The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction / Edition 1

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The Audible Past explores the cultural origins of sound reproduction. It describes a distinctive sound culture that gave birth to the sound recording and the transmission devices so ubiquitous in modern life. With an ear for the unexpected, scholar and musician Jonathan Sterne uses the technological and cultural precursors of telephony, phonography, and radio as an entry point into a history of sound in its own right. Sterne studies the constantly shifting boundary between phenomena organized as "sound" and "not sound." In The Audible Past, this history crisscrosses the liminal regions between bodies and machines, originals and copies, nature and culture, and life and death.

Blending cultural studies and the history of communication technology, Sterne follows modern sound technologies back through a historical labyrinth. Along the way, he encounters capitalists and inventors, musicians and philosophers, embalmers and grave robbers, doctors and patients, deaf children and their teachers, professionals and hobbyists, folklorists and tribal singers. The Audible Past tracks the connections between the history of sound and the defining features of modernity: from developments in medicine, physics, and philosophy to the tumultuous shifts of industrial capitalism, colonialism, urbanization, modern technology, and the rise of a new middle class.

A provocative history of sound, The Audible Past challenges theoretical commonplaces such as the philosophical privilege of the speaking subject, the visual bias in theories of modernity, and static descriptions of nature. It will interest those in cultural studies, media and communication studies, the new musicology, and the history of technology.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"[Sterne’s] prose moves gracefully and nimbly beneath the academic robes. . . and the topic is so intimately connected to the way we experience the world around us that it can’t help resonating. . . . Forget what you think you know about ours being a visual culture, in which sight is the privileged sense." - Ruth Walker, Christian Science Monitor

"[A] stimulating and provocative work. . . . Sterne excels as a writer. . . . [T]his book will amply reward readers who want a broader perspective on the culture of sound. Sterne's book will no doubt reach the wide readership it deserves." - David Hochfelder, Business History Review

"[P]rovocative. . . . Sterne breaks new ground, focusing on the need to understand sound and listening as issues of history." - Leon Botstein, Los Angeles Times

"[M]eticulously researched. . . . One of the book's most significant achievements is that it revisits a fairly well-worn territory, finds a new and noteworthy story to tell about that territory, and manages to open up a sizable vein of important, yet unexplored, questions about that territory for future research." - Gilbert B. Rodman, Cultural Studies

"[E]xcellent. . . . [A] critical and long-overdue intervention. . . . [B]rilliant. . . . Sterne's research is wide ranging and impressive. . . . This is a book that all scholars of sound should read, to overturn some of our neat assumptions about sound and its technological and cultural manifestations and to clear the ground for new approaches." - Michele Hilmes, American Quarterly

“Jonathan Sterne confronts what is certainly the most challenging topic in the study of auditory culture—what happened when modern technologies came crashing into ways of sound making, communicating and listening—with outstanding results. Through disciplined arguments bolstered by plenty of original research and with refreshing critiques of many cherished notions, The Audible Past forms a basis from which to address central questions of communication studies, musicology and music history, film sound and media studies, perception and culture, all those areas where listening and sound impinge upon cultural history and theory.”—Douglas Kahn, author of Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts

“Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past boldly stakes out a largely neglected but important topic, the history of sound in modern life.”—John Durham Peters, author of Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication

”Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past has come along to set the record straight on the cultural origins of sounds and systems, on machines and the mechanisms of culture. He’s come here to give us the lowdown on how the technology evolved. Think of the book as a kind of sonic map of the origins of the way we listen to things around us, as a primer for the sonically perplexed.”—Paul D. Miller a.k.a. Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid

David Hochfelder

"[A] stimulating and provocative work. . . . Sterne excels as a writer. . . . [T]his book will amply reward readers who want a broader perspective on the culture of sound. Sterne's book will no doubt reach the wide readership it deserves."
Michele Hilmes

"[E]xcellent. . . . [A] critical and long-overdue intervention. . . . [B]rilliant. . . . Sterne's research is wide ranging and impressive. . . . This is a book that all scholars of sound should read, to overturn some of our neat assumptions about sound and its technological and cultural manifestations and to clear the ground for new approaches."
Gilbert B. Rodman

"[M]eticulously researched. . . . One of the book's most significant achievements is that it revisits a fairly well-worn territory, finds a new and noteworthy story to tell about that territory, and manages to open up a sizable vein of important, yet unexplored, questions about that territory for future research."
Leon Botstein

"[P]rovocative. . . . Sterne breaks new ground, focusing on the need to understand sound and listening as issues of history."
Ruth Walker

"[Sterne’s] prose moves gracefully and nimbly beneath the academic robes. . . and the topic is so intimately connected to the way we experience the world around us that it can’t help resonating. . . . Forget what you think you know about ours being a visual culture, in which sight is the privileged sense."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822330134
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 5/28/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 472
  • Sales rank: 665,974
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Sterne teaches in the Department of Communication and the Program for Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He writes about media, technology, and the politics of culture, and is codirector of the online magazine Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life.

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Read an Excerpt

The Audible Past

By Jonathan Sterne


Copyright © 2003 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 082233013X

Chapter One


Here are the tales currently told: Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson had their first telephone conversation in 1876. "Mr. Watson-Come here-I want to see you!" yelled Bell to Watson, and the world shook. Thomas Edison first heard his words-"Mary had a little lamb"-returned to him from the cylinder of a phonograph built by his assistants in 1878, and suddenly the human voice gained a measure of immortality. Guglielmo Marconi's wireless telegraph conquered the English channel in 1899. Unsuspecting navy personnel first heard voices coming over their radios in 1906. Each event has been claimed as a turning point in human history. Before the invention of sound-reproduction technologies, we are told, sound withered away. It existed only as it went out of existence. Once telephones, phonographs, and radios populated our world, sound had lost a little of its ephemeral character. The voice became a little more unmoored from the body, and people's ears could take them into the past or across vast distances.

These are powerful stories because they tell us that something happened to the nature, meaning, and practices of sound in the late nineteenth century. But they are incomplete.If sound-reproduction technologies changed the way we hear, where did they come from? Many of the practices, ideas, and constructs associated with sound-reproduction technologies predated the machines themselves. The basic technology to make phonographs (and, by extension, telephones) existed for some time prior to their actual invention. So why did sound-reproduction technologies emerge when they did and not at some other time? What preceded them that made them possible, desirable, effective, and meaningful? In what milieu did they dwell? How and why did sound-reproduction technologies take on the particular technological and cultural forms and functions that they did? To answer these questions, we move from considering simple mechanical possibility out into the social and cultural worlds from which the technologies emerged.

The Audible Past offers a history of the possibility of sound reproduction-the telephone, the phonograph, radio, and other related technologies. It examines the social and cultural conditions that gave rise to sound reproduction and, in turn, how those technologies crystallized and combined larger cultural currents. Sound-reproduction technologies are artifacts of vast transformations in the fundamental nature of sound, the human ear, the faculty of hearing, and practices of listening that occurred over the long nineteenth century. Capitalism, rationalism, science, colonialism, and a host of other factors-the "maelstrom" of modernity, to use Marshall Berman's phrase-all affected constructs and practices of sound, hearing, and listening.

As there was an Enlightenment, so too was there an "Ensoniment." A series of conjunctures among ideas, institutions, and practices rendered the world audible in new ways and valorized new constructs of hearing and listening. Between about 1750 and 1925, sound itself became an object and a domain of thought and practice, where it had previously been conceptualized in terms of particular idealized instances like voice or music. Hearing was reconstructed as a physiological process, a kind of receptivity and capacity based on physics, biology, and mechanics. Through techniques of listening, people harnessed, modified, and shaped their powers of auditory perception in the service of rationality. In the modern age, sound and hearing were reconceptualized, objectified, imitated, transformed, reproduced, commodified, mass-produced, and industrialized. To be sure, the transformation of sound and hearing took well over a century. It is not that people woke up one day and found everything suddenly different. Changes in sound, listening, and hearing happened bit by bit, place by place, practice by practice, over a long period of time.

"The golden age of the ear never ended," writes Alan Burdick. "It continues, occluded by the visual hegemony." The Audible Past tells a story where sound, hearing, and listening are central to the cultural life of modernity, where sound, hearing, and listening are foundational to modern modes of knowledge, culture, and social organization. It provides an alternative to the pervasive narrative that says that, in becoming modern, Western culture moved away from a culture of hearing to a culture of seeing. There is no doubt that the philosophical literature of the Enlightenment-as well as many people's everyday language-is littered with light and sight metaphors for truth and understanding. But, even if sight is in some ways the privileged sense in European philosophical discourse since the Enlightenment, it is fallacious to think that sight alone or in its supposed difference from hearing explains modernity.

There has always been a heady audacity to the claim that vision is the social chart of modernity. While I do not claim that listening is the social chart of modernity, it certainly charts a significant field of modern practice. There is always more than one map for a territory, and sound provides a particular path through history. In some cases-as this book will demonstrate-modern ways of hearing prefigured modern ways of seeing. During the Enlightenment and afterward, the sense of hearing became an object of contemplation. It was measured, objectified, isolated, and simulated. Techniques of audition developed by doctors and telegraphers were constitutive characteristics of scientific medicine and early versions of modern bureaucracy. Sound was commodified; it became something that can be bought and sold. These facts trouble the cliché that modern science and rationality were outgrowths of visual culture and visual thinking. They urge us to rethink exactly what we mean by the privilege of vision and images. To take seriously the role of sound and hearing in modern life is to trouble the visualist definition of modernity.

Today, it is understood across the human sciences that vision and visual culture are important matters. Many contemporary writers interested in various aspects of visual culture (or, more properly, visual aspects of various cultural domains)-the arts, design, landscape, media, fashion-understand their work as contributing to a core set of theoretical, cultural, and historical questions about vision and images. While writers interested in visual media have for some time gestured toward a conceptualization of visual culture, no such parallel construct-sound culture or, simply, sound studies-has broadly informed work on hearing or the other senses. While sound is considered as a unified intellectual problem in some science and engineering fields, it is less developed as an integrated problem in the social and cultural disciplines.

Similarly, visual concerns populate many strains of cultural theory. The question of the gaze haunts several schools of feminism, critical race theory, psychoanalysis, and poststructuralism. The cultural status of the image and seeing occupies great minds in semiotics, film studies, several schools of literary and art-historical interpretation, architecture, and communication. While sound may interest individual scholars in these areas, it is still too often considered a parochial or specialized concern. While there are many scholars of sound active in communication, film studies, music, and other human sciences, sound is not usually a central theoretical problem for major schools of cultural theory, apart from the privilege of the voice in phenomenology and psychoanalysis and its negation in deconstruction.

It would be possible to write a different book, one that explains and criticizes scholars' preference for visual objects and vision as an object of study. For now, it is enough to note that the fault lies with both cultural theorists and scholars of sound. Cultural theorists too easily accept pieties about the dominance of vision and, as a result, have elided differences between the privilege of vision and the totality of vision. Meanwhile, studies of sound tend to shy away from questions of sound culture as such (with a few notable exceptions) and prefer instead to work within other disciplinary or interdisciplinary intellectual domains. By not gesturing back toward a more general level of questioning, these works offer an implicitly cumulativist epistemology of the history of sound. The promise of cumulativist approaches is that one day we will have enough historical information to begin generalizing about society. The problem with this perspective is that such a remarkable day is always just over the horizon. If sound and hearing are indeed significant theoretical problems, then now is as good a time as any to begin dealing with them as broad intellectual matters.

Many authors have claimed that hearing is the neglected sense in modernity, a novel sense for analysis. It would perhaps be polemically acceptable at this point to lament the relative lack of scholarly work on sound as compared with images and vision, chart the pioneers, and then claim that this book will fill the gap. But the reality is somewhat different. There is a vast literature on the history and philosophy of sound; yet it remains conceptually fragmented. For the interested reader, there is a wealth of books and articles available on different aspects of sound written by scholars of communication, music, art, and culture. But, without some kind of overarching, shared sensibility about what constitutes the history of sound, sound culture, or sound studies, piecing together a history of sound from the bewildering array of stories about speech, music, technology, and other sound-related practices has all the promise and appeal of piecing together a pane of shattered glass. We know that the parts line up somehow, we know that they can connect, but we are unsure of how they actually link together. We have histories of concert audiences, telephones, speeches, sound films, soundscapes, and theories of hearing. But only rarely do the writers of histories of sound suggest how their work connects with other, related work or with larger intellectual domains. Because scholarship on sound has not consistently gestured toward more fundamental and synthetic theoretical, cultural, and historical questions, it has not been able to bring broader philosophical questions to bear on the various intellectual fields that it inhabits. The challenge, then, is to imagine sound as a problem that moves beyond its immediate empirical context. The history of sound is already connected to the larger projects of the human sciences; it is up to us to flesh out the connections.

In positing a history of sound, The Audible Past extends a long tradition of interpretive and critical social thought. Some authors have quoted the young Marx on the importance of sensory history: "The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present." Marx's passage signals that the very capacity to relate to the world through one's senses is organized and learned differently in different social settings. The senses are "cultivated or brought into being." "Man himself becomes the object" to be shaped and oriented through historical and social process. Before the senses are real, palpable, concrete, or available for contemplation, they are already affected and effected through the particular historical conditions that also give rise to the subject who possesses them. We can fully consider the senses as historical only if we consider society, culture, technology, and the body as themselves artifacts of human history. A truly historicist understanding of the senses-or of a particular sense-therefore requires a commitment to the constructivist and contextualist strain of social and cultural thought. Conversely, a vigorous constructivism and a vigorous contextualism require a history of the senses. It is no accident that Marx's discussion of the senses appears in a section on communism in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Even to begin imagining (another) society, the young Marx had to consider the historical dynamics of sensation itself. As we imagine the possibilities of social, cultural, and historical change-in the past, present, or future-it is also our task to imagine histories of the senses. It is widely accepted that "the individual observer became an object of investigation and a locus of knowledge beginning in the first few decades of the 1800s" and that, during that same period, "the status of the observing subject was transformed." So, too, transformations in sound, hearing, and listening were part of massive shifts in the landscapes of social and cultural life of the last three centuries.

The emergence of sound-reproduction technology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provides a particularly good entry into the larger history of sound. It is one of the few extant sites in the human sciences where scholars have acknowledged and contemplated the historicity of hearing. As Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and countless other writers have argued, the problem of mechanical reproduction is central to understanding the changing shape of communication in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For them, the compelling problem of sound's reproducibility, like the reproduction of images, was its seeming abstraction from the social world even as it was manifested more dynamically within it. Other writers have offered even stronger claims for sound reproduction: it has been described as a "material foundation" of the changing senses of space and time at the turn of the twentieth century, part of a "perceptual revolution" in the early twentieth century. Sound technologies are said to have amplified and extended sound and our sense of hearing across time and space. We are told that telephony altered "the conditions of daily life"; that sound recording represented a moment when "everything suddenly changed," a "shocking emblem of modernity"; that radio was "the most important electronic invention" of the twentieth century, transforming our perceptual habits and blurring the boundaries of private, public, commercial, and political life.

Taken out of context or with a little hostility, claims for the historical significance of sound reproduction may seem overstated or even grandiose. D. L. LeMahieu writes that sound recording was one of "a score of new technologies thrust upon a population increasingly accustomed to mechanical miracles. In a decade when men learned to fly, the clock-sprung motor of a portable gramophone or the extended playing time of a double-sided disk hardly provoked astonishment.


Excerpted from The Audible Past by Jonathan Sterne Copyright © 2003 by Duke University Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

List of Figures
List of Abbreviations for Archival and Other
Historical Materials Cited
Hello! 1
1 Machines to Hear for Them 31
2 Techniques of Listening 87
3 Audile Technique and Media 137
4 Plastic Aurality: Technologies into Media 179
5 The Social Genesis of Sound Fidelity 215
6 A Resonant Tomb 287
Conclusion: Audible Futures 335
Notes 353
Bibliography 415
Index 437
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