Karrieann Soto Vega: face of woman with glasses and long hair

Karrieann Soto Vega

Karrieann Soto Vega is Assistant Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her work on Puerto Rican nationalism, feminism, and sonic rhetorics can be found in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and the Journal of Global Literacies, Technologies, and Emerging Pedagogies, and some of it can be heard on This Rhetorical Life. She supports and has been featured on RadioLex, a Spanish language community radio station.

Steven Hammer: male face with glasses and short facial hair

Steven Hammer

Steven Hammer is an Associate Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. His creative–critical works seek the margins of soundwriting: noise, dirt, instrument design, and listening methods.

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Steven Hammer (SH): My name is Steven Hammer. I'm an associate professor at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. I'm in a department that is called Communication and Media Studies. So even though a lot of us come from rhet comp [Rhetoric and Composition], there is that kind of added thing where we're, I think, where I've gotten in more in the habit of thinking about interface, and that'll come through, I think in our conversation, a lot. Who are you?

Karieann Soto Vega (KSV): Cool. Hi, I'm Karrieann Soto Vega. I am assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, part of the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies, and I'm affiliated with Gender and Women's Studies and then a program of Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx Studies, which is important to me because basically I'm an interdisciplinary scholar, and I think that all of those sort of affiliations get at one or two of those scholarly interests that I have. Excited to be talking with you about sound...

SH: You too!

KSV: ... and social change.

SH: Officially talking about it because we've talked about it unofficially many times. So can I ask you a first question?


KSV: Sure.


SH: How did you come to, I guess, study sound or identify as a sound scholar, or how did you get to this point where you're thinking about this and doing this stuff?

KSV: I have always loved music growing up. I think, you know, I don't know how far back we want to go with this question, but I know I've always been interested. Like as a young girl, I was like dancing everywhere and performing and just informally, of course. I didn't take classes or anything like that. So I think when I realized that I wanted to kind of study sound, or music, was for my master's degree. I was doing a Master's of Arts in English Education. So I was very much in pedagogy, and I was thinking about—it was an English department, so I was thinking multimodally early—about using music and music videos as a text, right? This was more than 10 years ago. So kind of that New London Group literacy, you know, scholarship. I was very much informed by that, but also cultural studies, right? And I was thinking about what other examples I had and, and in writing the thesis, I remember referencing a high school teacher who asked us to bring in a song, right—to analyze a song of our choice. And so in high school, Fiona Apple was a big deal. And so I remember it, like, that was a key moment in my own sort of studies, right? Where I said, okay, if I'm a professor, I always want to kind of incorporate some of this, right? A kind of new media and specifically related to, like, music. So yeah, that has gotten me to then, you know, at Syracuse University where I did my PhD, in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric, and a few folks were talking about doing a podcast, and I was like, "I'm into it!" And so from that, I think This Rhetorical Life experience, I was more attuned to other ways, right? That sound is important beyond just like music and entertainment, which again, media studies is definitely a part of. And so now I'm just continually thinking about, you know, not just the sort of like content-based interpretation of music and the multimodality of it, but also like, specifically about sound, what does, what does that do for, for rhetoric, right? Yeah. And you? What about you?

SH: Yeah. I mean, some of the same stuff, like maybe through music a little bit. I always really enjoyed that. I think what changed for me was in like high school sometime I got this, like, have you ever seen these like, "learn how electronics work" sets, where you like build your own little circuits with these little stupid wires and you can like build an FM radio? And my parents got me one of these things at like a garage sale one time. And the one that I really stuck on was making a burglar alarm for my room. So my sister couldn't get in. Uh, but I really, but then the battery started to die. 'Cause I left it there too long. And it started doing more interesting things when the battery died than the normal thing. So I was like, well, how can I make, so I started making connections that weren't in the book and it made weird sounds, and I don't know that, that I was pretty cool to make my own things. So then I don't know how I got into like circuit bending, which is, you can look that up, I guess, people listening, but it's like go buy an old Casio or Speak and Spell and then make the short circuit it, on purpose, to make new instruments. And this there's a whole like, uh, community of people who at least used to do this, these old things are getting harder to find. So I guess I got interested in making noises...

KSV: Mmhmm.

SH: ...and especially I think noises that were unusual to me that I didn't hear, uh, before, or that maybe weren't even like necessarily that pleasing to the ear. So that was like original side-hustle thing. And then I got into grad school, and then at one point, I think during my PhD in a Rhetoric and Composition department, I started making some connections, I guess, between the stuff that I was reading about. Like I think Geoff Sirc stuff was like, kind of turned me on to like the intersection between like weird art and composition. And I was like, "Whoa," I can do this stuff, right? So I guess it was, it was things like that that kind of opened the door to me going, like there's a, there's a similarity between maybe what I do in a traditional writing classroom and what I do when I'm trying to design an instrument. 

KSV: Right.

SH: I think that was cool. It's cool. When you get to when your interests and your job get to overlap, right? 

KSV: Right. I mean, that's something that at least in terms of teaching writing, there's, that's kind of unstated, but sometimes overtly stated assumption that—or at least I tell my students write about something that you like, because at that point it'll be much easier to get started and then, and then kind of get the kind of complicated, or complicating, uh, questions. Right? And, a kind of conversation. And so I think in terms of conversations, you know, pushing our exposure to sound or kind of interest in sound and noise to sort of overlap, yeah, I was always interested in music and I was always going to shows and I was part of like the indie rock scene in Puerto Rico. And so when I started my PhD, I remember also in a class about craft and techne, and we had to like, learn a craft. And so I decided, "Let me relearn bass guitar because I started when I was 16 and I never really actually did anything with that." I got to do a C scale. That's all that it was. And so in conversation with some of my friends about "how do you learn this craft?" Right? And so I interviewed a few friends that kind of approached it differently. One of them was what, you know, in the scholarship we would call the virtuoso, right? Like he just picked up a guitar, taught himself, and he has a wonderful voice. And then the other guitarist in that same band liked it so much that he studied it and became kind of a professor of music. Right? So he wanted the kind of more technical, like reading it from a page type of thing. And so I think it's interesting to hear you talk about your, you know, coming to sound and so always interested in kind of these analog sounds. Right? And sort of—I always see that in your work where you're looking at how analog sounds or sounds that you can find anywhere just like the tapping or whatever. And then, and then how that transforms in kind of a production process, because I remember and you know, I think we can talk about how our approaches to sound overlap and are different by, by looking at the two pieces that we did—well, individually for the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, special issue on creative, critical curation. 

SH: Yes. 

KSV: Right? So mine was on music, plena music, particularly and then yours was more about a method of recording sounds and what that can, you know, illuminate about life, culture, history—and then the actual process of recording the sound. Right? So yeah. Can you talk a little bit about that in terms of what you were trying to do in the piece and, and then think about it in terms of, you know, how does it fall within this frame of social change and sound. How do you think that it applies or not, or, yeah?

SH: So I, this was kind of good timing that we were having this conversation after that issue, in which we were both thinking about and writing about sound in different ways. Uh, so like in broad strokes, my piece was about trying to think through, and practice and develop as I practiced and thought through like a listening method. Like, so how do I listen and specifically in the context of like going out and recording the world, uh, whether it's like recording an interview or going to record like nature sounds or whatever, because I do really have a love for field recording. And I used to think about it pretty, like in terms of sort of, how do I most faithfully re-present this place when I listen to it later? Right. And so this leads one to learn a lot about different field recording methods, right? Like XY, or, ORTF, or like all of these microphone configurations and the microphones that record us really lust after, or like the point of that is fidelity. Right? And transparency.

And so of course, like growing up in rhet/comp, like reading people like Gail Hawisher or Cindy Selfe and whatever, like I learned, or I came to appreciate or understand that transparency is being as, as hiding things, hiding assumptions about the world, assumptions and defaults that were built to serve those in power. Right? And so I started listening to, and following the work of like Toshiya Tsunoda, his field recording archives, putting small microphones in bottles and listening to a park through a glass bottle. And that really reminded me a lot of that other work in Rhet Comp of saying, how can we insert instead of like erasing how this thing was made, how do we almost make it a caricature of itself so that we're not listening to a space like an objective space, but how can I really be clear as to like where I'm coming from when I try to present this space to you? So the long story short of this article is, we went out and, and I guess traveled the length of this river that terminates in Pennsylvania and, or it terminates in Philadelphia rather. And like, how do we listen to this river? And so we did a lot of background research on the place and it, of course, like a lot of places in postcolonial America, like is, can, is most, I think, readily or, or apparently visible and audible in terms of like dumping shit in it and making it a terrible place to be, to live, to eat from, to drink from and there's certainly no shortage of that history. And so we went back to all of these sites where there were large spills or large dumpings, uh, from plants, and were maybe unsurprised to see a lot of junk still there. And so we tried to listen through that junk, right? And tell a story, not of like, the physical beauty, like the Pennsylvania tourist website version. Uh, but instead like, the what's leftover from these—what we would consider to be you know, uh, injustices to both, original inhabitants and, and the, the space and the place itself.

KSV: Yeah, I loved being able to listen to, like the actual river kind of, as it interacted with the kind of receptacles that you all just found, as like trash, uh, right there. And then how you really, then just made it about, so what does this tell us about history, right? Of a settler colonial interaction with the land and like how humans have just notoriously, uh, messed it up. So, yeah. Yeah. In thinking about my own piece I think one interesting overlap maybe that I came into thinking about plena, which is an Afro-Puerto Rican musical genre that has a long lineage and I, in the piece, I kind of go into the history of it that I think it's important, too, because I'm trying to think about plena as a rhetoric of resilience that has been exacerbated by and after, uh, the impact of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017. You know, I just like, heard this NPR piece about how plena has become the [singing newspapers] ... because at that—you know, for a long time, people didn't have power, right? So then to play plena, you just need a hand-held drum, right? And your voice and a crew or corillo to go with you. So you would just go down the streets and start singing and kind of the emulation of plena historically is that it tells stories of the time, of a place, and it usually is, uh, either a tragedy or overcoming that tragedy or making fun of that tragedy. Right? So it was a very pointed sort of like, news report, from NPR about this genre in Puerto Rico: how it, you know, brought up concerns about climate change of course, because this is what's happening, right? Stronger hurricanes, earthquakes, uh, pandemics, so on and so forth. Right? Definitely. So I think that there's that kind of environmental kind of point that we both share, right, that kind of gets us to, or music or sound gets us to think with so yeah, and I definitely was inspired by, uh, Michelle Comstock and Mary Hocks, "The Sound of Climate Change: Sonic Rhetoric and the Anthropocene..." scene. Right? And I'm just like a very, and we've talked about this explicit advocate of [attending to] the Anthropocene in relation to sort of, uh, kind of paradigmatic approach to our scholarship where I'm like, well, yes, but how do we get back to the human? How does this impact us as a society and, you know, kind of unabashedly feminist, like how did power relations manifest in music as resistance, for example? So that's what I was trying to get at with that piece. But I think that maybe, and I don't know, we can talk about this as well, like there were limitations, of course. It was a specific venue, right? It was a special issue on creative, critical curation. So what came across more, at least in my piece, I think is the act of curating moments of when plena is being used as activism and, and trying to do that in a map with videos so that people could see that this is a DiaspoRican practice, right? That it doesn't just happen in Puerto Rico. Of course it already is, it has the genealogy of the African diaspora, right, in Puerto Rico; but then when Puerto Ricans moved to the contiguous U.S.—there were mass migrations in the '40s, for example—and so it's very much practiced in New York city and other places—Houston. And thinking about, and I included videos of my own with plena post hurricane Maria, advocating for you know, some help from the federal government. And so plena was in this rally. Right. And so I was like drawn to it. I couldn't help myself, my body just, like, went in and wanted to participate as well. So, it's a very [personal] piece reflecting back on it. Right? I was only able to do some of what I had initially intended. Right? And I know that there's a lot more work that needs to happen in relation to, like, what is the significance of doing this kind of work, methodologically speaking, which I think that yours gets at a little bit more yeah. Is there anything that you think you would update or change from your work that you did in that piece?

SH: Yeah. I mean, a lot. I think one of the things that we thought about doing in the beginning, it was like having two pretty distinctive, like phases of listening, right? One out in the field, which is like positioning our ears and I'm pointing at a microphone, but like those as kind of our, our prosthesis or our extensions and then like, how do you arrange in what we would call the studio? Right. Like, uh, how do you mix? And we tried to, I think provide like an interface that allowed people to sort of like mix or remix or whatever, but I think that's maybe the next piece is thinking about what kinds of then like performance practices which maybe goes into like, extends into what you're maybe thinking about much more is right. Like the actual performance of that material and so my coauthor and I, uh, Greg are actually writing an album with those, with that source material. I don't know what they all were going to do with it yet but we both, uh, were both drawn to, I guess, modular synthesis, which means these kinds of instruments that you put together, that the ins effects the outs of everything else. So you can, you can hook everything up to everything else. And so conceiving of it as an instrument is inherently thinking about like exchanging voltage as relational tissue, I guess. And so we're thinking about like maybe writing the next piece on, on that. And I know some people have thought about that in our field already. I don't think he's published anything about it, but I know like shout out Rick Wysocki, who is thinking a lot about control voltage and I really, I want to do stuff with him. In fact, we were gonna, we were going to be on a panel together...

KSV: I know! So unfortunate.

SH: ... everything got canceled, unfortunately. So I'm excited, like to hear more about what Rick is up to, and that's something I want to think about with him or, uh, alongside because I think like where you are or what you're thinking about is inspiring to me because it's always on the ground and like in bodies and through and between bodies and, and I think that kind of positionality, like I've been working from much more like theoretical positionality whereas I really, I love that your work always makes that, always makes that connection that's something I learned from. 

KSV: Cool.

SH: So I guess, where do you want to go next with this? Right? Like, I don't know if I really answered your question other than like my next idea for the piece and there are, of course, a lot of ways of thinking about [it]. To just add on what, real quickly to like I'm rewriting a course or a new course at SJU, and it's a field methods course, so it's mostly going to be field recording and like another piece that is we're redoing our curriculum right now to make antiracism a part of every course. And so like a field methods course, some people's, I think, first thoughts are like, well, how do you make recording on a microphone, whatever, uh antiracist? Which is just like, again, pointing out the politics of the interface as we've known for, you know, a lot of years in our field. And so that's, I guess another piece is like trying to teach my students like a more indigenous-based methodology that gets away from like sort of mastery and fidelity or precision or clarity, or, you know, I am the operator of this thing but that's, I guess to be a way I'm thinking about [it]. I know we, in our conversations leading up to this, we wanted to think about how these pieces start to translate into the world we live in now, which is a lot different than when we started this conversation. 

KSV: Right, yeah. 

SH: Uh, so yeah, I don't know if I just hijacked or did whatever, but where are you, where are you going next? You said you wanted to, like, there were some maybe, well, just practical boundaries that are placed on any publication piece where does this go next for you?

KSV: You know, I've thought about this in relation to another small kind of blog post that I did for the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in Rhetoric and Writing, so I had done a similar sort of map, uh, piece there, and it was meant to be open. That's why we use Google Maps, so that people could kind of input their own stories of how they do feminist work in the world type of thing. And to see, you know, obviously in rhet/comp, it's very U.S. (United States)-centric. And, you know, there are those of us, particularly speaking personally, Latinx people who sort of extend from within, but also outside of that geopolitical sort of boundary. And so that was one thing that I was thinking of in relation to the multimodal Journal Multimodal Rhetorics piece that I wish I could make it a sort of repository for folks who want to submit a little bit of a 15-second video of themselves engaging in plena, with plena wherever in the world 'cause I think that that would be really cool. Of course, I'm, like you were saying, I don't know where or why, you know, what it's gonna look like as it continues to grow.

But yeah, that's one of the things that I was thinking about doing with that piece but yeah, also continuing, I think, one of the pieces that was sort of starting to be articulated, but could be developed a little bit more would be that part of how some, some of us have a complex relationship with resilience and out of rhetoric of resilience, there was a special issue in Poroi, and it was co-edited by one of my colleagues and friends here, Cagle, and it was very much about science writing. And so it got to a conversation of, yeah, we have to challenge this notion that resilience is like something to celebrate because it really doesn't get at the fact that it's a neoliberal tool, right? It's just saying you're—you, individual person, you will be resilient regardless of whatever kind of geopolitical constraints, right, colonial constraints in the case of Puerto Ricans among other kinds of like, you know, interlocking systems of oppression.

So one of the things that I wanted to do, if we had had the opportunity of meeting for Computers and Writing this year, with you and Rick, I wanted to talk a little bit about extending that into how Puerto Ricans use their bodies to dance perreo, which is like reggaetón like the most raunchiest of perreos in the cathedral—the oldest cathedral in the Caribbean—second oldest in the Americas in old San Juan during the Ricky Renuncia when the former governor was ousted last year which was a massive movement. So just continuing to think about the multifaceted ways that that event resonated and was circulated because it was actually like, you know, queer bodies, dancing reggaetón in this place, but then people recorded that, right. And then the digital recordings circulated and, you know, made the movement much more impactful. And that, that same night then the governor resigned. So it was a massive F-you, you know, to, uh, heteropatriarchy and religious fundamentalism. And so, you know, issues that Puerto Ricans still struggle with today, and other populations, of course. So yeah. That's where I was thinking of taking the work I think though, now we mentioned our teaching, so I'm teaching in an Activist Rhetorics in Popular Culture class this semester, and I'm going to assign the plena piece and I'm going to talk a little bit more about like, you know, more contemporary groups, like Plena Combativa that I gave a shout out to in the actual piece, but that they just had an album release and they're like queer, femme, all women, antiracist, antisexist, right, so that is something that I want students to engage with more contemporary sort of and multilingual, activism with sound. Right. So that's one of them, but there's so much that I want to keep doing with music. Again, one of those things about perreo and reggaetón is that new emerging established artists, like Bad Bunny, you know, are using their platforms to kind of speak out and change some of these kind of machista rhetorics around reggaetón. So it's like, one of the songs that came out was "Yo Perreo Sola," and it's like him dressed in drag as a woman. Right? And it's like, I can dance alone. I don't [need] you. Right? It's women's empowerment through the body of this, like, gender-fluid performer, and it's fun to dance too, so I may be doing some of that.

So, yeah, those are some of the things that I think I'm doing, but in that class, I've also been thinking a lot about the contemporary moment in relation to how much advertisements, uh, have been using sounds from protests, like Black Lives Matter, like the NBA, you know, has all their players in their bubble dressed in like, you know, one of the teams that I followed because of my partner is all Utah Jazz. And so one of the white has an ally on his shirt and then Donovan Mitchell has "Say Her Name." Right? So like, they're kind of bringing attention to using their platform to, to speak to the moments unfortunately, right, not so new, but definitely heightened because I think the fact that we're, uh, in our homes and so we have a lot more space, not physical space necessarily, but just, uh, being with ourselves kind of to tend to through some of these issues, it's definitely opened, uh, a line as to, to, to counter them strongly. Right? And I think, yeah, so yeah, I was also thinking—and this is a side note, perhaps, but Adam Banks's Digital Griots, I think that that's one of those where like it presents like a sort of model to think about a long lineage of hip hop and you know, African American Rhetoric of liberation and how multifaceted and how it keeps changing, right? So I think that that's sort of like a key antiracist text as well, if you're thinking about, 'cause you know, he talks about the scratch and the remix. And so it's like legit thinking about the sounds as well of these practices. So that's for you to think about, but yeah. 

SH: Yeah. There's a...

KSV: Yeah. Sorry you go ahead. 

SH: No, no, I was just going to say there's a lot to think about, like, I know one of the big things I'm thinking about, and we're thinking about like as a department right now, and teaching a lot of production and field-based like work photography, videography, and sound is like even, sort of the ethics of going to demonstrations, protests, and bringing recording gear. Right? And thinking through, especially like the quintessential, like being like the white person's selfie at the BLM (Black Lives Matter) protest. Right? So I think there's a lot that I'm thinking about just beyond like a recording technique, but even what does it mean to walk into a space based on who you are, your positionality or experience with a recording device and then how do you perform that or whatever. 

KSV: Mmhmm.

SH: So yeah, there's a ton, ton, ton to think about. 

KSV: Definitely. I think those questions, though, and just to kind of bring it back to the special issue of like sound and social change. I think it's important to have those moments of reflection, the ethical dimensions of our work, right? Not just necessarily research, but as practitioners, which I think is one of those things that you do very well, just like talking about sound, not just as a researcher, but as a practitioner. Right? Yeah, because I know that a lot of it, and I am prone to being more like, "look at this great thing!" Right? Celebratory, but it's so, so important to have those kinds of critical reflections of process and intentionality, right? Like, yes. What you were mentioning right now, the whole, like, "selfie," it's like, why are you there? Right? There's been a lot of critique of a performative allyship. Right? Rightly so. So I look forward to hearing how it turns out with students. Yeah. 

SH: Yeah. Same, uh, thing. Well, what do you think? 

KSV: Well, I think I've really enjoyed talking to you today. Thanks.

SH: Thank you. It's always good to talk to you. This is lovely. I do know, I think that one of the, that's what I wanted to kind of end on though. I feel like we could continue talking, right. For a lot longer. And I think we should not, not just you and I, right, but I feel like these conversations need to continue happening because of course, you know, our world is changing and so should our pedagogies and our scholarship. Right?

SH: Exactly. So, yeah. All right. Well thank you so much, yeah. Okay. I'm gonna hit stop.

References and Influential Work

Banks, Adam J. (2010). Digital griots: African American rhetoric in a multimedia age. Southern Illinois University Press.

Combahee River Collective. (2014). A Black feminist statement. Women's Studies Quarterly, 42(3–4), 271–280.

(Original work published 1978)

Comstock, Michelle, & Hocks, Mary E. (2016). The sounds of climate change: Sonic rhetoric in the Anthropocene, the age of human impact. Rhetoric Review, 35(2), 165–175. https://doi.org/10.1080/07350198.2016.1142854

Ghazala, Reed. (2005). Circuit-bending: Build your own alien instruments. Wiley Publishing, Inc.

Hammer, Steven, & Sieber, Greg. (2020). Listening at the Seams: Curating a relations-based audio narrative of the Schuylkill River. The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, 4(1). http://journalofmultimodalrhetorics.com/4-1-issue-hammer-sieber

Hawk, Byron. (2004). Toward a post-techne—or, inventing pedagogies for professional writing. Technical Communication Quarterly, 13(4), 371–392. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15427625tcq1304_2

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. In Bill Cope & Mary Kalantzis (Eds.) Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures (pp. 9–37). Routledge.

Selfe, Cynthia L., & Selfe, Richard J. (1994). The politics of the interface: Power and its exercise in electronic contact zones. College Composition and Communication, 45(4), 480–504. https://doi.org/10.2307/358761

Sirc, Geoffrey. (2002). English composition as a happening. All USU Press Publications. https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/usupress_pubs/134

Sirc, Geoffrey. (2004). Box-logic. In Anne Frances Wysocki, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Cynthia L. Selfe, & Geoffrey Sirc, Writing new media: Theory and applications for expanding the teaching of composition (pp. 111–146). Utah State University Press.

Soto Vega, Karrieann. (2020). Sounding out a rhetoric of resilience: Curating plena in DiaspoRican activism. The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, 4(1). http://journalofmultimodalrhetorics.com/4-1-issue-soto-vega-home

Tsunoda, Toshiya. (1999). Extract from field recording archive #2: The air vibration inside a hollow [Digital album]. Sound Archive of Sound Art and Experimental Music. https://www.sonmarchive.es/index.php/en/component/muscol/T/1376-toshiya-tsunoda/2560-extract-from-field-recording-archive-2-the-air-vibration-inside-a-hollow

Walker, Kenneth, & Cagle, Lauren E. (2020). Resilience rhetorics in science, technology, and medicine. Poroi, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.13008/2151-2957.1303