Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity

Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity

Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity

Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity


Representational technologies including photography, phonography, and the cinema have helped define modernity itself. Since the nineteenth century, these technologies have challenged our trust of sensory perception, given the ephemeral unprecedented parity with the eternal, and created profound temporal and spatial displacements. But current approaches to representational and cultural history often neglect to examine these technologies. James Lastra seeks to remedy this neglect. Lastra argues that we are nowhere better able to track the relations between capital, science, and cultural practice than in photography, phonography, and the cinema. In particular, he maps the development of sound recording from its emergence to its confrontation with and integration into the Hollywood film. Reaching back into the late eighteenth century, to natural philosophy, stenography, automata, and human physiology, Lastra follows the shifting relationships between our senses, technology, and representation.


In the photographic camera [man] has created an instrument which retains the fleeting visual impressions, just as the gramophone disc retains the equally fleeting auditory ones; both are at bottom materializations of the power he possesses of recollection, his memory. With the help of the telephone he can hear at distances which would be respected as unattainable even in a fairy tale…. Long ago he formed an ideal conception of omnipotence and omniscience which he embodied in his gods…. Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.

—Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

Observing passersby from the window of a London coffee shop, the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's “The Man of the Crowd” (184O) becomes so emotionally and physically distressed that he rouses himself from his seat and pursues for twenty-four hours a face that “like a certain German book… does not permit itself to be read.” In a story that has been described, alternatively, as an “x-ray” or “the embryo” of the detective story, Poe presents us with what one scholar has called a specifically modern and urban crisis of “legibility.” Confident in his capacity to “read” the types in the crowd (“the tribe of clerks,” “the race of swell pickpockets,” “the gamblers,” “the Jew Peddlers”), our narrator is brought up short by a face whose “absolute idiosyncrasy” remains, despite great effort, illegible.

Undoubtedly, as Walter Benjamin and others have maintained, “The Man of the Crowd” registers anxieties brought about by modernization and the growth of the city, ranging from increased fear of crime, to loneliness, alienation among a sea of strangers, loss of tradition, a relentless assault on the senses, and the threat of catastrophic, industrial accident. Poe's detached observer rests complacently on his perch until his visual mastery is threatened by the appearance of a singularity that finds no place within the grids of intelligibility through which he customarily domesticates the city's diversity. Frustrated, the narrator can only explain the illegible as a symptom of “the genius of deep crime.” Indeed, as Dana Brand suggests, illegibility, in a sense, is the crime. Yet the threat represented by either the city or the unknowable . . .

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