The Audible Past

Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (2003)

A story about the development of sound-reproduction technologies, Sterne’s book was one of the first in a now well-populated list of scholarship across many different disciplines that aims to rigorously examine sound as an historical, analytic, and philosophical category.

The point of the book: Sterne examines various listening technologies and the cultural/social contexts within which sound reproduction technologies were produced, taking the reader through the background history to technologies such as stethoscopes, telegraphs, telephones, and gramophones. His basic argument is that technologies do not emerge from neutral circumstances, and are actually deeply shaped by the cultural and social contexts and obsessions of their inventors.

Sterne makes is the connection between sound technologies and Victorian obsessions with death. Relating the gramophone’s power to ‘preserve’ voices after the death of the speaker to that of other preservatory technologies such as embalming and canning.\

Some points he made: the relationship between deaf culture and early sound reproduction technologies; the rationalization and professionalization of listening abilities; the role of the telegraph in establishing a monopolistic business model in America; the fragile material existence of recording technologies (which were often in direct opposition to their accompanying rhetoric of ‘sound preservation’); the links between female gender roles and telephony; the emergence of privatized space; the role of telephones and radios with regards to nationalism.

“This book turns away from attempts to recover and describe people’s interior experience of listening––an auditory past––toward the social and cultural grounds of sonic experience. The ‘exteriority’ of sound is this book’s primary object of study” (13).

The book’s first chapter, “Machines to Hear for Them,” sets up one of the central points that allows Sterne’s book to proceed analytically rather than chronologically: the social construction of “transducers, which turn sound into something else and that something else back into sound” (22).

“The objectification and abstraction of hearing and sound, their construction as bounded and coherent objects, was a prior condition for the reconstruction of sound-reproduction technologies” (23).

Sterne argues that “the history of sound reproduction is the history of the transformation of the human body as an object of knowledge and practice” (50-51). And “hearing, in other words is already an instrument” (61)

In the book’s second and third chapters, Sterne charts the development of listening practices that grow out of these physiologically-based notions of sound. If sound reproduction required a concept of sound as the effect of a set of nerves and membranes, then it also required a set of specialized practices or techniques that shaped and perfected this instrument of hearing in various social contexts. Sterne argues that specialized listening practices such as stethoscopy and telegraphy helped develop the “audile technique” that will become instrumental in practices that are later disseminated on a mass scale by developing technologies. “From roughly 1810 on, audile technique existed in niches at either end of the growing middle class. It would not become a more general feature of middle-class life until the end of the nineteenth century, when sound reproduction became a mechanical possibility and the middle class itself exploded in size and changed in outlook and orientation” (98-99).

Sterne writes, “techniques of listening do not simply turn sound technologies into media” (177). Rather, it is through a combined network of economic institutions and individual practices that media are constructed.

“A medium is a recurring set of contingent social relations and social practices, and contingency is key here. As the larger fields of economic and cultural relations around a technology or technique extend, repeat, and mutate, they become recognizable to users as a medium. A medium is therefore the social basis that allows a set of technologies to stand out as a unified thing with clearly defined functions. (182)”

“Manufacturers and marketers of sound-reproduction technologies felt that they had to convince audiences that the new sound media belonged to the same class of communication as face-to-face speech” (25).

“The first recordings were essentially unplayable after they were removed from the machine. […] If anything, permanence was less a description of the power of a medium than a program for its development” (288-9).

The construction of reality became an important concept in the marketing of sound reproduction technology.  In the early days of sound reproduction, the issue of authenticity, realism, and reality plagued the market of gramophones, phonographs, and the like.  Consumers wanted to listen to recordings that were realistic – they wanted their recordings to sound like the sounds of their respective realities.  Sound reproduction developed with an “artifice of authenticity.” Realism was unattainable and impossible and producers did not aim to mimic actual reality.  Instead, producers created their own projected reality by turning recordings into a listening experience.   With improved fidelity over time, sound became immortalized in recorded, reproduced form.  This duplicated sound further distorted the concept of reality leaving the brain and i-function to construct a fuller image of realism, filling in the gaps to attain a degree of authenticity.

The history of sound has ultimately given rise to a collective behavior when listening to sound.  This collective behavior has taught the modern listener what to expect when listening.  Effective listening requires the ability to switch between modes of listening.  This act of switching is akin to the acceptance of multiple perspectives held simultaneously by the brain.  The brain uses what is familiar and what is learned over time to construct a unique point of view.  It imposes its own construction on perception, but this construction is not any less “real” than reality.  Our perceptions exist as a result of our interaction with the social world. Sterne closes by stressing that the sociological world has a large effect on how sound is portrayed and used.  In accordance, sound has a large effect on the perception of human reality.  Therefore, sound, the social world, and reality are all interrelated – the functions of the brain connect them together and produce corresponding behavior.

Sound fidelity is socially constructed (219). Listeners had to learn how to listen in order to pay attention to the original interaction (and the actual sound/noise of the recording). This could be an interesting intervention for Philip Auslander’s Liveness (1999).

For media to function, it must have a structure/network to function in. The social and technological are intertwined to establish a medium as a medium.

Sterne and Street (Brian) are both similar in that they take up oral and written texts. Sterne uses different time periods in his comparative approach of analysis (similar to Street). Comparative method is useful to talk about/illuminate what is happening on the ground. Street’s starting point is the idea of literacy, where as Sterne’s starts at the materiality. Economics shape literary and acoustic practices. The rise of the middle class influenced media ideologies. Sterne writes against the idea that sound technologies do not have media ideologies. He writes for the contextual understanding of mediums in society (this includes producers, consumers, and institutions). Media ideologies are shaped by culture context and thus shape how a medium is used. Users and social narratives for users.

What counts as a medium is influenced by media ideologies. Sterne talks about sound technology as translating sound into new mediums/forms. In the 18th century, senses were thought as separate.

Catherine Cole. 2010. Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission: Stages of Transition. Chapter 4:

She argues television became a different experience/reality. The show portrayed a different South Africa. It was an attempt to educate white viewers on the crimes of the apartheid. It was a pedagogical project to not focus on individuals, but the systematic human rights crime. It wanted to reach police and military members. It calls out and brings in people. Hearings took place in public. The TRC is performing transparency by having public hearings and the televised experience is another form of transparency. The questions Cole addresses is can a television show change the political reality/consciousness of a country? Her answer would be…

Hearings happened on raised platforms and stages throughout the country, with spectators attending in person, and radio and television broadcasts transforming the commission into a media event in which thousands participated. When seeing the TRC as a live, affective, kinetic, sonic, and visual event that relied upon interpretation by linguists, the media, and audiences in order to reach a larger South African public, one understands the power of performance—to express both the magnitude of the TRC’s ambitions as well as the inevitability of its failure to achieve closure. In looking at the TRC through the lens of performance I neither see the commission negatively nor do I valorize it with romantic notions about the miraculous, cathartic, healing potential of performance. I simply assert that the commission was a performance—and that we need to understand how its performative dimensions operated.

The book then examines several layers of mediation that were inherently part of the commission’s telling and performing of apartheid’s stories.  To give testimony meant, inherently, to interpret and to be interpreted.  This is evident in the rest of the book: I examine the language of interpreters who translated all the hearings from within a phalanx of grey booths that always lined the hearing halls, a weekly television documentary program that covered the TRC, and retrospective views of the TRC in the media and art that were produced ten years later, in 2006. I assert that the “completeness” of the vision of the apartheid past, which was mandated in the commission’s authorizing act, can be discerned as vividly through in-depth analysis of performed testimony as through macro-narratives that calculate in quantitative terms apartheid’s national dimensions, which the commission’s own final report attempted to do.



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