The Politics of Sound

February 2019

Alejandra Bronfman, Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); 223 pages; ISBN 978-1469628691 (paperback)

Alejandra Bronfman’s Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean explores the ways radio and broadcasting technologies both defined and emerged from the Caribbean as the region underwent various transformations. Focusing on Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica from the early twentieth century, Isles of Noise uses a rich collection of materials to examine moments of nation—occupation, dictatorship, emancipation, and revolution—in these varied sites. From a disparate archive that includes documents, cables, letters, and recordings, among numerous other resources, Bronfman teases out a compelling narrative of the role of media in these histories. Bronfman’s project is an ambitious one that tugs on multiple threads of history, memory, and cultural production, yet never manages to unravel the central argument—that sonic media played a critical role in the political, social, and cultural shifts in the Caribbean and was not simply shaped by those forces. That is, radio and broadcasting, as much as they were shaped by political actors and events, also revealed ideologies and were crucial as technologies of “incitement to social change” (118).

Bronfman’s book is timely in that it appears at a moment in which the attention to sound studies in the context of archival practices and African diasporic studies, what we might call “the archival turn,” has increased as a means of listening to the articulations of tensions within the development of discourses of nation, identities, and technologies. Isles of Noise argues, quite compellingly, for the need to “read” (or listen to) the archive more closely, to attune our ears to the sonic resonances and the “entangled history” of technology, ideology, nation, and culture. What might we gain, she asks, if, à la Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, we listen at those lower frequencies?

Presenting radio and broadcasting technologies as actors rather than objects, Bronfman lays out a persuasive argument in seven chapters. For example, in chapter 2, “Circuits,” she traces the connections between technologies of sound and Haitian circuits of knowledge during the US occupation of Haiti (1915–34) and their connection to violence. Beginning with market women, who left scant written records, Bronfman uses documents written by scholars and observers who noted that “market talk,” generated by the women as they moved through spaces, was a central means of circulating information about US military personnel and their movements. Information gleaned from the women’s gossip and observations served to inform insurgents and the general population. The women’s movements also highlight the ways, despite the presence of technologies, the US military remained outside local circuits of knowledge not only because of the means of communication but also because of the language of communication, Kreyol; thus military personnel, hyperaware that they were being surveilled, sought to develop ways of using technology, infrastructure, and informants as countermeasures to serve the United States’ ideological aims. In this chapter, Bronfman also makes an important intervention in the ways that discourses on technologies of torture tend to elide the US role in the development of the practice, fairly early on. Bronfman’s exegesis on the atrocities during occupation, in particular at Hinché (1918–19), brings into sharp relief the ways “the inclusion of information circuits as actants in these stories demands a reflexive history with attention to the constructions of the very archives we use to produce our own versions of knowledge.” These new technologies came to serve not just a means of communication during occupation but they also inaugurated new technologies of torture, giving rise to “new cruelties” (35). Importantly, this chapter highlights the ways radio (and the attendant archival records), as a site of “official memory,” was implicated in the paradoxical impulses to both record and hide events.

Bronfman structures the book thematically, which, for the most part, lends itself to her episodic approach. In each chapter, Bronfman uses the anecdotal, drawn from the archives, to expand her argument that radio and broadcasting technologies worked in tandem with and helped to structure shifts in politics and culture. Chapter 5, “Voice,” is an extended look at “spoken sonic blackness” vis-à-vis Louise Bennett’s engagement of the “folk” in Jamaica and folk cultures in Haiti (91). This chapter works well to explain the tensions that arose in the politicization of creole languages at the nexus of national aspirations and the rise of social sciences. Foregrounding Bennett’s career path, in particular, reveals the ways language, theater, and an attention to folk culture served to “rescue Jamaican radio . . . from middle class reformers” and, in so doing, transformed its role from that of educating the masses in the manner of the BBC to creating sites of sonic blackness (116). Along with the second chapter’s examination of Haitian circuits of knowledge, this chapter highlights the distinct ways local Creole languages were operationalized in discourses on class politics and national aspirations.

Yet there are moments when Bronfman’s use of the anecdotal does not quite work so well. Chapter 4, for example, offers a potentially rich site of exploration of the politics of sound in the context of empire. However, the sheer breadth of materials Bronfman attempts to cover makes the episodic model a challenging one to sustain: labor unrest in Jamaica, Germans in Cuba, Rafael Trujillo’s seizure of power, the role of technicians, the killings in Le Caye, and more. Bronfman links the events, yet the threads are sometimes difficult to follow because of the multiple shifts in narrative. This chapter, however, does preview the questions that Bronfman raises in chapter 7, “Sign-Off.” A retrospective of the process of research, this final chapter offers readers valuable insights into the challenges and limits of archival research that are dependent on both the tangible and the ephemeral. What questions might the missing, stolen, or unavailable archival materials stand to answer? Their absences, too, raise questions. In this final move, Isles of Noise also points a way for scholars to think deeply about the ethics and politics of archival work and the infrastructures, “both material and political,” that shape not only the content but also our own orientations to and engagement with such materials (154).


Sonya Donaldson is an associate professor of world literature at New Jersey City University. She is developing a manuscript, “Irreconcilable Differences? Memory, History, and the Echoes of Diaspora,” that examines the ways black writers and performers, in engaging sites of shared memory, construct diasporic spaces outside the nation paradigm. Her work has been featured in Callaloo, African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, and The Feminist Wire.