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Faculty of Music


Sounding Incarceration: The Colonial Hymn as Biopolitics

This paper considers the colonial hymn as a means of negotiating biopolitical strategies of control in the concentration camps of the South African War (1899–1902). In these spaces of enforced ‘congregating’, communal hymn singing emerged as a form of theological and aesthetic confrontation at the very moment that the modern concentration camp was invented. Eye-witness accounts of prison life in Afrikaner concentration camps, for example, reveal that the singing of Dutch-language psalm tunes and hymns occurred spontaneously at moments of personal and communal grief, as well as more formally in concentration camp funerals and prayer meetings; these hymns were also in stylistic tension with British hymnic traditions. Drawing on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theories of biopolitical control, concentration, and racial degeneration, I propose that during the South African War the concentration camp became a heightened site of re-negotiating spaces of enforced ‘congregating’. The colonial hymn, in this context, becomes a sonic means of responding to, reinforcing and resisting new, racialised forms of mass incarceration, through its ability to mediate trauma within interned spaces. In this way, the colonial hymn both embodies and contests early twentieth-century forms of ethnic incarceration as biopolitical control, offering a way to reimagine the genre of the hymn as a negotiation between the colonised and the coloniser; and between mass conformity and the agency of collective resistance. 

Erin Johnson-Williams is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Music at Durham University. Her research focuses on decolonisation, the imperial legacies of music education, trauma studies, gender and maternity, and soundscapes of colonial violence. Erin’s Leverhulme project, entitled ‘Audible Incarceration: Singing Communal Religion in Colonial Concentration Camps’, examines the role of singing, religious experience and trauma in spaces of colonial incarceration, with particular focus on the concentration camps of the South African War. Erin is currently working on several interdisciplinary publication projects, including co-editing The Oxford Handbook of Music Colonialism (forthcoming 2024); an interdisciplinary volume entitled Intersectional Encounters in the Nineteenth-Century Archive: New Essays on Power and Discourse (forthcoming 2022), and writing a monograph on sound and biopolitics in spaces of colonial incarceration.

Wednesday, 9 February, 2022 - 17:00
Event location: 
Recital Room, Faculty of Music and online via Zoom (email for link)