Thinking with Sound: A New Program in the Sciences and Humanities around 1900 | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Thinking with Sound: A New Program in the Sciences and Humanities around 1900

Thinking with Sound: A New Program in the Sciences and Humanities around 1900
by Viktoria Tkaczyk

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2023
304 pp., illus. 58 illus. Trade, $55.00
ISBN: 9780226923287.

Reviewed by: 
Michael Punt
May 2023

Thinking with Sound, as Viktoria Tkaczyk tells us in the acknowledgements at the end of the main text, is the culmination of a research project that has been more than a decade in the making. The clarity of purpose, detailed research, and refusal to jump to glib conclusions is evidence of a project that has been lived with and, I am sure, was difficult to let go of. Not surprising then that its final sentence is a dedication to ‘… our two children, whose laughter is among the most beautiful sounds I can think of.’ Two hundred and seventeen pages earlier, the introduction opens in 1886 with George Ballet walking home from the theatre remarking, ‘Now we hear those lines or that passage precisely as we did an instant before, when we were still in our seats.’ These two auditory images produce matching bookends between which Tkaczyk offers a detailed history of the thinking with (and about) sound as a sprawling fin de siècle idea. Hardly straying from the year 1900, the book concentrates on the experiential, neurological, psychological, philosophical, and aesthetic phenomena of sounds that we hear in our head. She claims that it is ‘… a histoire totale [examining] many disciplines or lines of research around 1900 at once, … which highlight different epistemological demarcations within this broadly conceived historical setting’. Thinking with Sound is intellectual history as a persistent ear worm that refuses to be laid to rest even in contemporaneity of the dedication.

The overriding question that begins this enquiry is why was it that, at more or less the same time, sonic phenomena became an important preoccupation for so many disciplines? Of the many possible answers, she identifies four as significant for this study. The first is the emergence of neuroscience and the identification of the auditory context. This impacted disciplines across the sciences and humanities which stimulated inventive ways to assimilate auditory cognition into its epistemology and assume the standing of a neuroscientific discipline. Secondly, as the disciplinary demarcations were becoming both clearer and less welcome, sound offered a relative tabula rasa to begin to build a collaborative framework in which differences and similarities might be identified through flattening the hierarchical relationship between theoretical and practical knowledge. Thirdly, key to this was a widely shared experience of and fascination with musical knowledge. This made the space for creativity and practical invention as new technologies stimulated new methods. Finally, Tkaczyk sees a feedback loop between auditory knowledge and its application in what she identifies as ‘…aesthetic, political and industrial skills.’ Almost by definition these four contributory determinants refused the disciplinary constraints of academia at the very time when they were being vigorously reinforced in the universities in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Geneva, and Prague. Auditory cognition, she argues, was a topic that  provided the opportunity to liberate enquiry from disciplinary dead ends and, with archival evidence, she shows how some of the great names of the period formed a collaborative intellectual network focused on auditory cognition. Alongside the unnamed ‘… scholars, laboratory assistants, technicians, artists, educational policy makers, industrial sponsors, and science communicators,’ the great and the good in this network included ‘… Jean-Martin Charcot, Sigmund Freud, Ferdinand de Saussure, Henri Bergson, Herman von Helmholtz, Ernst Mach, Sigmund Exmer, and Carl Stumpf.’ Each of these actors get their moment in the spotlight with some elegant and economic syntheses of their main theoretical claims.  The careful treatment in what follows reveals how thinking about (and with) sound – particularly auditory cognition and the auditory image played an important part in the development of the key practical and intellectual contributions associated with these names. This would in itself yield a remarkable genealogy of an idea, but Tkaczyk has a more nuanced ambition and by factoring in the emergent disciplinary forces at work in this turbulent network she offers an intellectual history of an arts, science, technology, engineering and humanities nexus that is in many ways shocking in its invisibility to our contemporary transdisciplinary hubris.

Tkaczyk’s rhetorical strategy is to use each chapter to bring together three emerging disciplinary concerns as they interlock around neuropathology and psychoanalysis; linguistics and metaphysics; the conjunction of physics and psychology; the body and the arts; language, physiology, and technologically mediated speech. Her treatment of such a far-reaching agenda is generous, deft, and reader oriented. Each chapter is divided into short sections of four or five pages in which a fairly accessible proposition is laid out in a way that gives time for reflection before tackling the next subheading. While the detail is at times intense, and one wonders how the indexing system that she must have used to both capture the data and pull it all together evolved over more than a decade of research. Nonetheless, it never stalls the force of the argument, and many of the familiar theories and philosophical ideas that are indelibly attached to certain names – Freud, Bergson, Saussure, Mach, etc. are gently teased apart to reveal new dimensions that escape (or are elided) from the standard texts and which insist upon the necessity of permeable disciplinary structures in order to accommodate a thicker understanding of their key contributions.

The design of the book has been thought about, and the language is straightforward and jargon free. The thanks to the editors at UCP for their support in the acknowledgments is obviously more than a conventional courtesy. About a quarter of the book, approximately 100 pages is end-matter. Thirty-five of these are notes most of which are refences to sources. There are also gems that would disrupt the narrative flow if they were part of the main text, and it is a pity that they are somewhat buried as endnotes. There is a thorough bibliography and index which makes this both a compelling read and an invaluable reference book. However, an even more important reason to keep Thinking with Sound close by is that it offers a transferable lesson in how an open nexus of disciplines can spawn new ways to understand what it means to be a sentient human, and how things that we thought we knew about, change when we make the effort to look at the evidence from multiple viewpoints simultaneously.

The commonplace experience that is at the core of her enquiry is the individual reflection on what is going on when we recall in the silence of our thoughts an absolutely perfect version (audio image) of a sound like a child’s laugh. If we think about it, even superficially, it presses us to consider what this experience suggests about auditory cognition, about memory, about the neurophysiology of the human, about the extent and agency of consciousness, the perception of sound, the auditory image, language and meaning, and so on. Tkaczyk’s method to address this in depth is to identify a precise moment in intellectual history and ask what the sounds in the silence of the head suggested to scholars, scientists, artists, technologists, musicians, and many others including ordinary people going about their daily lives in 1900. Thinking with Sound interlinks the various responses in a history that reveals the importance of the plasticity of disciplinary structures in the production of knowledge. The exemplary transferability of her project is that many other cognitive experiences can be subjected to the same methodological approach. For example, in the same period that neuroscience and the auditory context emerge we can also ask; what did it mean to have a cognitively impenetrable perception of movement in three dimensions on a flat screen while flirting in a Biograph tent at a fairground? How did that shared experience affect the established philosophical, scientific, social, and technological epistemologies, (let alone how, a technology that was to become the cinema, was shaped by mass sublimated desire)? How were disciplines collaboratively modified in an interconnected way so as to accommodate an apparently universal and novel glitch in human perception that undid established theories of mind? The same sort of questions may be asked of the cognitive impact of distributed domestic electricity in a local grid, or instrumental telepathic communication by telephone, or invisible penetrative rays  revealing bones and organs to name just a few. This is not to distract from Tkaczyk’s carefully researched contribution to restoring the importance of the relatively neglected audio image to contemporary thought about consciousness and perception. However, it becomes clear from the deeper thesis of Thinking with Sound: A New Program in the Sciences and Humanities around 1900 that disciplinarity is a strangely persistent chimera in our institutions, inappropriately consolidated in 1900 in Paris and Berlin to become a de facto principle of the university by the time C.P. Snow gave his Rede lecture and still the dominant architecture of the university of the 21st century. Her detailed exposition of the case of audio cognition and the audio image reveals that disciplinary silos can only be supported by a disavowal of the significance of intellectual history in understanding the dynamics of the production of new knowledge. The exclusion of the humanities and especially intellectual history, from the contemporary science and technology syllabus, will, I am sure, be as puzzling to future historians as the logic of medieval witch burning and the ducking stool is to us today.