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The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction [Paperback]

Jonathan Sterne

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Book Description

25 Mar 2003
The Audible Past explores the cultural origins of sound reproduction. It describes a distinctive sound culture that gave birth to the sound recording and transmission devices so ubiquitous in modern life. With an ear for the unexpected, scholar and musician Jonathan Sterne uses the technological and cultural precursors of telephony, phonography, and radio as an entry point into a history of sound in its own right. Sterne studies the constantly shifting boundary between phenomena organized as "sound" and "not sound." In The Audible Past, this history crisscrosses the liminal regions between bodies and machines, originals and copies, nature and culture, life and death. Blending cultural studies and the history of communication technology, Sterne follows modern sound technologies back through an historical labyrinth. Along the way, he encounters capitalists and inventors, musicians and philosophers, embalmers and grave-robbers, doctors and patients, Deaf children and their teachers, professionals and hobbyists, folklorists and tribal singers. The Audible Past tracks the connections between the history of sound and the defining features of modernity: from developments in medicine, physics, and philosophy to the tumultuous shifts of industrial capitalism, colonialism, urbanization, modern technology, and the rise of a new middle class. A provocative history of sound, The Audible Past challenges theoretical commonplaces such as the philosophical privilege of the speaking subject, the visual bias in theories of modernity, and static descriptions of nature. It will interest those in cultural studies, media and communication studies, the new musicology, and the history of technology.

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"[Sterne's] prose moves gracefully and nimbly beneath the academic robes... and the topic is so intimately connected to the way we experience the world around us that it can't help resonating... Forget what you think you know about ours being a visual culture, in which sight is the privileged sense."--Ruth Walker, Christian Science Monitor "[C]omprehensive... [I]nterdisciplinary... The author carefully presents his thoughtful perspectives against a background of key events, persons, and occasions... Recommended."--J. R. Heintze, Choice "The Audible Past seeks to deflate the notion that we have always listened to the world in the same way... [S]o rich in ideas that the general reader, with a bit of work, will unearth many rewards."--Christopher DeLaurenti, Signal to Noise "The Audible Past is a valuable contribution in an important field of research that is in dire need of development."--Michael Punt, Leonardo "[P]rovocative... Sterne breaks new ground, focusing on the need to understand sound and listening as issues of history."--Leon Botstein, Los Angeles Times "This is an important study that creates some pioneering theoretical constructs within which to place specifics of technological development... Recommended!"--Chris Sterling, Communication Booknotes Quarterly "[A] stimulating and provocative work... Sterne excels as a writer... [T]his book will amply reward readers who want a broader perspective on the culture of sound. Sterne's book will no doubt reach the wide readership it deserves."--David Hochfelder, Business History Review "[A] remarkable book... While not a sociologist, Sterne displays a rich sociological imagination. Though he des not extensively frame his account within sociological theory, his analysis has a highly sophisticated interplay of cultural, technological, class, economic, and institutional factors, interwoven into a vivid fabric of insight. And it is not inconsequential that this book is more fun than many a read."--William G. Roy, Contemporary Sociology "[E]ngaging... By historicizing terms that others have naturalized, such as listening and hearing Sterne has created a useful guide to combining both existing secondary sources and new archival materials into a road map for further study of media and modernity."--Gregory J. Downey, Journal of American History "[P]rovides an insightful analysis of the various practices, institutions, and theories surrounding sound and hearing... As we continue to develop ideas and scholarship around the notion of cyberculture, historical studies such as The Audible Past will continue to be extremely important for an understanding of how specific types of media (sound, still and moving image, text, virtuality) inform, enhance, and plasticize ideas about networked multimedia environments."--Daniel Gilfillan, Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies "This book ... makes an important contribution to the study of sound technology. It helps to place the history of sound within the cluttered context of social and cultural change."--James P. Kraft, American Historical Review "The Audible Past is a highly original contribution to the new field of sound studies, and a must-read for the growing number of scholars who combine an interest in the history of technology with an interest in media studies. What's more: it is a book for everyone willing to read something inspiring."-- Karin Busterveld, Technology and Culture "The Audible Past generates new ideas and raises pertinent questions about an under-examined media form... It lays the ground work for a new approach to analyzing sound reproduction technologies and listening techniques, and will hopefully serve as a stepping stone enticing others to approach historical sound research from a theoretical perspective."--Andrea-Jane Cornell, Lisa Gaisor and Andra McCartney, Topia "[M]eticulously researched... One of the book's most significant achievements is that it revisits a fairly well-worn territory, finds a new and noteworthy story to tell about that territory, and manages to open up a sizable vein of important, yet unexplored, questions about that territory for future research."--Gilbert B. Rodman, Cultural Studies "[E]xcellent... [A] critical and long-overdue intervention... [B]rilliant... Sterne's research is wide ranging and impressive... This is a book that all scholars of sound should read, to overturn some of our neat assumptions about sound and its technological and cultural manifestations and to clear the ground for new approaches."--Michele Hilmes, American Quarterly Mentioned in a New York Times review of another book. Abstract in Bad Subjects. Listed in CHE and Biography. Interviewed on NPR's "Weekend Edition" and WBEZ's "Odyssey." Also reviewed in Journalism and Mass Communication Educator.

About the Author

Jonathan Sterne teaches in the Department of Communication and the Program for Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He writes about media, technology, and the politics of culture, and is codirector of the online magazine" Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life."

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars havent finished but 13 Mar 2013
By hunter - Published on Amazon.com
Got hooked on this book after reading chapters for my anthro class (Technology Media and Perception). Sterne's writing style is quite informative but without being quite as dry as a lot of cultural theory you might read (have read). If you are into music recording, editing, production, playing, media studies, cultural studies, anthropology, or are just looking for some interesting nonficiton then this is a good book to check out. Really, really cool stuff.
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