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Technology and Culture 45.2 (2004) 441-442
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Let's start with the conclusion: The Audible Past is a highly original contribution to the new field of sound studies, and a must-read for the growing number of scholars who combine an interest in the history of technology with an interest in media studies. What's more: it is a book for everyone willing to read something inspiring.
Jonathan Sterne calls his book a "deliberately speculative" history of sound reproduction (p. 27). Yet any historian of technology who might feel the inclination to skip the book because "speculative" is exactly what s/he dislikes in media studies should do the opposite. The only thing speculative about Sterne's book is its episodic character. It examines practices of sound recording, techniques of listening, and dreams about the power of sound between the 1870s and the 1920s. It does so by focusing on topics as diverse as the origins of the "phonautograph," the stethoscope, sound telegraphy, headsets, the phonograph, the telephone, studio work, tone tests, and the idea of preservation of sound in everyday life and anthropology. The episodes themselves are very well researched. What makes the book most valuable, however, are Sterne's statements about the culture of sound, all based on a thoughtful combination of STS and media theory, a close reading of (mainly American) sources, and philosophical freshness.
The originality of the book becomes clear right from the start, when Sterne criticizes the "audiovisual litany" that dominates the literature on sound. This litany assumes that a cultural analysis of sound cannot do without discerning the basic differences between the senses of hearing and vision, of which hearing is the likeliest candidate for moral superiority. Whereas vision is directional, and creates intellectual distance, superficiality, and atrophy, hearing is spherical and refers to affect, to the interior, and to physical contact with the living world. The increasing cultural dominance of vision has induced the decline of hearing. "Schizophonia," a concept coined by Raymond Murray Schafer and referring to the split between an original sound and its electroacoustic reproduction, has made things even worse: it has alienated sounds from their original context.
Yet why, Sterne asks, would interpersonal interaction and bodily presence be of unspoken better quality than any other type of communication? Why would the increasing cultural attention to one sense mean the deterioration of the other—what underpins such a zero-sum approach? And what about the implication behind the so-called split between source and copy, that is, that media technologies are the "neutral conduits" between the "sources" of sound and their "copies"(p. 21)? [End Page 441]
Sterne fights the audiovisual litany by showing, among many other things, how new techniques of listening, or "audile techniques," crystallized in the medical practices concerning the stethoscope. Through the stethoscope, listening came to be associated with intellectual distance—not exactly the phenomenon attributed to hearing by the litany. Moreover, in using the stethoscope listening had to be intensified and thus separated from other senses. Even more fundamental is the observation that the stethoscope's setting contributed to the notion of a moldable, private acoustic space, as did the world of sound telegraphy later. In such a rich interior acoustic space, one had to foreground some sounds as signs and background others as noise in order to make sense of the things listened to. Such audile techniques, Sterne makes clear, show a family resemblance with the audile techniques that became widespread with the introduction of the telephone, phonograph, radio, and the headset culture. It is even hard to conceptualize how the media industry could have capitalized sound without the prior idea of "a sonic space as private property" (p. 95).
Less original, but nicely illustrated, is the claim that there was no such thing as an "original" prior to the recording that could simply be "copied." The studio created a new product especially suited to the reproduction...