March 31, 2004

The History of Sound

Posted by Ed

The current issue of The Christian Science Monitor features a review of a new book by Richard Cullen Rath, How Early America Sounded. In that book, the Monitor notes, Rath attempts to develop a cultural history of the perception of sound in colonial America. "Just as the noises we make when talking are considered the articulations of intelligence," the review says, "so the sounds of thunder or church bells were understood by early Americans to be the products of spiritual, not mechanical, forces. They were active, not passive emanations." Rath suggests that sounds often embodied people's identity and exerted social influence on society--some early Americans even felt a need to baptize their church bells, for example. Early America, he believes, experienced an "ear-based way of life"--and the wide variety in "soundways" among the colonists may have delayed the development of a unified American sense of identity until the growth of a mass print culture in the 18th century.

I wasn't terribly impressed by the Monitor's review, I have to admit, and I don't know enough about Rath's book to judge it. I wished that the review had done a better job explaining what it means to say that sounds are the "product of spiritual forces", or how Rath arrived at this conclusion. From the review alone, I don't have a very clear sense of whether How Early America Sounded is an original and compelling book or a jargon-laden and shallow attempt to rewrite American social or cultural history.

My original plan for this blog entry, then, was to do a little looking around and report on my findings about a slightly larger topic: the history of the senses. Until earlier today, all I could tell you about it was that the French historian Lucien Febvre had once written an essay on "Smells, Tastes, and Sounds" in history--and that other French historians had argued that historians' bias toward the visual was an impediment toward true understanding of the past.

For now, I'm going to hold off on that plan--in part because I'm feeling too lazy and too busy to do that right now, and in part because I found that Emily Eakin has written a New York Times article on the subject. (Those of you who are really curious can also read this 2003 article from The Journal of Social History.) What seems clear is that the history of the senses (and, in particular, sound) has experienced rapid growth over the last few years. Peter Charles Hoffer, a historian at the University of Georgia, has made the radical claim that "sensation and perception affected some of those great events whose cause and course we historians conventionally attribute to deep cultural structures and overarching material forces." (He argues that rebellious colonists in Boston engaged in "sensory warfare" against the British, for example, and says that "elementary sensory perceptions are causes, dictating in a thousand ways how we respond" to historical events.) The French historian Alain Corbin, meanwhile, has written what sounds like a fascinating book on church bells in 19th-century France.

I don't know exactly how I'd respond to any one of these books, and I'm skeptical of some of the more radical claims of the practitioners of the history of the senses, but this field sounds like a fascinating new branch of historical research. I'll look forward to learning more about it.

Posted by Ed at March 31, 2004 01:52 PM

You wrote:
>"I wished that the review had done a better job
>explaining what it means to say that sounds are
>the "product of spiritual forces", or how Rath
>arrived at this conclusion.

What I meant to say is that early Americans attributed all sounds to intelligent willful beings. If none were visible, such as a person, then invisible beings -- god or devil for the most part -- were the thought to be the source. Thunder is the most obvious example, being thought of as the voice of God by Euro-Americans. Most of the time when deaths were attributed to it they talked about thunder doing the killing rather than lightning. This practice of attributing the power to thunder gave way over the first half of the eighteenth century to our vision-centered beliefs that the lightning was what did the damage.

Actually, lightning is just the visual aspect of what we know to do the real damage, electricity. The fact that most people now think of lightning as the culprit is a marker not of progress from superstition to knowledge, but of a shift from aural to visual ways of understanding the world. The theories of how thunder did the damage through sound were quite scientific.

>From the review alone,
>I don't have a very clear sense of whether How
>Early America Sounded is an original and
>compelling book or a jargon-laden and shallow
>attempt to rewrite American social or cultural

I hope the former! I worked hard to keep the book free from jargon without dumbing down the ideas (which I think is insulting to the reader). I hope you will give it a read!

Posted by: Richard Cullen Rath at April 5, 2004 09:48 PM

I've been really fascinated by what I've read about your book, and I plan to read it sometime. Thanks for your comment!

Just so you know, when I wrote that the review didn't make it clear whether your volume "is an original and compelling book or a jargon-laden and shallow attempt to rewrite American social or cultural history," I have no reason to think that the latter conclusion is true. My point is just that the review could have done a better job of explaining your research and its significance. I'm always glad to see general-interest publications review academic books, but they don't always do a fantastic job of presenting the ideas of academics to the public.

Posted by: Ed at April 6, 2004 01:45 PM

inzest mit der mutter lover

Posted by: inzest mit der mutter lover at January 8, 2005 08:25 PM
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