The Sono-Affective and Charlottesville's Response to the "Summer of Hate"

Chattleton, Kyle, Music - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Kisliuk, Michelle, AS-Music, University of Virginia

In August 2017, Charlottesville was the scene of a highly public expression of white supremacy, evinced by hateful chants; renditions of the Confederate “Rebel Yell”; singing, shouting, and taunting by anti-racist counter-protesters; and harrowing screams in reaction to brutally violent, and in one case deadly, attacks. Members of the “alt-right” used Charlottesville as an audible stage in which sound was weaponized to construct an affective climate of hos­tility, intimidation, and fear. Despite widespread trauma among members of the local commu­nity, other effects, including feelings of empowerment, emerged from the increased activism by residents during and in response to the “Summer of Hate.” Locals not only countered and de-legitimized the alt-right, but also took on more concerted efforts to address community issues. These efforts have continued throughout the preparation of this dissertation and do not show any signs of abating.

In this study, I explore the sono-affective dimension of this local historical moment as it shapes and defines the Charlottesville community. I argue that the lens of sound and affect offers a unique depth and range of insight into the Summer of Hate, and that the value of the sono-affective lens extends to the profound impact that this historical juncture has had on local life. The alt-right, for example, emitted battle cries meant to evoke terror, while in their testimonials local residents describe recent events through stories teeming with emo­tion and sonic markers. A number of community members argue for the transformative potential of audible activism, specifically its ability to arrest attention, instigate action, and to empower individuals, collectives, and the larger community. And local government, in particular public meetings held by the City Council, has become a site of debate: what should democracy sound and feel like? My investigation of these phenomena draws especially upon the disciplines and frameworks of ethnomusicology, sound studies, and affect theory. The result is a sensory ethnography informed by historical analysis and practiced as a form of activism.

Chapter 1 frames a sono-affective historical foundation for the dissertation by highlighting background aspects of local history, and more specifically the ways in which narratives of this local history exist within a sono-affective realm. I delve into some of the predominant historical narratives which, as applied locally, have clouded perceptions about recent events, and have skewed representations of the past in terms of the present. I particularly focus on contemporary sono-affective histories of the University of Virginia that blindly follow Thomas Jefferson’s aural ideals for the University at the expense of ignoring an audible trail of white supremacist ideologies and systems continually nurtured on Grounds.

In chapters 2, 3, and 4, I examine the sono-affective consequences of August 11 and 12 as they relate to the Charlottesville community. These consequences are, in part, a result of the intentions and actions of “Unite the Right” rioters, who used a number of tactics while in Charlottesville, including the sono-affectively violent Rebel Yell. In chapter 2, I analyze the after-effects of trauma pervading local lived experience and discourse by centering local residents’ testimonials, including my own. I additionally explore the ways in which sound is used by the community as a means for healing or, at the very least, a mechanism through which locals can move forward from the traumatic events of the recent past. The various sounds created for and emanating from these initiatives, as I explain, have been an occasional source of contention within the community, highlighting local disagreements over the appropriateness of certain audible activities.

I detail my investigations of the sono-affective tactics of the alt-right in chapter 3, as well as the consequential alt-right affective “misfires” that counter-sparked local activism. The alt-right created a significant cache of documents — YouTube videos, Discord conversations, audio recordings — that laid bare evidence of their white supremacist desires and plans. They argued for and engaged in physical, audible, and emotional violence to accomplish their goals, which led to a number of misfires, and especially an effective counter-response among Charlottesville residents who understood the transformative potential of sono-affective interventions. I focus on the efforts of the collective “Noise Against Nazis,” which illustrate the complex culture of local activism.

Lastly, I turn to Charlottesville City Council meetings in chapter 4. In years past known by many local residents as a politically anemic forum for inconsequential bureaucratic minutiae, these meetings became spectacles featuring frequent disruptions by chants, boos, hisses, cackles, speeches, pop music, finger snaps, and other sonic markers of a reinvigorated citizenry. I argue that these aural activities, and attempts to police them, enact competing conceptions and feelings about what living in a democracy should or might be in the wake of the Summer of Hate.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Sound, Affect, Charlottesville
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
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