The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction

The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction

Jonathan Sterne

Language: English

Pages: 472

ISBN: 082233013X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


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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Behind Bell's practical task lay a very particular notion of language , speech , and what it means to be human. The idea that speech is one of the essential characteristics of humanity-what separates humans from ani­ mals - has a long history dating back at least to ancient Greece, bur it attained a new currency in the late nineteenth century. The oralists used this philosophical privilege of speech to attack manualists as encouraging primi tivism in deaf communities by teaching their children to

n phonograph a s a major i mprovement on h i s o w n device was an arri fac r of a monoman i acal focus on w r i t i n g , on the product of the mach i n e , over­ look ing i rs more s i g n i ficant processural d i mensions . The phonautograph subm i tted sound co a tympanic process in order co transform i t . This was Scott's major contribution to the pract i ces of reproduc i ng sound . Sound reprod uction is rhus arr i facwal of a transformation i n process where sound and the tympan i c

asculrarion, patients' voices existed in relation to other sounds made by their bodies, rather than in a privileged relation co rhem.60 Speaki ng patients with mute bodies gave way to speak­ ing patients with sounding bodies. This marks a significant shift in medi­ cal epistemology and heralds the rising importance of physiology in med­ ical knowledge. Diagnosis in the seventeenth century and for most of the eighteenth century was based on a combination of the patient's own narrative testi­ mony

76 Techniques of listening are thus central to modern medicine as we know it. In the founding moments of modern medicine, listening moved from an i ncidental modality of intersubjective communication to a privileged tech­ nique of empirical examination. It offered a way of constructing knowledge of patients i ndependent of patients' knowledge of themselves or what they might say about themselves . The truth of a patient's body became audible to the listener at the other end of the stethoscope. As

purposes . . . costs money ro produce. It muse be sold at a profit . If the sound merchant does nor know how to measure and weigh it, he is out of luck and his profit and loss figures will show up red. " 5 1 The physical , practical, and metaphoric privatization of acoustic space and au­ di tory experience allowed for sound - the thing in that space - to become a commodity. 52 Private acoustic space was, rhus, a centrally important rheme in early representations of sound-reproduction

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