Posted by: kaleidophonic | May 10, 2012

The Audible Past: Technologies of Listening

A few weeks ago my buddy Glo challenged me to review a book. Not just any book, but Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. It just so happened that I had a copy of this book in my personal library, but hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet, so Gloria’s challenge was just the kick I needed to finally get around to reading Sterne’s book.

Having spent a good deal of time slowly plowing through this text, I have to admit, at the end of it all, to having rather mixed feelings about it. Now don’t get me wrong – this book is good. Sterne examines listening technologies and the cultural/social contexts within which sound reproduction technologies were produced, taking the reader through the background history to technologies such as stethoscopes, telegraphs, telephones, and gramophones. His basic argument is that technologies do not emerge from neutral circumstances, and are actually deeply shaped by the cultural and social contexts and obsessions of their inventors.

One of the more interesting links that Sterne makes is the connection between sound technologies and Victorian obsessions with death. Relating the gramophone’s power to ‘preserve’ voices after the death of the speaker to that of other preservatory technologies such as embalming and canning, Sterne takes the reader through a history of anthropological field recordings attempting to ‘preserve’ ‘dying’ cultures such as North American aboriginals, as well as the use of gramophone recordings in terms of preservation of families, along the lines of photograph albums of departed loved ones. These are just a few of the angles from which audio technologies are examined.

My problem with this book lies mainly with its inaccessibility. Although I’m a PhD student, and am widely read in terms of theory, I found much of this book difficult and dense. Sterne’s decision to approach his subject from complicated and abstract theories of media, doxa, etc. tend to muddy the waters more than to clarify them, and make his book practically unreachable for laypeople interested in general histories of sound. The book is obviously written for a scholarly academic audience, which is all well and good, but I always tend to be suspicious of works that prioritize elitist language and difficult theoretical concepts over accessibility and clarity of argument.

One of the the most infuriating examples of the difficult style of the book is Sterne’s refusal to address, head-on, the poor sound quality of early phonograph recording. Despite having a whole chapter dedicated to concepts of sound fidelity and the changing range of ‘perfect’ sound reproduction, Sterne takes almost 300 pages before he reminds us that early records, to our 21st century ears, sound terrible. Now this might seem like a given, to anyone interested in the history of music and sound recording, but I found myself quite impatient for him to get to this point, with the consequence of this impatience seriously detracting from my enjoyment of his writing or argument.

The book has many points of interest, including (but by no means limited to): the relationship between deaf culture and early sound reproduction technologies; the rationalization and professionalization of listening abilities; the role of the telegraph in establishing a monopolistic business model in America; the fragile material existence of recording technologies (which were often in direct opposition to their accompanying rhetoric of ‘sound preservation’); the links between female gender roles and telephony; the emergence of privatized space; the role of telephones and radios with regards to nationalism; etc.

Jonathan Sterne’s Audible Past is a challenging book, but if you are a serious student of sound it is probably of great value. I don’t regret reading it. I just regret that it took me so long to get through it. So Glo, consider yourself warned.


  1. This sounds like a neat book and allllmost makes me want to see how it compares with Clanchy’s From Memory to Written Record. Almost.

  2. […] the book follows from Sterne’s previous exploration of technologies of sound, as appeared in The Audible Past. If this is the case then it should be quite illuminating and revealing of assumptions we tend to […]

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