Verba manent

The next session of our seminar will focus on technological fantasies related to sound reproduction media – from the phonograph to more modern versions, such as compact discs or LP records.

The text chosen is a chapter from Canadian scholar Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past. Jonathan Stern, a Canadian media historian who specialized in sound studies, is a very famous and influential scholar in the field of media studies. The text is quite long and relatively complex, so it is all right if you read just part of it. But please try, and ask me questions if you didn’t understood something!

In class, we will not only focus on the nineteenth century, but also on contemporary fantasies about sound media, in order to show the connections between history and the present day.

The key concept I would like to discuss with you is that the fact that it was possible to record sound exercised a powerful fascination on the contemporaries of Edison, the American inventor who introduced the phonograph in 1877. For the first time, it was possible to preserve something which was considered extremely volatile, such as the human voice. “Verba volant, scripta manent” (in English, “spoken words fly away, written words remain”), claims a Latin proverb. After 1877, people had to realize that also “verba” could remain. The resulting fascination for sound recording technologies is still to perceive today, in different forms, in a variety of contemporary fantasies about sound reproduction.

Here you can find some more information on the history of sound recording.


2 thoughts on “Verba manent”

  1. There was a very interesting double lecture in the series of “Resonanzräume” in Düsseldorf last year, one called “Bitte oszillieren Sie! Mediales Rauschen in der (Pop)Musik” by Jan Ossowicz (of the Heinrich Heine University I think) focusing on the difference between analogue media and digital media and what impacts it had on people. For example scratching or rustles of the old media is connected with authenticity while new medias sound clear and are digital remade authentic by giving it back the scratching or rustles. (He called is digital sound-nostalgia.) He also focused on some other aspects like orality and writtenness and that this just occurs in music when the phonograph was invented (dividing music into singer (orality) and composer (writtenness)) and many many more. Quite fascinating lecture!

    The other one was called “(Medien-)Archive des Akustischen. Vom Phonograph zum iPod” by Kathrin Dreckmann (also Heinrich Heine University I think). She was analysing the idea of archivating sounds and the spoken word and got to the conclusion, that somehow people are more interested in WHAT is spoken then how the spoken word sounds like and that the need to archivate voices is just the cause of the technological possibilities rather than of practical use. She also focused on so called voice portraits made back then in Vienna, Walter’s “Aura” and Kittler’s “Sound” as well as on the idea that the “Realpräsenz der Stimme” (the real presence of the voice) seems more to be a kind of failure; for example Freud never recorded his psychoanalytical sessions. But mostly she remained historic in describing and analysing how and why there are so little acoustic archives rather than visual or notational archives.

    Interesting toppic in any case. Looking forward to tomorrow! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Sebastian, these are interesting insights, and we will indeed discuss many of the questions you mentioned in class today.

      The idea of nostalgia mentioned in Kathrin Dreckmann’s lecture is particularly interesting. In fact, this kind of nostalgic reference to “older” media can be found not only in sound media, but also in digital photography (do you know for example instagr.am?), or in the public discourse on e-readers and the “end” of book (people seem to be obsessed with the fact that “old” paper books “smell good”).

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