The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction

Duke University Press
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The Audible Past explores the cultural origins of sound reproduction. It describes a distinctive sound culture that gave birth to the sound recording and the transmission devices so ubiquitous in modern life. With an ear for the unexpected, scholar and musician Jonathan Sterne uses the technological and cultural precursors of telephony, phonography, and radio as an entry point into a history of sound in its own right. Sterne studies the constantly shifting boundary between phenomena organized as "sound" and "not sound." In The Audible Past, this history crisscrosses the liminal regions between bodies and machines, originals and copies, nature and culture, and life and death.

Blending cultural studies and the history of communication technology, Sterne follows modern sound technologies back through a historical labyrinth. Along the way, he encounters capitalists and inventors, musicians and philosophers, embalmers and grave robbers, doctors and patients, deaf children and their teachers, professionals and hobbyists, folklorists and tribal singers. The Audible Past tracks the connections between the history of sound and the defining features of modernity: from developments in medicine, physics, and philosophy to the tumultuous shifts of industrial capitalism, colonialism, urbanization, modern technology, and the rise of a new middle class.

A provocative history of sound, The Audible Past challenges theoretical commonplaces such as the philosophical privilege of the speaking subject, the visual bias in theories of modernity, and static descriptions of nature. It will interest those in cultural studies, media and communication studies, the new musicology, and the history of technology.

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About the author

Jonathan Sterne teaches in the Department of Communication and the Program for Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He writes about media, technology, and the politics of culture, and is codirector of the online magazine Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Duke University Press
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Published on
Mar 13, 2003
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Pages
472
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ISBN
9780822384250
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Language
English
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Genres
Technology & Engineering / General
Technology & Engineering / History
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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How did one of the great inventions of the 19th century-- Thomas Edison's phonograph-- eventually lead to one of the most culturally and economically significant technologies of the 20th and 21st centuries? Sound Recording tells that story, tracing the history of the business boom and the cultural revolution begun by Edison's invention. Ever since, recorded sound has been all around us--not just in reproducing and playing popular music, but also in more mundane areas, such as office dictation machines, radio and television programs, and even telephone answering machines. Just as the styles of music have evolved over the years, the formats on which this music was played have changed as well --from 78s to LPs, from LPs to cassette tapes, from cassettes to CDs--not to mention lesser-known innovations in the motion picture and television industries. The quest for better sound was one of the drivers of technological change, but so too were business strategies, patent battles, and a host of other factors.

Sound Recording contains much information that will interest anyone interested in the history of recorded music and sound technology, such as:

- The world-famous composer John Phillip Sousa once denounced sound recordings as a threat to good musical tasted. He nonetheless made many recordings over the years

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How the VCR was transformed from a machine that records television into a medium for movies.

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In From Betamax to Blockbuster, Joshua Greenberg explains how the combination of neighborhood video stores and the VCR created a world in which movies became tangible consumer goods. Greenberg charts a trajectory from early “videophile” communities to the rise of the video store—complete with theater marquee lights, movie posters, popcorn, and clerks who offered expert advice on which movies to rent. The result was more than a new industry; by placing movies on cassette in the hands (and control) of consumers, video rental and sale led to a renegotiation of the boundary between medium and message, and ultimately a new relationship between audiences and movies. Eventually, Blockbuster's top-down franchise store model crowded local video stores out of the market, but the recent rise of Netflix, iTunes, and other technologies have reopened old questions about what a movie is and how (and where) it ought to be watched. By focusing on the “spaces in between” manufacturers and consumers, Greenberg's account offers a fresh perspective on consumer technology, illustrating how the initial transformation of movies from experience into commodity began not from the top down or the bottom up, but from the middle of the burgeoning industry out.

Just what is the “participatory condition”? It is the situation in which taking part in something with others has become both environmental and normative. The fact that we have always participated does not mean we have always lived under the participatory condition. What is distinctive about the present is the extent to which the everyday social, economic, cultural, and political activities that comprise simply being in the world have been thematized and organized around the priority of participation. 

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Contributors: Mark Andrejevic, Pomona College; Bart Cammaerts, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE); Nico Carpentier, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB – Free University of Brussels) and Charles University in Prague; Julie E. Cohen, Georgetown University; Kate Crawford, MIT; Alessandro Delfanti, University of Toronto; Christina Dunbar-Hester, University of Southern California; Rudolf Frieling, California College of Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute; Salvatore Iaconesi, La Sapienza University of Rome and ISIA Design Florence; Jason Edward Lewis, Concordia University; Rafael Lozano-Hemmer; Graham Pullin, University of Dundee; Trebor Scholz, The New School in New York City; Cayley Sorochan, McGill University; Bernard Stiegler, Institute for Research and Innovation in Paris; Krzysztof Wodiczko, Harvard Graduate School of Design; Jillian C. York.

Written by the world's leading scholars and researchers in the emerging field of sound studies, The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies offers new and fully engaging perspectives on the significance of sound in its material and cultural forms. The book considers sounds and music as experienced in such diverse settings as shop floors, laboratories, clinics, design studios, homes, and clubs, across an impressively broad range of historical periods and national and cultural contexts. Science has traditionally been understood as a visual matter, a study which has historically been undertaken with optical technologies such as slides, graphs, and telescopes. This book questions that notion powerfully by showing how listening has contributed to scientific practice. Sounds have always been a part of human experience, shaping and transforming the world in which we live in ways that often go unnoticed. Sounds and music, the authors argue, are embedded in the fabric of everyday life, art, commerce, and politics in ways which impact our perception of the world. Through an extraordinarily diverse set of case studies, authors illustrate how sounds -- from the sounds of industrialization, to the sounds of automobiles, to sounds in underwater music and hip-hop, to the sounds of nanotechnology -- give rise to new forms listening practices. In addition, the book discusses the rise of new public problems such as noise pollution, hearing loss, and the "end" of the amateur musician that stem from the spread and appropriation of new sound- and music-related technologies, analog and digital, in many domains of life. Rich in vivid and detailed examples and compelling case studies, and featuring a companion website of listening samples, this remarkable volume boldly challenges readers to rethink the way they hear and understand the world.
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