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The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction

Author: Jonathan Sterne
Publisher: Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003
Review Published: February 2005

 REVIEW 1: Daniel Gilfillan
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Jonathan Sterne

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 [1]. 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. We need to digest the insight that cyberculture is not really that new. For instance, many scholars still call computers "new" media, but they are older now than radio was during the 1930s (now retroactively hailed as its "golden age"), at which time neither scholars nor journalists spoke of radio as a "new" medium. All this is to say that cyberculture has a history, and it is not one that we know very well, despite the vast archives of available documentation. There are the standard whig histories about Babbage, IBM, ARPAnet, DARPAnet, the invention of email, cyberpunk, Mosaic and so forth. But recent historical scholarship has suggested other origins for contemporary cyberculture, from Dan Schillerís skillful linking of the banking sector and new communication networks in Digital Capitalism (1999) to Ted Friedmanís links across hardware, software, games and movies in his forthcoming Electric Dreams (Forthcoming) to Fred Turnerís research on the connection between 1960s counterculture and 1990s cybercapitalism (Forthcoming). This is a growing and fertile area, one that requires care, attention and cultivation.

  2. Cyberculture studies itself has a relatively short intellectual history, which means that it must borrow from other intellectual traditions in order to achieve and maintain creative and conceptual vitality. Cyberculture scholars have an especial obligation to read and research the intellectual histories of matters related to their fields of study. This can be useful because we may stumble upon ideas that were once fashionable but are no longer so, and in so doing be inspired to describe or research our objects in new ways. We also need to be aware of the kinds of evaluations scholars made of the events they believed to be the crucial transformations of their times. Such readings are good for instilling humility both because of how often the best thinkers of an earlier age turned out to be wrong, but also how often their predictions and assessments were spot on.

  3. Historical knowledge -- especially of a comparative sort [2] -- is the basis of novel interpretation and robust explanation. As a historian of communication technology, Iím naturally inclined to argue for the importance of an understanding of the history of communications as the basis for any theoretical or epochal pronouncements regarding the present or future of cyberculture. But I actually think that is only the most obvious path for cyberculture scholars to take (and perhaps itís only obvious to me) and to be honest I donít even follow my own advice. For instance, when I wanted to understand attitudes about death and permanence as they orbited sound recording at the turn of the last century, I discovered similar language being developed in discourses around two chemical processes of preservation: the canning of food and the embalming of corpses. This helped me understand permanence not as a new "possibility" or "impact" of sound recording, as so many other commentators had suggested, but rather as a program according to which sound recording was developed (see Chapter 6 of The Audible Past for the full, gory story). In that case, it was the history of applied chemistry, and not the history of communications, that gave me the most insight into my object. My point here is that even though I am an avid fan of theory and while that theoretical writing no doubt gives me much inspiration, it was the "stuff" and not the "theory" that led me to a novel interpretation of a relatively well-known phenomenon among sound recording historians.
The problem with presentist defenses of the place of history in cyberculture studies is that ultimately they affirm all our comfortable conceits about the greatness and significance of our own moment. Presentism is too often used to persuade people otherwise uninterested in history of the relevance of history to their work. Presentism is too often a defensive gesture, and as such it does not challenge our orientation to our own present. Well-executed history -- and for that matter, well executed anachronism (for which one would also need an acute sense of temporality) -- should cure us of the need for presentism, because only then will we learn that itís not really all about us. Like jazz musicians, cyberculture scholars must swing with the time of the tune before they can play against it.


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.

White, Hayden. 1978. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Jonathan Sterne


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