A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography

By Erika Brady | Go to book overview

2
A Magic Speaking Object
Early Patterns of Response to the Phonograph

Sound is a very special modality. We cannot handle it. We cannot push it away. We cannot turn our backs to it. We can close our eyes, hold our noses, withdraw from touch, refuse to taste. We cannot close our ears, though we can partly muffle them. Sound is the least controllable of all sense modalities, and it is this that is the medium of that most intricate of all evolutions, language.

Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

Edison knew he had a blockbuster invention on his hands -- a machine with literally unheard-of potential. Nothing, however, in his technical notes or subsequent promotional writings suggests that he reflected deeply on the radical challenge the device would make on the expectations and perceptions of those first exposed to it, including himself -- "I was never so taken aback in my life!" -- and his dumbfounded staff. His grasp of the physical properties of sound and the potential for its inscription in soft wax was thorough, but his understanding of the complex nature of hearing as human sense modality was -- like his own hearing -- indistinct, and his understanding of the potential effect of a technologically recorded sound medium on a human audience, limited.

Other great minds of Edison's era had taken up the deeper psychological and philosophical issues related to sense perception in general and hearing in particular. The German physicist and physiologist Hermann L. von Helmholtz ( 1821- 1894), considered the founder of perceptual physiology, postulated "perception as hypothesis " -- that

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A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Introduction "Fugitive Sound Waves," Fugitive Voices 1
  • 1: The Talking Machine - A Marvelous Inevitability 11
  • 2 - Early Patterns of Response to the Phonograph 27
  • 3 - "Save, Save the Lore!" 52
  • 4 - The Box That Got the Flourishes 89
  • 5 - Bringing the Voices Home 118
  • References 135
  • Index 149
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