The Audible Past

Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction

The Audible Past

Book Pages: 472 Illustrations: 48 illus. Published: March 2003

Author: Jonathan Sterne

Cultural Studies, Media Studies > Media Technologies, Music > Sound Studies

The Audible Past explores the cultural origins of sound reproduction. It describes a distinctive sound culture that gave birth to the sound recording and the 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, and life and death.

Blending cultural studies and the history of communication technology, Sterne follows modern sound technologies back through a 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.


"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

"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 is a valuable contribution in an important field of research that is in dire need of development." — Michael Punt , Leonardo Reviews

"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

"[A] remarkable book. . . . While not a sociologist, Sterne displays a rich sociological imagination. Though he does 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

"[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

"[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

"[T]he book is highly readable, because of Sterne's excellent talent as a narrator. . . ." — Karl Traugott Goldback , Discourse 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

"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

"[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

"[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

"[P]rovocative. . . . Sterne breaks new ground, focusing on the need to understand sound and listening as issues of history." — Leon Botstein , Los Angeles Times

"[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

“Jonathan Sterne confronts what is certainly the most challenging topic in the study of auditory culture—what happened when modern technologies came crashing into ways of sound making, communicating and listening—with outstanding results. Through disciplined arguments bolstered by plenty of original research and with refreshing critiques of many cherished notions, The Audible Past forms a basis from which to address central questions of communication studies, musicology and music history, film sound and media studies, perception and culture, all those areas where listening and sound impinge upon cultural history and theory.”
  — Douglas Kahn, author of Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts

“Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past boldly stakes out a largely neglected but important topic, the history of sound in modern life.”
  — John Durham Peters, author of Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication

”Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past has come along to set the record straight on the cultural origins of sounds and systems, on machines and the mechanisms of culture. He’s come here to give us the lowdown on how the technology evolved. Think of the book as a kind of sonic map of the origins of the way we listen to things around us, as a primer for the sonically perplexed." — Paul D. Miller a.k.a. Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Figures ix

List of Abbreviations for Archival and Other Historical Materials Cited xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Hello! 1

1. Machines to Hear for Them 31

2. Techniques of Listening 87

3. Audible Technique and Media 137

4. Plastic Aurality: Technologies into Media 179

5. The Social Genesis of Sound Fidelity 215

6. A Resonant Tomb 287

Conclusion: Audible Futures 335

Notes 353

Bibliography 415

Index 437
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Co-winner of the Book of the Year Award, NCA Critical and Cultural Studies Division

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3013-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3004-2
Publicity material