- Sounding Modernism: Rhythm and Sonic Mediation in Modern Literature and Film eds. by Julian Murphet, Helen Groth, and Penelope Hone
Well known for his aural literary aesthetic, Joseph Conrad insists in Notes on Life and Letters (1921) that "there is infinite variety in the noises books do make."1 But what kind of sounding is reading? And how does modernism dial up the stakes of that question? In "Modernist Sound-scapes and the Intelligent Ear: An Approach to Narrative Through Auditory Perception" (2005), Melba Cuddy-Keane captures the central problematic of literary sound studies—and indeed, the challenge faced by sonically attuned authors—when she writes that "narrative always faces the difficulty that as soon as sounds are put into words, we are left with the sound of the word, not the sound of the sound."2 Although literature does not sound directly, it is hardly silent, as scholars such as Cuddy-Keane, Garrett Stewart, Douglas Kahn, Steven Connor, Sam Halliday, and others have shown us. Stewart's famous distinction in Reading Voices (1990) between "hearing" and "listening" to literature—built on Roland Barthes's understanding of hearing as physiological and listening as psychological—has proven foundational for approaching questions of how [End Page 843] literature registers and reproduces the sonic texture of the world: "When we read to ourselves," Stewart explains, "our ears hear nothing. Where we read, however, we listen."3 Although many studies purport to "listen" to literary texts, they often fall short of doing so, or at least they fall into the worthwhile but limiting pattern of studying the metaphorical and mimetic representation of sound in writing. However, Julian Murphet, Helen Groth, and Penelope Hone's 2017 edited volume Sounding Modernism goes a long way toward establishing new and groundbreaking methodologies for analyzing sound in literature and film.
Their focus, evident from the title, is on modern literature's capacities of sonic mediation, a burgeoning area of interest in modernist studies over the last decade and one heavily indebted to Cuddy-Keane's argument for a "new aurality" emerging in the first half of the twentieth century ("Modernist Soundscapes," 383). In her influential article, she contends that, largely owing to the invention of numerous sound technologies, there is a "distinctive new focus" across the modernist period on "the act of auditory perception," a focus reflected by a "perceptual turn" in narrative toward a heightened awareness of sound as both a material object and as something perceived (382). While many sound studies scholars have seized on this notion by exploring the unique ways in which modernist art represents both the new sounds of modernity and the newly materialized concept of sound, others, like Halliday in Sonic Modernity (2013), have cautioned against the tendency to approach the modernist phonotext as attempting to capture a distinctly modern soundscape.4 Halliday seems to advocate for the sort of "historiographic listening" theorized by Kahn in Noise, Water, Meat (1999)—a mode of listening that involves attending to the simultaneous presence of premodern and modern sounds and, in so doing, investigating the cultural history of sounds.5
In their Introduction, Murphet, Groth, and Hone reconcile both strains of scholarship by suggesting that "what 'sounds' in [modernist] literature … is the complex and negotiated passage of a newly materialised concept of sound itself across a number of competing institutions and media platforms, such that its ideological waves and radiation can be registered in a bewildering variety of discrete, even contradictory ways" (Sounding Modernism, 12). The essays in this collection—which examine the challenge of capturing modern sounds, the effects of vocal mediation, the modern literary voice's negotiation between sound and sense, and rhythmic mediation in modernist literature and film—attest to the manifold ways of reading sound in modern literature, all involving close-grained textual analyses that reveal the auditory dimension of written systems of signification. They resist the tendency, noted by David Trotter, to paint modernist aesthetic experimentation exclusively in terms of an agonistic relationship between literature and...