New book by history profs examines sound as a major historical determinant
Susan Strasser and David Suisman


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9:23 a.m., April 22, 2010----While technological advances in broadcast and recorded sound ushered in significant social and political changes during the first half of the 20th century, scholars have only recently begun to explore the idea of this aural force as comprising a significant part of the overall historical experience.

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Contributing to this growing academic critique of the unfolding aural environment and its historical implications is Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, co-edited by David Suisman and Susan Strasser, both in the University of Delaware Department of History.

Published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, the book grew out of a 2007 conference of the same name sponsored by the Center for the History of Business, Technology and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington.

“I had talked to the people at Hagley about doing a book on music, but David, who had recently arrived at UD, was pulling us in the direction of sound rather than just music,” Strasser, the Richards Professor of American History, said. “While scholars have explored the technological aspects of art and visual culture, it seemed to be new and cutting edge for us to do a whole conference on sound.”

The articles chosen for Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction represent the work of scholars who participated or presented papers at the Hagley conference, Suisman, associate professor of history, said.

“If we were going to do a conference on music, I suggested that maybe we should focus more on the intensity of sound,” Suisman said. “The book looks at the different ways of thinking about and interpreting sound historically during the last 125 years. It also shows that sound does indeed have a history.”

The book's title, Strasser noted, also plays on a famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” written by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s.

“Benjamin's piece provided a theoretical jumping off place for the kind of thinking that people would eventually do on sound,” Strasser said. “He talked about how cinema and photography changed the arts and the ways people relate to modern life. This was at a time when the mechanical reproduction of sound meant that instead of only being available to the elite, things like classical music were now available to the mass market.”

Following Suisman's introductory chapter, “Thinking Historically About Sound and Sense,” the four sections of the book include articles on “Affect and the Politics of Listening” (does listening have an ethics and a politics?), “Sonic Objects” (recordings), “Hearing Order” (effects of new sound technologies on politics), and “Sound Commerce” (sound as property).

“The book examines the notion of a 'soundscape,' a term which conceptualizes the aural or sonic environment, what you might call the sonic equivalent of landscape,” Suisman said. “Soundscape is a term that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, and has only recently been used as a historical concept.”

The coeditors note that many of the essays, including David Goodman's article on “Distracted Listening,” focus on areas that are of interest to both academic researchers and general readers.

“The idea of background listening is a 20th century concept,” Strasser said. “That people would have the radio on in the background while they worked or did schoolwork was something that really bothered social commentators at that time.”

These concerns about distracted listening and other areas explored in the book evidence the concept that history also is a way for people to look at the way we do things today, and perhaps look at themselves differently, Suisman said.

“This covers a period when all of these issues that we take for granted were being debated,” Suisman said. “This historically constructed approach also pushes us to pay attention to how we live today.”

Moving from the early days of radio to the turbulent times of protest and race riots during the 1960s, Angela M. Blake's essay, “An Audible Sense of Order: Race, Fear and CB Radio on the Los Angeles Freeways in the 1970s,” looks at how citizens' band (CB) radios were used by individuals who were afraid that civic unrest would spread from Los Angeles to the suburbs via the freeway system.

“While the idea of CB radios is most often associated with long distance truckers in the 1970s, these devices also were used in the wake of the riots in Los Angeles during the 1960s,” Strasser said. “Citizens policed the highways to prevent inner-city African Americans from going out and marauding in the suburbs.”

At the beginning of her essay, “Savage Dissonance: Gender, Voice, and Women's Radio Speech in Argentina, 1930-1945,” Christine Ehrick quotes communications scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who wrote, “History has many themes. One of them is that women should be quiet.”

Ehrick also wrote that she believes radio has been overlooked in studies of gender and feminism, and that the technology that separated the voice from the body has had profound implications, including the ability for women to have their voices heard. Some believed that the voice of women on the airwaves encompassed all that was negative in modern culture.

This debate emerged in Argentina in the early 1930s, when journalist Silvia Geurrico hosted her own “oral magazine” program on Radio Prieto, and later had a regular column in the early issues of Argentina's first popular radio magazine, Antena.

“Sylvia was proto-feminist, and when her show became too provocative in advocating gender issues, her career was dismantled,” Suisman said. “What Ehrick does in her essay is to connect sound to history, by asking the question, 'Do women have a right to be on the radio? Do they have a right to speak in public?”

Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photo by Ambre Alexander