Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening, and Modernity

Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening, and Modernity

Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening, and Modernity

Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening, and Modernity


Hearing Cultures is a timely examination of the elusive, often evocative, and sometimes cacophonous auditory sense. It answers such intriguing questions as: Did people in Shakespeare's time hear differently from us? In what way does technology affect our ears? Why do people in Egypt increasingly listen to taped religious sermons? Why did Enlightenment doctors believe that music was an essential cure? What happens acoustically in cross-cultural first encounters? The ear, as much as the eye, nose, mouth andhand, defines experience. This book shows how sound offers a refreshing new lens through which to examine culture and complex social issues.


Veit Erlmann

In the introduction to Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography,one of the most influential and controversial collections of anthropological writing to have appeared in almost two decades, James Clifford asks an unexpected question: “But what of the ethnographic ear?” (Clifford 1986: 12). Given the context in which it appears, the inquiry about the ear appears to be at odds with the idea—by now enjoying a certain, albeit contested, hegemony within anthropology and the humanities more broadly—that culture is ultimately the result of acts of inscription and that anthropology, because it seeks to decipher the meanings resulting from these inscriptions, is best understood as an act of reading and interpretation. So why bother about the ear?

Clifford's answer seems plausible enough. The impact of critiques of “visualism” advanced by Walter Ong and other scholars of orality on the then emergent interpretive anthropology, he suggests, has made us aware of the need for a “cultural poetics that is an interplay of voices, of positioned utterances” (1986: 12). In such a poetics, he claims, “the dominant metaphors for ethnography shift away from the observing eye and toward expressive speech (and gesture). The writer's 'voice' pervades and situates the analysis, and objective, distancing rhetoric is renounced.”

One knows what has become of this renunciation of the observing eye and distancing rhetoric, and this is not the place for prolonging a debate over the merits of an intended paradigm shift in anthropology that certainly produced more “utterances” but rather few accounts of . . .

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