The Audible Past

Available from Duke University Press.

“a salutary counter to visualist historiography”

European Journal of Communication

“the most far ranging and conceptually stimulating consideration of modern sound culture, unbounded by disciplinary and medium-specific considerations, that two decades of sound study has yet produced”

American Quarterly

“a remarkable book”

Contemporary Sociology

Today, we live in a world where telephone greetings, sound recordings, and broadcast transmissions continuously call out to us. Reproduced sound is one of the experiential bedrocks of modern life. But where did all this sound reproduction gadgetry come from? More importantly, why is it here? The Audible Past studies sound reproduction technologies — the telephone, phonograph, radio, microphone, etc. — as artifacts of a distinctively modern sound culture.

Sound reproduction bears the marks of the culture from which it emerged. Modes of listening developed in one arena moved to another: audiences for new telephones and phonographs unwittingly adopted techniques of listening that doctors and telegraphers had developed decades before. When, in 1878, Scientific American hailed the new phonograph as a machine that could “preserve the voices of the dead,” it extended an ethos of preservation that had been first popularized through canning and embalming during the Civil War. Even the very mechanism at the root of all modern sound reproduction devices — a vibrating diaphragm — was shaped by understandings of human hearing that had emerged over the course of the nineteenth century in acoustics, ear medicine, and the pedagogy of deaf children.

I would merely direct your attention to the apparatus itself, as it gave me the clue to the present form of the telephone.

—Alexander Graham Bell

(Pictured Above) The Ear phonautograph, 1874 (built by Alexander Graham Bell and Clarence Blake). This machine used the excised bones from a human middle ear, a synthetic mouthpiece, and a piece of straw to trace sound vibrations on a piece of smoked glass.

The Audible Past moves between the early history of sound reproduction and its prehistory to reveal the roots of seemingly inert technologies in the living (and dead) culture around them. It questions the very limits of what counts as “sound” and “not sound.” It explores the convoluted combinations of bodies, institutions, machines, and meanings that made possible — and were made possible by — sound reproduction as we know it. In the process, the book offers a new interpretation of sound’s significance in modern life and a guide for considering the sweeping changes in sound culture today.

The golden age of the ear never ended. It continues, occluded by the visual hegemony.

—Alan Burdick

If, at some later point, instead of doing a ‘history of ideas,’ one were to read the state of the cultural spirit off of the sundial of human technology, then the prehistory of the gramophone could take on an importance than might eclipse that of many a famous composer.

—Theodor Adorno

To learn more about the book, or for ordering information, visit the Duke University Press website.