Jonathan Skinner

Ethno Plunderphonics: On Some Mockingbird Transcriptions

12 December 2017
Portabello Centre Pool Seminar Room B59a

We were thoroughly delighted to welcome Dr Jonathan Skinner to deliver a talk on ‘Ethno Plunderphonics: On Some Mockingbird Transcriptions’. This seminar was be held in collaboration with the Centre for Poetry and Poetics.

Jonathan is Associate Professor at the University of Warwick and teaches on the English and Comparative Literary Studies program. His interests include Contemporary Poetry and Poetics; Ecocriticism and Environmental Studies; Ethnopoetics; Sound Studies; Critical Theory; and Translation. He is founder and editor of ecopoetics, a journal which features creative-critical intersections between writing and ecology.

Curious listeners may be interested in consulting his SoundCloud page further:


This talk brings an ethnographic inflection to thinking about the transcription of bird song–in this case, the vocalisations of the Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, as recorded by the author in the Arizona desert. The recording is considered through the lens of interpretive work on the regional Tohono O’odham (“Papago”) oral literature (work by Donald Bahr, Frank Crosswhite, Ruth Underhill, Andrew Wiget, Ofelia Zepeda and others), in particular in connection with a ritual oration called “The Mockingbird Speech.” Ethnographic studies of sound symbolism (Leanne Hinton, Johanna Nichols, and John J. Ohala) are also brought into the discussion. I consider to what extent knowledge of the “speech” of the Northern mockingbird, including the bird’s virtuosity as a vocal copyist, might inform translation of “The Mockingbird Speech,” and I ask what cross-cultural understanding, in connection with regional ecologies, can bring to our understanding of birdsong. In particular, Tohono O’odham reflections (as interpreted by Bahr), along with those embedded in such Anglo-American transcriptions of mockingbird song as Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” of the mockingbird as a transcriber rather than a translator (an appropriator of other birds’ songs), lead me to ask whether we might consider the mockingbird a “plunderphonic” sampling artist (to borrow Canadian sound artist John Oswald’s term). These questions are re-sounded in the context of recording technology and the ethnographic record, as contemporary Tohono O’odham orators turn to the recordings and transcriptions of traditional orations such as the “Mockingbird Speech” to recreate their ceremonies. We might ask what it means to listen for the meaning of a delivered speech memorized from a transcription of a magnetic recording (copy) of another speech learned from a mockingbird who copied it from somewhere else, a speech, furthermore, destined to be copied by yet another mockingbird. The talk ends with my own effort at “translating” the “Mockingbird Speech” (focused on its environmental elements). If time permits, I also offer some speculation about what anthropologist Viveiros de Castro’s “animic” model for consciousness, and his notion of “multinaturalism” (later developed through the ontological schemes explored in Phillipe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture), might bring to the cross-cultural and cross-species encounters embedded in transcriptions of birdsong. 


Jonathan has kindly sent us an mp3 recording of mockingbird song and will be speaking from the research behind the paper, should anyone wish to familiarise themselves with it beforehand. Curious listeners may be interested in consulting his SoundCloud page further: