The Power Of Sound As Social Currency

Voice.  What a powerful word. So much so, society refers to those marginalized by saying they “don’t have a voice” or they are “not heard”.  Speaking and hearing, having a voice and feeling heard – these concepts are important to human beings.  We place a great deal of weight on them. Although we don’t always mean them literally, those expressions come from a literal place of speaking, and being loud enough to be heard.  We use the term in art as well.  Of course, there is the literal voice of a singer or actor, but we also talk about an artist “finding” her/his voice. We teachers even look for evidence of voice in the writing of our students.

I have written about voice before because I believe it has much to do with empowerment, and I believe that those who feel silenced, unheard or misunderstood fail to thrive.  Those who don’t feel they have a voice or can’t seem to find their voice may feel inconsequential or ignored.

TED Talk

That is why I was so intrigued by the TED talk given by Artist and TED Fellow Christine Sun Kim.  She was born deaf and uses ASL to communicate, as well as using interpreters who can literally give her a voice.  Christine Sun Kim talks about many things, but what struck me most was her idea of sound as social currency.  I never thought of it in that way before, but those in our society who cannot speak or hear have a very different experience with sound than those of us who can.  She observed that we have an auditory society, and those who can create and hear sound as social currency than those who need to communicate without sound.

I always had a fascination with sign language and how closely linked to dance it is.  I never thought about relating it to music, but Christine Sun Kim has.  Rather than walking around feeling disempowered because she did not have a literal voice, she decided to reclaim sound and throw out conventional ideas around it.  She is a visual artist interested in exploring the relationship between music and ASL.

Here is how she describes Sound as Social Currency relationship:

For example, a musical note cannot be fully captured and expressed on paper. The same holds true for a concept in ASL. They’re both highly spatial and highly inflected — meaning that subtle changes can affect the entire meaning of both signs and sounds… I started thinking, “What if I was to look at ASL through a musical lens?” If I was to create a sign and repeat it over and over, it could become like a piece of visual music.

To demonstrate, Christine Sum Kim had the audience perform several signs with her.  It was an auditorium full of people and they silently, in unison, created these signs under her direction.  For me it was incredibly powerful, moving, and beautiful.  She encouraged us as a society to think about delving into ASL and giving sound as social currency.  In a society that is increasingly bombarded with stimulation of every kind, this idea of cutting out one of the senses, and communicating powerfully yet silently is incredibly seductive to me.  Also, it makes me think in a whole different way about how we can be more equitable in our society, and make sure that everyone has a voice.