Tyler Whitney. Eardrums: Literary Modernism as Sonic Warfare. (Northwestern University Press)
Eardrums is the first book-length study to explore the relationship between acoustical modernity and German modernism, charting a literary and cultural history written in and around the eardrum. The result is not only a new way of understanding the sonic impulses behind key literary texts from the period. It also outlines an entirely new approach to the study of literature as the interaction of text and sonic practice, voice and noise, which will be of interest to scholars across literary studies, media theory, sound studies, and the history of science.
What's the one key idea or message you want readers to take from your book?
The main point I hope readers will take away from the book is that the ear has a history and that ways of listening to the world – the how, why, and what of listening – change over time. While the historicity of vision has been well established within Marxist critical theory, there is still a tendency to think of the ear as somehow outside of history, both positively, as a resistance to modern rationality, and negatively, as an unruly liability to human reason and democracy.
What got you interested in the topic of your book?
I have always been interested in sound and music. I grew up in a small house with no acoustic boundaries. My dad would listen to Tangerine Dream records in the basement with his eyes closed while I watched the VU meter bounce on the tape deck. I spent a lot of time playing music and became particularly interested in the recording studio and the history of sound recording as a history of science and technology. When I arrived at graduate school, I was immediately drawn to the amazing work being done there around the history of vision and modern visual culture, and began trying to think through how some of those same approaches might be applied to sound and hearing.
Books answer questions, but they also raise new questions. What questions does your book raise?
One of the larger questions I hoped to raise was how our understanding of modern German history would change with a turn from predominantly textual sources to historical sound recordings and visualizations of sound. We are still in the process of figuring out the types of questions we want to ask, the methodologies and potential objects of analysis unique to the sonic archive. Of course, textual sources will remain invaluable to any multi-medial endeavor. But the hope is that serious consideration of the sound archive from the 1860s to the present will be generative for both history and theory.
What are you currently reading, in your field or just generally, and what do you like about it?
I’m in the process of reading Eva Schauerte’s Lebensführungen: Eine Medien- und Kulturgeschichte der Beratung (Paderborn: Fink, 2019), which traces the history of advising and consultancy from the oracle of Delphi to contemporary life coaching apps and the ‘quantified self.’ The topic is particularly interesting to me as a contribution to the media archaeology of the Cold War. ‘Consulting’ was America’s gift to the rest of the world after World War II, a kind of ‘computer democracy’ that fit well with the simulations and war games of the Cold War as well as America’s role as global but that, as Peter Sloterdijk has shown, was also constitutive of colonialist expansion from the start. As someone interested in sound, Schauerte’s book also opens up new historical trajectories for sonic concepts such as ‘noise’ and ‘feedback’ as they pertain to the histories of modern polling, public relations, and today’s predictive analytics. I’m also hoping to find some practical advice in there about advising students!