Collage: Sound Forms, Conversion, Colonization

by ericaeller


The following is an assemblage of quotes and notes. It is inspired by my Master’s thesis, but it won’t fit in my thesis, due to its dispersal into too many corners of thought:

In response to the question, “Where does the title come from?” Susan Howe responds that she thinks title of the poem, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, is “a definition Schoenberg gives to music,” while also having found a similar definition to language in the 1828 Webster’s dictionary (Talisman Interview, The Birthmark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history 172).

Webster’s first definition of “Language” is as follows: “Human speech; the expression of ideas by words or significant articulate sounds, for the communication of thoughts. Language consists in the oral utterance of sounds, which usage has made the representatives of ideas. When two or more persons customarily annex the same sounds to the same ideas, the expression of these sounds by one person communicates his ideas to another. This is the primary sense of language, the use of which is to communicate the thoughts of one person to another through the organs of hearing. Articulate sounds are represented by letters, marks or characters which form words. Subsequent definitions include concepts that include the arrangement of words in writing, and the speech of a nation.” (,language)

“The crucial importance of speaking in conversion shows that Puritans believed written texts were in some way fundamentally dependent for their intelligibility on their incorporation into speech, that sound—however transitory and precarious—was essential.” (Anne Kibbey, The Interpretation of Material Shapes in Puritanism: a study of rhetoric, prejudice and violence 8)

The acoustic shapes of rhetoric depend on faith, precisely because they lack referential meaning.

“To an almost alarming extent—alarming for me, sound creates meaning.  Sound is the core.  If a line doesn’t sound right, and I do always have single lines or single words in mind, if a line doesn’t have some sort of rhythm to it, if my ear tells me it’s wrong, I have to get rid of it, or change it, and a new meaning may come then.” (Howe, Difficulties Interview I 31).

The phrase could also simply describe voice, the vocalization of speech, and the speech-act of utterance. One’s vocalization in time carries with it an independent identity. No two voices sound quite the same. Meanwhile, written text forms the illusion of sameness across time due to its visible sameness in copied reproduction through time, which reifies the subjective temporality of a speech act.

“And the friars composed couplets, or ballads, in Quiché. / Ballads using their rhymes and intercadences / recounting the creation of the world / the fall of man, / the banishment from paradise, the flood, the death / of the son of God and his resurrection. / They showed the verses to four Indian merchants in Guatemala / who went to buy and sell in the Quiché. / They set them to music / to the sound of the Indians’ instruments / ‘accompanying them with a lively and high-pitched tone / because the instruments of the Indians were low and hoarse” (Ernesto Cardenal The Doubtful Strait (El estrecho dudoso) Trans. John Lyons 117)

The epigraph that follows serves as en excellent example of the privileging of “sound-form” as a basis for poetic linguistic organization:

from seaweed said nor repossess rest

scape esaid

(Howe, Singularities 1)

“We know from this introduction that an attempt will be made to ‘repossess’ something lost, something primordial. The sound structure of the passage, with its slant rhyme of sea/weed and repossess/rest, its consonance of weed/said/esaid, and its alliteration of s’s (nine out of forty-one characters) and assonance of e’s and o’s, enacts a ritual of repossession we can hear and see. (Marjorie Perloff, “‘Collision or Collusion with History’: Susan Howe’s Articulation of Sound Forms in Time 520)

“A Bible, recently translated into the vernacular, was owned by nearly every member of the Bay Colony. It spoke to readers and nonreaders and signified the repossession of the Word by English” (Susan Howe, The Birthmark 48-49, Italics mine)

Howe’s epigraph provides an example of how sound forms a connective tissue of speech that may lack the syntax for forming determinate meaning, while still expressing a desire for return, or “repossession.”

“The greatest literature shows the impossibility of self-fulfillment through desire” (René Girard Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005 “Conversion in Literary Christianity” 267).

According to Charles Lloyd Cohen: “True piety consists in consciously turning back from sin to embrace God, reversing one’s earlier path” (God’s Caress: The Psychology of Puritan Religious Experience 5).

“Cortés took the compass: / they opened paths with their arms / and came out again in the same path they had opened. / Cortés was bursting with anger. / They wanted to turn back / but now it was very late for turning back. / They raised their eyes and could not see the sky. / They climbed trees to get the lay of the land / and saw no land, only tree after tree. / Two guides fled by night. Only one guide remained / who did not know the way. / And the henequen cloth. / In 20 leagues they made 50 bridges. / More swamps and rivers which weren’t on the cloth. / Now there were no towns. Only abandoned villages, / burned huts. / And more swamps to go through. / The night rain extinguished their fires, / and animals howled all around. At this point / some deserted to return to Tenochtitlán / where they never returned.” (Ernesto Cardenal The Doubtful Strait (El estrecho dudoso) Trans. John Lyons 117)

Emmanuel Levinas: “A work conceived radically is a movement of the Same towards the other which never returns to the Same” (CP 91; italics in original).

“The idea of conversion is much more than reform, repentance, re-energizing, repair, regeneration, revolution, or any other word beginning with ‘re’ which suggests a return to something that was there before and which therefore limits us to a circular view of life and experience. In Christian conversion, a positive change is connoted which is not caught inside a circle” (René Girard Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005 “Conversion in Literary Christianity” 267).

Primitive referred to a prior time in the history of the species, in terms of evolutionary time. Europe came to be mythically conceived as preexisting colonial, global, capitalism and as having achieved a very advanced level in the continuous, linear, unidirectional path. Thus, from within this mythical starting point, other human inhabitants of the planet came to be mythically conceived not as dominated through conquest, nor as inferior in terms of wealth or political power, but as an anterior stage in the history of the species, in this unidirectional path. That is the meaning of the qualification “primitive” (Quijano 2000b, 343–44). (Cited in Maria Lugonés “Heterosexualism and the Colonial / Modern Gender System” 192).