My current research situates women’s labor in electronics assembly within the history of electronic music and audio. I came to this topic while working towards the certificate offered by the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Columbia University. My certificate work was advised by Professor of music Ellie Hisama and Professor of sociology and gender studies and Dean of Social Science Alondra Nelson. Here is the bibliography for my IRWGS exam on electronic music and women’s factory labor.
Then, I presented a conference paper on women’s labor in electronics assembly at the first installment of the now-annual Women in Sound / Women on Sound symposium in 2015. On a panel with British live-coders Shelly Knotts and Joanne Armitage.
“Women in Electronic Sound Production: Expanding Categories,” Women in Sound / Women on Sound, Lancaster University, England, November 2015.
ABSTRACT: Gayatri Spivak calls the Third World woman factory worker the “paradigmatic subject of post- modern neo-colonialism.” How should feminist sound studies address the factory labor of Third World and immigrant women manufacturing electronics used in sound technologies? How can we speak to the repetitive work of women who are racially and sexually stereotyped as having ‘nimble fingers,’ being ‘detail oriented’ and ‘obedient?’ Although they are already de facto entangled in contemporary sound production, scholars have yet to enfold their lives and labor into discourses on electronic sound and women in music.
My paper explores the affective and material affinities between the global underclass of factory women and American composers of electronic music. My aim is to explore ways of thinking across U.S./Euro-centric feminist theory and third-world/diaspora feminism, and thinking across the different theoretical and ethical objectives of feminist sound studies and musicology. I propose that we situate composers’ work with consumer and DIY electronics in the contexts of the global division of labor and the intimate disciplining of women’s bodies. I will argue that expanding the category ‘women in music’ is a necessary step for sound studies, and I will show how this disciplinary decentering alters our interpretation of electronic sound.
I presented a second paper on women’s labor in electronics assembly at the 2016 Yale Graduate Music Symposium organized around the theme Sound Limits: Music and its Borders and keynoted by Columbia University Professor of Ethnomusicology Ana María Ochoa. My presentation was programmed as part of the opening panel on Gendered Work.
“Black Box White Box: Electronics Assembly and the Factory Museum,” Yale Graduate Music Symposium, Yale University, March 2016.
ABSTRACT: How can scholars of sound address the factory labor of the global underclass of women building electronics used in sound technologies? Although women workers in electronics assembly are already de facto entangled in contemporary sound production, scholars have yet to enfold their lives and labor into discourses on electronic sound. My paper calls not for more marginalized research on women’s labor but for a new disciplinary understanding of electronic sound and audio as fundamentally neo-colonial.
A shift in Anglophone discourse surrounding consumer sound technologies and electronic instruments reflects the history of transnational subcontracting in electronics assembly. By staking the racialized production of electronics against the technoscientific claim that electronic technologies ‘democratize’ musical production, I illustrate how sonic Whiteness is constructed from the neo-colonial networks of electronics assembly. I then explore the Western luxury of converting former factories into museums from an acoustic- architectural standpoint. These hollow, resonant monuments, I argue, betray the human cost of capitalism – all the bodies spent elsewhere. I interpret several site-specific installations for these spaces (by Kara Walker, Kevin Beasley, and others), which address women’s factory labor through sculpture and sound.
In August 2017, I published an introductory article on the topic in Organised Sound, titled “‘Nimble Fingers’ in Electronic Music: Rethinking Sound through Neocolonial Labour.” This piece suggests ways of bringing the topic of gendered labor in electronics assembly to our understanding of audio culture and technologized music-making.
In November 2018, I presented on the topic at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society.
“The Labor behind the Label,” Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, San Antonio, TX, November 2018.
ABSTRACT: It is notoriously difficult to trace the manufacturing pathways of sound technologies from speakers to electronic instruments. The cultural cachet of MADE IN labels on audio equipment occludes the gendered and racialized reality of subcontracting in the electronics industry, which overwhelmingly employs women on its factory floors. This is a paper about the economic and human conditions that make electronic music possible. Drawing on corporate and public records, popular music and technology publications, legislation, and activist archives, I survey the labor histories of several American manufacturers of audio equipment, and place them in dialogue with users’ fetishization of equipment made in the United States.
In the late twentieth century, the electronics assembly industry has employed increasingly vulnerable populations of women. The companies in my focus went from employing immigrant men in the United States, to women in the United States, to rural migrant women in Mexico, to rural migrant women in Southeast Asia. Although Donna Haraway reminds us that “some must labor invisibly for others [to be freed] through technology use,” feminist scholarship on music and sound still largely revolves around “exceptional” women musicians. Published histories about the music industry likewise scarcely mention women’s labor, and where they do, they typically gloss it with the same gendered and racialized stereotypes advertised by offshore plants: women’s supposed patience, respect for authority, ability to focus on the small scale, hands suited for delicate work, etc. Happily, a growing body of work in media studies exemplified by Lisa Nakamura’s research on Navajo women circuit-builders and the 2015 Routledge Companion to Labor and Media Studies recognizes digital culture as reliant on systems of labor centrally indebted to (and exploitative of) women. Building on this work, I recast the histories of manufacturing and consuming American audio equipment with women’s labor at the center, and question its gendered relationship to audiophile cultures.