Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Phonograph and the Modernist Novel

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Phonograph and the Modernist Novel

Article excerpt

When phonograph recordings of Robert Browning were played after his death in 1890, it was described in the Times as an "extraordinary seance" (qtd. in Picker 123). In an Edison phonograph advertisement from the early 1900s titled "The Acme of Realism," an incredulous child takes a hammer to a phonograph as he searches for the musicians responsible for the songs he hears; a caption informs consumers that the child is "looking for the band" (qtd. in Sterne 264). About the same time, the London Gramophone Company asked Francis Barraud to paint over the phonograph in his Victorian dog portrait, Dog Looking at and Listening to a Phonograph, with their gramophone, implying that the verisimilitude of their recordings would confuse even the keen senses of one's canine companion, who could only cock his head in confusion at hearing the voice of his absent master.

Though these advertisements make use of dogs and children, instead of suggesting that their buying public could be so bewildered by a talking machine, they reveal how strange it must have been for turn-of-the-century consumers to grasp the capabilities of this new auditory technology. From the disembodied voices of Henry Irving, William Gladstone, and Alfred Tennyson to "the NOISE OF THE CATARACT, the BOOM OF THE GUN, the VOICES OF BIRDS AND ANIMALS," people for the first time heard reproducible sounds detached from their originating sources (The Illustrated London, qtd. in Morton 224). The voices of public figures and real-world sounds were brought into the privacy of the home, and were juxtaposed in new and implausible ways. This wave of auditory technology--which included Bell and Watson's first telephone conversation in 1876, Marconi's wireless, which telegraphed across the English Channel in 1899, and the radio, which broadcast to surprised navy personnel in 1906-undoubtedly changed the ways in which people understood and perceived sound.

The once assumed division between technologies of mass culture and modernist aesthetics has in recent years been adequately challenged. It makes sense to question not only how modernists interacted with the developing technologies of their time, but also the influence that such technologies had on their radical experiments in form. Sara Danius does just this in her study of how technologies of the senses--from the automobile to the X-ray--are "constitutive of high-modernist aesthetics" (3). Focusing on the radio, Todd Avery examines members of the Bloomsbury group who disseminated their various ethical positions through the BBC. In a more extensive argument, Steven Connor reads seminal modernist works in the context of a noisy twentieth-century soundscape and developing auditory technologies to expose an aural notion of selfhood that subverts the usual privileging of visual modes for understanding the self. As Michael North explains in his analysis of film and photography, new technologies gave "modernism a formal model and not just another type of subject matter" (12). Though modernists were often ambivalent about technology and mass culture, mounting studies have shown that the inventions witnessed by these writers in their youth affected their art. (1)

This essay investigates how one of these technologies, the phonograph, shaped modernist aesthetics. Building on recent surveys of auditory technology, I will show that, aside from the coincidence of history bringing together modernism and the phonograph, there are striking similarities between the art of phonographic recording and the modernist novel. In both we find a drive to present reality without a sense of mediation; an attention drawn to the subjectivity of hearing; an aesthetics of fragmentation; an association with the repetitious workings of the mind; and, lastly, a subversion of the authority of a sound's source that opens new possibilities in referencing. By drawing on these similarities, I will determine how this new technology functioned as a model for the modernist novel, and, in changing auditory perception, impacted the ways in which writers represent sound and subjectivity. …

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