The Expropriated Voice: Sonority, Intertextuality, Flesh

You can download “The Expropriated Voice” here. The essay appears in Faulkner and Slavery (2021), collected from works presented at the 2018 Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference and now available from University of Mississippi Press. The chapter approaches sound as existing at/emitting the limits of intertextuality, limits upon which what Saidiya Hartman calls “the afterlife of slavery” exerts irreconcilable pressure. The theory of the text depends upon a theory of personhood. “We say that a sound is ‘of’ a particular object, or we can be confused as to a sound’s ‘source’—the scream sounds out the fleshly dilemma of the genitive as the possessive case.” With thanks to the editors and conference attendees for helping to shape this essay.

Julie Beth Napolin comes at slavery’s lives and afterlives in Faulkner through the Yoknapatawpha soundscape. ‘The Expropriated Voice: Sonority, Intertextuality, Flesh’ taps into a long tradition in Black studies that focuses on the transmission of ‘social feeling’ and political possibility through voices and other sounds. At the center of much of this scholarship, and Napolin’s own essay, lies the scream, as the zero degree of articulation for and by flesh denied personhood. Napolin aims to reconstruct something of a genealogy of the scream as it pierces and echoes through the ‘circumambient’ air of Yoknapatawpha and the slave histories it continues to vector into the twentieth century. The result is an extraordinary acoustic network whose sonic roots and routes lie in the chattelization of African flesh and the ‘expropriation’ of voices denied the ‘sanctified dimension of personal property’: the scream of the lynched Joe Christmas in Light in August, displaced aurally into the unbearable wail of a police siren; the moans of Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury; the uncategorizable ‘Negro’ sounds (like singing and yet not like singing) of Nancy Mannigoe in ‘That Evening Sun’; the wild wailing chorus of Raby’s daughters and granddaughters in ‘Evangeline’; and the array of voices Faulkner releases in Absalom, Absalom!; from the screams of white Henry Sutpen at his father’s ritual brawls with his slaves to the imperious commands of Clytie Sutpen, a formerly enslaved woman of color with ‘perhaps the most authoritative voice’ in the novel; to the vibrating ‘sonority’ of Rosa Coldfield as it courses across the italicized pages of chapter 5; and on to the howlings of Jim Bond, grandson of an enslaved courtesan, that end the narrative proper before the cartography-work of the endpapers plunges the text into silence. These soundings, and the complementary acts of listening that allow them to live, take the human voice ‘beyond property, writes Napolin, and as such beyond the ‘metaphysics of liberal personhood’ and the ‘poetics of possession’ that provided philosophical scaffolding for the slave trade and the modernity it made possible. Intriguingly, the sonic lineage that Napolin excavates is ultimately a matrilineal one as we push farther back into Yoknapatawpha history, from Christmas, Bond, and Benjy in the twentieth century, to Clytie and Rosa at the Civil War’s end, and finally to Clytie’s mother, the unnamed slave woman whose voice we never hear in Absalom, its silenced urgencies and intensities nonetheless serving as ‘the origin of the novel’s claim’ to a counterdiscourse that might speak to Saidiya Hartman’s poignant question, ‘What was the afterlife of slavery and when might it be eradicated?’” 

Jay Watson, “Introduction,” Faulkner and Slavery (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2021), xx-xxi