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

By James Lastra; John Belton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
INSCRIPTIONS AND SIMULATIONS
The Imagination of Technology

I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the Phonograph does for the Ear.

–Thomas Edison (October 1888) 1

Was it really so clear only ten years after its first exhibition and mere weeks after its initial commercial availability what, exactly, the “Phonograph [had done] for the Ear?” And, assuming it was, in what sense could these acoustic transformations be duplicated for the eye? What made it appear obvious to discuss the two instruments as if somehow equivalent in effect? Given the numerous incommensurabilities between the visible and the audible, it seems strange to think of motion pictures and the phonograph in the same terms, and as accomplishing the same effects. Whatever their conceptual weaknesses, however, such cross-media and cross-sensory analogies were and continue to be intuitively appealing. We feel we know what Edison meant, even if it is difficult to describe precisely how his comparison illuminates the manner in which these instruments altered the shape of modern life.

Yet Edison was hardly the first to see analogies between different technological media. Before him, French photographer Nadar had imagined the possibility of an “acoustic daguerreotype,” a sort of “box within which melodies are fixed and retained, just as the darkroom seizes and fixes images.” 2 Twenty-two years before its material invention, he imagined that the phonograph would “do for the ear” what the photograph apparently had done for the eye. Indeed, there was hardly a writer in the nineteenth century, regardless of occupation, who did not speculate in similar terms. These revolutionary instruments had so touched the minds and imaginations of artists,

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