How does sound and sound reproduction affect cultural history? Jonathan Sterne attempts to answer this question throughout his book The Audible Past. Sterne goes about answering this question by exploring the neglected territory of sound studies in relation to cultural history. Sound studies have often dwelled in the shadow of visual forms of media. Though there is some literature speculating on the influence of sound, it has been often fragmented and neglected from a focused approach. Sterne explores the significance of sensory experiences in media beginning with the sound studies as a reflection of cultural values, ideas, and associations. “The Audible Past tells a story where sound, hearing, and listening are central to the cultural life of modernity, where sound, hearing and listening are foundational to modern modes of knowledge, culture, and social organization” (2).
Necessary to the study of sound is the study of hearing, listening, essentially, the perception of sound. Understanding how we perceive sound is vital to understanding the significance of sound and sound reproduction. The study of sound perception implies that the study of the body and senses is the vehicle for gaining insight into the cultural relevance of sound reproduction. To do this is to “fully consider the senses as historical only if we consider society, culture, technology, and the body as themselves artifacts of human history.” This novel approach to studies of cultural history discombobulates the over-popularized approach to history that focuses on cultural evolution in a pattern like so: humankind discovers science, science leads to technology, leads to the masses, leads to shift in cultural values. Sterne’s focus on the active responsibility of the body within history is an innovative approach to perceiving all relevant elements to the appreciation of sound. “A truly historicist understanding of the senses…therefore requires a commitment to the constructive and contextualist strain of social and cultural thought. Conversely, a vigorous constructivism and a vigorous contextualism require a history of the senses.” Sterne breaks the mold by approaching the growth and influence of scientific advancements by recognizing the sensory approach to history, without giving too much attention to the most (basic) accessible influences of culture (such as visual culture). “As we imagine the possibilities of social, cultural, and historical change—in the past, present, or future—it is also our task to imagine histories of the senses.”
What exactly did the evolution of sound technologies change? “Sound technologies are said to have amplified and extended sound and our sense of hearing across time and space.” The word amplified suggests that sound became less of an instantaneous, temporal occurrence. Sound could be reproduced without the actual acoustic source, and became a direct sensory experience through machinery. The term extended implies that sound became a unifying experience through the invention of the telephone and radio. A sense of community developed and in a way the world became smaller as remote places inched slightly closer together with the possibility of sound reproduction and travel. “We are told that telephony altered ‘the conditions of daily life’; that sound recording represented a moment when ‘everything suddenly changed,’ a ‘shocking emblem of modernity’…transforming our perceptual habits and blurring the boundaries of private, public, commercial, and political life.’” This change marks the shift in cultural value of visual media to the more direct and pungent experience of audible media. Sterne qualifies the aesthetic influence of visual representations, but through the study of sound lays the lasting impression of sound culture on the minds of modern peoples.
Visual culture has been considered one of the dominant aspects affecting cultural history through studies of advertisements, art, film, and other visual forms. However, the ephemeral projection of ever-changing images maintains visual culture as a form of mediation whose influence is fleeting and difficult to categorize. Sound technology dethroned the notion that visual culture alone holds the dominant influence on the masses. Sterne often qualifies the importance of sight during the Enlightenment period, but recognizing the past importance of the visual sense only further highlights the monumental changes sound has made on culture. Enlightenment mediations evolved similarly to the modern mediations by affecting cultural and social values and behaviors. Enlightenment mediations such as the newspaper created a community sense much like radio. There became a singular audience, a represented whole, and with the reporting of information there became the sense of now-ness in community. However, the transmission of messages heavily relied upon the sense of sight through reading. “But, even if sight is in some ways the privileged sense in European philosophical discourse since the Enlightenment, it is fallacious to think that sight alone or in its supposed difference from hearing explains modernity.” Because many Enlightenment media relied upon the act of reading, the message was mitigated because of the aesthetic differences. The message, which normally would have been spoken between the writer and reader, was just the existence of printed text on the paper. It is much simpler to tire and stop reading an article than it is to tune out or ignore a sound. Sound technologies engage directly with the sensory experience of listening, gaining higher ground as a direct bodily experience. Language is not limited to sound, however, spoken language has been a much longer tradition of communication compared to the media of writing and reading. Radio and telephony permitted the transmission of voices, a sensory experience that has long since survived the written word. Sound has more pure message because it is more closely related to the essence of language. Of course, the visual sense continues to be an influential form of mediation, but the role and advancement of sound holds equal ground in the relay of information. “The golden age of the ear never ended,” writes Alan Burdick. ‘It continues, occluded by the visual hegemony.’
Kittler’s suggestion that media are either storage or transmission devices is an extremely powerful statement. When objectively looking at specific media, such as writing, phonographs, and cinema, one can clearly derive that either a message is attempting to be transmitted or historically stored information is being presented to the individual without additional training outside of natural enculturation. Examples of transmission and storage media are seen all throughout institutions like Universities and newspapers, entertainment devices such as television and radio, and in politics through advertisements, infomercials, columns in newspapers, etc. In terms of media being a storage device, media has the special characteristic, according to Kittler, of “storing time” in the realm of eternity (Kittler 34). This has implications, which Kittler brings up, that because media can essentially take away the humanistic characteristic of mortality, media in some sense is connected to the dead, or more religiously, the soul. He makes a strong argument by linking various religious texts with God’s instructions to write or with a story where God actively inspires an author to transcribe His words (Kittler 36-37). Also, before the technological era was in full swing, “texts and scores were [the] only means to store time” and “as long as the book had to take care of all serial data flows…words trembled with sensuality and memory “ (Kittler 33, 30). Therefore, Kittler proposes that books accomplished, in the imaginary, the work that sights and sounds do, created from the cinematograph and phonograph, through the typewriter. However, the phonograph and cinematograph were “new” because they could store time in unprecedented ways through audible and visual procedures.
Kittler’s discussion of the transmission of media is more theoretical than concrete in the excerpt from Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. In books, the words of a story create no more of a meaning than the reader ascribes to it in his imagination. More formally, the “letters do not transmit a beyond which could be hallucinated by perfect alphabets as meaning” (Kittler 44) because books do not carry audible, and more or less, visual representation. Books have power because they evoke this imaginative sense in the reader and it loses this transmission when books become available via other media sources, such as movies or television shows. The reader loses the power to shape the story him or herself because images of how the producer, or author, shaped it are replacing the readers’. Unlike writing, other media are capable of restructuring people and stories beyond structure and form, natural colors and shapes, and most importantly, words originally ascribed to them. In the case of photography and photographs, which Balzac calls “the shady trick” because of its ability to eternalize a mortal, software has been developed to alter any imperfection the subject may posses, to create digitized perfection (Kittler 41). We can generalize this to all mass media because editing can be a high paying occupation if working in the right field of media, for the right company. Moving to radio, a “Jürgenson wave” refers to the white noise, or background noise, transmitted through the receiver when tuned in to certain channels with almost untraceable wavelengths (Kittler 42). These are supposedly the channels upon which the dead can communicate over. Moreover, books are not capable of transmitting anything but words and “writing, no more, no less” because other media has stripped the psychologically imaginative powers of reading, debasing a books uniqueness to merely its composition (Kittler 26).
Modernization of human society must be exciting memory and experience to many people. In the process of modernization, I believe that people’s active involvement in listening and sound technique was one of the major factor that drew out today’s modernity. As David Seubert has mentioned during the lecture, Stern’s The Audible Past is very intriguing piece of writing which reinterpret the significance of sound in terms of history, culture, and modernity. As he argues throughout book, people were heavily dependent on visibility and image in many aspects due to the fact that sound was not storable until the discoveries of phonograph and telephone (Stern 10). The emergence of sound technology hugely affected human society and culture as “the sound had lost its ephemeral character” (Sterne 1).
In the past, human history is vastly dependent on written, visual evidence but no sound evidence. Nowadays, sound and listening technique represents our modernity and cultural advancement. Scientifically, sound is defined as a part of wave and vibration; however, socially and culturally, sound contains meaning and effects to people depend on the context where it is taking place. I agree with Sterne’s argument, stating that visual aids of verbal descriptions are very limited in interpreting or storing sounds accurately and affectively (Stern 94). Development of sound technology seems to partially eliminate people’s tendency to depend their hearing technique on their sight and metalanguage and emphasizes “an aesthetics of the audible” (Stern 95). As always, technology do not provide facilitation as granted. It requires human bodies to be trained and to be gradually adapted to the new technique. One of the cases that Sterne explains is history of medical field and emergence of stethoscope and mediate auscultation. Even though some medical doctors did not know how to use stethoscope, medical field had to be reformed according to the function of stethoscopes, and mediate auscultation improved the relationship between patients and doctors.
Stored sounds were commercialized and were functionalized in many professional fields such as medicine, film, media, and communication, but also outdated written communicating technology, particularly telegraph. Modernization and technology advancement fascinated us with many innovative tools and objects, we also unconsciously abandoned the culture we had before the innovation, but humans were able to maximize their functions and use of hearing. We usually do not watch TV without sound, and we would like to hear voice of presidential candidates and their actual speech before we vote. Sound express more by itself than when it is described in written and/or visual forms. As people began to sensitize their hearing, they were able to constructs this modern society with details in medical, entertainment, and communication field in order to meet individual’s sensitive needs and high standards of living.
In David Seubert’s lecture, what I found to be quite interesting is his comment that although he is digitizing all of the sound recordings and transferring them onto a computer, that one must not forget where it originally came from. He mentioned that when sound is digitized, one could easily forget where it originally came from and how it was made. By listening to a sound recording on the computer, one may perhaps forget how that recording was made and it is as simple to do as it is today. I found this point to be quite relevant to Marxists Theory of Mediation discussed the first day of lecture. Although Marxist supporters would oppose Seubert’s actions and his Cylinder product, perhaps mediation is necessary in some cases. In Seubert’s case, he is preserving sound recordings from the late 1800’s to mid 1900’s. As discussed by Professor Epstein, Karl Marx did not completely oppose mediation, but rather emphasized the idea that people need to “see truth and value as mediated and dialectical (a process of struggle and change) rather than ontological (something that simply is)” (Epstein, Lecture 4.2.12).
With Seubert’s approach to the Cylinder project, I feel that he is somewhat exposing where the sound recording came from. Because he does not modify the format nor change the quality of the sound, he is keeping it’s original quality. Further, by Seubert uploading ALL of the sound recordings rather than picking and choosing which ones are relevant, he is able to embark a very natural and true aspect to the Cylinder project.
Although mediation is present in that those involved with the cylinder project are digitizing the sound recordings, by keeping its original sound and quality, the listener is able to still remember where it came from. By preserving these original sound recordings, the listener is perhaps even able to gain insight into that period time of that particular recording.
Hearing the voice of Theodore Roosevelt is something that I had never heard before. Yes, perhaps I have previously heard excerpts on TV or in movies, but hearing it on the actual cylinder made it feel so real. I feel that the Cylinder project is a necessary one. Although it does require a slight amount of mediation through its process of digitization, such a process allows voices like Theodore Roosevelt. Further, the way in which Seubert manages to preserve the recordings original quality of sound, allows the listener to see the “truth and value as mediated and dialectical,” thus the novelty of the original recording is not obscured, but rather brought to life to modern society.
Kittler argues that media fundamentally deals with time, and that the advent of modern technological media, beginning with the phonograph, have altered and disrupted time in a profound way. He declares early on in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter that, “Time..is what determines the limits of all art.” Previously, old media such as literature, poetry, musical scores, and art simply emulated moments in time: there was no way to perfectly replicate moments that the creators wished to save so sensory experiences were transmitted through a type of human recorder (the artists, the writer, the composer) into symbolic notation. The phonograph, however, ushered in wave after wave of new replication technology, along with photography. Movies, record players, tapes, cds, polaroids, and eventually smart phones were all to follow. Yet something seems to be lost in the consumption of replication media that was possible during times when only emulatory media existed. Replicatory media seeks to occupy the space of memory, such that in modern times media defines memory: we remember events through pictures that were taken there, or home movies or other recordings. But since this media does the work of remembering for us, as a result we can only remember surrounding it and instances not captured are lost. Kittler quotes an essay by Chris Marker in which Marker muses, “I remember the images that I filmed in January in Tokyo. They have put themselves in the place of my memory, they are my memory. I ask myself how people remember if they do not make movies, or photographs.” Emulatory media, because it can only capture impressions of an instance, create a mythos around those instances that leaves room. A diary entry cannot record the sound of a voice: the reader must imagine how it sounded, perhaps with only moderate hints from adjectives like “deep” or “sad.” A live performance can only be remembered by thinking of it or perhaps looking over the score, and yet every live performance is different, shaped by errors, such that the score indicates a cymbal clash where there was none.
Yet Kittler fails to point out that even replication has its limits. Besides the fact that in an age of photoshop, no photo can be truly taken at face value, there have been ways to affect replicatory media since their inception. A group photograph may replicate who was present at a certain event, but what about the person behind the camera? Or the one who went to the bathroom and accidentally missed the photo? No recording media is perfect either: microphones do not pick up every sound present, creating imperfect replications. Furthermore, even our replicatory media present only instances of time: the person who went to the bathroom was indeed at that event the whole time except those few minutes, yet the replication lies. Consequently the only way to “fix” errors of omission in replicatory media is perhaps to record everything all the time. In a sense this is already happening, with security cameras strategically placed in every city, satellites constantly photographing landmasses, cameraphones always snapping photos, creating video, recording voices. But if a stream of simultaneous media flows parallel to real-time action, it devalues itself. Objects (and therefore media) become more valuable the rarer they are. Ubiquitous, omnipresent, ever-creating itself media destroys the point of media. How can value be determined from vast masses of every day replication? Who will sort through it all? Fifty years from now, what happens to video of you purchasing paper towels, toothpaste, and a carton of ice cream at the convenience store? It’s arguable if these moments should even be considered worthy of replication. At some point contemporary society will have to resort value systems of media and consider which, when, and how it is still valuable.
Kittler, however, poses the opposite of this. He imagines a world of undifferentiated, passive reception of conglomerate media. The advent of fiber optic cables, he writes in 1997, will serve to undifferentiate all media because they will all be transmitted digitally and reduced to computer language (binary number systems). This, he hypothesizes, will allow unprecedented blending of all media lumped together in order to serve all senses, stripped down the binary language of computers that contains so many fewer symbols that the 26-letter alphabet. Kittler’s essay suggests a narrowing of media when in fact I am more inclined to describe the current (and subjective) experience of media to be omnipresent: digitization has not narrowed the human mind, but instead engaged all its trivialities. The social media device Twitter is built specifically for mundanities and other unimportant thoughts, reduced to cell signals and computer language, but reformed into alphabet soup about class, work, sleep, and boring dining hall food. Kittler’s computerized world in 2012 is not stripped of creativity, of passive consumer of piped in digitized media: as always, media is encoded and decoded, repurposed and always humanized. Surely Turing never imagined that his scanning strips of computer language would someday serve not only to post this blog’s ruminations on media, but also everyone on facebook’s endless desire to know who, exactly, is getting “complicated” with who.
There are many different ways to look at the UCSB Cylinder Project. On the one hand it seems only natural that a library would want to archive things from the past, it’s just something that libraries and museums do. However the fact that they are digitizing the contents offers another look at why cylinders are important.
The Cylinder Project’s website discusses how cylinders have been fascinating for collectors and archivists. This is part of the physical aspect of the cylinder at work here. They are curiosities, media forms that no longer exist like the 8-track tape and the HD DVD. It helps that their shape is also different than the dominant disc shape of the vinyl records and most modern storage media take (DVDs and CDs). However this places a greater focus on the physical form the cylinder. On the one hand, it is an important moment in technological history and is worth keeping in that respect, but on the other, the cylinders were created to store and play sound, so what is the point of keeping them if their contents are no longer experienced?
The Cylinder Projects digitization of the contents suggests that the contents are also important. It removes the content from the context of the physical device. By removing the physical aspect of the cylinders you remove that part of their appeal. While it sounds negative, initially what it means is that the allures of the form do not detract from the content. What makes the cylinders worthy of preservation is not their collectability but what they hold. However once you separate the message from the media is the message still worth keeping? A quick look through the archives shows that it contains things like “whistling,” “cakewalks,” and decades old instructional language lessons. While at first these do not seem like important things to archive, the homepage of the Cylinders Project says that these show us what the popular culture of a bygone era was like. The sheer breadth of the collection says something all on its own about how cylinders, and by extension all modern storage media, shifted the perception of things worth recording. It stands in stark contrast to Goethe’s description of writing, in Kippler’s article, as a very sparse record of history.