The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction
Author: Jonathan Sterne
Publisher: Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003
Review Published: February 2005
First, I would like to offer many thanks to Daniel Gilfillan for a detailed, thoughtful and thorough review; and to David Silver and the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies for the opportunity to respond.
Gilfillan writes that The Audible Past considers practices that "range in scope from early physiological and medical analyses of diseases of the ear, the mechanical designs and technological innovations developed to separate out, zero in on, and reproduce the nature of sound, and the social and cultural rituals and systems that were adopted with the economic and regulatory viability of these innovations. What is common to each of these practical categories, and what makes Sterne's argument so interesting for scholars of cyberculture and new media studies, are the levels of interarticulation between them, that sound is always mediated through technological, physiological, or sociocultural means."
This is a crucially important point for a field that still often operates with notions like "online/offline" or "virtual/real." It is easy to write as if our technologized, mediatized (to borrow an ugly but useful word from Baudrillard) world is a supplement to a naked form of human experience that exists prior to the existence of technologies. The problems with that conceit is that it leads to work that describes cyberculture as if it is a sealed, interconnected system, as if the boundaries between cyberculture and other forms of culture are real boundaries out there in the world -- rather than creations of scholarsí imaginations. But there is no such thing as naked experience. There is no such thing as a nontechnological form of human subjectivity. The point is actually not as controversial as it might sound, since archaeologists' projected dates of the earliest evidence for the use of tools and containers actually predate the earliest available evidence of language. As a category, homo faber (primates that make things) simply lost out to homo sapiens (primates that think) in battles among 18th century taxonomists (Cowan 1997). Much of our contemporary language carries that prejudice forward insofar as it considers social forms, technologies and other things that exist outside the human body as supplemental to a more elementary, unmediated human form.
As Gilfillan points out, rather than taking the domain of "sound" as a given thing, I try to work across registers in The Audible Past in order to show how sound and hearing as we know them today are vast patchworks, hybrids, or assemblages of things that we would normally consider as "outside" the domain of relevant materials to sound. The very categories we attribute to the naked experience of sound were shaped by 19th century ideas in fields as diverse as religion, medicine, deaf education and marketing (and the list could go on). The methodological implication for cyberculture studies is simple: we need to spend more time thinking about the things that we would normally put in the "not cyberculture" bin in order to truly understand our object.
Interestingly, sound (alongside taste, touch and smell) is one of those topics traditionally relegated to "not" cyberculture status. Mainstream work in cyberculture studies traces its history as largely a visual history (via text or image). Yet key issues like virtual space, mediated embodiment, digital reproductions of analog material, and now augmented reality were first explored and elaborated in the auditory realm. The issue is not only precedence, but priority. As authors like Steve Jones (1993), Ken Hillis (1999), and myself (Forthcoming) all show in other writings, many key categories of cyberculture were developed in realms other than or alongside the visual. There are sonic and haptic histories of cyberculture, and those histories may tell us completely different things about the way cyberculture came to be, and the way it is today. Though Iím not aware of cyberculture studies that engage taste and smell, I suspect these two will provide important new problems and ideas. While the field still tends to privilege textual or iconographic modes of cyberculture, engineers, artists, and people "inside" cyberculture exist in a complex, multisensorial world that often combines things we would not all group under the domain of cyberculture. This is true whether we are working out a theory of friendship networks, online economies, new social movements, synthetic foods and fabrics, or BitTorrent. I am not simply arguing for holism or completeness, nor is my point only applicable to the senses. By learning to ask a wider range of questions and to bring new objects into the conversation, by practicing a certain methodological agnosticism with respect to what is "inside" and "outside" the proper scholarly domain of cyberculture, we will gain greater insight into the world we wish to describe, analyze or change.
It is often remarked that history is important for cyberculture studies. I worry that this sounds like an admonition to eat oneís Brussels sprouts . Only mildly better is the platitude that one needs to understand history in order to better understand the present. Since Hayden Whiteís famous scolding of the conceits of academic history in his classic 1966 "Burden of History" essay (reprinted in White 1978), presentism (the idea that historyís relevance is determined by its direct and intelligible connection with a present moment) is a favorite justification of historical work. Take any decent history of communication technology from the past fifteen years and you can find some tangential overture to need for new historical knowledge because of the rise of digital media. I certainly felt pressure to make the same move in writing The Audible Past. All this is to say that while presentism is a popular reason for cyberculture scholars and journalists to pay attention to history, there are actually much better reasons for us to do so. Here are three of my favorites:
1. For the record, I like both Brussels sprouts and history.
2. To be fair, one could make this claim for a wide range of comparative research practices, and not just historical knowledge. But it would play out a bit differently in each case.
Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. 1997. A Social History of American Technology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Friedman, Ted. Forthcoming. Electric Dreams. New York: New York University Press.
Hillis, Ken. 1999. Digital Sensations: Space, Identity and Embodiment in Virtual Reality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Jones, Steve. 1993. A Sense of Space: Virtual Reality, Authenticity and the Aural. Critical Studies in Mass Communication 10:238-252.
Schiller, Dan. 1999. Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Sterne, Jonathan. Forthcoming. The MP3 as Cultural Artifact. New Media and Society.
Turner, Fred. Forthcoming. Where the Counterculture Met the New Economy: Revisiting the WELL and the Origins of Virtual Community. Technology and Culture 46.
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