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  • Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia by Ana María Ochoa Gautier
  • John Holmes McDowell
Ochoa Gautier, Ana María. Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2014. xiii + 266 pp.

As the author alerts us, the project that resulted in her book, Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia, began with a different purpose—as a study of popular music in Colombia during the middle decades of the twentieth century. But as Ana María Ochoa Gautier started to examine the data, she tells us, she found that an earlier substrate of intellectual grounding required attention; moreover, her research into these matters coincided with the emergence of sound studies, treating sound as “a field of theorization” (207), and this field seemed to offer a fresh and rewarding perspective. As a consequence of these shifts in the agenda, Aurality is a book about speaking and listening, about communication involving the voice and the ear, as these sensory elements were understood, represented, and subjected to reform in Colombia by a remarkable group of thinkers, writers, cultural activists, soldiers, and statesmen during the second half of the nineteenth century.

As such, this book brings to life a series of debates centered on the role of language and its expressive forms in the context of a nation recently freed from colonial domination and seeking ways to mold its heterogeneous population into a society of citizens with a common national identity and consciousness. This topic is developed through the application of a rigorous analytical design aimed at teasing out “the politics of regimentation of the voice” (9) by attending to “contested site[s] of different acoustic practices” (4). Hence, it would appear the book’s author has sought to make contributions on two fronts: one, to acquaint the reader with a cast of protagonists carrying on the featured nineteenth-century debates; and two, to realize the promise of sound studies through systematic deployment of its guiding principles in this case study. Let’s take a look at how these tasks are performed in this valuable contribution to the scholarly library.

Regarding the nineteenth-century conversations, Ochoa does an excellent job of introducing us to her cast of characters, locating them in relevant intellectual and political contexts, and exposing us to the ideas developed in their published work, with ample selections of their own writing, in the author’s clear English translations. We begin this round of acquaintances with the renowned explorer and naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled through the interior of Colombia at the dawn of the nineteenth century making observations of all that he encountered and documenting these in his diaries and publications. Humboldt enters this account as an early commentator on the disturbing vocalizations of the bogas, the pole-bearers who moved boats up the Magdalena River when this was an artery from the Caribbean coast to the nation’s highland capital in Bogotá. What Humboldt described as the “barks and howling” (32) of these “free people of color” [End Page 103] remained an irritant in the accounts of later travelers, and serves in Ochoa’s treatment as emblematic of sonorities arising in a heterogeneous setting that challenge efforts to incorporate multiple voices into a shared acoustics of modern citizenship.

The Colombian thinkers surveyed in this book stand out for their engaged cultural politics. José María Vegara y Vegara was the author of an influential history of literature in Nueva Granada (the postcolonial region embracing modern-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela), who lamented the absence of a national epic and who argued for documenting the popular voice in its folkloric manifestations. Ezequiel Uricoechea conceived of the Andes as the biblical paradise and valued indigenous cultures to such an extent that he edited a series of grammars and vocabularies of Colombia’s indigenous languages. Rufino José Cuervo was a philologist who saw etymology as a way of constraining the dispersive tendencies of the popular tongue; his colleague, Miguel Antonio Caro, saw grammar and eloquence as markers of humankind’s ascent into a civilized state. This pair of conservative thinkers was offset by, and often at odds with, such contemporaries as...


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pp. 103-105
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