A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Of Sound, Bodies, and Immersive Experience: Sonic Rhetoric and its Affordances in The Virtual Martin Luther King Project

Victoria Gallagher, NC State University
Cynthia Rosenfeld, NC State University
Conner Tomlison, NC State University

(Published May 16, 2022)


The Virtual Martin Luther King (vMLK) Project is the name for the collective audio and visual experiences, as well as pedagogical techniques and community events, produced by a re-enactment of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1960 speech, “A Creative Protest,” which is commonly known as the “Fill Up the Jails” speech. Although there is a transcript of this influential speech, there is no known recording. On June 8, 2014, “A Creative Protest” (originally delivered on February 16, 1960) was re-enacted by voice actor Mr. Marvin Blanks and a public audience, which included members of the White Rock Baptist Church at its new location in Durham, North Carolina. Over 250 people attended the recreation event, 10 to 15 of whom also attended Dr. King’s original speech in 1960; members of the Durham Ministerial Alliance and North Carolina State University (NC State) community were also in attendance. The speaker and audience engaged in a spontaneous call-and-response, meaning that the audible audience engagement heard on the recordings of the recreation event were not scripted. Digital and audio technologies afford subsequent audiences the experience of the re-enactment at sites including NC State University and the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian.

The vMLK Project engages individuals and groups in the hermeneutic act of experiencing and interpreting what was, what is, and what has never been in relation to public address and civic transformation (e.g., racial justice). The project does so by foregrounding the role of sound to demonstrate how hearing a digitally recreated King speech from 1960 leads to powerful affective and cognitive responses from audiences’ embodied experiences. However, as Erin Anderson articulates the need to avoid reifying visual rhetoric as the modality of public culture, critics, theorists, and designers/composers must also avoid conceptualizing sonic rhetoric as the modality of public discourse. At the same time, because of the shift in rhetorical studies toward considerations of materiality and multimodality, adding to and enhancing conceptual frameworks that take sound seriously and offering both practical and theoretical contributions are worthy tasks. This study is particularly timely given Anderson’s claim that “sound studies scholars have made great strides toward highlighting the role of music, noise, and non-verbal sound as powerful modes of sensory experience, politics and persuasion.” Previous analysis of audience response data has demonstrated how and to what extent embodied experiences of the vMLK Project encourage a readiness for civic engagement (Gallagher et al.  “Public Address296). This analysis, in turn, illuminates the locative, generative, and comparative aspects of sound that help constitute that embodied experience.

Literature Review: Rhetorical Functions of Sound

Amid a growing material turn in the communication arts and sciences broadly considered, this study proposes sonic rhetoric as a basis for exploring its immersive embodied experience, its materiality, and its consequences. Steph Ceraso’s observation that “[s]ound is an especially ideal medium for better understanding multimodal experiences” because it is “a multimodal event that involves the synesthetic convergence of sight, sound, and touch” offers a succinct justification for our focus on sound (104). Other authors have likewise noted a few of the unique properties of sound and its role in material-cultural embodiment. For instance, Justin Eckstein describes the immersive, immediate, and embodied qualities of sound (165). Jonathan Stone, meanwhile, calls attention to how attending to sound as rhetoric “decenters traditional approaches to and understandings of cultural history and historiography” and instead highlights historical indeterminacies and multiplicities of perspective. His analysis of the Lomax prison recordings engages questions of how the materiality of sound, like all modes, is necessarily curated, remediated, and framed through technological and institutional restrictions and affordances. At the same time, Stone argues that attending to the interaction between the material and symbolic can reveal new (and forgotten) understandings of sonic artifacts. Recent work on the impact of the vMLK Project has already demonstrated the critical importance of sound in situating an audience and fostering historical and civic engagement (Gallagher et al., “Public Address” 281). In that study, student response data demonstrated how and to what extent the vMLK Project situates students in a particular space and historical context, resulting in communication outcomes. These outcomes include a form of cognitive attention that is conducive to reflection and fosters civic engagement.

Together, these and other scholarly contributions provide the basis for exploring how sound’s enargeia, or capacity to bring before the ears, can provoke enriching, culturally situated experiences (Detweiler 214). What remains to be explored in depth is the specific role that sound as material rhetoric plays in immersive embodiment and the construction of this type of experience. By material rhetoric, we mean that which is manifest in a real context and primarily signifies not through symbols or abstraction, but through the physically resonant (both sonically and engaging sympathetic movement) properties of the sound artifact itself (Blair; Dickson). In the review that follows, we outline several embodying functions that sound serves. By synthesizing and expanding on existing literature on sonic effects, we explore the ways in which sound locates an audience, generates a response demand, and highlights the materiality of experience.


Fundamentally, sound’s locative quality can be attributed to how the brain interprets varied resonances that allow humans to estimate a sound’s source in 3D space. Sound, then, is manipulated and polluted as it moves through an environment, offering contextual information, like ambient noises and reverberation, that illustrate a location in space. The tone, accent, and grain of a voice can provide broader cultural and material context, while customs and institutions shape what, why, when, where, and how sound can be made in any given context.

In her book, Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture, Frances Dyson develops a framework for addressing what she would argue is an ill-attended to aspect of materiality, namely sound in artwork. In doing so, she makes a compelling argument about the emphasis placed on the concept of immersion, particularly in relation to sound and what she describes as new media. Dyson argues that immersion is a condition “whereby the viewer becomes totally enveloped in and transformed by the ‘virtual environment’” (2). However, for her, it is sound that is pivotal for this immersion; it is sound that “surrounds” us. It is the idea of immersion that shifts our focus from “aesthetic” questions turning to those of “embodiment” (Dyson 2). As Dyson and others argue, while human vision is generally 180 degrees, hearing expands our embodied experience to 360 degrees. Dyson’s work is thus, as demonstrated below, particularly useful for illuminating the vMLK experiences and audience responses.

Eric Detweiler, meanwhile, offers a reimagining of the Progymnasmata to teach students the principles of rhetoric in the increasingly influential medium of digital audio. The final two exercises in Detweiler’s lesson plan examine similar concepts to those that students take up in their responses to the vMLK Project. Detweiler’s fourth exercise calls for students to create an immersive soundscape of a particular place, rethinking rhetorical concepts like enargeia and ekphrasis non-discursively—as “bringing-before-the-ears” (214). His fifth exercise involves recreating a historical speech through a combination of imitation and digital sampling, paralleling the vMLK listening experience and drawing attention to historical and acoustic context in a somewhat similar manner (214-215). By focusing the students’ attention on context and sonic immersion (and, as Detweiler emphasizes, careful and respectful engagement with a historical community), these exercises invoke this locative function of sound.

The locative property of sound, having to do with the immersive nature of vividly bringing-before-the-ears, offers a particularly powerful way to engage with a text and its context. For instance, Jonathan Alexander offers a more abstract take on sound’s locative function when he describes Glenn Gould’s “The Idea of the North.” Alexander explains that in this fugal soundscape and collage of interviews with residents of Canada’s northern, frontier pianist and sound artist Gould uses sound to “locate” listeners at the intersection of isolation and interdependency, or of romanticized myth and racist narrative (84). Alexander cites McNelly in describing how this fugal listening experience offers the listener insight into the diversity of human experience and perspective (85).

While the discursive and visual elements played an important part, students’ responses indicated that sound was “crucial to positioning them within the experience” (Gallagher et al., “Public Address” 289). Previously, Victoria Gallagher and colleagues examined how the vMLK Project functions similarly to Gould’s work to facilitate engagement with community history, immerse visitors in a historical moment, and deepen their understanding of civil rights history in relation to contemporary civic life. Just as in “The Idea of the North,” Gould’s use of sound locates listeners at the intersection of different ideological perspectives (according to Alexander), so the sonic rhetoric of the vMLK Project locates visitors in different spatial and temporal perspectives. Examining student responses to illuminate this locative function and its consequences is thus central to further explicating how sound appeals to and impacts bodies.


More than simply immersing audiences, sound has the capacity to hail or call to embodied subjects from whom a response is required. In considering how a soundscape can call audiences not only to attend but also to respond, Detweiler references Al-Ibrahim’s “Calling Thunder,” which utilizes immersive sound in conjunction with visuals to connect a historical past with future action (213). This media experience allows users to explore present-day Manhattan while immersed in the soundscape of the island before European colonization. “Calling Thunder” demands not only an immediate response from users as they engage with the virtual environment, but a civic response as they simultaneously attend to the natural soundscapes of what might have been, according to Dr. Eric Sanderson, “the crowning glory of American national parks” (213).

Drawing equally on the philosophy and science of sound, Paul Jasen explores the generative function of sound through two “myths” of audiogenesis. Based on research and anomalous case studies that illustrate the disorienting multi-sensory effects of powerful and low frequency sounds, he offers productive speculation on Donald Tuzin’s theory of the audiogenesis of religious culture. The theory posits, religious rituals—which often employ instruments designed to make these types of sounds (consider the pipe organ or the bullroarer)—originated, in part, to tie this mystifying embodied experience to a supernatural source. Jasen then considers an audiogenesis of dance. As low frequency sound moves through the body, the sound interrupts other material flows and defamiliarizes movement on both the molecular and the molar level. The discomfort and anxiety that result from the body being shaken according to different rhythmic logics demand movement and exploration to release this tension. He suggests that dance tests flows and motion in a space permeated with interesting vibrations, a response demand from the materiality of sonic experience.

Because the vMLK Project uses immersive sound to invite visitors to engage with the virtual space (for instance, to move around the VR simulation of the church sanctuary or listen to the speech from different perspectives) which, in turn, may engender a sense of responsibility and desire for action in visitors, examining this generative aspect of sound is particularly important. As Patricia Hill Collins and Feminista Jones have demonstrated, the practice of call-and-response is central to the Black rhetorical tradition. Particularly, listeners can participate in the establishment of community through calling by engaging emotionally, physically, and spiritually (Collins 280; Jones 38).


Finally, because sound bridges a gap between symbolic text and embodied experience, it serves a comparative function that highlights differences between the materiality of text and of experience. Ceraso specifically connects an awareness of the materiality of sonic experiences with fulfilling, aesthetic experiences (109-110). She takes a multimodal and decidedly material approach to sound, describing sound as experienced not just aurally but visually and tactilely. Ceraso cites Dame Evelyn Glennie (a renowned percussionist who lost her hearing during childhood and learned to listen tactilely and visually) who examines bodily responses to and visual cues of sounds, especially low frequency and high intensity sounds (107-109). Both Glennie and Ceraso advocate for this multimodal listening, which emphasizes acts of listening as fully embodied experiences that have the capacity to shape future experiences. As a method of curating sound experiences (a “sound diet”) and attending to the multimodality of sound, multimodal listening both highlights the specific materiality of experience and enhances one’s abilities to engage meaningfully with experiences in the future (109-110). Both cases, as well, draw particularly on sound’s vividness and capacity to inspire wonder to evoke civic response. So, in addition to examining the three functions of sound indicated above, our analysis also examines the impact of sound on visitors’ bodies and on their perspective taking in response to their experience of the vMLK Project.

In this study, we seek to demonstrate how and to what extent the vMLK project contributes to and extends perspectives on rhetorical sound studies/sonic rhetorics because of its structure, the way in which sound calls to an embodied audience, and the uptake of that embodied experience as indicated by audience feedback. Specifically, this study uses the vMLK Project to examine how the functions of sound are made manifest in users’/audiences’ experiences and how the materiality of sound contributes to the construction of immersive, embodied experience. First, we examine how the locative function of sound positions visitors in relation to the speaker and to others within the immersive space and the contemporary, historical moment. Second, we analyze how sound serves a generative function by hailing visitors’ bodies to enact the role of audience members for the speech and, as a result, as participants in a rhetorical situation that requires something of them in response. Third, we consider how and to what extent sound serves a comparative function by highlighting for visitors the difference between the materiality of texts and of immersive experiences. Finally, we examine the impact of sound on visitors’ bodies and on their perspective in response to their experience of the vMLK Project.

Based on this review of the literature on sonic rhetoric, the following research questions provided a framework for examining how students in the public speaking course characterize their experiences of the vMLK Project:

(RQ1): How do students characterize their experience of the mediated sonic elements of the vMLK Project?

  1. How do students characterize the locative aspects of sound in the vMLK experience?
  2. How do students characterize the generative aspects of sound in the vMLK experience?
  3. How do students characterize the comparative aspects of sound in the vMLK experience?

(RQ2): What are the embodied experiential effects of the vMLK mediated sound exhibits on students in public speaking courses?

  1. How do individuals describe the impact of sound on their bodies?
  2. How do individuals describe the role of sound in perspective taking?

The vMLK Experience

The vMLK Project is conceptualized as a “kit of parts,” meaning that experiences/exhibitions of the vMLK Project, both online and in-person, may include any of the following components (see fig. 1): 

Overview of the vMLK Project's different components and how participants engage with them.

Figure 1. The vMLK Kit of Parts

  • The 8-minute “Royal Ice Cream Sit-in Documentary,” which provides socio-historical context through its depiction of the sit-ins to end segregated seating at Royal Ice Cream in downtown Durham in 1957, setting the stage for King’s invitation to speak at the White Rock Baptist Church in February 1960.
  • Individual listening options. The vMLK project website (vmlk.chass.ncsu.edu) features multiple audience perspectives from which one can listen to the entire “A Creative Protest” speech, such as from the podium, front row, and balcony.
  • Collective sound experiences. The collective sound experience of “A Creative Protest” can take place in-person or through virtual conferencing. In-person, NC State’s Hunt Library hosts the sound experience in a room with multiple speakers, offering students the capacity to physically move through the different audio perspectives. Online, instructors host collective listening experiences by using video conferencing software and sharing the sound.
  • A virtual reality rendering of the 1960 speech; the entirety of “A Creative Protest” can be viewed on an Oculus Rifts Headset or on the vMLK Project’s website as a virtual reality rendering from the perspective of the front row (see Figure 2),

The Virtual Reality experience from a front row perspective.

Figure 2. Virtual reality

  • Gaming platform experiences. The gaming platform experiences allow participants to move through the virtual reality rendering of “A Creative Protest” on a gaming computer.
  • A reflection space known as “Your Creative Protest.” In-person, a separate room is dedicated as a reflection space where participants can write their reflections to the prompts: “An idea whose time has come…,” “A creative protest is…,” and “General reflection.” Online, instructors use shared content-generation platforms, like Google Sheets or Padlet, for students to engage in synchronous reflection on the experience.

Method and Analysis: vMLK and Public Speaking

Data Collection

For the purposes of this study, data was collected from 18 students enrolled in a section of a public speaking course at a state university during the Fall of 2020. Previous exhibitions of the vMLK Project for public speaking at this university primarily took place in technology-equipped spaces within the university’s library. However, the COVID pandemic necessitated a completely virtual experience of the vMLK Project during 2020. At the beginning of the fall semester, public speaking instructors were trained on how to engage with the vMLK Project digitally. The data for this paper focuses on the experience of 18 students enrolled in a hybrid asynchronous/synchronous section of Public Speaking (i.e., the lectures of the course were asynchronous and one class period a week was synchronous and devoted to conversation and activities). This course was also noteworthy because of its vast geospatial dispersion: not only were students learning in their dorms, apartments, and homes across the state and the United States, but this class was also offered to international students in China. The geospatial difference also produced a temporal divide in the class. While the students based in the United States attended the class at 8:30 am, students in China were attending at 8:30 pm.

The course had “vMLK Week” between October 26-30, 2020. Between Monday and Wednesday, students asynchronously watched: (1) a video of their instructor introducing the vMLK Project, contextualizing it for the course, and emphasizing the role of sound in collective experiences; (2) “The Story of the vMLK Project,” a documentary that provided a behind-the-scenes look on the life of the project; (3) “The Royal Ice Cream Sit-in Documentary,” which provided socio historical context for the original speech; and (4) perused the vMLK website (vmlk.chass.ncsu.edu). On Thursdays, students attended one of two synchronous sessions. In these synchronous sessions, students first reflected on what they learned from the documentaries. Next, the instructor shared her screen and audio, and students collectively listened to the recreation of “A Creative Protest” in its entirety. Students then verbally shared their experience of the speech and collaborated on a Google Sheet, which collected their reflections on the following prompts: “A creative protest is…,” “An idea whose time has come is...,” and “General Reflections.” Finally, students were briefly introduced to the VR experience and encouraged to spend more time with the VR experience individually.

To get an idea of the affordances of sound in this digital and distanced terrain, Cynthia Rosenfeld had her public speaking students complete a final examination based on questions typically asked of visitors to the in-person, public vMLK exhibitions and informed by a literature review conducted by Conner Tomlinson and Victoria Gallagher on the locative, generative, and comparative affordances of sound. These questions were:

  1. How did your position relative to the speaker influence your experience? Did you enjoy the experience more from a certain position in the VR simulation? Was there a position you enjoyed less? Why?
  2. How did the presence of the audience in the VR influence your experience? Was there a position you enjoyed more in relation to members of the audience?
  3. How might the acoustic and visual affordances and limitations of the venue at which Dr. King delivered his speech contributed to the delivery and reception of the speech? How might the experience of the speech have been different in another setting (e.g., a speech delivered in an amphitheater or on Zoom)?
  4. What are some ways a speaker might make use of their location and environment to advance a claim or point of view?
  5. Describe the characteristics of the speaker's voice (e.g., tone, timbre, fullness, cadence, and other unique aspects of the voice) and discuss how the speaker's voice affected your perception of the speech.
  6. How might you tailor your own composition and delivery to the unique properties of your voice and the place/space/format in which you give your speech?

Data Analysis

The 18 written responses were originally categorized according to exam questions (exam questions 1-6, described above) and analyzed via qualitative content analysis to make sense of the data. Qualitative content analysis “refers to the description and interpretation of the content, structure, purposes, and consequences” and combines rhetorical analysis with qualitative thematic analysis (Tracy 80). Qualitative analysis allows for self-reflexivity of the researchers, rich contextual information, and thick description of the phenomenon being investigated (Tracy 2-3). It also honors participants’ local meanings and illuminates a multitude of interpretations while drawing attention to theoretically compelling and practically important perspectives (Tracy 7). Qualitative content analysis embodies a “social justice commitment to study the social world from the perspective of the interacting individual” (Denzin and Lincoln xvi). As a result of the historically and culturally specific nature of qualitative content analysis, findings are not readily generalizable. Instead, qualitative content analysis offers “the potential for interpretations to evoke rich and unpredictable associations for readers” who can consider how a study’s claims might transfer to their own situation (Lindlof and Taylor 355).

This project utilized both inductive (emic) and deductive (etic) coding techniques of content analysis to account for both the open-ended nature of the exam and for the theoretically informed prompts. In other words, this project engaged an abductive approach to analysis. Credited to American pragmatist Charles S. Peirce, abduction “refers to the back and forth process” of considering existing theories and emergent qualitative data in content analysis (Tracy 28).

Inductive coding was completed first by the third author. Inductive codes began with in vivo coding, that is codes that are pulled directly from participants’ own language (Saldaña 77). In vivo coding allows analysts to explore the emergent qualitative data (Saldaña 78). In this study, in vivo codes were used to explore what else participants were saying about their experience beyond the questions derived from our literature review. A second level of inductive codes were created from the in vivo codes, an open coding of the actions described by the students (Lindlof and Taylor 318-319). For example, the in vivo code "audience pulls me back and keeps me in check and I feel like I am actually part of it" became the active code “describing embodied sensation produced by audience presence.” Inductive codes were used to add texture to the deductive codes. By first coding the data set inductively, we had a rich variety of descriptions and actions at hand to assist in analyzing the deductive codes.

The deductive codes were derived from a literature review on the locative, generative, and comparative properties of sound. After the codebook was developed, the second and third authors separately coded the entire data set and made process notes while coding. Once both authors were done coding, the codebook was refined. The second and third author then met and talked through each coding discrepancy and completed coding, which included removing some items from the dataset that did not pertain directly to sound. For example, the following response was removed from the dataset because it did not offer insight on the effects of sound:

The location and environment of the speech can be used in the speech to better advance points in the speech. Knowing the time and environment of the speech when it is being given at first can affect the way a speech could be introduced. For example, it could be remarked that it is the anniversary of a certain day, or it could be remarked that in the location the speech is being given, it has been a certain number of years since a certain historical event has occurred, and both can be used as a hook into the topic of the speech.

Inductive and deductive codes were then analyzed together, and exemplary quotes— “selected segments of data that we use to advance an argument by demonstrating and illustrating its claims” –are  woven into the analysis below (Lindlof and Taylor 349).


Characterization of Sound Experience

(RQ1a) Locative Aspects of Experience

Students' responses to the prompts described the most overt and fundamental property of sound: its immersive capacities. To elaborate, sound functions to immerse the listener in the virtual experience and the historical moment of the speech and to position the listener not only physically/spatially in relation to the speaker and virtual audience but also culturally/historically in relation to the original speech and its context. The key to this locative function is the materiality and three-dimensionality of sound, phenomena exemplified by students’ descriptions of how “[t]he sound of the speaker's voice echoing off the walls makes you feel like you can hear it all around you” (Hear Clip 1). Because of this, acoustic cues play an important and distinct role in locating students spatially. Students consistently described how a clearer and more sonically full perception of the voice indicated physical closeness and intimacy with the speaker (Hear Clip 2), while the reverberations of his voice through the virtual church indicated distance from the speaker and highlighted the spectacle of the occasion in a fuller historical context (Hear Clip 3).

Just as essential to this locative function, and even more evident when listening farther from the speaker, are the non-discursive sounds from the audience. "Sitting aways [sic] from the speaker," one student wrote, "the audience’s cheers, claps, and their voices surround me and I feel like I was actually there with them” (Hear Clip 4). Another student concisely explained how sound located them in relation to the audience and the speaker based on their perspective. For them, the sonic clarity of the front row position allowed them to focus on the text, and let them understand "the full range of emotions he was trying to convey through his speech and tone of voice" (Hear Clip 5). From the center of the congregation, where the listener is immersed in the audience but the speaker is still present, "you really have the full experience and range of emotions” (Hear Clip 6). Finally, from the balcony, where the audience is the loudest and most present, a student observed that “you can really feel the energy of the audience and you start feeling the same emotions.”

In addition to physical spatial location, students described how sound virtually situated them in social and historical relations and perspectives that they might not have otherwise experienced. For instance, one respondent wrote that "sitting behind Dr. King inferred a feeling of being on his side and standing with him and his message," while another described how being sonically immersed in the virtual congregation made them feel "a part of something bigger, [...] a movement much larger than yourself." One student detailed how the audience reactions functioned to reorient them to the historical context of the speech. "On one hand you know the context of what he’s speaking on from growing up and learning American history," they wrote, "but on the other hand already knowing what this is about makes it easier to tune out. The audience helps to combat this.” Even when describing the effect of the visuals of the VR experience, one student resorted to auditory metaphors, writing: "seeing the many eyes and heads follow the words that left Martin Luther King Jr’s mouth; [the experience was] almost as if I were a single note in the magnificent orchestral piece that was this speech.”  These, and similar responses, address the capacity of immersive sound experiences, as discussed by Alexander, to locate audiences in and between different discourses, ones that might be otherwise inaccessible to the listener.

Beyond the strictly material effects of sound, one student used particularly tactile metaphors to address how the acoustics of the space specifically evoked the rich cultural meanings of a church. “I felt his words at every angle,” they wrote, “and the amplified echoes struck me harder than many I had heard before[...] the area and speech still felt very formal, but also felt hopeful, especially under the protection of god.” Contrasting this distinctive acoustic signature with a space of similar acoustic function, they describe how “[a]n amphitheater would mimic the echo but wouldn’t be able to replicate the power behind the echo.”

(RQ1b) Generative Aspects of Experience

Students articulated the generative property of sound by describing how they were interpellated as audience members and called to act in the immediate virtual moment and/or the contemporary social moment. One student described the experience, stating “it felt as if Martin Luther [King] was speaking directly to me.” The student went on to describe the perspective from the front as feeling “like a citizen standing before the court”—summarizing this sense of being called or hailed and compelled to action (Hear Clip 2). The generative function was found to be particularly intertwined with the other functions, interpellation was typically the result of location within a particular material or social context and action was often prompted by a sonic experience more materially compelling than non-embodied text.

Students articulated several different types of “response demands” with regards to sound. First, an attention demand was consistently foregrounded, as the call and response from the audience indicated moments of collective importance that were deserving of attention. Likewise, the pacing and volume of the speaker's voice “causes the audience to pay attention and really dig in to what he will say next” (Hear Clip 7). Aside from capturing attention, sound was described as demanding an immediate response. This includes engaging with the various virtual perspectives, taking up various historical perspectives (“you can put yourself in the shoes of those who were there, this allows you to feel how the audience felt”), and engaging cognitively and emotionally with the message (one student affirmed that the experience “motivates [the audience] and gives them hope by deeply affecting them”). Closely related, several students remarked on a response demand of silence, describing how periods of silence following important points “allow audience reactions,” “let the crowd ponder on what he just said,” and give audiences a chance to "take a second and be in the moment” (Hear Clip 8). Finally, several students described a social response demand, compelling not just contemplation but sustained action in the contemporary moment. As one student put it, "[t]he speech was more than just an empowering speech where people leave impressed but do not change.”

(RQ1c) Comparative Aspects of Experience

In discussing the effects of the vMLK project, students made comparisons between the materiality of the sound experience (or sound experiences in general) and that of non-embodied text. Often students would articulate energy as a tactile, sonic impression of emotion, with testimonies describing how “the energy of the audience and the emotions of the speaker at the same time” demonstrated “the full experience and range of emotions,” or how “the audience reactions and responses throughout the speech were a reflection of King’s energy just as you could tell he was also feeding off of their energy” (Hear Clip 4). The speaker's voice was consistently described with tactile language as well. One student described how they could "feel what he was saying and not just hear it" and another described "the voice’s fullness[...] his voice is very heavy.” Where energy was described as a force of material tactility, empowerment was similarly articulated as a particularly sonic force of material consequence. This is another point of intersection between the functions of sound. In highlighting the uniquely experiential empowerment of being a part of the congregation, students simultaneously drew on the locative phenomenon of immersion and the generative phenomena of interpellation and movement to action.

Another frequent comparison involved the differences between a richly embodied experience versus one that preserves transparency of text. Importantly, this material comparison is not one of hierarchy, but of different affordances and limitations, with some students preferring one over the other. Those that preferred richness of experience indicated a preference for the congregation perspective over the podium perspective. There, the students sometimes lost a clear understanding of the speaker's words or the full expression of his delivery, but they gained the experience of being surrounded by the reverberations of the speaker's voice and the sense of being part of an embodied audience. One student, who indicated a slight preference for sitting closer to the podium for its clearer sound, described the understanding that “the front is better for focusing on the speech while the back seems to promote more crowd engagement” (Hear Clip 2).

Enargeia and Sound Experience

Impact of Sound on Bodies

Students described the impact that the sound experience had on them beyond the content of the speech. They articulated that sound possessed sensorial (e.g., the feeling of reverberations), affective (e.g., a feeling of intimacy), and material (e.g., “depth” and “fullness”) qualities. Students traced the “energy of the speech” as emanating from the echoes and audience reverberations (Hear Clip 1); the cadence, timbre, and resonance of the speaker’s voice (Hear Clip 7); and the audience’s reactions (Hear Clip 4).

Students frequently articulated a connection between the audience perspective and their experience of the speech. Many students described the balcony as feeling “far away,” with one student even evoking a very visual sense of feeling “more like [they] was watching the experience” as opposed to feeling in the experience. The position from the floor was described as “immersing,” with one student proclaiming, “I felt like I was there.” Both the floor and balcony perspectives encircled students with the sounds of the audience, which one student described both affectively and materially, stating, “I felt as if I weren’t alone, and that I was contributing to an amazingly large phenomenon changing the very environment we sat in.” The auditory perspective offered from the podium was described as clearer and stronger but also “felt more alone.” Across all positions, some students found the effects of echoes to be distancing, while others felt the echoes contributed to the fullness and immersion of the experience.

In addition to the various audience perspectives, students also reflected on the vocal qualities of the voice actor portraying Dr. King. The actor’s voice was frequently described in material terms as possessing “fullness” and “depth.” The material experience of the actor’s voice was perhaps best exemplified by the student who described the voice as “very full and easily filled the room.” This is a striking statement in the context of the listening experience: students engaged in a collective listening experience with the instructor sharing audio over Zoom. Other students reflected on the affective qualities of the actor’s voice; one student described his voice as possessing “authority, passion, and wisdom.” The timbre, resonance, and rhythm of the actor’s voice was said to communicate both “assurance” and “urgency.”

(RQ2b) Role of Sound in Perspective Taking

Students articulated how the sound experience contributed to both a sense of historical perspective taking and to the creation of new perspectives. The vMLK sound experience contributed to a subject position partially afforded by the audible presence of the audience. One student described how the audience pulled the student in and made them “feel like [they were] actually part of it” (Hear Clip 4). Another said that sounds of the audience created a persuasive sense of auditory endorsement. The audible presence of the audience generated a transhistorical sense of community with the congregation of White Rock Baptist Church and a sense of being empowered by and with this community:

[B]eing in the audience helped me feel empowered with everyone clapping and agreeing. If I was the sole person in the audience, the speech would have still been inspiring, but not to the same degree. The presence and the sound of other people make it easier to understand because you can see how other people are reacting.

Further, students found themselves willing to experience the speech in ways they might not be open to in a face-to-face encounter:

My favorite position was on the floor amidst the congregation, as there it felt like I was the most a part of things. This is odd, as usually I don’t like to be in the middle of crowds, however in this situation because it was a virtual reality presentation and I wasn’t actually next to all of those people, it was the best spot to feel a part of things.

This is not to say that all students experienced the presence of the audience as positively contributing to perspective taking. One student expressed displeasure with the audible presence of the audience “as [they] feel the crowd can sometimes take away from the speech, causing the words to be drowned out by the cheering.” This comment speaks to the primacy of the text and emphasizes that one’s perspective of a speech emerges from the capacity to clearly hear and comprehend the content. In contrast, another student articulated that “having other members in the audience during the speech made the simulation a lot more realistic.” The student elaborated that the audible experience of the audience “helped [them] realize how deep the message was that Dr. King was trying to spread,” a realization that the student stated would not have been possible from reading a transcript of the speech.


Michelle Comstock and Mary E. Hocks suggest that the material turn in rhetorical studies has resulted in many studies on the visual, but not on sound to the same degree (167). There are certainly scholarly projects that illustrate a material turn in sonic rhetorical studies (Ahern; Eckstein, “Radiolab’s,” “Sound”; Gunn et al.; Rickert), and there are other sonic or sound-based projects that examine sound as central to mental and spiritual transformation. For instance, Farinelli and the King is a story of music as a medium for mental transformation that describes how Spanish King Philip V alleviated his depression by listening to the ethereal voice of the 18th century castrato Farinelli (Bray). This artistic depiction is consistent with contemporary studies that examine how music generates emotions in listeners (Oatley and Johnson-Laird 137). In another instance, a project titled “Hearing the Lost Sounds of Antiquity,”  in which researchers sought to create “acoustic photocopies” of ancient sacred spaces to create a sense of the experience of early Greek Orthodox church, articulated the pivotal role of sound in spiritual transformation. They describe their project as a transdisciplinary acoustic archeology and note that “[w]hen you hear and see simultaneously, your body has a very powerful experience” (Abrams). 

Like these latter two examples, the Virtual Martin Luther King project developed from a similar desire to explore the role of sound in human transformation. However, in this case, the role of sound in social transformation, particularly in relation to attitudes on race. While rhetorical critics have long theorized and taught that rhetorical performances, particularly public speeches, can lead to the transformation of thoughts, attitudes, and actions, analyses and interpretations have focused more on the words of the speaker than the aural or sound aspects of the experience and on invention and arrangement rather than the sonic qualities of delivery. Additionally, while digital technologies have been described as more or less immersive, there has been relatively little work done on the role of sound in the quality and level of immersion experienced by audiences. By conceptualizing and then testing a materially-grounded notion of sound’s rhetoricity—through our analysis of audience/student response data above—this study provides significant contributions to address these gaps. The first is a conceptualization of sound’s material rhetoricity as being grounded in vivid sonic/multimodal depictions, resulting in immersive experiences characterized by locative, generative and comparative elements/affordances, and leading to self-realization, social and culturally situated fulfillment, and expressions of virtue. The second contribution is a demonstration of how this type of project may be analyzed or assessed in relation to these characteristics.

As the results above indicate, students experienced the shared listening component of the vMLK Project in locative, generative, and comparative ways that afforded an embodied sense of self-realization. Students reported that the vMLK experience immersed them via a vivid sonic depiction that left them feeling empowered and wanting to effect change. The locative, generative, and comparative affordances of sound further illuminate how the vMLK Project helps contribute to a sense of being ready and empowered to engage in civic activity (Gallagher et al., “Public Address” 294).

The students’ descriptions of their embodied experience with sound further illuminates our understanding of how sound destabilizes any conceptualization of an active rhetor speaking to a passive audience and, for that matter, a passive, inert environment, and functions as a synesthetic convergence of (at least) sight, sound, and touch (Ceraso 104). Toward the first point, students often reflected on how the rich relationship between the actor’s voice and the church entangled--the qualities of the voice reflecting off the church walls--to produce an echo that seemed to envelop the listener. This aspect of the sonic experience supports Rickert’s description of a vibrant rhetorical place, or “chōra”, that grounds embodied minds in “material environments, informational spaces, and affective registers” (43, 45). Further, the notion of audience as passive or somehow supplementary to the primacy of the speech is refuted by students’ comments. Even the few students who found the sounds of the audience disruptive to receiving the content of the speech acknowledged how the sounds of the audience constituted the experience of the speech. As one student put it, “The presence and the sound of other people make it easier to understand because you can see how other people are reacting.”

The student’s comment, that the “sound of other people” makes it easier to “see how other people are reacting,” is quite revealing to the second point, that sound functions as a synesthetic convergence of sight, sound, and touch (Ceraso 104). This point is further illustrated by another student’s comment that the student could “feel his [the voice actors’] voice at every angle.” The student who described the effect of hearing others as seeing others also articulated that sensorial experience with feelings of inspiration and empowerment.  Just as von Mossner articulates the multimodality of vision and its activation of somatosensory and emotional experiences, students’ comments also speak to the multimodality of sound and the capacity of sound to not only “bring before the ears” but to also engage our other senses and generate an emotional experience (65; Detweiler 214).

Analysis of audience response data demonstrates that experiencing a speech that King gave in 1960 within the context of a digitally recreated and embodied environment does lead to powerful affective and cognitive responses from audiences. These findings, in turn, provide a means for conceptualizing public address as experience, a conceptualization which foregrounds rhetoric’s materiality by attending to the combination of auditory and visually immersive elements that allow audiences to directly experience rhetoric’s affective energies in relation to social transformation. Indeed, the locative, generative, and comparative aspects of sonic rhetorics demonstrated here and conceptualized in terms of public address as experience may serve as the basis for important interventions in classrooms and at public memory sites.

One critique of some public memory sites has been that they can function pedagogically to uphold traditional, unproblematized narratives of U.S. history. For example, Megan Fitzmaurice described how the slavery tours at the homes of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison offer a narrative from the perspective of the former presidents and not from the enslaved people (495). In contrast, as indicated earlier, Jonathan Stone’s work brings together conversations about the power of recorded voice, decentered rhetorical historiography, and an ethic of multimodal listening in his study featuring the Lomax Prison recordings. Jennifer Sano-Franchini's critique of sonic representations (and call for sonic self-representation) of Asian-Americans discusses sonic tropes that are used to inscribe meanings on bodies, while suggesting the possibility of meaningful re-inscription via current networked media technologies. For her, "[s]ound offers a useful way of examining with greater detail the embodied, affective, and material experience of Asian/American rhetoric," and can be used both to oppress, through the codification and racialization of listening practices, and reclaim, through the proliferation of new subjectivities. In the context of contemporary racial identities as well as historical understandings, Sano-Franchini's critique emphasizes the importance and rhetorical power of responsibly amplifying the sounds of marginalized communities. Sonic experiences like those examined by Stone, Sano-Franchini and the vMLK Project thus function as “technologies of recovery” that allow participants to not only learn about but to feel historical events from different, previously excluded or ignored, perspectives (Gallon).

One other productive area for continued exploration that the vMLK Project and this paper illuminate includes examining how and to what extent the locative, comparative, generative, and enargeic (as both impacting individuals through a richly embodied experience and as enabling complex perspective taking) functions of sound can lead to social and culturally situated fulfillment, expressions of virtue, or, as Gallagher and colleagues have theorized, as a form of eudaimonic wellbeing (40). This type of wellbeing has less to do with happiness or pleasure and more to do with creating or experiencing the material conditions of flourishment, including enhanced cultural and civic engagement. Further studies that grapple with the complexities of sound could help illuminate how the resulting perspective taking, including transtemporal perspective taking, and culturally and socially rooted self-realization may be connected to eudaimonia. Our analysis provides the grounds for considering how sonic rhetoric contributes to flourishment by showing that it is not only poetic usage of symbolic language that constructs a vivid mental image for listeners but also the timbre, rhythm, and resonance—the energy—of voice and the active auditory engagement of audiences. Further, these vocal qualities go beyond the construction of mental imagery to affectively produce sensations of both urgency and assurance. And as Carolyn Miller argues, agency is the kinetic energy of rhetorical performance (147). In any case, as this study shows, sonic-based rhetorics, such as the vMLK Project, matter to our civic engagement, to our rhetorical agency, to our self-realization, and to creating the conditions for social and cultural transformation.

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