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Reviewed by:
  • Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies Edited by Kara Keeling and Josh Kun
  • Joseph Schloss (bio)
Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies. Edited by Kara Keeling and Josh Kun. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. Pp. x+426. $35.

This anthology, originally conceived as a special issue of American Quarterly, the journal of the American Studies Association, is part of a growing sound-studies literature dedicated to the premise that sound can function not only as an object of study, but also as the cornerstone of a coherent methodology for cultural inquiry. As such, this collection represents a valuable contribution to the field, both in terms of the individual works of scholarship it contains, as well as the collective theoretical vision that emerges from their juxtaposition. “In the West,” the editors observe, “choosing to study sound has always been choosing to take the silver. Vision has traditionally been linked to reason, knowledge, science, truth and rationality; sound is ‘seen’ as fleeting and ephemeral, mystical, subjective and contingent. The former gives you evidence, the latter only hearsay” (p. 2). In re-casting this epistemological marginalization as a strength rather than a weakness, the editors argue that sound-based methodologies offer a point of view that is at once systematic and intrinsically anti-hegemonic.

The works of scholarship in Sound Clash tend to fall into two broad categories: some frame sound itself as the subject of scholarly inquiry, while others use sound as part of a methodology for understanding other subjects. Those in the first category tend to address a given sound or soundscape as a cultural text to be interpreted with various critical theory tools. This approach is not new in itself, but by presenting multiple examples of such scholarship in one place, the editors suggest that a larger theory of sound might be found in the areas in which they overlap. As it turns out, many of the pieces here focus on the multivalent nature of the relationship between technology, memory, and power, a subject of obvious interest to readers of this journal. More specifically, since much of the sonic material under examination from other eras is recoverable only via technology, many scholars take this as an opportunity to use the specifics of their particular case to analyze the larger social and economic systems in which those technologies are embedded. Eric Lott’s “Back Door Man: Howlin’ Wolf and the Sound of Jim Crow,” for example, makes much of the connections between the sound of a recording by blues artist Howlin’ Wolf and the technological infrastructure of the Jim Crow South.

Another approach is to use sound to provide insight into other areas of life. A common thread in these inquiries is a focus on the relationship between sound and space, as in Mack Hagood’s “Quiet Comfort: Noise, Otherness, and the Mobile Production of Personal Space,” which examines the implications of Bose noise-cancelling headphones in the context of [End Page 736] contemporary business travel, and Gayle Wald’s “Soul Vibrations: Black Music and Black Freedom in Sound and Space,” which addresses the historical relationship between African American musical performance and public space as a way to gain insight into the role of race in civic participation, real estate development, and media representation.

Ultimately, by arguing for the value of sound as a radical methodological and theoretical tool, the editors have set themselves a somewhat paradoxical goal: the development of a unified approach to discontinuity, abstraction, and subjectivity. Appropriately, then, this anthology is geared more toward raising questions about the nature of what a “sound studies” approach to American studies could be than toward definitively answering such questions.

One final note: for reasons not entirely clear, the editors have chosen to present this text essentially as a reprint of the original American Quarterly journal issue for which it was originally compiled. While most of the effects of this choice are slightly jarring but ultimately minor (the editors refer to the text as “this special issue” rather than “this anthology” throughout, for example), there is one area in which it does become significant—access to supplementary online resources. A URL is provided for a website offering audiovisual materials...