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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 249-259

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Is There a Field Called Sound Culture Studies? And Does It Matter?

The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. By Jonathan Sterne. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003. 448 pages. $24.95 (paper).
The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900 to 1930. By Emily Thompson. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002. 510 pages. $47.95 (cloth).

I pose the two questions above in the face of mounting evidence that the study of sound, hailed as an "emerging field" for the last hundred years, exhibits a strong tendency to remain that way, always emerging, never emerged. This may suggest an answer to the second question: perhaps it doesn't matter to enough people in enough disciplines that the study of sound consolidate and declare itself. Perhaps sound study is doomed to a position on the margins of various fields of scholarship, whispering unobtrusively in the background while the main action occurs elsewhere. This would echo the position that most writers on the topic attribute to sound itself—constantly subjugated to the primacy of the visual, associated with emotion and subjectivity as against the objectivity and rationality of vision, seen as somehow more "natural" and less constructed as a mode of communication—in essence, fundamentally secondary to our relationship to the world and to dominant ways of understanding it.

However, two excellent new books on the topic, building on the accomplishments of an impressive, and perhaps unprecedented, decade in the study of sound art and science, may help us think the field differently: to redefine it less as the study of sound itself, or as practices of aurality within a particular industry or field, than of the cultural contexts out of which sound media emerged and which they in turn work to create: sound culture. These two richly rewarding additions to the work done on aural culture in America substantially broaden the scope of what might be included in the field of sound [End Page 249] studies, coming as they do from two very different scholarly traditions. Jonathan Sterne hails from a media studies background, with a Ph.D. from the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana; he now teaches communication at the University of Pittsburgh. Emily Thompson comes from a history of technology background, with a degree from Princeton, a teaching position involving the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, and a senior fellowship at the Dibner Institute for Science and Technology at MIT. Both books build on a growing bibliography of work on sound, from many different disciplinary perspectives, and though they take distinctly divergent approaches themselves, may indicate how the field of sound culture studies, redefined as a broad matrix, is coming together—and why it matters.

Rick Altman, professor of cinema and comparative literature at the University of Iowa, author of several seminal studies on sound and with the clearest claim, if anyone deserves it, to the title of godfather of sound studies in the United States, introduced a special "sound" edition of the journal Iris in 1999 with an essay titled "Sound Studies: A Field Whose Time Has Come."1 In it he identified the present as the "fourth generation of Sound Studies," dating its commencement back to 1980 with the publication of the Yale French Studies issue on sound, edited by Altman and later becoming his groundbreaking work Sound Theory/Sound Practice.2 Later, Altman would be instrumental in founding a tradition of sound studies at the University of Iowa. However, this body of work focuses almost exclusively on film sound, and indeed the study of sound and cinema is perhaps the largest and best-developed area that must be included in any attempt to delineate sound studies. Much of the best work takes a fundamentally institutional approach, with Douglas Gomery's never-published but nevertheless influential dissertation leading the pack,3 while other studies combine consideration of the developing Hollywood economic system with issues of aesthetics and practice...


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