‘Raising Voice’ in Kathmandu: Sound, Publics, and Political Subjectivity

Laura Kunreuther (Bard College)
3/06/2014

In this paper, I explore practices associated with ‘raising voice’ (āwāj uthāune), a discourse that has become prominent in public media and popular speech in Nepal particularly since the democracy movements of 1990 and 2006. Āwāj uthāune clearly resonates with global discourses of the voice as a metonym of political agency, consciousness, and empowerment. But unlike the English term “voice,” āwāj also refers to material, “natural” or “non-human” noise and sounds that fall outside of discourse and sometimes defy intentional meaning. Many examples of ‘raising voice’ that I discuss here entail the broadcast of non-discursive sounds through various media – the FM radio, street protests, performance art. The discourse of āwāj and āwāj uthāune thus asks us to take seriously the connections between political metaphors of voice and the social politics of sound in understanding contemporary political subjectivity within Nepal and beyond its borders. What kinds of sounds do people associate with the notion of ‘raising voice’ and democracy – and what kinds of desires and subjects do these sounds animate? How might we rethink the global metaphor of voice by interrogating it through the concept of āwāj? By focusing on the materiality of the sounds of āwāj uthāune, I argue that sound plays a key role in the affective and embodied dimensions of political subjectivity. Moreover I suggest, sound itself must be recognized as having political dimensions.

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