Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction


During the twentieth century sound underwent a dramatic transformation as new technologies and social practices challenged conventional aural experience. As a result, sound functioned as a means to exert social, cultural, and political power in unprecedented and unexpected ways. The fleeting nature of sound has long made it a difficult topic for historical study, but innovative scholars have recently begun to analyze the sonic traces of the past using innovative approaches. Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction investigates sound as part of the social construction of historical experience and as an element of the sensory relationship people have to the world, showing how hearing and listening can inform people's feelings, ideas, decisions, and actions.

The essays in Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction uncover the varying dimensions of sound in twentieth-century history. Together they connect a host of disparate concerns, from issues of gender and technology to contests over intellectual property and government regulation. Topics covered range from debates over listening practices and good citizenship in the 1930s, to Tokyo Rose and Axis radio propaganda during World War II, to CB-radio culture on the freeways of Los Angeles in the 1970s. These and other studies reveal the contingent nature of aural experience and demonstrate how a better grasp of the culture of sound can enhance our understanding of the past.


David Suisman

Two propositions. One: Some people can ignore sound. On Friday, 12 January 2007, at 7:51 A.M., a man dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap began to play the violin beside a trash can outside the Metro station at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C. While he played, for forty-three minutes, nearly 1,100 people walked by. This was not just an ordinary busker, however; he was Joshua Bell, an acclaimed virtuoso who has performed with nearly all of the world’s leading orchestras. Bell’s humble performance of pieces from his world-class repertoire was an experiment staged by the Washington Post to see how rush-hour commuters would react. As it happened, six minutes passed before a single person stopped to listen, and only seven people paused for longer than a minute the whole time he played. Twenty-seven gave money, most on the fly. a few weeks later, reflecting on the commuters’ overwhelming indifference, Bell expressed sympathy for those who were too busy to stop, but he had trouble grasping how easily people ignored him altogether. When he later watched a video of the performance shot with a concealed camera, he said, “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all, as if I’m invisible. Because, you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!”

Two: Some people cannot ignore sound. One day in May 2003, at the U.S. military detention facility Camp Delta in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a young British citizen named Shafiq Rasul was taken from his cell to an interrogation booth, where he sat on the floor, his hands chained to his ankles, his ankles chained to the floor. An irregularly blinking strobe light and the sound of loud heavy metal music filled the room. For nearly three weeks, he endured this every day, sometimes twice a day, for up to twelve hours at a stretch. Finally, he confessed to attending a meeting in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden and Mohamed Atta in . . .

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