- The Age of Noise in Britain: Hearing Modernity by James G. Mansell, and: The Age of Electroacoustics: Transforming Science and Sound by Roland Wittje
The Age of the History of Science and Sound
The age of the history of the science and sound has arrived. Indeed, if the Jonathan Sterne's The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke University Press, 2003) and Emily Thompson's 2004 The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933 (The MIT Press) marked the beginning of academic study at the intersection of sound and science, the trend has been extended by several more scholarly monographs similarly situated, journal special issues, edited volumes, and source readers. Two new works, James G. Mansell's The Age of Noise in Britain: Hearing Modernity and Roland Wittje's The Age of Electroacoustics: Transforming Science and Sound, indicate that what was perhaps previously a trend has now matured into a proper subfield. Both authors make convincing cases for how and why sound offers historians a unique insight into the past. Their careful analyses of the fluid, looping nature of sounds, the practice of listening to, thinking about, and thinking with these sounds, illuminate the process by which new sounds and sound practices proliferated in the first half of the twentieth century. Both Mansell and Wittje are masterful in their abilities to deftly move from close readings of technical experiments or noise [End Page 301] measurements or avant-garde musical compositions, to larger claims about the interaction of politics, culture, and ideas in the modern period. Further, to sustain such deep analysis over so many decades rightly earns them each the ability to declare their subjects to be "ages of …" shall we say, ways of hearing? If nothing else, Mansell's and Wittje's books will motivate readers to listen to their own, present world in a new way.
In The Age of Noise in Britain, Mansell treats the noise of British life from the beginning of WWI to the end of WWII as the aural manifestation of modernity. This allows him to then examine this modernity through a deft analysis of cultural and intellectual projects to define and control sound. Noise, he explains, was disenchanted, reenchanted, and rationalized by experts in the hopes of establishing and maintaining power. Noise was also used by both citizens and the State to fashion identity, selfhood, and nationalism. He explains in the opening passage of his book that the discussions about noise in this period consisted of "a conscious engagement with the politics of modernity in which the modern was not primarily a set of ideas, institutions, or practices, but rather the sensed experience of an unnerving atmosphere" (Mansell, p. 1). If we, as historians, understand how people heard and how they understood what they heard, we can better understand modernity.
The contours of this early twentieth-century narrative—the tensions between the individual and the expanding State, magic and science, lay, every day experience and the expert—are familiar but Mansell reveals again and again that the sound/hearing framework offers nuance and unexpected complexity to our understanding of modernity. In chapter 1, "Modernity as Crisis: Noise and 'Nerves,"' Mansell examines the noise abatement advocates' use of the already outdated neurasthenic paradigm to show how medical and cultural critiques were blended together to fuel the emerging "culture of psychological selfhood" (Mansell, p. 21). So, while the anti-noise campaigners identified modernity as the problem to be overcome, their efforts also contributed to what historians now identify as distinctly modern developments. In his wonderful case study of occult, magical sounds, Mansell extends this unexpected inversion in chapter 2, "Reenchanting Modernity: Techniques of Magical Sound." The revived interest in the spirituality of sound and concerns about noise were no coincidence, Mansell argues. The Theosophical Society was not retreating to the enchantment of the past but rather, a...