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  • Echoes of the City:Spacing Sound, Sounding Space, 1888–1916
  • Nick Yablon (bio)

As recent literary, cultural, and historical studies take what might be called an "aural turn," there has been a tendency to re-inscribe earlier assumptions about the relationship between the senses. In attempting to recuperate the apparently neglected sense of listening from the ocular-centrism of critical theory and of modern culture at large, a first phase of sound scholarship has characterized it as the other of seeing: intimate rather than detached, embodied rather than abstract, passive rather than dominant, and above all temporal rather than spatial.1 These oppositions have been challenged by a second phase of scholars who argue that with the advent of modernity, acts of listening became just as disembodied or reified as those of seeing.2 While the former risk essentializing the senses, the latter risk flattening all distinctions between them. This article will question both tendencies in the scholarship on sound—the initial assumption about its temporal character and the subsequent narrative of its disembodiment—by attending to its ongoing interarticulations with the dimension of space and the sense of sight.

The intense scrutiny given to urban soundscapes during the Progressive Era—from the various attempts to inscribe sound effects in naturalist and utopian literature to the reform societies founded to suppress street noises (a cause to which several novelists, including Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, lent their support)—provide us with an opportunity to examine some of these complex relations between sounds, sights, and spaces.3 Confronted with the new auditory phenomena generated by modern technologies of urban transportation, industrial production, and audio [End Page 629] reproduction, reformers and novelists drew on multiple bodies of knowledge (from the medical and experimental sciences to ethics and philosophy) and on numerous definitions of noise (physiological, psychological, physical, or even aesthetic).4 But the most common, straightforward, and yet problematic mode of redefining noise, this article will contend, was that of the spatial. If certain sounds were to be characterized as "music" insofar as they could be contained within the enclosed spaces of the auditorium, concert hall, or parlor, then others that could not be confined in space and which instead circulated freely across the city were coming to be understood as noise. In the same way that "dirt" would be conceived by Mary Douglas as "matter out of place" (50), noise was beginning to be conceived as sound "out of place." The positional categories of mobility and containment would be essential not only to the formation of high musical culture during these years, but also to the production of urban space itself. A variety of spatial strategies were implemented, or at least envisaged, through utopian fiction, most notably the reorganization of entire cities into aural "zones." Permitting the "noise" of industry or street buskers in some districts while preserving silence in others, such zoning laws represented an effort to space sound itself.

Reformers and utopian novelists harbored lingering doubts, however, concerning the very possibility of confining sounds within space. Some questioned whether urban space could contain the echoes of different neighborhoods, especially in cities like Boston, New York, and Chicago, where the booms and busts of construction repeatedly eroded their internal boundaries. Others expressed concerns that new audio technologies had not merely increased the volume of the urban lifeworld, but reconfigured the very spatial meaning of "noise" itself, along with its correlatives, "music" and "silence." And still others feared that not even the aesthetic realm of classical music, newly enshrined in the concert hall, the opera house, or the bourgeois parlor, could be insulated entirely from the auditory encroachment of the street. Those who emphasize the growing "technical mastery" of acousticians, engineers, and reformers over the modern soundscape (Thompson 4) thus underplay the numerous accounts found in both reformist and literary texts, in which sounds frustrate such conceits. In turning their attention to such scenes of what I call "sonic intrusion," those authors were in effect grappling with the transformed nature of their cityscape. Momentarily suspending their attempt to space sound, they instead found themselves sounding space. They sensed that one might grasp the spatiality of the modern city by listening...


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pp. 629-660
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