This episode is a recording of a short paper presented by Kim and Saronik in the panel “Literary Criticism: New Platforms” organized by Anna Kornbluh at the 2023 Convention of the Modern Language Association. In the paper, they reflect on the nature of the voice in the humanities and the role of the humanities podcast inside and outside institutions.
The full paper can be found below and in this GoogleDoc.
Image: © 2023 Saronik Bosu
Criticism Amplified: New Media and the Podcast Form
Saronik Bosu and Kim Adams
How does the experience of listening, within our contemporary lived contexts, change the substance and style of criticism today? (A questions of audience, form, and politics answered by Kim)
In 2019, before Covid, before Saronik and I started High Theory, I went to an n+1 launch party. It was winter in New York, the basement of a hotel in midtown, with a bar that didn’t seem to be serving drinks and a giant wall of speakers that seemed to serve solely decorative purposes. One of the editors read aloud an opening monologue about podcasts. What I recall is a line about intimacy, “their voices so close to our ears.” Reading back, the editors make a claim about media history: “Podcasts were the first medium designed to be listened to primarily on headphones, by a single person.”(1) They suggest that the form lends itself to “binge listening: each episode, a smooth little capsule, perfectly self-contained, can be popped one after another.” Binge listening implies a kinship between podcasts and the “golden age of television.”(2) The episodic structure makes consumption a process of easy repetition, where everything feels like packaging and waste. Streaming media, unlike radio and tv of another era, imagines a solitary individual receiver, isolated and choosing for themselves.
Following this logic, we could trace the contemporary boom in humanities podcasting to the isolation protocols encountered by knowledge workers during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. And in truth, our podcast was a pandemic project, made possible by a newfound facility with digital media and comfort conducting virtual conversations, not to mention the lack of venues for academic authors to promote their books. But as the n+1 article suggests, this dynamic of isolation and intimacy was already well underway in 2019. An Americanist colleague gave me an alternate explanation, that podcasts satisfy the neoliberal obsession with multitasking. (3) We can learn about Sylvia Wynter as we wash the dishes, catch up on political gossip as we fold the laundry, review Orientalism as we drive to work. Isolation is reinscribed as productivity.
How does digital audio production perform the work of literary criticism within the new media landscape? (A question that requires us to historicize media, answered by Saronik)
Like much under our sun, these habits are not entirely new. The history of public education in radio form, in several cultural contexts, is marked by the collocation of everyday work and absorption of sound information that takes the listener out of the ordinary temporal idiom by promising futures with better economic and social capital. Theodor Adorno worked on one such radio program in the 1940s, albeit a short-lived one, run by the Princeton Radio Project. Listening to radio in your drawing room is “atomized listening” for Adorno: the “sound is no longer ‘larger’ the individual…[and] the ‘surrounding’ function of music also disappears.” (4)
Radio makes a piece of music an object of analysis for the listener by reframing it sonically between concert hall and drawing room. The edited nature of podcasts problematizes the voice, whether it is an uncut hour maintaining all the ums and coughs in the hum of the ambient, or a heavily polished product with strategic placement of music and sound effects. Taking care not to draw simplistic analogues, we ask what the humanities podcast can do for criticism and theory by reframing the sound of academic discourse from lecture halls, seminar rooms, and the reader’s subvocalization to headphones and car stereos.
How does the podcast form modify the relationship between the voice and the work of critique? (A theory question answered by Kim)
If we follow Derrida’s argument in the Grammatology, the voice has always been privileged as a signifier of truth and presence in the Western philosophical tradition. So podcasts are nothing new. Or at least to theorize speech in ascendant over the written word, contributing a particular “liveness” to the discourse of critical inquiry, is simply to inherit a conservative philosophical tradition that stretches from Plato to Rousseau, one that always imagines writing secondary, inferior, degraded. Even tacky.
On December 22, I listened to an NPR interview with essayist Rax King about Lisa Carver’s book of essays Dancing Queen. (5) And King kept saying “voicey” as in “her writing is very voicey, and very lively” and “that’s why I always teach her as the paragon of voicey writing.” She also did this thing with her voice, when she was looking for her page, where she sang “just a sec-ond.” Two senses of the word “voice” – the one you teach creative writing students to find, the other vocal performance students to train – both of which the podcast form is supposed to capture. But does it? (6)
In the interview, King uses a medical metaphor: Carver’s essays are like “that bright pink amoxicillin for kids” – bitter medicine made sweet – “so that they’ll drink it.” Following, then, from Of Grammatology to “Plato’s Pharmacy,” we might think of podcasts as pharmakon. Writing is a drug for Plato, both a poison and cure, because of its ability to record thought permanently and externally. And the podcast is a recorded medium. Audio is digitized and edited, compressed and distributed through an XML protocol. Editing software works by making a visual representation of sound, transforming your voice into a wave form, scribbles on an axis, amplitude over time. The voice in your earbuds may seem ephemeral, intimate, immediate, but it is a drug, an inscription, like all writing, made of ghosts and absence.
What does criticism do when it is sounded out and published in digital formats? (A question of accessibility/privilege, and the future, answered by Saronik)
But let’s ask again, what can the humanities podcast do, not only as a finished product, but in the labor that goes into its production? At the Humanities Podcast Network, an organization that we co-founded with colleagues in academic podcasting, we advocate for the building of institutional systems of legibility. We seek to define podcasts as lasting contributions to scholarship, from grant allocations to tenure dossiers. Simultaneously, we imagine the extra-institutional future of the humanities podcast, not least for High Theory.
In each episode we ask our guests “How [a given topic] will save the world?” Guests imagine maximalist scopes for their research, refute the discourse of salvation, and laugh at the apparent absurdity of the question. But we hope to return the speaker and the listener to the form of critique and the institutions whose borders influence their reading praxes, putting pressure on their definitional and instrumental limits. The putative limits of theory have been the subject of debates on social media popularly termed ‘method wars’, which have been astutely diagnosed by scholars like Kyla Wazana Tompkins as ‘resource wars.’ (7)
Continuing the task of creative and critical reading in humanities departments with terrible financial insecurities pushes us past our limits. The pluralization of ends and proliferation of means for the work of theory requires us to redraw the boundaries of academic labor. The humanities podcast provides a space in which we can change the substance and style of criticism today.
- “The Intellectual Situation” n+1, 34 (Spring 2019): 1-8. p.1
- Ibid, 2
- Chad Hegelmeyer, PhD, New York University.
- Adorno, Theodor. “The Radio Symphony: An Experiment in Theory”, Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert, University of California Press, 2002. p. 257
- https://www.npr.org/2022/12/23/1144981383/rax-king-elin-hilderbrand-steph-cha-favorite-book-recommendations; Lisa Carver, Dancing Queen: The Lusty Adventures of Lisa Crystal Carver, H. Holt, 1996.
- Transcription of King’s sing-song by Vignesh Sridharan.
- Tompkins, Kyla Wazana. “The Shush”, PMLA, vol. 136, no. 3 (May 2021): 417-423. p.419
If literary criticism in 1922 looked like W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Browsing Reader” column in The Crisis or H.L. Menken’s sarcastic commentary in The Smart Set, in 2022 it looks like a blog post on the LARB, an author interview on the New Books Network, or a #booktok video. Among these new media, podcasts are uniquely equipped to combine critical innovation with public engagement.
In this paper, we ask how digital audio production performs the work of literary criticism within the new media landscape. How does the podcast form modify the relationship between the voice and the work of critique? What does criticism do when it is sounded out and published in digital formats? How does the experience of listening, within our contemporary lived contexts, change the substance and style of criticism today?
While the meaning of literature and criticism vary widely across genres of podcast, from bite-sized literary digests to long-form discussions of underread classics, we are most interested in the ones that combine literary analysis with cultural critique. Our paper examines the state of criticism today from the vantage of our shared experience as the co-hosts of High Theory. This interview-based podcast asks simple questions about difficult ideas. Often we interview scholars who have recently published books, and always we center our discussion on a keyword. This podcast defines criticism generously, and then uses breadth of that remit to play with concepts from the academy. In this paper, taking High Theory as a reference point, we discuss the vibrant life of criticism in podcast form.