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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

Listening at the Seams: Curating a Relations-Based Audio narrative of the Schuylkill river

by Steven Hammer, Saint Joseph's University and Greg Sieber, Drexel University

Abstract

The Schuylkill River is a biologically diverse feature of the place now known as Philadelphia; its inhabitants have long used its waters for transportation, recreation, and food gathering. The river carries with it a living biochemical memory reflecting vast interconnected socio-technical practices informed by a legacy of industrialism that have shaped the contours of the river’s ecology and the dynamic engagements between human and non-human cohabitants. Researchers and governmental agencies may consider the health of the river by analyzing the morphology of its aquatic species, especially its fish (Sun et al., 2009; Harris, 1995; Norris, 1999). Though many narratives surrounding the river are not limited to health or pollution, they often tell their stories through objects in much the same way. Researchers have investigated how oil refinery complexes serve as sites of understanding and the ways in which the Schuylkill River shaped cultural, social, and economic practices through the prevalence of catfish consumption. While the list is long and varied, each narrative relies on some object, or constellation of objects, to express these stories. We consider the selection of these objects an important methodological concern.

As creative-critical scholars and Philadelphia residents, we began to wonder about alternative methods of telling stories about the river. How might we employ listening methods to understand, experience, and share interpretations of the river by leveraging the voices of artifacts as narrative conduits, spokesthings and translators. Peter Coats noted that most scholarship investigating the histories of places and geographies have been overwhelmingly visual in nature, or “soundproofed.”  Expanding on this, Christopher Caskey suggests that as we investigate rivers and their histories, we should allow our ears to help us make sense of the spaces and relationships within. We therefore began to craft a narrative of the Schuylkill river through a method of sound, a method of listening. As part of an ongoing project (see www.listeningobjects.com) this installation provides viewers and listeners a hands-on opportunity to engage with the river through the listening objects that served as translators in this project.

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