Into Thick Air: Trans- and International Sound Cultures, Politics, and Technologies, 1930–80

AHA Session 176
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room 202 (Hynes Convention Center)
Derek W. Vaillant, University of Michigan
Jennifer L. Spohrer, Bryn Mawr College

Session Abstract

     Scholars of sound and listening have noted that natural, man- and machine-made sounds may be described and linked to time, space, and modes of production and consumption, promotion or suppression. But scholarly understanding of the ways in which sound(s) and listening matter in everyday life, and how they might serve as resources in patterns of individual or collective action (or inaction) remain an underexplored area of research. One fruitful line of historical inquiry explores the paradox of the broadcast medium’s development within state and region-centered regulatory contexts and systems of control, and the promiscuous wanderings of radio waves and allied sound media (phonographs) across geographical and political boundaries and borders.

     This panel assembles junior historians from the U.S. and Canada working on the problem of sound cultures, politics, and the history of technology. In specific, we study the trans-and international histories and social, cultural, and political implications of radio broadcasts and reproduced sound technologies. At the heart of our work lies an interest in making sense of sound and listening in general as historically contingent phenomena of expression on a wide scale that complicates state and nation-centered paradigms. Radio and phonograph listening proved fundamental to struggles for power, authority, and agency in a variety of political settings encompassing (yet not reducible to) France and its territories, the Soviet Union, and the border areas of Mexico and the U.S. during the twentieth century.  

       Focal questions of this session include: What did it mean historically to produce and consumer aural cultural ephemera within and across borders, and how were trans- and international social and cultural modes of thinking and feeling constituted and/or affected? How were radio and other aural media (mis)understood within a wider inventory of political and recreational modes of social interaction, cultural communication, and/or efforts at political control on a large scale?  “Into Thick Air,” invites the audience to ponder how sound and listening shaped the everyday past. It recalls Clifford Geertz’ classic warning of the hazards of cultural theorizing reduced to empirical observation alone. Sound must be treated as among the everyday representations that Geertz argued shape the modalities of cultural community and exchange. Historians of the sensory world do well to remember that as we venture from base camp searching for sounds of the past, we need to seek “thick air,” that is, we must be mindful that we are strangers to historical sound and practices of listening, despite what our human senses suggest to the contrary. This panel seeks to engage the audience in a lively conversation about historical theory and practice in considering how aural cultures shaped the social, cultural, and political terrain of the past.

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