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  • Writer's pictureGEM LAB

CANCELLED: Workshop with Professor Pooja Rangan: Dis/Audibility

March 13, 4-6 pm in the GEM Lab

Description: This workshop will explore how the problem of sensory access, and specifically the practice of audio description, shifts our understanding of documentary as a translational media practice. Taking its cue from Mara Mills and Jonathan Sterne’s term “dismedia,” which emphasizes disability as a constituting dimension of media, and media as a constituting dimension of disability, I ask how we can theorize documentary audibility—that is, documentary’s constitution of auditory regimes and habits of listening—from the perspective of dismediation and not immediation (Rangan 2017).

Audio description (AD) refers to the process of translating visual information into words for people who are blind or have low vision. A number of disability studies scholars and practitioners (eg: Kleege, Mills, Fryer, Thompson) have recently criticized industry norms and best practices for AD, which, in their emphasis on neutrality and objectivity, as well as their adherence to the sanctity of the “original” text, end up reinforcing ableist perspectives and textual constructions. Some of these critics hope to transform AD from an afterthought or retrofit (in films or audiovisual media the AD track is typically inserted in the spaces between dialogue) to an interpretive and creative genre. If AD is made an integral part of film production with the collaborative participation of blind protagonists and audiences, the thinking goes, it may lead to altogether new creative, social, and aesthetic innovations. 

Thus far, scholarly discussions of AD have tended to focus on narrative fiction, to the exclusion of documentary, where there exists a substantial critical tradition of theorizing the aporias of linguistic access and translation in exilic, intercultural, diasporic, and ethnographic cinema (eg: Naficy, Marks, MacDougall, Trinh), the ethical and aesthetic quagmires of participatory filmmaking, co-creation, and collaboration (eg: Ruby, Cizek, Rouch). How might these strains of documentary and disability studies, dealing respectively with the problems of linguistic and sensory translation-in-collaboration, mutually illuminate each other? What new questions do they surface regarding documentary and audibility? How does the conceptual framework of dis/audibility shift the critical and creative preoccupations of documentary?

Bio: Pooja Rangan is Associate Professor of English in Film & Media Studies at Amherst College. Her research revolves around documentary, voice, and the human, and she works on feminist and postcolonial media, critical theory, and cultural studies. She serve as President of the Board of Trustees of the Flaherty, home to the Flaherty Seminar, the longest continuously running annual film event devoted to the art of documentary film.

Her book, Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary (Duke UP, 2017) received the American Comparative Literature Association’s 2019 Harry Levin Prize for an outstanding first book, and was a finalist for the 2018 Association for the Arts of the Present Book Prize. This book examines the humanitarian ethic of “giving voice to the voiceless” in participatory documentary interventions that equip disenfranchised subjects with cameras and other media. You can read the introduction here

Her current book project, Audibilities: Listening with Documentary, asks how documentary films shape auditory culture, by modeling ways of speaking and listening. Publications related to this project include “Audibilities: Voice and Listening in the Penumbra of Documentary: An Introduction,” the introduction to a journal issue on Documentary Audibilities co-edited with Genevieve Yue (Discourse, 2017), “The Skin of the Voice: Acousmatic Illusions, Ventriloquial Listening” (in the anthology Sound Objects co-edited by Rey Chow and James Steintrager, Duke UP 2018), and “Auditing the Call Center Voice: Accented Speech and Listening in Sonali Gulati’s Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night (in the anthology Vocal Projections: The Voice in Documentary Film co-edited by Annabelle Honess Roe and Maria Pramaggiore, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). 


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