Eco-Sonic Media

Eco-Sonic Media

by Jacob Smith


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520286146
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/09/2015
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jacob Smith is Associate Professor in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film in the School of Communication at Northwestern University. He is the author of Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media, Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures, and The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance.

Read an Excerpt

Eco-Sonic Media

By Jacob Smith


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96149-4


Green Discs

"It doesn't sound very much like an insect, does it," asked the author of a 1928 article in Nature, "this great, soaring tone of [opera singer Enrico] Caruso's matchless tenor?" Aware that many readers were probably scratching their heads at this odd question, the author quickly revealed his motivation for asking it. Caruso's phonograph records were, in fact, the work of an "unassuming, short-lived, tiny, reddish-colored" insect and, not too long before, had been "gum-like lumps on the twigs of a far-off forest." The Nature author marveled at the strange agencies of modern invention and industry that had allowed this "humble child of Nature, hidden away on the other side of the world," to catch and hold the sounds that human listeners found delightful. That humble child of Nature was the Indian lac insect, and the "gum-like lumps" were composed of a material secreted by the lac insect called shellac, a nontoxic bioplastic that was the key ingredient in most of the phonograph discs manufactured before the mid-1940s.

The phonograph industry's reliance on the lac insect may appear at first to be a trivial subject best passed over on the way to more serious topics such as the human scientists and inventors who developed sound-recording technologies, the record industry's corporate organization and marketing strategies, or the aesthetics of recorded sound. If our goal is an eco-centric criticism that engages with the materiality of the media, however, then the relationship between Caruso's matchless tenor and the labor of an unassuming reddish insect becomes a means to explore the strange agencies of the nonhuman world in modern media. The lac insect played an essential role in the technological assemblage of recorded sound, and over the course of this chapter, the "up, down, and sideways" mode of eco-critical analysis will reveal the eco-sonic dimension of the early phonograph industry's infrastructure.

My study of the material infrastructure of phonography heeds Jonathan Sterne's recent call for media scholars to shift their attention to "the stuff beneath, beyond, and behind the boxes our media come in." I am interested in the ways in which the early record industry circulated both material and sonic goods through infrastructural systems and the ways in which those human-made systems depended on natural systems to provide raw materials like shellac. When an ecological dimension is added to the study of media infrastructure, the result is what Robert B. Gordon calls "industrial ecology," the study of the ways in which a modern industry consumes natural resources, releases wastes, and attends to the afterlife of its products. The guiding principle of industrial ecology is sustainability, which Gordon defines as "the concept that each generation should leave to the next undiminished opportunities for fulfillment of material needs." I am guided by a similar goal and utilize green-media archaeology to explore the history of media technology of the past as a resource for alternative designs of the future.

With the goal of sustainability guiding my research, I want to tell a new story about the American record industry between the 1890s and the 1940s, a story in which lac insects and Indian workers are just as important as Western inventors, industrialists, and recording stars and in which ecological models are just as relevant as technological ones. Historians have tended to subdivide the first half century of the phonograph business in two ways. First, a historical demarcation is made based on the various disc formats that were on the market: consumers bought shellac discs that spun at 78 rotations per minute (rpm), and then they bought long-playing vinyl records that spun at either 33? or 45 rpm. A second historical division is based on the type of studio technology used in the recording and playback of sound: there was an "acoustic" era of spring-wound motors and recording horns, and then there was an "electric" era of electric motors and electric amplification through the use of microphones and loudspeakers. Given these common historical divisions, we might visualize two fields, the first representing the period of the 78 rpm shellac disc and the second the period of acoustic recording and playback. Aligned as a Venn diagram, the overlapping area in the center is the domain that I call the era of "Green Discs." The discs of this era were green because they were produced through the labor of both human and nonhuman actors, required little electricity and so left a minimal carbon footprint, and were made from a reusable, nontoxic, biodegradable bioplastic taken from a potentially sustainable source.

My understanding of the phonograph industry as a technological network has been shaped by Bruno Latour's notion of an actor network. One of Latour's key insights is that agency in a network extends beyond human actors to include nonhuman, nonindividual entities, which he calls "actants." Latour is one of several influential scholars who have conceived of technology as an assemblage of articulations (or "dynamic interminglings") among such actants. Jennifer Daryl Slack and J. Macgregor Wise write that a technological assemblage draws together a "territory" that includes "the bodies of machines and structures" as well as a range of "other kinds of bodies: human bodies, governmental bodies, economic bodies, geographical bodies, bodies of knowledge and so on." To understand the territory drawn together by the Green Disc network, we must take vegetable and insect bodies into account as well. The fact that Latour's actor-network theory has sometimes been abbreviated as "ANT" serves as a subtle prompt to consider the bugs in the sound system. Media theorist Jussi Parikka has embarked on a related project, fusing entomology and cultural theory in the pursuit of a "joint history of media and nature" that encompasses the ways in which nonhuman forces express themselves as part of the "media assemblage of modernity." My examination of the natural history of lac insects and the plants cultivated by record enthusiasts for their needles aims for a similar joint history of media and nature.

Nonhuman actors play an important role in my analysis of the phonographic assemblage, but I do not want to undervalue the human actors in the Green Disc network. Latour writes that the various local sites of a network should not be understood as a hierarchy, but, instead, all the various links and connections in the system should be given equal weight: the landscape of the network should be kept "flat." To flatten the topography of the phonographic network, I give equal time to performers in Western acoustic-era phonograph studios and the workers in India's shellac industry. Both made the network possible, and both embodied traditional knowledge that has new significance in the era of the eco-crisis.

In his discussion of eco-centric education, Patrick Curry describes the importance of learning from "surviving local indigenous traditions" because they embody models of "non-modern sustainability." Curry uses the phrase "traditional ecological knowledge," or TEK, to refer to a "fluid but tightly-knit mixture of local or bioregional scientifically ecological wisdom, spiritual values," and "socio-political ethics." TEK developed out of hundreds, and even thousands, of years of "direct contact with the natural world," he argues, and so where such knowledge survives, "it is extremely important to protect and encourage it." There is clearly a danger in romanticizing cultural traditions deemed "non-modern." Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing warns that categories like "indigenous people and wild nature" exist only in opposition to modernist programs, and so "any generalizations we make about them are likely to be wrong." Nonetheless, she concludes that we cannot give up such "fantastical categories," in part because the "alternative fantasy" of a "falsely uniform modernism" is much worse. Moreover, the "regularizing modern imagination has had such a destructive effect on species diversity that almost any other human lifeway is likely to be better at maintaining it."

When Curry writes about traditional knowledge, he is thinking primarily of land use, but the concept can be adapted to media culture. Early media practices were hybrids of modern and traditional knowledge, making them useful sources of alternative models as we contemplate a "postcarbon world" marked by diminishing fossil fuels, economic insecurity, and climate disruption. Indian lac workers, performers in early recording studios, and home consumers who operated spring-driven phonographs all embodied what we might call "traditional technological knowledge," or TTK, and eco-minded media scholars should strive to understand these practices as they existed in the past and encourage them where they still exist in the present.

Nadia Bozak is one such eco-minded media scholar, and I have drawn inspiration from her analysis of early cinema's "pre-industrial use of sunlight." Bozak refers to early film producers as exemplars of a "proto-solar cinema" because their glass-roofed studios did not rely on electrical lighting. Films made in this manner are, for Bozak, "textbooks for an 'unplugged' cinema, filmmaking off the grid." Early phonography was similarly "off the grid," with recording studios powered by weight and pulley systems, home record players driven by hand-wound springs, and recorded vocal performances reliant on the "wind power" of the human breath. All that said, I do not want to exaggerate the early phonograph industry's eco-credentials. Jonathan Sterne reminds us that "if you can call something a medium, then it has a physical infrastructure," and any mass media infrastructure will leave behind an ecological footprint. Readers will be quick to notice that I am not discussing every articulation in the Green Disc assemblage: not the coal-burning ships that carried shellac from India to the United States, for example, or the electricity used in pressing discs or the gas-burning vehicles used to transport shellac discs from manufacturers to retail outlets. Nonetheless, I believe that I cover enough of the Green Disc network's territory to demonstrate that it is worth remembering and might even serve as a blueprint for an alternative model for recorded sound in an era of MP3 files, iPods, and digital clouds.

By exploring the materiality of early phonography, I hope to counter a rhetoric of virtuality and dematerialization that has long been encouraged by the technology industries and that often functions to conceal the ecological costs of the media. My ultimate goal in mapping the Green Disc network, then, is not to chart a nostalgic return to the past but to sketch the possible future of a more convivial phonography—convivial in Ivan Illich's sense of recognizing "natural scales and limits." Gordon writes that industrial ecology must begin with a consideration of natural resources, and so our first stop in mapping the Green Disc network takes us, not to the grooves of the record, but to the groves of the Indian trees that served as hosts to that "humble child of Nature," the lac insect.


Laccifer lacca is a scale insect of the Coccidae family that lives in the forests of India, Thailand, and Burma. The life history of the lac insect begins when two hundred to five hundred larvae emerge from their mother and swarm over the branches of a host tree, usually a kusum, palas, ber, or peepal tree. The larvae typically appear in the early morning hours of a sunny day, and, according to a 1921 report, the "great swarm of tiny slow-moving light crimson or mauve specks" on the trees make for a "remarkable sight." The mass emergence of the larvae is the source of the insect's name: the term lac derives from the Sanskrit numeral lakh, which means one hundred thousand and refers to the large numbers of swarming larvae. The lac's name is thus a vivid example of a prevalent tendency to see insects as an undifferentiated swarm that is radically nonhuman.

After several days of wandering about, the young insects select a suitable location on one of the tender shoots of the tree and settle close together. Each insect pierces the bark of the tree with a long proboscis and proceeds to suck the plant's sap. The sap provides nutrition to the growing insect, but some of it is exuded from glands on the lac's body as a golden secretion that forms a coating around the creature and protects it from predators and weather. The insects spend most of their lives under this "amber shield," and because they are crowded closely together, the hardened resin forms a continuous layer that covers the branch. According to one observer, the host tree appears to be coated with "a multitude of little flat gummy domes," each one a "living tomb for a member of the lac tribe."

The insects stay alive by maintaining three openings in their "gummy domes": two for breathing and one for the removal of excrement. These pores are kept open by waxy white filaments secreted by the insects, which give the encrustations on the branch a "snowy or frosted" appearance. After eight to fourteen weeks, the lac attain maturity, and the males, who constitute only 20 to 40 percent of the population, back out of a trapdoor in their cubicle and proceed to fertilize the females through the pores in their resinous chambers. The males die soon thereafter, but the females continue to grow, secreting large quantities of resin until their eggs hatch, at which time they cast off their eyes and legs and die. The process begins again as the larvae swarm out to find a new spot on the host tree. Lac insects typically go through two generations in this fashion every year.

The resinous encrustations left behind by the lac life cycle become the raw material for the shellac industry, making lac insects "actants" in a biotechnological network. Bruno Latour uses the term "translation" to refer to the process by which an actant alters its environment to bring it into alignment with a network. Lac insects translate tree sap to resin and do so in a manner that is still not completely understood. A 1937 article in the popular press declared that the sap was transformed "by some mysterious chemical action within the body of the strange lac insects." The lac's act of chemical translation was sometimes explained through an analogy to modern industry. A 1921 report explained that the lac insect "manufactures" the resin in its body from the "raw materials" it gets from the tree. The author of a Popular Mechanics article called the lac "an insect in industry, a bug whose product has become a big business." "Mr. and Mrs. Lacca," the author continued, "retain the world monopoly on the shellac business." Comments such as these are symptomatic of a long-standing tendency to anthropomorphize insect activity: we tend to see "busy bees" and "industrious ants." That tendency was strong during the nineteenth century, when insects were often described as builders, architects, and industrialists: social roles idealized by the Victorians.

Where the Western observers compared the lac's act of translation to industrial manufacturing, I want to describe it using the language of ecology, in which energy is defined as "the ability to do work" or "the capacity to move or change matter." The prime source of energy on the earth is the sun. Plants like the Indian kusum or palas tree are "producers" that draw energy directly from the sun and nutrients from the soil and then convert those resources into sap. Animals such as the lac insect are "consumers" that digest compounds produced through plant-based photosynthesis and generate waste (like the lac's resin). The lac insect's "manufacture" of resin is thus a stage in an energy cycle that is only two steps removed from the solar source. Latour writes that a network is "not a thing, but the recorded movement of a thing" and suggests that scholars attend to "what moves through a network and how this movement is recorded." The network drawn into being by the labor of the lac insect records themovement of solar energy through various states of matter and, given a stable forest ecology, remains sustainable. The maintenance of that ecology was one of the principal duties of the human actants drawn into the shellac network.


Excerpted from Eco-Sonic Media by Jacob Smith. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. Green Discs
2. Birdland Melodies
3. Subterranean Signals
4. Radio’s Dark Ecology
The Run-Out Groove


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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Horray part 4 and yes scarlet i remmenber it's terrax~"So who is he,"asked the blue speedster."Well Sonic,i don't know how to say this but i will,he's my brother and these are his friends,"said Tails bluntly."What no way,how could he be your brother,"said Sonic."just look at them dude,they have the same fur color,they're foxes and they both have three bangs if they aren't brothers than i don't know what makes 'em,"said Jack