Sound and the Fury: Affect, Disability, and Sound in Christine Wilks’ Tailspin

Abstract

Christine Wilks’ fictional tale Tailspin traces the life of an old man affected by tinnitus, a hearing disability characterized by a ringing sensation in the ears. Tailspin stands out as a multimedia interactive text in its use of sound as a metaphor for communication. By simulating the sounds of tinnitus for the reader, Wilks’ aurally visceral tale asks the reader to listen to the listening of the disabled “other”—i.e., to listen as if one might have tinnitus. The multimedia interactive design of Tailspin makes a case for reimagining the cultural scripts assigned to hearing disabilities. This article traces the ways in which sound in Wilks’s narrative acts to situate the audience in the lived experience of disability. The self and the “other” merge as the visceral sounds in Tailspin blur the lines between the actual world and the story world, such that the reader and the characters are no longer confined to their respective diegetic levels. While sound in Tailspin is a part of the characters’ lived experience and furthers the readers’ understanding of the characters, it is also “noise” that interferes with the readers’ understanding of the tale. The excess sound acts as a necessary supplement—a prosthesis to completing and understanding the narrative. By intentionally presenting a non-linear narrative—and then telling it through a layering of images, sound, text, and temporalities—Tailspin provides readers with an innovative way to read trauma. Through an analysis of the sensorial variant of metalepsis present in Tailspin, this article discusses how the use of interactive media can expand ideas of diegesis and promote new ways of imagining and understanding the lived experience of disability.

 

Meenakshi Srihari is a doctoral scholar in the department of English at the University of Hyderabad. Her doctoral work studies representations of illness across media, and her research interests include the medical humanities, transmedia, and comics studies.

Volume 19, Issue 2 • Spring 2019

Click here to download the full Spring 2019 gnovis Journal.


 

If no sound is possible without hearing, then sound studies—but also many forms of politics —begins with hearing the hearing of others.” Jonathan Sterne (2015)

Literature and popular narratives often present disabled characters in ways that disregard their full humanity and complexity.1 For instance, in Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s popular Tintin series (1929-1976), although Professor Calculus is a genius inventor with two doctorate degrees,2 the trait about him that stands out most is that he is extremely hard of hearing. His misheard sentences and large hearing aid add comic relief to Tintin’s adventures. This stereotypical depiction of Professor Calculus is emblematic of a long literary tradition of using disabled characters as props rather than fully developed, complex human beings. This notion of “otherizing” the disabled character is subverted in Christine Wilks’s Tailspin. Using a multimodal electronic medium, Tailspin simulates the lived experience of its disabled protagonist and enables the reader to hear the hearing of the “other.”

Tailspin is a flash-enabled, interactive, fictional electronic narrative in the second volume of the Electronic Literature Collection. Created in 2008 by Christine Wilks, the narrative traces the life of an old man, George, his daughter Karen, and Karen’s children. One cause of friction in their lives is George’s inability to deal with his tinnitus and growing deafness, and his refusal to use a hearing aid. Tinnitus is an impairment of the ear wherein one suffers from partial deafness and is privy to a constant high-pitched ringing sound as well as the sound of one’s heartbeat. George’s temperament steadily grows worse as he tries to grapple with traumatic memories of war, his worsening tinnitus, and his noisy grandchildren. Karen and her children struggle to deal with a furious grandfather they cannot always understand.

This essay examines Tailspin within the context of discourses of illness and disability. Sound in Tailspin embodies a disabled character, both pointing to the character’s deviance from the “normal” and attempting to supplement this lack through representation. However, this act of “representation” foregrounds that the way narratives portray disability is often artificial, drawing attention to the discomfiture between the portrayed and historical reality. This is analogous to the artificiality of a prosthetic that makes up for what is missing but also draws attention to an anomaly. This essay makes the overarching argument that sound serves as the narrative prosthesis in Tailspin. People have always looked to stories and imagination to foster empathy and recognition of the “other.” Interactive media takes this a step forward, and in Tailspin, the haptic nature of sound and immersion acts to create a form that expands metalepsis and diegesis sensorially by blurring the distinction between normativity and disability. Interactive media provides a new means of representing disabilities such as deafness. New media narratives instill narrative empathy through their immersive properties and reinforce fundamental values such as recognition of the self and the “other.”

Metalepsis – Breaking Down Diegetic Layers

The essay relies heavily on the concept of metalepsis to make its point. Hence, I take a brief look at the term and place it in relation to sound. In Gerard Genette’s formulation in Narrative Discourse (1986), metalepsis is defined as: “any intrusion by the extradiegetic narrator or narratee into the diegetic universe, (or by diegetic characters into a metadiegetic universe, etc.) or the inverse, produces an effect of strangeness that is either comical…or fantastic” (235). By this, Genette is referring to the movement of entities (narrator, characters, reader etc.) from the narrative world to the actual world or vice versa. The narrative forms the diegetic universe, and the narrator or the reader are extradiegetic entities. This transgression of narrative boundaries has, since Genette, (who only meant metalepsis as a rhetorical strategy) been probed in detail and expanded to include several kinds of diegetic transgression. Marie-Laure Ryan’s popular distinction (2006) between rhetorical and ontological metalepsis argues that the former “opens a small window that allows a quick glance across levels, but the window closes after a few sentences, and the operation ends up reasserting the existence of the boundaries” (207). In line with Genette’s definition, for example, the sudden appearance of an author in the narrative and then their disappearance is rhetorical metalepsis. The latter, ontological metalepsis, is a more “literal” crossing of boundaries that shows the difference between metalepsis at the narrative and discourse level (2012). The transgression that most immersive media makes is at its point of origin: the metaleptic slide is realized by the reader, and not by the narrator. In Tailspin, for instance, it is the reader who encourages immersion by interacting with the text, and hence makes the metalepsis possible.

1 “The sonorous is tendentially methexic”: Sound and Metalepsis

1.1 User Engagement

This section will explore how the effect of the sound creates a metaleptic slide, that is, the reader and the characters are no longer confined to their respective diegetic levels. While the reader becomes privy to both the consciousness of the characters and the characters’ memories of past worlds, the visceral sound of the tinnitus seeps through into the reader’s world—marking the crossing of narrative boundaries.

For the purposes of this paper, the person engaging with Tailspin will be referred to as the reader, even though the multimodal form makes interaction more complex than a typical book. Tailspin’s interactive interface works as such: each screen of the narrative fades in with several images of spirals on them. The reader is urged to move the cursor over each of these to uncover a section of the story. Each spiral leads to new text, new animated images, and new sounds which are visually associated with images on the screen. When all the spirals on the screen have been uncovered, the reader hovers on a central spiral to move to the next screen. A tiny circular clock icon on one corner tells the reader how much longer each scene will last. The reader doesn’t see Karen, George, or the kids, but only the objects that embody them— George through the fighter planes, Karen through the domestic landscape (the sound of cutlery, a tablecloth, etc.), and the children through their toys.

Through the changing sounds and images, one sound remains constant: a high-pitched ringing, and the sound of one’s heart beating.

These sounds simulate the experience of tinnitus for the reader. The combination of the interface and the sound—that is, the spirals, changing visuals, the tinnitus, and the excess sound—is a sensory overload for the reader, producing a vertiginous effect. Both the structural device of sound and the interface will play an important role in this analysis of Tailspin.

As the paratextual introduction on the homepage announces, sound is imperative to Tailspin both as “theme and structural device” (Wilks 2008). While the sound is imperative to a complete understanding of the narrative, it is not unavoidable: the reader could choose not to hear these sounds by simply turning the sounds off or not using earphones; the reader still possesses some agency over the choice of immersion (a reflection of the self-conscious nature of the electronic medium). Ryan theorizes the mediating device—the mouse, the pointer—as being a “representation of [the reader’s] virtual body in the virtual world” (2006, 122) that is, the cursor serves as a tool engaging the user in immersion. Alice Bell in her essay on interactional metalepsis builds on the theorization of the navigational tools in human-computer interaction as places where metalepsis occurs (2016, 7). In the same essay, Bell discusses various interactional moves on the part of the readers: navigational devices such as a mouse or controller, physiology, webcams, and hyperlinks as creating the metalepsis. Therefore, the first instance of metalepsis occurs as the reader navigates the interface using their cursor in order to uncover the story.

The second instance of metalepsis occurs through the use of sound. Sound as an important part of the subjective experience of the listener has been studied extensively through the lenses of cultural history (Schafer 1977), semiotics (Van Leeuwen 1999), and politics (Attali 1977). The corporeal sounds of Tailspin invoke a feeling of “being there” for the reader, and thereby enable a shift of diegetic levels. The sound in Tailspin, mediated through material appendages like earpieces/speakers, serves as a corporeal metaleptic device, one that establishes a haptic connection with the reader that extends beyond the screen-as-interface.

Even before the title Tailspin slowly fades away from the screen, the reader finds themselves being situated aurally in a kitchen. The sounds of a woman humming and cutlery merge with a strange ringing sound and heartbeats. As the narrative begins, the reader realizes that while the humming and clinking of the cutlery have ceased, the ringing and heartbeats remain constant. Spirals appear on an anatomy of the ear, evoking a startling realization—that while the sound has succeeded in locating us spatially in the diegetic space, it has also located us within the consciousness of George and his tinnitus.The reader becomes George, or in metaleptic terms, George is the reader.

Metalepsis could be considered a precondition of immersion in most interactive new media. In Tailspin, sound as a non-narrative diegetic device seeps into the reader’s world, the metaleptic event being that of a shared somatic process—the heart beating. This commonality induces in the reader/listener an awareness that extends outside the normal subjective experience of immersion, in that it draws attention to a corporeal function that readers are not usually paying attention to. Talking on similar terms, Astrid Ensslin (2011) brings to light the physicality of select cybertexts, terming them physio-cybertexts. The term physio-cybertexts calls attention to the “complex interplay between the reader’s physical and mental interaction with the text” where “the reader’s direction of thought is refocused back onto his or her own physical condition and the relative (im)possibility of controlling the body’s sub- cortical functions” (3-4). While the function Ensslin focuses on is breathing, in Tailspin it is the sounds of the heart that cause the reader to direct attention to both one’s own heartbeat and the text.

Readers identify with and mime the movements on the screen and emotions they see others experiencing because of the presence of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons, which were discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti to explain the mimetic nature of apes, are “neurons in the brain that fire for motion when one is simply watching someone else in motion” (Driscoll, qtd. in Francis 2013, 102). Going by this concept, the heartbeats engage the reader to imitate, at least neurologically, George’s actions. Since this is a somatic process already in motion without voluntary action, readers become aware of an event that they do not usually pay attention to. In this way, the use of sound in Tailspin falls into Ensslin’s physio-cyber texts.

1.2 Sound and Diegetic Levels

In Tailspin, the use of sound is a haptic device that positions the sick body outside the realm of medicine and science, and within that of the lived experience of disability. The first screen establishes George’s low tolerance of external sounds. It begins with George scowling at the noise his grandchildren are making. Karen, meanwhile, is unable to understand his ill temper. The tinnitus is layered with the sound of laughter and toys until George can no longer bear it. As the reader reaches the last of the spirals George screams. The accompanying text says: “He shouts. Shocks them into silence” (Wilks 2008). It is only at this point in the entire work that the reader experiences silence. At that particular point, the sounds of tinnitus are absent so that the metaleptic movement occurs between the reader’s world where there is (presumably) no tinnitus and the world that George desires but does not inhabit, i.e. a world without tinnitus. The shift is not explicitly between narrative levels as much as it is between two sensory levels: that of the verbal text and that of the sound. The break jolts the reader’s concentration of both the sound and physical process they have been taking for granted, and the textual effect that the lines on screen ought to convey—that the family is scared into silence when George shouts. George’s persona as someone with tinnitus is conveyed by the sound, and George as the senile old man in his family unit is conveyed by the verbal text. The break signifies the conjuncture of the two, foregrounding the use of sound as a narrative prosthesis to the lived experience of disability.

The sound that is shared between the reader and George situates the reader as being—in some ways—closer to George than his own family. Neither Karen nor George listens to each other in Tailspin (as George cannot hear most of the time, either). In one of the defining scenes of the narrative, Karen and George sit next to each other to eat with the family. Karen purposely positions herself on her father’s bad side, the side of the affected ear:

The place she always sat since childhood. Her husband, Richard’s on his good side. She keeps the conversation flowing with Richard and his mother, in that direction only, as if there’s a blank side on her left, a blank wall. She’s aware she’s doing it, but she won’t stop herself. She thinks she can’t. (Wilks 2008, my emphasis)

Karen’s deliberate actions do not go unnoticed. Though George cannot hear her speaking, he notices what is happening: “What’s that they’re saying? What are they planning now? He might as well be bloody invisible” (Wilks 2008). He tries to draw their attention by asking for things, but they hand him what he asks for, and get back to their conversation.

Karen’s actions and George’s feelings are incomprehensible to each other, and it is the reader who is burdened with both their discomfitures. The reader is doing what the family isn’t: listening. By putting us inside George’s head, and making us privy to the thoughts and memories of both daughter and father, the reader fulfills the position of the priest in the confession box, a voyeur, a connoisseur of secrets. Readers can both hear and listen to what the characters cannot, or do not, making the reader an invisible character in the narrative. Similarly, when George loses the ability to be listened to and to listen, he slowly becomes invisible as well.

Screenshot from Tailspin: George’s lack of hearing slowly renders him invisible

Another instance where the metaleptic slide is noticeable is at the end of the narrative. The credits come on screen and the visuals shift to that of a tuning fork, but the sound of the tinnitus remains unchanged. The reader still shares George’s consciousness, even after the narrative has ended and the diegetic level has shifted to the extradiegetic. The difference between the “world in which one tells” and “the world of which one tells” (Genette 1980, 236) no longer holds, and politically, this might be the author’s way of questioning if these narrative worlds— the world of the physically challenged and the world of the (assumed) normative reader—ought to be considered different worlds at all. Genette’s quote from Borges is especially of interest here: “such inversions suggest that if the characters in a story can be readers or spectators, then we, their readers or spectators can be fictitious” (236). The reader has been looking at the narrative through George’s lived experience, and even when Karen is focalized on, it is throughGeorge’s body that the reader encounters the narration. That the reader is still in George’s body when the narrative concludes serves to imbue the reader with a feeling of entrapment in a body that they have no control over. The reader’s lack of agency, realized metaleptically, is a comment on the corporeal entrapment that George faces.

 

2 Sound as Narrative Prosthesis

2.1 Sound and Othering

Jean-Luc Nancy (2002) defines listening as an introspective act. To listen, he says, “will always, then be to be straining toward or in an approach to the self ” (9). Taken in the context of the deaf or the hard of hearing, the word strain almost seems like a pun: the introspective journey for the auditorily impaired means that they strain towards understanding the self through physical infirmities worsened by cultural discourses.

One of the major distinguishing elements of the ear from the eye is the lack of the eyelid, thereby taking away from it the choice to deny the entry of external sound. The presence of a hearing aid specifically helps the person with the infirmity tune in to the frequency of sound they cannot hear, and only masks the corporeal sounds that signify tinnitus (American Tinnitus Association 2019). That is, the tinnitus is always present, the hearing aid merely helps the wearer become less conscious of the sound by making external sounds more prominent.

The earpiece sets into motion an aural regime, to parallel Lev Manovich’s “visual regime” (2001, 72), where sounds outside the space of the screen do not exist—this is, ironically, an internal sound for the tinnitus patient. Using a speaker or earphones puts the reader—at least on a sensory level— within the realm of experience of the tinnitus patient. The earphones mask outside sound, so that the only sounds the reader can hear are those of the tinnitus world. The earpiece in this case serves literally as a prosthetic device for the reader as well, but one that also doubles as an “ear-lid,” which can prevent the annoying sounds of the tinnitus from reaching readers. However, this move leaves one handicapped to interpret the narrative only visually, reflecting the lived experience of the deaf and foregrounding the narrow borders between the able and the deaf that George occupies.

Sound—classified as both normative and non-normative—is used to produce the lived experience of a disabled character, and thereby acts as the narrative prosthesis that Tailspin relies on. In their work on narrative prosthesis (2000), David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder assert that “disability has been used throughout history as a crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight. Bodies show up in stories as dynamic entities that resist or refuse the cultural scripts assigned to them” (206). The presence of a disabled character is the narrative’s contribution towards both shaping cultural beliefs around disability and challenging these very beliefs, as George is the most visible and aural character in Tailspin. The reader/listener believes that it is George’s impairment that leads to his fury, assigning to him an irritable and intimidating persona. The disability defines his character, overriding other aspects of his personality that contribute to but are not definitive of his character—except for his experience in the war, which ambiguously shows up throughout the narrative. Disability marks a literary character who is visible because of these marks of deviance, someone who “overencumbers the visual scene” (Mitchell and Snyder, xii). The omnipresent sound of tinnitus is a constant reminder that George is a disabled character. Tinnitus is also an integral plot device: it leads to the collapse of familial bonds, and it is hinted that perhaps it also took away George’s opportunity to be a fighter pilot.

George’s inability to subscribe to normative modes of hearing and Karen’s inability to come to terms with George’s tinnitus question the rather narrow definition of hearing itself. Specifically referring to tinnitus and other hearing disorders, Jonathan Sterne (2015) recognizes the limitation of sound studies in understanding disabled hearing experiences:

Sound studies has a creeping normalism to it—that is, an epistemological and political bias toward an idealized, normal, nondisabled hearing subject (see Davis 1995; Siebers 2008). If we are to believe Nancy and his fellow Romantics, the Deaf, the hard of hearing, and all of us hardening-of-hearing (one might say those of us who continue to live) are doomed to receding relations to authenticity and intersubjectivity. We should hold onto the idea that the ways people can hear, the limits of that hearing, and the conditions of possibility of hearing all provide points of entry into what it means to be a person at a given time or place (Erlmann 2010: 17- 18). To study hearing is to study the making of subjects, which means it is also to study the denigration and unmaking of subjects. (73)

In other words, hearing and listening are dependent on the surroundings in which the person lives, and cannot be studied purely based on a culturalist historicism. Cultural historicism here refers to the manner in which the act of hearing is seen historically as the hearing of a non-disabled person, without due consideration to subjective experience.

2.2 Sound and Affect

Sterne’s emphasis on the role of the environment in shaping a person’s hearing brings the focus to George’s life during the war. While the reader initially attributes George’s anger and loneliness to his disability, his exposure to the trauma of war also contributes to his (mis)behavior. It becomes clear as the narrative progresses that while George loved flying, the trauma he encountered during the war scarred him: “He still dreams of flying a glider—peaceful quiet flight, like the birds / He can’t ignore how many don’t come back,/ Working on spitfires—the damage they sustain, / the holes he has to patch…/ bloody glad he doesn’t fly this crate/ keep a lid on it/ careless whispers” (Wilks 2008). George’s relief that he is not a fighter is often juxtaposed with the guilt and shame he fosters about the same fact, since being a fitter—someone who services airplanes—meant George did not see combat.

Was George’s tinnitus caused due to the sounds of the war?3 The reader can only guess. At one point towards the end of the narrative, George thinks, “If not to the grace of …/ cowardly relief/ he failed/ thank God/ for his dud ear.” The narrative ends with the sentence “hang onto deafness for dear life” (Wilks 2008). This could also mean that George is thankful for his disability so he did not have to fight and ultimately die.

Tailspin illuminates both the aurally-disabled subject’s position in ableist historical narratives, and the ways in which they are constantly tested and dehumanized by non-human objects that standardize hearing. The affective power of Tailspin derives from the juxtaposition of the sensuousness of the sound and the materiality of the images. For instance, the image of the tuning fork at the end could be a reflection of the assumption that objects external to the human body prove to be better receptors of sounds than the human ear.4

The sonic instruments here perform a sonic-gaze: they objectify the hearing subject and attempt to create a lexicon of the subject’s lived experience through numbers and measurements. The use of a hearing aid proves to be a major point of contention for both Karen and George. Karen grumbles, or rather thought-grumbles, “He won’t even entertain the idea of a hearing aid. What more can she do to explain? She’s shown him the pictures, how discrete it is. It’s infuriating. Doesn’t make sense. It makes her so mad it hurts” (Wilks 2008) and while Karen thinks this, an image of the anatomy of the ear fades into the background. George’s response to that is two-pronged: he is concerned about being “conned” by salesmen selling perhaps faulty or useless hearing aids, and he also fears the hearing aids amplifying his tinnitus. This is a reversal of the sick role, where the disabled build up corporeal fear of the institutions that ought to help them— what Arthur Frank (1997) calls embodied paranoia, when “people fear for their bodies not only from natural threats such as storms or disease and from social threats such as crime or war. People are also threatened by institutions ostensibly designed to help them…the sick role is no longer understood as a release from normal obligations; instead it becomes a vulnerability to extended institutional colonization” (172). This is a double-marginalization for the disabled subject: marginalized both by disability and the use of technology that is engineered to work as a prosthetic device but only worsens the condition.

3 “But really, it’s not so noisy, is it?”: Noise and its Dehumanizing Effect

This section focuses on how the sounds in Tailspin together subscribe to various formulations of noise and argues that the use of noise leads to the dehumanization of the protagonist. The word “noise” derives from the Latin nausea, which meant sickness, disgust, and loathing, and though meanings vary from disturbances caused by sound to dissonant music, the word comes loaded with a feeling of discomfort about the sound it describes. Sound scholars define noise around the concept of organization. For instance, Jacques Attali calls music an “organized manner of noise” (1985) and David Novak (2015) provides a useful taxonomy of noise when he classifies it into three different categories: aesthetic, technical, and social noise, resembling Murray Schafer’s social, technical, aesthetic, and simply loud sound (1977).

Social noise—which describes the acceptability of sonic behavior in society— is of special relevance here. Hugh Pickering and Tom Rice (2017) emphasize noise as being “sound out of place.” Pickering and Rice delineate several characteristics of noise, which this essay finds convenient for its purposes. Drawing from Mary Douglas, Rice and Pickering, describe noise as being anomalous, ambiguous, and dangerous. By anomalous, they mean a sound that does not fit a series, by ambiguous, sounds capable of several interpretations. They propose that noise is recognized also “by its propensity to be felt as dangerous” (2017).

Tailspin has two separate consciousnesses: that of George and that of Karen. While to the family—which the reader understands through Karen—it is only George’s screaming that is “out of place,” for George, both the tinnitus and the sounds of the children playing with toys are “out of place.” Right from the beginning, what Karen and the children consider anomalous— or noisy—is considered normative and appropriate by George, and vice versa. George categorizes the sounds of the children playing as “noise” both because they make his tinnitus worse and because they do not fit his conception of how children ought to behave. However, Karen finds the sounds of her children playing with toys to be perfectly normal. To the reader, the sounds of both the toys and the tinnitus are noise because they disrupt both narratives: the toys are jarring for George, and the tinnitus does not belong to Karen’s consciousness. Thus, defining sounds as “noise” is subjective, and depends on who is listening.5

Both Karen and George find the sounds they cannot understand disruptive. George cannot hear what Karen is saying to his family, and in his fear of the unheard, of the not-understood, thinks they must be plotting something. At the same time, Karen and the children do not understand George’s furious anger and are sometimes frightened by it. As the text states, “A sharp hissing word… Karen turns, catching a fleeting glimpse of hateful anger on her father’s face. He was looking at Chloe. She sees fear in her youngest child and the mystifying shame of having provoked such wrath. But it’s only there for a moment. Gone now…all gone” (Wilks 2008).

The loudness of the tinnitus in Tailspin adds to its metaleptic nature. It incorporates the reader into the narrative, and the reader, far from being passive, is actively encouraged to pick a side. Discussing the politics of using sound in film, Anne-Cranny Francis says, “Film sound is a technology of the body designed to embed the viewer in the narrative world of the film and also into the discursive world that underpins that narrative” (2013, 89). While the loudness initially makes the reader confused as to which character’s side to take—since it depends on whether the reader identifies with the discourse of disability or the experience of the able- bodied family—at the end of the narrative the reader realizes that both Karen and the reader can walk away from the noise while George cannot. We (the reader) are angry and anxious when George is, and calm when he is—creating a fully realized experience of walking in George’s shoes and empathizing with his struggles.

Dehumanization through noise is an act that can be traced through the discourse of torture. Torture victims and torturers record sounds that are corporeal and used as a technique during interrogation. In At the Mind’s Limits, Jean Amery, a survivor of Auschwitz, gives a harrowing account of the bodily acoustics of torture as he receives the first blow: “acoustical, because he believes to hear a dull thundering” (29). The “acoustic dimensions,” he says, lend to the act of bodily pain an aesthetics, a word that seems at odds with the violent act itself. Here the sound is from within, a sound that reverberates and echoes within the self. In his account of torturers using noise to intimidate the victim, Alan Connor in “Torture Chamber Music” (2008) talks about the use of repetitive phrases and loud music. The dehumanization occurs because the victim experiences a lack of agency and control over their environment. Elaine Scarry traces agency as a major factor of resemblance between the tortured and the sick in The Body in Pain: “Even when there is an actual weapon present, the sufferer may be dominated by a sense of internal agency. It has often been observed that when a knife or nail or pin enters the body, one feels not the knife, or a nail or pin but one’s own body, one’s own body hurting one” (1985, 53). Similarly, George’s lack of agency in controlling both the external and internal sources of noise—and the acute awareness of the concrete existence of his body without agency—dehumanizes and erases him. “I might as well be bloody invisible,” he thinks (Wilks 2008).

Conclusion—A Case for Rhetorical Listening

This reading of Tailspin attempts to be free of the guilt/blame logic. Ultimately, the reader blames neither George nor Karen for the noise and emotional turmoil in Tailspin, and instead tries to understand the discourse as it plays out. The immersive form of Tailspin also ensures that the readers understand their own role in the discourse. The reader understands that they come (presumably) from a culture that has prescribed definitions of deafness and is largely ocularcentric. This realization occurs because the reader is put into George’s shoes, where they suddenly can hear as he does. In Krista Ratcliffe’s beautiful treatise on rhetorical listening (1999), which she advocates over a mere intentional reading of a text, she explains how “standing under the discourses of others means first acknowledging the existence of these discourses; second, listening for the (un)conscious presences, absences, unknowns; and third, consciously integrating this information into our world-views and decision-making” (13). Her deliberate inversion of the term understanding insists that standing under a narrative enables one to both listen to and ethically judge it—to conduct a hearing of it. The metaleptic reading of the narrative helps us locate commonalities in both similarities and differences that one might share with the deaf. In other words, one recognizes not just the textual claim that is made through George’s story but also the “historically grounded cultural logic” of deafness from which the claim rises. The able-bodied readers can now see themselves in George rather than seeing George as an “other,” and can use this realization to inform their worldview on sound and hearing moving forward: “we in they and they in we” (219).

Rather than subscribing to the notion that hearing is either normative or non- normative—and that hearing impaired people are therefore inferior—Tailspin attempts to acknowledge sound, hearing, and deafness as being subjective. Tailspin’s immersive articulation of the lived experience of tinnitus helps rectify the stereotypical characterizations of disability that are often found in literature and popular culture. Finally, Tailspin expands the possibilities for narrative metalepsis and offers new ideas for how to accurately and empathetically represent differently abled characters like George.

 

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