Week 12: The Senses

This week our readings focused on the idea of the senses, in particular hearing, interaction with material culture. Thus these readings dealt with the topic of sound and how it reflects our understanding of culture.

The first reading was an article by Mark Smith entitled “Sound- So What?” that looked at the historiography of the study of sound. Smith believed that the study of sound is important because it not only “shapes power relations” but it also “expands out understanding of the human experience” (133-134). One of the major works that Smith engaged with was Richard Cullen Rath’s How Early America Sounded, which reveled the power relations in churches between the rich who enjoyed the clarity of the sound while the poor dealt with the reverberation of the noise (135). Smith went on to examine our second reading, Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity, which showed the change in how people understood sound. Smith used these two works to demonstrate that people processed meaning “that were mediated through the ears and not just through the eyes”(141).

Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity is an important work since it examines how modern technology and science effected how sound was understood and interacted with in the 1920s and 1930s. Thompson defined soundscape as the “auditory or aural landscape” and is both the physical landscape and they was of perceiving that landscape (1).  Thompson contend that there was a new relation between space and sound that resulted in the creation of new ideas on sound as modern, in that sound became efficient, a product, and represented man’s mastery over the physical (3-4). The Soundscape of Modernity focused its study on reverberation and the attempts to reduce and control it in music halls. Due to this change, Thompson believed that the way people listened changed so that they moved to feel humble and respectful of the sounds of music and to act as an observer of the music (48 & 320). With the development of materials that could limit reverberation, there became campaigns to end the proliferation of unnecessary noise in cities themselves as it was deemed harmful and wasteful. Indeed, this then expanded to how building were made and run, such as installing sound proof insulation in order to help employees became more efficient. By studying the changes in architectural, Thompson was able to show how people came to control and manipulate the modern soundscape, which expanded with the use of technology like loudspeakers and radio.  Through this study, Thompson showed how culture is affected by the understanding and interaction with sound, as after this period of removing reverberation there was a push for its return as people eventually found the clearer sound unappealing. This shows that how we interact with our senses and what we deem as acceptable is just as socially constructed as other more tangible aspects of culture.




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