Hearing Cultures (Review: Marina Peterson)

Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening and Modernity
Veit Erlmann, ed
Oxford: Berg, 2004

The reader of Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening and Modernity is met first with the image of an ear that graces the cover of the book.  This is not any ear.  Rather, it is an ear cast in white porcelain.  It is an ear without a body.  Where a head would be, there is, instead, a flat, oblong background of porcelain.  The white ear foremost evokes European classicism qua modernism.  Singular, abstracted, and decontextualized, the ear represents some of the dominant tropes of modernism.  The ear both points to “the modern” and reproduces “modernism.”  It is available to unpack as referencing modernity at the same time as it is itself a modern ear.  Sound, it suggests, contains both the peril and promise of modernity. 

The title develops the content of modernism.  That the emphasis is on “hearing” – or sound consumption rather than production – we know already from the ear.  “Cultures” in the plural raises the spectre of difference.  But what is the subject that hears?  And what does it hear?  The abstract ear implies a universalist difference, cultures as serial entities, or cultures as the Other/s of the modern ear.  Is this modern ear locatable as part of a European modernism that imbues and accompanies projects that range from imperialism to anthropology, colonialism to globalization?  Or are cultures hearing, such that listening marks cultural difference?

Erlmann’s introduction (chapter 1, “But What of the Ethnographic Ear? Anthropology, Sound, and the Senses”) provides answers to some of these questions, answers that are drawn on and problematized through the rest of the chapters.  Erlmann opens the Introduction with a question posed in Writing Culture, “’But what of the ethnographic ear?’” (1).  The quote serves as a prompt to call for a greater inclusion of non-visual sensory experience in ethnographic writing.  To this end, “’Hearing culture’ suggests that it is possible to conceptualize new ways of knowing a culture and of gaining deepened understanding of how the members of a society know each other” (3).  “Hearing culture,” as an explanation of the title Hearing Cultures, defines culture as entity; rather than “culture” coming into being through sound, “cultures” hear differently.  The cultures whose modes of hearing are investigated are ones that are (or were) undergoing modernization, addressing the question of “how listening has come to play a role in the way people in modernizing societies around the globe deal with themselves as subjects in embodied, sensory, and especially auditory ways” (5). 

The problem of difference haunts this collection, as the terms of a European modern are deployed to analyze a range of times and cultures.  Following the thrust of modern projects such as colonialism, anthropology, and psycho-analysis, sound allows for a discussion of an Other in relation to cultural difference, the repressed, and the senses.  Modernity has produced difference through both violence and nostalgia, legitimating ideological or physical force in the service of modernization and looking within the modern self or to an Other outside for an alternative to the rationalizing tenets of modernism.  The chapters, in addressing the Other body or culture, create a generative analytic tension as they either reproduce the categories of modernity or use the material as a means of critiquing modernist tenets. 

For Smith (chapter 2, “Listening to the Wild Blue Yonder”), difference is located in the past and the body.  “For the early modern men and women, hearing was a whole-body experience” (37).  Literature provides evidence of the aurality of reading practices and the sonic environment of the time.  This mode of investigation recuperates sound for the subject and the scholar, as it “recognizes the embodiedness of historical subjects and attends to the materiality of the evidence they have left behind at the same time it acknowledges the embodiedness of the investigator in the face of that evidence” (41).  Ultimately for Smith, sound is uniquely phenomenological, with the capability of giving new life to the modern body.

Gouk (chapter 5, “Raising Spirits and Restoring Souls: Early Modern Medical Explanations for Music’s Effects”) discusses the philosophic relationship between sound and the body in early modern medicine.  Medical treatises posited ways in which music could heal by physically affecting a person’s nervous and spiritual system.  Such practices reveal an ideology of music that asserted a direct correlation between music and the body; historicizing this relationship helps deromanticize it.

Connor (chapter 8, “Edison’s Teeth: Touching Hearing”) discusses the physicality of sound (where it is produced in and by the body), to explore a mimetic relationship between sound and touch (154).  The tongue touches the inside of the mouth and teeth can “hear” vibrations.  Engaging the embodied production of sound head on enables Connor to raise charges against some of the projections that are made onto sound; sound, Connor writes, is not so much an effect or marker of difference but “brings difference into the world” (162) as  “sound can come about only as a result of some more or less violent disturbance: the collision of objects with each other (we never hear the sound of one thing alone…)” (161). 

For Bull (chapter 9, “Thinking About Sound, Proximity, and Distance in Western Experience: The Case of Odysseus’s Walkman”), the person on the street with headphones in her ears uses her body to colonize the world around her.  A combination of Odysseus’ measure of controlling his relationship to the sound of the sirens and Fitzcarraldo’s blasting of opera into the Amazon, “Walkman users habitually aestheticize their daily experience through sound in order to transcend their geographical space and manage their sense of presence in the world” (189).  Thus Bull inscribes modernity on the Walkman user, positing that sound is instrumental for a modernist mode of being in the world.  Bull’s Walkman user points to the other Other of modernity, the Other outside the modern self: the explorer’s encounter, the colonial subject, or the anthropologist’s field site.

Carter (chapter 3, “Ambiguous Traces, Mishearing, and Auditory Space”) argues that an investigation of listening rather than hearing enables the recognition of possible gaps in sonic legibility across difference.  Such gaps might include misunderstandings between groups of people where difference is organized around spoken language as well as the transformation of an original sound through recording.  Focusing on listening, Carter argues, allows for the possibility of transformation as we dwell in the muddle of modernity.

The Runa, a Quechua-speaking group, are an ethnographic Other, who, Nuckolls (chapter 5, “Language and Nature in Sound Alignment”) argues, have a closer relationship to the environment through sound than we do.  Nuckolls’ discussion of their sound world allows for an understanding of a different ideology of sound in relation to culture, in which ideophones reflect “a complex of cultural constructions that link sound to sentiments of shared animacy with the nonhuman life-world” (82).  While such an investigation yields new ways of thinking about ways to analyze and explore sound, the approach is necessarily posited on a premodern/modern split that also reproduces these terms.  With the assertion that “the use of ideophones is diminishing as “traditional subsistence-based culture becomes increasingly dependent on market-economy activities” (82), sound becomes an additional marker in the geographic and temporal divide between the modern self and the ethnographic subject.

Kahn’s discussion (chapter 6, “Ether Ore: Mining Vibrations in American Modernist Music”) of the French-American composer and esoteric philosopher Dane Rudhyar describes how a Euro-American modernist musical tradition was used to incorporate sounds and musical ideologies from the “East.”  Rudhyar drew on Tantric cosmogony to develop a musical ideology and composition form that argued for an idea that all harmony emanates from a single vibration.  His Single Tone theory, however, ultimately supported a compositional form that was rooted in European art music traditions.  With a modernist project of appropriation as his case, Kahn is able to reflect on the nature of modernism without reproducing its categories in his analysis.  As the Single Tone theory suggests, modernism has the “the capacity to generate difference from…unity” (117).

Hirschkind’s (chapter 7, “Hearing Modernity: Egypt, Islam, and the Pious Ear”) modern is the Egyptian state, which utilized recorded sermons as part of its twentieth-century modernizing project.  Cassette sermons emerged as modes of contesting the state (144); a medium not controlled by the government, cassettes also reflect an alternate philosophy of listening found in writings of mystics.  Rather than the message coming from the recording with the ability to transform the listener, cassettes mark a return to an idea that “the rhetorical act is accomplished by the hearer and not the speaker” (134).  Sound, therefore, is mutable, able to be put to different uses with differing ideological foundations.

While Egypt had an internal modernizing project, the imperialist projects at the center of European modernism depended on and helped construct an uneven world of the West and the rest.  Thompson’s work (chapter 10, “Wiring the World: Acoustical Engineers and the Empire of Sound in the Motion Picture Industry, 1927-1930”) on American sound film engineers reveals a moment of cultural imperialism that bridged colonialism and globalization.  Installing sound technology around the world for talkie movies was construed in imperialist terms, reflected most blatantly in the language of an AT&T (the ERPI) newsletter that proclaimed, “’Africa Falls Under ERPI’s Advance’” (202).  Modernity itself was the aspiration, as, “American engineers (as well as filmmakers) saw the worldwide expansion of sound film as a broadcast enterprise – one in which American technologies, commodities, and culture would disseminate throughout the world, standardize it, and thereby make it modern” (192).  This project aspired for the creation of a modern ear, abstracted and universalized.  An ear represented by the image on the cover of the book. 

Whose ear is the modern ear?  And what of the ethnographic ear?  The focus of the collection, ultimately, is not of what the ethnographer hears as sound, but of an ethnographic ear for what is heard by the subject.  For most of the authors, their subject is historical, with listening practices, abilities, and experiences found in texts.  This approach yields a wealth of methodological insight into how sound can be unearthed and recuperated from existing documents.  How we might hear today ­– with an ethnographic ear that can experience sound and hear the sonic world of others – now stands as a challenge, one that can continue to provide insight into the ways in which sound is a mode of being in the world.

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