Spaces of the Ear: Literature, Media, and the Science of Sound 1870-1930
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Spaces of the Ear examines the concomitant emergence of new forms of acoustical embodiment across the diverse fields of literature and science in the historical period beginning with the Franco-Prussian War and ending with the introduction of early information theory in the late 1920s. In opposition to popular accounts of changes in listening practices around 1900, which typically take the disembodied voices of new media such as the phonograph and radio as true markers of acoustical modernity, the dissertation emphasizes the proliferation of new modes of embodied listening made possible by the explosion of urban and industrial noise, contemporary media technologies, the threat of auditory surveillance, and the imposition of self-observational and self-disciplinary practices as constitutive of artistic, scientific, and everyday life. In doing so, I show how distinct elements of modern soundscapes and corresponding techniques of listening informed both the key thematic and formal elements of literary modernism. In particular, I argue that modernism's often-cited narrative self-reflexivity drew on conceptions of a uniquely embodied listener and the newfound audibility of the body, and overlapped with contemporaneous scientific knowledge surrounding the physiology of the ear and the role of the body in the perception of sound.
Chapter 1 focuses on the role of non-literary discourse on urban noise and the cacophony of the modern battlefield in formal developments central to late nineteenth-century literary aesthetics, taking the largely forgotten Austrian impressionist Peter Altenberg as my primary case study. In Chapter 2 I analyze the ways in which Franz Kafka appropriated elements of the modern soundscape and, in particular, ontological disorders common to the factory worker, in conceptualizing the mechanisms of the modern legal system and its epistemological and perceptual effects on its subjects. Chapter 3 again focuses on works by Kafka, this time juxtaposing scientific practices of self-observation within acoustical research with Kafka's literal and metaphorical figurations of self-auscultation and its function as a narrative strategy in "The Burrow" (1923/24).
Chapters 4 and 5 sketch out a competing conception of hearing within Gestalt psychology, early stereophonic sound experiments, and literary texts by Robert Musil, which portray the modern listener as surprisingly active and confident in deciphering and navigating an increasingly complex auditory environment. In the process, the site of acoustical embodiment is displaced from the side of the subject to that of the object, engendering notions of "auditory things ( Hördinge )" with physical, corporeal properties, which can be traced through space as three-dimensional entities. In the final chapter, I situate the effacement of the listener's body and simultaneous foregrounding of 'auditory things' in Musil's novella, "The Blackbird (1928), against the backdrop of early information theory and non-corporeal notions of Rauschen (noise, rustling, static).
of tones, sounds, and noises exert on our experience (wie gross der unbermerkte Einfluss ist, den viele Empfindungen von Tönen, Lauten, Klängen und Geräuschen auf unser Erleben ausüben).”84 When Lessing refers to the “unconscious onomatopoeic word formations (die unbewussten onomatopoetischen Wortbildungen)” he is drawing on a traditional theory of language, which since Herder saw the development of certain words as directly related to the sounds of the natural environment.85 According to this
expands beyond the walls of the office and the apartment building and now enters the defendant’s body. The episode begins by emphasizing the miserable physical and mental condition of other longtime defendants. Frail, terrified, and eager to conform to the norms of behavior prescribed to them by the court the shadowy figures line the hallways where they work endlessly on their cases and wait in vain to be seen by various court officials. “Most defendants are so sensitive,” the court usher
concerning eavesdroppers, or portraying a violent physical reaction to sound as we saw earlier in the novel, this later passage locates the problem in a perpetual fear of an objectively non-existent threat. Unlike the episode in the court chamber, however, the subjective sound arises not as part of a dramatic display of physical weakness and submission to the court, but is now woven into his everyday dealings with the world. What we see is not a debilitating case of vertigo coupled with an
Brunner similarly observed that, “under normal circumstances we do not hear the circulation of blood in the ear or its surrounding. For this, one needs especially favorable moments (Unter normalen Verhältnissen hören wir die Blutbewegung im Ohr oder dessen Umgebung nicht, es bedarf hierzu besondere begünstigende Momente)”; Brunner, “Zur Lehre von den subjectiven Ohrgeräuschen,” p. 201. 176 observations outside the burrow and its willingness to use its body as the object of scientific study. In
and sensory overload, on the other. My cultural history of acoustical embodiment combines the resources of discourse analysis with strategies of close reading in order to analyze the interaction between literary and non-literary representations of the modern listener. Although the diverse fields of literature, technology, and experimental science, operate according to their own internal rules and methodologies and pursue different ends, I take the circulation of specific discursive elements and