Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Behind Herder's Tympanum: Sound and Physiological Aesthetics 1800/1900

Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Behind Herder's Tympanum: Sound and Physiological Aesthetics 1800/1900

Article excerpt

In early 1769, at the age of twenty-five, Johann Gottfried Herder composed the last of his so-called 'kritische Wälder' (critical forests), a series of essays responding to the aesthetic theories of contemporaries such as Christian Adolf Klotz, Friedrich Just Riedel and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Drawing most extensively on Lessing's foundational media-theoretical work, Laokoon oder über die Grenzen der Mahlerey und Poesie (Laokoon, or the Limits of Painting and Poetry, 1766), the series examined the coevolution of the human sensorium and the historical differentiation of the arts. In contrast to his contemporaries, Herder ascribed particular importance to the sense of hearing and dedicated large sections of his critical forests to explaining the uniqueness of aesthetic experiences mediated by the ear. In order to make his case for hearing, Herder looked beyond the fields of philosophy and art history to the recent work in physiology he had encountered during his brief tenure as a medical student at the University of Königsberg.1

Nowhere was this attempt to fuse art history with medical science clearer than in his Viertes Kritisches Wäldchen (Fourth Critical Forest) from 1769, which, according to Herder, aimed at making sense of "[die] innere Physik des Geistes" ([the] inner physics of the mind) or "die Physiologie der Menschlichen Seele" (the physiology of the human soul).2 Specifically, the essay discussed the nature of sound and aesthetic pleasure with numerous references to the anatomical structure of the ear. In support of the essay's central distinction between 'sound' (Schall) and 'tone' (Ton), Herder drew readers' attention to the ear's "Tympanum" (102; tympanum), "Trommelfell" (138; tympanic membrane), "Nervenäste" (105; nerve branches), and "Fasern" (108; fibers).

This foregrounding of the ear's corporeality and its incorporation into a theory of musical aesthetics and poetics was consistent with Herder's broader intellectual project, which aimed to rehabilitate auditory experience against the backdrop of Enlightenment ocularcentrism. While his Viertes Kritisches Wäldchen offered a theory of aesthetic pleasure and the sonic sublime grounded in the physiology of auditory perception, his Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache (Essay on the Origin of Language, 1772) elevated the ear to the status of "erste Lehrmeister der Sprache" (the first language teacher), and characterized the process of language acquisition as an acoustic exchange. Using terms such as "Ton der Empfindung" (tone of feeling) and "gleichfühlende[s] Echo" (sympathetic echo), Herder's theory of the origin of language is predicated on the acoustical exchange between the sounds of nature and their reception by attentive human listeners.3 Other works from the same period described the reader's engagement with written texts in terms of a "schöpferische[s] Ohr" (creative ear) which rendered sensible the otherwise lost acoustical dimension of the authorial voice, or, as Herder put it, allowed readers to hear the expression of authorial feeling via text "in vollem Ton" (in all shades of sound).4 Finally, his Volkslieder (Folk Songs) project (1778/79), though essentially drawn from textual sources, urged readers to recover poetry's oral/aural origins in order to stimulate literary production in the present.5 It is no surprise, then, that Herder both convened with, and exerted considerable influence on, the leading acoustical scientists and theorists of his age, including Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni, Johann Wilhelm Ritter and Wolfgang von Kempelen.6

Herder's preoccupation with sound and hearing at this specific historical moment, one dominated by visual metaphors and assumptions about vision's superiority to the other senses, has not gone unnoticed. Jürgen Trabant credits him with the "rediscovery of the ear" and with setting in motion "a real philosophical revolution," a "turn from a traditionally ocular, visual (and solipsistic) theory of knowledge towards an auricular and auditory (acromatic) one. …

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