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Sounding Blackness: Affect and the Sonic Unconscious

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Title: Sounding Blackness: Affect and the Sonic Unconscious
Author: Elysee, Bertolain
Advisor: Nadkarni, Maya
Department: Swarthmore College. Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology
Type: Thesis
Issue Date: 2011
Abstract: This paper interrogates the relationship between the histories of black musical production in the United States and the evolution of sound recording technology since the late 19th century through its successive mediations. The development of certain devices, such as the phonograph and the tape recorder, facilitated the spread and documentation of different genres of African-American music, while the formal innovations of these genres, particularly hip-hop, have also directly informed and altered the course and use of these technologies. After providing this history, the paper looks to the voice through the lens of what I term the sonic unconscious, hearkening to Walter Benjamin’s concept of “unconscious optics” in his famous artwork essay – different mediations of the voice through sound technologies allow listeners to hear the voice in novel ways. Lastly, this paper will look to emerging rapper Lil B, both his music and the discourse surrounding it, as a case that allows for further understanding of how artists and fans themselves work through the history of technology and musical production in hip-hop, and how the voice acts as referent both to lyrical, linguistic modes of signification and material affectivity. By the end, this work’s emphasis on mediation will allow us to think about how the sociology of art can account for the autonomy and specificity of cultural texts while unpacking the sociohistorical processes that enable their constitution and legibility.
Subject: African Americans -- Music
Subject: Sound -- Recording and reproducing -- Equipment and supplies
Subject: Voice -- Social aspects
Subject: Rap (Music) -- Social aspects
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Elysee, Bertolain. "Sounding Blackness: Affect and the Sonic Unconscious". 2011. Available electronically from

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