Sonic Time Machines: Explicit Sound, Sirenic Voices, and Implicit Sonicity
by Wolfgang Ernst
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2016
160 pp. Trade, $99 USD
Reviewed by Rob Harle
This book is a highly detailed scholarly investigation into the theory of sound - in its broadest sense. The method of exploration is media-archaeology that "closely investigates artifacts and 'listens' to the time-critical and chronopoetic conditions ... of their operativity" (p. 7).
Ernst has devised a new term, sonicity, that underpins his research and explorations; sonicity is, "a flexible and powerful term that allows him to consider sound with all its many physical, philosophical, cultural and techno-mathematical valences" (back cover).
He along with other media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan believe that studies of aesthetics and knowledge have neglected the aural in favour of the visual. I return to this rather contentious claim further on, specifically the claim that our visual sense has been more important than the aural.
Following the Preface and a highly informative Foreword by Lian Cole Young, the book has three parts, supported by extensive notes, Bibliography and Index.
Part I: Definitions of Sonicity and the Sonic Time Machine has four sections:
1 – Introduction: On Sonicity
2 – Beeing as 'Stimmung'
3 – Sonic re-presencing
4 – The sonic computer
Part II: Cultural Sounds and Their Engineering has two sections
5 – Resonance of siren songs: Experimenting cultural sonicity
6 – Textual sonicity: Technologizing oral poetry
Part III: Techno-sonicity and Its Being-In-Time has four sections
7 – History or resonance?
8 – From sound signal to alphanumeric symbol
9 – Rescued from the archive: Archaeonautics of sound
10 – Sonic analytics
These titles will help the prospective reader get a better idea of the range of Ernst's investigation.
As Young notes in his Foreword, "This book is a challenging and provocative attempt to expand the horizon of media research beyond socio-cultural and historical interpretive paradigms that have traditionally dominated the field." Ernst looks at the cultural-historical aspects as well as delving deeply into the physics and techno-computational aspects of sonicity and sound. I indeed found the book to be provocative at times, but also amazingly enlightening in helping us understand things that, although as plain as the nose on our faces, we fail to recognise or realise. One practical example of this among the many that Ernst brings to our attention is the nature of a medical ultra-sound image. We have this procedure done and get presented with a graphical visual image, we think we are looking at the 'image' of the specific bodily organ scanned/sounded. We are not! We are viewing a sonic event, or better, the sonic interpretation of our organ, the apparent image is paradoxically a sound recording we are experiencing!
A further example is that when we listen to a phonographic recording of a long dead singer, we are not dealing with the singer. "The media-archaeological exercise is to be aware that at any technologically given moment of phonetic reproduction we are dealing with media, not humans; that we are not speaking with the dead, but that an apparatus is operating in undead mode" (p. 86). Long live the ghost of Elvis! Many times throughout the book we are cautioned not to take things at face value so to speak, much the same as Zen cautions us not to mistake the "finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself".
For all Ernst's attention to time and temporal realities he neglects almost entirely the process of human evolution, not considering the findings of ethology or evolutionary psychology at all. This lacunae makes the following statement highly debatable and rather silly, "Western cultures have been predominantly visually orientated in their ways of information processing – an effect of the reading, writing, and printing culture that privileges transmission and absorption of information via the optical channel of communication" (p. 24). Which Western cultures? At what point of time in the last 60,000 years? This statement may have some validity considering the past 400 years, but is irrelevant to the overall understanding of the human visual and auditory senses - a poor example of tunnel vision postmodern restricted media studies.
Another instance from many others like this states that the brain has been altered in its signal processing abilities, "since the invention of the phonetic alphabet" (p. 108). A little too short for an evolutionary change of this nature as I understand it? And just what does Ernst mean by the "phonetic alphabet"?
In contrast to the analysis of this very short period since printing and so on was invented, the chapter on the experimental work of the scholars at Humboldt University concerning the Sirenic Voices heard by Odysseus near the Li Galli Islands is fascinating and informative, possibly providing an explanation of this enduring myth. "Karl-Heinz Frommolt and the media archaeologist Martin Carlé led them to conclude that the specific geographical constellation of the island acts as an acoustic amplifier that corresponds with archaic Greek diaphonic musical tuning in a way that might explain why Homer explicitly has two Sirens singing" (p. 50).
Sonic Time Machines is not a book for the general reader. It deals with the highly specific academic discourse of media archaeology, and bearing in mind my above criticism, will become an important addition to the literature concerning both this and associated academic disciplines.