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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

Sound has often been overlooked as an object of study due to its perceived fleetingness, its lack of permanence within time and space. From our perspective in the beginning years of the 21st century, the role and power of sound are often taken for granted. Contemporary notions of sound are often associated with multimedia networks like television and the internet, or often play a supporting role to the primacy of the visual aspects of these media environments. In The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, Jonathan Sterne, an assistant professor of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University, seeks to remedy this by routing a history of sound through an investigation of the physiological, acoustical, and medical practices that enabled the development of sound reproduction technologies (telegraphy/telephony, phonograph, radio).

Sterne's investigation of sound, sound production, and sound reproduction interweaves several lines of inquiry into the practices surrounding sound as an object of study (sound as hearing, sound as listening, sound as recording). As the author notes:
    The story presented in these pages spirals out from an analysis of the mechanical and physical aspects of the [sound] technologies themselves to the techniques, practices, and institutions associated with them. At each juncture in the argument, I show how sound-reproduction technologies are shot through with the tensions, tendencies, and currents of the culture from which they emerged, right on down to their most basic mechanical functions. Our most cherished pieties about sound-reproduction technologies [...] were not and are not innocent empirical descriptions of the technologies' impact. They were wishes that people grafted onto sound-reproduction technologies -- wishes that became programs for innovation and use. (8)
These practices 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.

The book's initial chapters sketch out how the sense of hearing became separated from the other senses, primarily sight, to become an object of medical, physiological, and anatomical study in the late 19th century. Sterne's archaeological plumbing of medical knowledge in the first two chapters extends back to the late 17th century (S. Morland's 1672 discourse on the Tuba Stentoro-Phonica), scans a variety of early devices and theories meant to model human sound reception, and maps the move from doctorsí increasing interest in hearing as a site of knowledge about the physical human body to modes of listening in the development of sound-reproduction technologies and these technologies' subsequent transformation into media. The outcome(s) of this investigation of early automata, the ear phonautograph, and the stethoscope, as well as the writings and contemplations of Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Emile Berliner, Hermann Helmholtz, and Clarence Blake (among others), is Sterne's focus on what he terms the tympanic function or construct. Related to the tympanic membrane of the human middle ear, Sterne's tympanic function arises from Bell and Blake's invention of the ear phonautograph, a machine that "consisted of an excised human ear attached by thumbscrews to a wooden chassis," which "produced tracings of sound on a sheet of smoked glass when sound entered the mouthpiece" (31).

In addition to the fascinating account of this ancestor to the first telephone, Sterne's reading of Bell and Blake's invention points out two things. First, the ear phonautograph is an example of the transition in locating sound reproduction away from the mouth and orality -- as represented by early automata whose inventors sought to replicate verbalized sound through mechanical simulations of the mouth -- and to the ear and aurality. Second, Sterne's reading also illustrates the similarities between Bell and Blake's use of an actual human ear and the function of the transducer in contemporary sound-reproduction technologies like the telephone, phonograph, and radio. Following this line of development from tympanic membrane to transducer, Sterne employs the term tympanic to describe the mechanical function that occurs when sound is turned into something else (electric current, for example), and turns this something else back into sound. Each of these lines of inquiry in the book's first chapter form pieces of the larger picture of sound's abstraction from the body through hearing and listening to help create or recognize sound as a specifically aural medium of knowledge.

The transformation of sound into an element that can be conducted as nerve impulses along the auditory nerve in the case of the ear, or as electrical impulses along networks of wires in the case of the telephone, or as waves to be picked up by antenna in the case of the radio, raises intriguing questions about sound fidelity: How true is the reproduced sound to the source of the original sound, and do the distinctions between source and reproduction even matter? How do techniques of listening impact the transformation involved in the transduction process? Wrapped up in each of these questions are equally compelling inquiries into the effects of the respective technology on the social relationships and cultural practices surrounding the technology's use. How does the introduction of the phonograph or one of its iterations (graphophone, gramophone, etc.) into the bourgeois Victorian parlor transform the economic, social, and familial relationships that circulate around this center of household communication and entertainment? How does the invention of the stethoscope promote a new type of intimacy between doctor and patient, but then eventually lead to a distancing based on economic and social class?

Both of these latter questions are the focus of Sterne's investigation of audile technique in chapters two and three. Sterne describes audile technique, or techniques of listening, as a "set of practices of listening that were articulated to science, reason, and instrumentality and that encouraged the coding and rationalization of what was heard" (23). Techniques of listening grew out of the same innovations that led to developments in the science of sound and enhancements of existing sound-reproduction technologies. In his examination of the stethoscope and sound telegraphy in chapters two and three, respectively, Sterne teases out connections between the appearance of these devices and the changing notions of public and private space and the rise of a middle class that they helped create. Accompanying the externalization of the interior sounds of the body through the stethoscope and the transition in telegraphy from decoding printouts of encoded data to decoding the sounds/noises of the telegraph machine itself were various spatializing aspects of sound. Here, Sterne argues quite convincingly that the listening practices surrounding the use of the stethoscope helped shape advances in acoustics related to interior and exterior noise (i.e. blocking out unwanted sound to better listen to the sounds of the body), which eventually led to commodifiable practices in listening through the invention and sale of headsets to not only accessorize and fine tune the listening experience of the early gramophone or radio user, but also to reclaim the calm and peacefulness for the non-listener once found in the parlor turned living room.

The professionalization of telegraphy denoted by the move from decoding printouts to decoding the noises of the machine also exemplifies this same acoustic control over space, but it does so at a level outside the privacy of the home. The increase in telegraph operators' efficiency produced by this shift from reading to listening reverberated in the public imagination and helped to create the first telecommunications medium in the American landscape. Sterne continues looking at the advances made in telegraphy and the changing attitudes, both consumer and industrial, towards these advances in chapter four. At issue here is the discussion surrounding the telegraph industry's initial lack of support for the changes being made by the operators, which saw the industry wanting to martial telegraphic operation around the visual decoding of printouts in deference to the patents held by Samuel Morse and his invention of a telegraphic code. What these improvements in telegraphy illustrate for Sterne is the "'plasticity' of sound -- the malleability of sound itself and the malleability of practices of hearing and acoustic space" (181-82). This plasticity exists in a reciprocal relationship between the design of the technology at the mechanical level and the consumer use of the technology at the social/cultural level. While the sound-reproduction technologies themselves contained a multitude of potential functions (early radio, for example, was conceived as a point-to-point communication), Sterne shows that the various marketing strategies and consumers of the technologies determined their use and led to their eventual regulation and legislation in the form of sound media.

It is interesting that Sterne places his discussion of the plasticity of sound as the most central chapter of his study. He argues that this plasticity or malleability "is the distinguishing characteristic of sound media" (182), and he demonstrates this on a technological/mechanical level through his examples in chapters one to three of the tympanic function and audile technique, and continues on a social/cultural level through his discussions of sound fidelity and the capacity of sound recording to document or preserve the past in chapters five and six. Issues of fidelity between a reproduced sound and its source were largely products of the respective marketing schemes that accompanied the sound-reproduction technology to the consumer. Not unlike the visual media of film and photography, sound media became concerned with how to place the consumer between the original and the copy, and eventually with how to make the idea of an original source for the reproduced sound vanish behind the concept of sound fidelity, even before sound fidelity became a technologically-appreciable quality of sound. In this context then, issues of sound fidelity were less about faithfulness in sound quality, or more about faithfulness in the process of reproduction. Add to this the number of devices on the market, and the issue becomes one of faithfulness to a specific product and the distinctions consumers were able to make (with the assistance of advertising, of course) between these various technologies and their recorded products. In this regard, the philosophic debate between original and copy becomes moot, since the debate itself is born from the presence of the technologies themselves -- i.e. there is no discussion of an original prior to the appearance of the copy.

The process of commodification of sound recording enabled by these advertising claims of sound fidelity is continued in Sterne's discussion of sound recording as a mode of historical documentation and preservation in chapter six. While the impermanence of an original sound source could be captured, documented, and preserved as a copy in a sound recording, the materiality of the early recording was itself quite fragile. Again, the marketing of sound-reproduction technologies as record-keeping devices for both business and personal uses hastened the development of longer-lasting recordings on materials that were deemed indestructible. Interestingly, Sterne contextualizes this quest for permanence in sound within the cultural framework and rituals surrounding death and the preservation of the dead body. Early notions about the recently departed being able to communicate via sound-reproduction technologies have parallels in visual media with parlor picture albums of deceased relatives and in inscription media with the almost simultaneous arrival of both telegraphic communication and sŤance communication and their equal predilection for tapping out encoded messages.

Jonathan Sterne's The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction provides an insightful analysis of the various practices, institutions, and theories surrounding sound and hearing, which enabled the development and articulation of sound-reproduction technologies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sterneís rich archival research into the work of sound luminaries like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell offers interesting layers of background to his discussion of lesser known but equally important figures like Emile Berliner and Clarence Blake. Sterne makes the plasticity of sound its distinguishing characteristic, its mark of distinction that allowed medical and physiological practice to separate hearing from the body's other senses, which in turn allowed mechanical and technological innovation to locate soundís reproducibility in the tympanic or transductive function of the middle ear. With the appearance of these varying sound-reproduction technologies, Sterne makes a convincing case for a reciprocal sense of plasticity between the cultural practices that were informed by sound reproduction and the technologies themselves that were enhanced and adapted through cultural practice. As we continue to develop ideas and scholarship around the notion of cyberculture, historical studies such as The Audible Past will continue to be extremely important for an understanding of how specific types of media (sound, still and moving image, text, virtuality) inform, enhance, and plasticize ideas about networked multimedia environments.

Daniel Gilfillan:
Daniel Gilfillan is Assistant Professor of German and Information Literacy at Arizona State University. He is currently working on a book-length manuscript titled The Magic of Radio: The Experimental Turn in German Cultural Broadcasting from 1923-2003, which details the history of experimentation within Austro-German cultural broadcasting from 1923 to 2003 through close readings of various radio art projects and radio theoretical essays from that time period. The book will be published with the University of Minnesota Press. Previously, he reviewed Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era for RCCS.  <dgilfil@asu.edu>

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