- Literary Recordings: Modernism, Media, and Acoustic Modernity
Fifteen years ago the media historian Michele Hilmes identified a “growing bibliography of work on sound” and speculated about the emergence of a new subfield she termed “sound culture studies.”1 Two excellent new titles by Jason Camlot (Concordia University) and Angela Frattarola (Nanyang Technological University) demonstrate the extent to which, in the intervening years, the once “hypothetical field” of which Hilmes caught a glimpse has been codified and transformed. We can now say definitively that the field of sound studies exists.
Frattarola’s Modernist Soundscapes: Auditory Technology and the Novel takes up questions of sound and its histories from a distinctly literary perspective. She argues that turn-of-the-century European and North American literature “became increasingly concerned with and influenced by the developing auditory technologies of the time”; specifically, literary works by Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Jean Rhys, and Samuel Beckett served as a means for “educating readers and familiarizing them with a new auditory technology” (3). Formal and linguistic innovations, along with growing skepticism about vision and human ability to know the world, “are in part a result of a growing awareness of and shift toward sound perception made possible through new auditory technologies” (4). Modernist writers were “shaped” by these new listening practices in Frattarola’s account, giving rise to texts characterized by “noisy onomatopoeia” and an extensive use of linguistic repetition—which might be thought productively as samples and loops (15, 147). [End Page 847]
Frattarola impressively fleshes out the concrete links between modernist authors and the specific auditory technologies of radio, tape, and the gramophone: Richardson, for example, wrote a column for a film magazine, in which she lamented the death of silent film. Woolf owned a gramophone, subscribed to the National Gramophonic Society, and listened with attentive dismay to the voice of Hitler in radio broadcasts. Joyce was also an avid radio listener, while Rhys spoke of being “haunted by popular songs” captured on gramophone records (quoted in Frattarola, 8). Finally, Beckett experimented formally with radio, tape, television, and film. These authors were not just shaped by auditory technologies and related listening practices: they were dedicated users of these devices, skilled in handling and operating them, familiar with their sensuous, material forms, and conceiving of language and their own literary projects with direct reference to the unique affordances of modern acoustic media.
Frattarola’s first chapter offers an overview of existing literature and further theoretical observations on the relationship between sound and vision. Writing against dominant narratives of crisis and modernist disorientation, and drawing on Martin Jay’s influential history of ocularcentrism and the denigration of vision, Frattarola argues that, “we can just as easily tell a story of modernism in which writers revel in the destabilization of vision” (23, emphasis added). Modernists in this account did not necessarily feel themselves to be in a state of crisis as their faith in vision was shaken, experiencing instead (or at least simultaneously) “a sense of liberation from an ocularcentrist orientation” through their encounters and engagement with sound and its mediating technologies (23). Frattarola thus draws a compelling connection between modernism’s oft-cited “crisis of vision” and the surge of literary interest in sound around 1900, suggesting that they are in fact two sides of the same coin. According to this understanding, the disorientation of vision was counterbalanced by a newfound auditory orientation—visual crisis offset by auditory discovery and invention.
Frattarola avoids a troubling tendency in sound studies to discuss sound in isolation from the other senses, offering instead a truly audio-visual approach. At the same time, some readers may be left wondering whether Frattarola’s move away from the narrative of crisis is simply a matter of preferring one kind of historical narrative about modernity to another, of focusing on what has been gained rather than lost. As the author herself makes clear, both narratives hold true...