Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Ethnographers of sound capture many fractures in the everyday soundscape: a hesitant pause in conversation, a choked up singer, a short-circuited amp. But we rarely listen to what looms in the gaps between measurable sounds that punctuate the ongoing sonic significations—the atmospheric resonances. In this paper I analyze two encounters with such quiet moments among Sinophone immigrants in Toronto, and demonstrate how they demand an ethnographic attunement beyond the formal qualities of sound. In the first, the sudden death of an elderly resident in a Chinese Canadian nursing home left a quiet room full of unplugged life-sustaining machines. These machines were ubiquitous in the nursing home, hissing and beeping continuously in harmony with of broadcasted Chinese popular musics meant to help the residents age well, and to drown out anxieties about death. In the second, a group of queer immigrants experienced an unexpected lull in the laughter and campy sing-alongs in a restaurant’s private booth. The quietude revealed their fear of the diaspora’s internal homophobia, as they inferred from the surrounding silence that the other patrons had left out of disgust. Drawing on “defacement” (Taussig1999), the near-exposures of public secrets, I argue that the quietude in these two encounters articulates the crux of their respective social formations, which remains crucial precisely in their unsounding. In so doing, I also reflect on how the ethnographers’ ears and recording devices might not only document sound, but also conditions what counts as sound, what can be heard, and what rings with meaning.