Carceral Acoustemologies: Sonic Enactments of Space and Power in Prisons
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Cultural geographers have long been interested in “the everyday,” but rarely is everyday life acknowledged in the context of incarceration. In Canada, the recent adoption of “tough-on-crime” policies has meant that increasing numbers of individuals spend their daily lives behind bars. In this dissertation, I ask: what do prisons sound like, and what is the role of sound in the way prisons are managed, conceptualised, and embodied? The recent flourishing of scholarship on carceral geographies has made crucial inroads in the study of the cultural politics and spatialities of incarceration, yet the notion of incarceration as a multi-sensory, embodied experience remains under-researched. Drawing on Feld’s notion of acoustemologies, or auditory knowledges, I argue that one way to better understand the production of carceral space is through engagement with sonic techniques, histories, and materialities of prisons. Thinking about sound as a tangible and intangible force, I show how different conceptualisations of sound – including silence, noise, and music – (re)shape power relations in Canada’s prisons. In the midst of overcrowding and segregation in prisons, Canada’s political climate reverberates through its carceral soundscapes, leaving lasting soundprints on incarcerated bodies. Alongside these authoritative and often oppressive uses of sound, I articulate how sonic tactics have also been employed to reclaim dignity and resist pains of imprisonment (Sykes, 1958). To address how the everyday is negotiated sonically in prisons, I draw on situated narratives of individuals who have visited, worked, and lived inside prisons, recognising the experiences of people whose voices are often silenced in prison literature. This research employed a wide range of methods, including interviewing, blog analyses, archival research, and auditory techniques to investigate multi-sensory accounts of carceral life. Bearing in mind the political nature of access to Canadian prison environments, I urge researchers to explore the potential for sonic methods to navigate these challenges, to produce geographical and (trans)carceral knowledge, and to imagine alternatives to current practices of incarceration. I conclude with a call to consider more critically the role of listening in future research, as an instrumental route to empathy and reconciliation.