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Shakespeare Quarterly 52.1 (2001) 165-167

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Book Review

The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor

The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor. By Bruce R. Smith. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. xiv + 386. Illus. $55.00 cloth, $21.00 paper.

In The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor, Bruce R. Smith constructs a critical practice of "'acoustemology'": "a world view centered on sound" (289). Such an "ecology of speech," Smith argues, "recognizes that cultures establish their identities not only through things seen but through things heard and said" (48); he suggests furthermore that by carefully reconstructing "protocols for talking and listening" in early modern England, "we may come to understand some of the ways in which early modern subjects achieved selfhood through speech" (246). The things Smith seeks to hear, moreover, are not merely linguistic: given the temporal and evanescent nature of sound, it is astonishing how much information Smith reconstructs about the heard worlds of early modern England. Smith cites rhetoric manuals, anatomies, architectural plans, musical examples, theatrical design, the proportion of trades practiced in particular locales, the acoustical properties of ambient materials demonstrably present in Renaissance England, together with more and less familiar textual and literary representations of sound events, extrapolating the "Soundscapes of Early Modern England" in fascinating detail. Even readers uninvested in Smith's larger phenomenological project will find much to ponder (and teach) in his analysis of Renaissance soundscapes. For example: absent the ambient broad-band sound of the postindustrial age, individual sounds emerge more distinctly to human hearing, producing a collage of identifiable sounds where today we hear aggregate "background" noise. Smith shows that in a cityscape of acoustically reflective paving stones and timbered buildings at typical London densities, for instance, individual speech at normal conversational level becomes discernible up to one hundred feet away--with implications for early modern experiences of community, privacy, identity, and space.

Playing on etymological connotations of per-sona as "sounded through" (280), Smith's book is divided into three phenomenologically oriented parts: "Around," "Within," and "Beyond." The five chapters "Around" situate "acoustemology" in theoretical contexts of phenomenology, sociolinguistics, and systems theory on the one hand and in early modern representations (or traces) of experiencing speech, sound, and hearing on the other. The four chapters "Within" consider jigs, ballads, plays, oratory, preaching, and other moments of "dialogue" and "conversation." Particularly welcome here are the liberal quotations of musical texts, something far too many presses shy away from. Part Three, "Beyond," acoustemologically considers outsider-native encounters in the Celtic fringe and North America (casting the latter as interactions between the hyper-literate culture of English Reformers and the oral cultures of the indigenous peoples, subjects Smith argues to be significantly conditioned to profoundly different soundscapes).

Following Niklas Luhmann, Smith posits body, psyche, media, and society as autonomous but overlapping communication systems, with each term inhabiting an "environment" that comprises the other three. Smith persuasively argues for this [End Page 165] model's distinctive recognition of communication as a complex and transformative "negotiation" of meaning among "autopoeic" fields (15-22), whereas other paradigms (undergirding such diverse methodologies as cultural studies, Derridean analysis, and the sociolinguistics of Sapir and Whorf) imply a simple "transfer" that leaves the message intact. Since, as Smith points out, "our knowledge of early modern England is based largely on words, and all evidence suggests that those words had a connection to spoken language that was stronger and more pervasive than we assume about our own culture" (13), rigorously considering the transactions that mediate moves from speech to text, from speaker to page to reader, emerges as particularly pressing.

In Smith's view, focusing on acoustic experience inherently turns away from the Cartesian and visual principles underlying most literary and historical epistemology, which analyzes objects "out there." Attending to sound, by contrast, leads Smith to phenomenology: "objects that I see remain situated in geometric space; sounds that I hear reverberate inside me" (10). Hence Smith...


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