 2013.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Listening. New York: Fordham University Press, 2007.

Scicurious. Silent Reading Isn’t So Silent. January 23, 2013. (accessed May 10, 2014).

Smith, Mark. Listening to Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carlolina Press, 2001.

Spillers, Hortense. Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Spivak, Gayatri. “Terror: A Speech After 9-11.” Boundary, 2004: 81-111.

Toop, David. Sinister Resonance. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010.

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