Voice, Technology and the Victorian Ear

Voice, Technology and the Victorian Ear

This is the text of a paper given at the conference on Science and Culture 1780-1900 at Birkbeck College, London, 12th September 1997. It is copyright Steven Connor 1997.

Jonathan Crary has described the `autonomization of sight’ brought about during the nineteenth century as a dissociation of sight from touch, which is itself part of a separation and remapping of the senses. The loss of touch in particular meant `the unloosening of the eye from the network of referentiality incarnated in tactility and its subsequent relation to perceived space’. The isolation of vision, and its promotion as a unifying, or meta-sense `enabled the new objects of vision (whether commodities, photographs, or the act of perception itself) to assume a mystified and abstract identity, sundered from any relation to the observer’s position within a cognitively unified field’. The sense of sight became separated from the body; it became the means whereby the other senses were to be ordered and distinguished. We have become accustomed to identifying the rise of the scientific rationality with this cognitive promotion of seeing, and the demotion of the other senses, especially of hearing and touch. The rational remodelling of the world in the nineteenth century can be seen in terms, not just of the bringing of light, but also in terms of the massive production of objects for sight. To take only one example; the efforts to modernise cities like Paris and London meant converting the archaic urban experience composed of smells, sounds and uncomfortable concussions – the world of miry indistinction conjured up in the opening pages of Bleak House – into a rational structure available for actual or ideal sight. The development of gas and subsequently electric lighting in the second half of the century would emphasise this conversion

I want in this paper to enquire about the other side of seeing, or about what in the sensorium was subdued by seeing, and in particular the cultural and scientific-technological transformations of sound and hearing. My suggestion will be this: an observational, calculative scientific culture organised around the sequestering powers of the eye began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to produce new forms of technology especially communicative technology, which themselves promoted a reconfiguring of the sensorium in terms of the ear rather than the eye. Far from merely signifying simple resistance to or reversion from scientific rationality, cultural experiences of hearing as newly mediated by technologies such as the telephone, the phonograph, the loudspeaker, the microphone, and the radio anticipated the new scientific understandings of the nature of materiality that we think of as characteristic of twentieth-century science, understandings in which the simple powers and privileges of optical rationality come to seem crude and limiting. Such an account runs the risk of what Raymond Williams once called technological determinisn – the view that technological changes themselves simply form and change consciousness. My view is that, far from merely bearing the impress of technology and the forms of scientific understanding that it encoded, cultural experiences of hearing acted as a kind of laboratory for new understandings of the nature of scientific work: they constituted a relay in which science came to hear itself differently. Here I am in only partial agreement with Carolyn Marvin, who suggests, in her study of the social and cultural effects of the new electrical technologies of the late nineteenth century, that the body may itself be seen as `a communications medium, that is, as a mode for conveying information about electricity’. I think that Marvin overstates the distinction between the experts and technically informed who communicated in textual form about the new technologies, and those `groups without recourse to special textual expertise [who] approached the electrical unknown directly, learning with their bodies what it was, and what their relationship to it should be’. Science attempted through the nineteenth century to put the senses to work: at the end of the century, the senses began to perform interesting kinds of work upon the self- understanding of science, as the newly mobile relations between sight and hearing (along with the increasing incorporation of the other senses) form a correlative to emerging scientific conceptions of the complexity of matter and our relations to it. The distinction between the uninformed body and the informed expert is thus far from absolute.

I want first of all to make some broad and no doubt unhistorical generalisations about the differences between sight and hearing. What in hearing does the promotion of sight attempt to subdue and sequester? Hearing has traditionally been seen as the medium of experience, intuition, intensity, and immediacy. As such, the difference between hearing and sight is the difference between oral and literate epochs, between unhistorical and historical cultures. Walter Ong suggests that the difference between a visual-typographic perspective and an oral-aural perspective is the difference between being in front of as opposed to being in the midst of a world. `Sound situates man in the middle of actuality and in simultaneity, whereas vision situates man in front of things and in sequentiality‘, writes Ong.

Seeing becomes associated with interiority – or with the defining gap between interiority and exteriority. In allowing, even requiring the reflective distancing of human beings from the world they inhabit, seeing, so to speak, scoops out from the plenitude of shared social existence out in the open, that imaginary concavity which will come to be occupied by the subject. Subsequently, hearing will come to be associated with everything that predates and even threatens the rational, reflective subject: the oral, the infantile, the archaic, the instinctive, the irrational.

Sound appeared to nineteenth-century physicists to be more obviously and measurably material than light. Sound has measurable velocity, and recordable dynamic effects. The idea that light too might be dynamic, might be on the move, would have to wait for the more advanced technologies and theoretical speculation of the twentieth century. The apprehension of the dynamic materiality of sound, which goes back at least as far as Aristotle in his De Anima, may register a physiological and cultural fact about human beings which is simple in its nature but profound in its effects. Human beings respond to light, but do not produce it. Human beings produce sound as well as apprehending it. If the eye corresponds to the ear, in apprehending light in the same way as the ear apprehends sound, there is no specifically visual correlative to the voice.

Vision embodies or guarantees knowability, because seeing makes available the idea of persistence, or permanence in time. Sound always involves the sense of something happening, here and now; but the very intensity of that here and now happening derives from the fact that it is volatile, always passing away. To see the world, or to see it as an object presented to sight, is to believe that it has a form; to hear the world, or to experience it as something heard (importantly, we can no longer speak of an `object for hearing’ with the same assurance) is to encounter materiality without continuous form. What you see is there, and then still there. What you hear is here, and then at that same instant no longer here. (Cinema, as the art of images in movement, may be seen as an approximation, within sight of the conditions of hearing.)

The dynamic nature of hearing allowed it to be conceived in terms of the dominant nineteenth-century scientific paradigm of the mechanical production, exchange and transmissibility of forces. During the mid- nineteenth century, the period that Lewis Mumford has characterised as that of palaeotechnics, this world of relations and transformations (actualisable as opposed to merely symbolic analogies between different forces and states of matter) was dominated by the thermodynamic correlation of heat and energy. Mid-nineteenth-century technologies had led to a massive augmentation of the motor or kinetic powers of the human body – its powers of extension, movement. Thus the machines for replicating, accelerating and multiplying the capacities of the human hand – from the spinning jenny onwards – are matched by the development of machines for replicating, and then accelerating the powers of movement – in the railway, in the development of aeronautics and the internal combustion engine. Not only are such technologies allied to the world of work, they summon up a `world of work’, of striving, resistance, production, idleness and decay. They involve the organisation and subordination of space: the conquest of distance, wiehgt, and inertia. They produce and express a moralisation of matter that saw processes of conversion in terms of the minimisation of waste or idleness and the maximisation of profitable work.

Though it had been knwon about at least since Faraday’s demonstrations of electromagnetic induction, it was not until the last quarter of the century that electrodynamic convertibility – the conversion of heat into light, of sound into variable electric current – began to have important cultural impacts. The mechanisation of sound was part of the process of putting the senses to work, in line with the project of exploiting the kinetic powers of the body. Telephonic and phonographic investigations begin with the idea of reducing or translating hearing into sight. Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were both driven to their experiments with the transmission and reproduction of sound by experiences of deafness – Bell with the deafness of his wife and Edison with his own deafness. Both worked with the idea of relaying sound through sight. Bell was inspired perhaps by the example of his father who invented a highly influential system of phonetic notation, or visible speech, (the word phonography which came to be applied to the early arts of sound recording was originally coined by Pitman for his system of phonetic shorthand). Bell worked for some considerable time with apparatuses which rendered sound waves in visible terms. He thought, for example, that deaf people could learn to reproduce pitch and timbre by reproducing the voice-prints obtained by the influence of particular sounds on flames, or the characteristic signatures produced by a device called the phonautograph, which traced vibrations caused in a diaphragm. Both were working, that is to say, with a telegraphic principle, in which sounds were first translated into a visual-linguistic form, and then translated back into sound, rather than with a photographic principle, in which sounds would inscribe themselves directly without the mediation of the interpreting human eye.

`For some time’, declared an article in The Times in 1877 celebrating the coming of the telephone, `there has been a prophetic idea that a speech ought to be able to report itself.’ The telephone amazed and disquieted early users, because it seemed to achived this condition of autonomized hearing. Bell’s aim, he said, was to

devise an apparatus that might help [deaf] children…a machine to hear for them, a machine that should render visible to the eyes of the deaf the vibrations of the air that affect us as sound…It was a failure, but the apparatus, in the process of time, became the telephone of today. It did not enable the deaf to see speech as others hear it, but it gave ears to the telegraph.

The autonomization of sight evoked by Jonathan Crary separated sight from the other senses andled to the centring and consolidation of a subject. The autonomization of hearing separated the act of hearing from the individual subject and opened on to a world in which human sensory operations appeared to take place not merely through, but in machines. The telephone appeared to effect a specifically ventriloquial illusion in that the voice transmitted through the apparatus appeared to speak from it. Time and again, early commentators on the telephone expressed their amazement that Bell had succeeded in making the mute material world speak. Thermodynamic technology made iron move: electrodynamic technology, as The Times put it, had succeeded `in making iron talk’.

This autonomization of speech and hearing brought about a curious revival of a very ancient conception of the expressiveness of the material world, a sense that the world could speak, and a vitalist sense that the life of the world consisted in its auditory powers. But it did more than this. Telephony and phonography also seemed to demonstrate that the world could listen to itself, without the agency of the human ear. Bell, it is well known, employed a real, dead human ear in his experiments, and actually incorporated its tympanum in one of his early telephones; though he noted that the ear was poorer as an instrument than the diaphragm he constructed of boiler-plate iron, three feet across and one inch thick. Later in his life, Edison wrote in his journal that he regarded his deafness as a positive advantage when it came to perfecting the sound produced by the phonograph, and that modern urban life was characterised by a kind of phonographic hearing. The Romantic image for this autonomous hearing/speaking of the inhuman world was the Aeolian harp. A poem written in the 1890s by John Payne presented an interesting post- telephonic update of this image. `The Telephone Harp’, which asks us to imagine the inhuman, and literally un- earthly voices that might be rendered audible by telephone wires that were becoming a common sight in city and country:

Tha hand of the storm-wind sweeps the harp of the telephone-wires.

One hears in the storm of sound the plaint of the unknown powers

The concert of wail that comes from other worlds than ours,

The inarticulate cry of things that till now were mute

And speak out their need through the strings of this monstrous man-made lute.

Nay, cruel it is to hear the cry of the lives unknown,

That voice their ineffable woes in a speech that is not their own,

A speech that is neither theirs nor ours, that can but wail,

Nor give us to understand a word of their mournful tale

This separation of hearing from the ears of individual subjects confirmed a kind of cultural fantasy that was widely diffused through the nineteenth century, the fantasy of the mobility of the senses. Early in the nineteenth century, the tendency to identify Mesmer’s `magnetic force’ with electricity had already led to the enactment of forms of imaginary electrical telephony in mesmeric experiments in the early nineteenth century. It was widely believed among mesmerists that the sense of hearing and of sight could migrate in an entranced subject from the head to the abdomen. There are a number of reports in the Zoist, the journal of phreno-mesmerism published during the 1840s, of women suffering from deafness and dumbness, who could hear perfectly well when someone would whisper close to their stomachs. J.H. Désiré Pététin found the proof that this phenomenon depended upon electrical action in the fact that, although subjects would show no signs of response to questions directed to their ears, they would respond if the mesmeriser placed the fingertips of one hand on the subject’s abdomen and whispered his remarks to the fingertips of the other hand. Frank Podmore’s account of a further elaboration of this experiments in his Modern Spiritualism of 1902 makes clear its anticipation of the telephonic process: `the same results would follow’, writes Podmore, `if the operator stood at the remote end of a chain of persons holding each other’s hands, of whom the last only touched the patient. But if a stick of wax were placed in the circuit, communication at once ceased.’ In Podmore’s account, it is the word `operator’ (a word in use from the 1840s to designate the telegraphist and transferred readily to the men and later women who performed the same function in the new telephone switchboards) which establishes the circuit between mesmerism, telegraphy and telephony.

Indeed, spiritualist practice provides the most striking and sustained example of this kind of phantasmal experiment with bodily matter. It is routinely claimed that Victorian spiritualism is the expression of a widespread dissatisfaction with the materialism of nineteenth-century science, industry and social and political thought, an assertion of the transcendence of spirit, as a principle of moral, religious and even political renewal, in an objectified world of inert things and blindly mechanical processes. This ignores the fact that spiritualists shared with their opponents the language of investigation, evidence, exhibition and exposure, and the séance was seen by spiritualists themselves as a kind of laboratory for the investigation of the spirit world, a stage on which to unveil or bring to light hitherto concealed mysteries. Indeed, spiritualism also shared with its materialist adversaries an impatience with supernatural explanations of its phenomena. Annie Besant defended her surprising embrace of theosophy after a lifetime of secularism with the claim that `the repudiation of the supernatural lies at the very threshold of Theosophy’, a sentiment with which Charles Maurice Davies concurred in 1874 in declaring that `Spiritualism has no such word as Supernatural’ and Florence Marryat echoed even more emphatically in 1894 in asserting `There is no such thing as super-nature‘.

Spiritualist practice is much more accurately thought of as a kind of phantasmal commentary upon the work of science; a sort of cultural dreamwork, or series of embodied reflections upon the reconfigurations of the body induced and potentiated by new communicational technologies. One of the less often remarked ways in which the `other world’ of spiritualism became entangled with the `real world’ of science and progress was in its mirroring of the communicational technologies of the second half of the nineteenth century. For some years after spiritualism began its career in 1848 with the `Rochester Rappings’ experienced in a house in Hydesville, New York, the principal means of communication with the dead was the system of usually alphabetic knocks, which had slowly to be decoded by the sitters. No more literal parallel to the digital system of the electric telegraph could be imagined. In 1858, Charles Partridge had already published his account of spiritualist experiences under the imprint of the `Spiritual Telegraph Office'; and, as one might expect, the spirits soon began themselves to communicate in morse code. When in 1871 a spirit circle in Cincinatti working with the mediumship of a Mrs. Hollis received messages in morse, it prompted them to incorporate a telegraphic instrument into their séances. The spirits claimed to have invented telegraphy in advance of its invention in the human world (one wonders quite what for), and indeed to have given unseen encouragement to its inventor and developers. Although this encouraged hopes that `the time is not very distant when telegraphic communication between the two worlds will be as much established as it now is between Louisville and Cincinatti’, spiritual telegraphy made considerable demands on the spirits’ powers of organisation and engineering. It was necessary, for example, to find and retrain a deceased telegraph operator in the spirit world, whose efforts would need to be supported, as on earth, by a `band of electricians to sustain the community spirit, while he handles the key of the instrument’. Nor was it possible for the spirits simply to commandeer the telegraph instrument placed in the centre of the circle; first of all, it was necessary to materialise a `battery’ to power it.

During the 1860s and 1870s, the systems of `visible speech’, which enabled the direct transformation of acoustic signals into visual form, find parallels in the automatic writing and `direct writing’ practised by mediums during this period, both of which dispensed with the requirement for the members of the séance to decode the spirit messages. Then in 1876 and 1877 came the near-simultaneous invention of the telephone and the phonograph. As we will see, both of these technologies, and especially the former, quickly entered the language of spiritualism: the effect was both further to `materialise’ spiritualism itself and to highlight the ghostliness of the new technological power to separate the voice from its source, either in space, as with the telephone, or in time, as with the gramophone. Spiritualism moved from the high-definition visibility of the full-figure materialisations which thrilled participants in séances during the 1870s, towards more indeterminate experiences in invocation predominated over materialisation, and the ear over the eye. The twentieth century has been the period of what one spiritualist memoir called `the voice triumphant’.

There is a deeper relation between the evolution of ghost phenomena and the developing logic of technological communications. For both involved the move from somatic to telematic processes of relay, as effects and manifestations that took place in or through the physical person of the medium – the easiest of these to produce being the production of the voice of the spirits by the medium’s own vocal organs – were replaced by manifestations taking place at a distance from the medium’s body. The two forms of climax were, firstly, the `full materialisation’ brought about most spectacularly by mediums like Florence Cooke, who, in the person of `Katie King’, moved around the room, conversed with sitters, sat on their knees to be tickled, and so on, and, secondly, and less often discussed, the phenomenon of the `direct voice’, which is to say, a voice which speaks independently of the medium’s vocal organs. In the direct voice, the phenomena must be thought of as being facilitated rather than produced by the medium, who acts as a telephonist rather than as a telegraphist, making the connection rather than herself relaying, embodying and interpreting the signal.

{Often, in `direct voice’ manifestations, the spirits would employ a trumpet (resembling a speaking trumpet or megaphone rather than the musical instrument), or even a series of trumpets, which might be placed in the room at a distance from the medium. The trumpet served both to amplify the voice, and to change its position: trumpets would be moved telekinetically through the air and round the room. The use of this property led to the mediums who specialised in this mode of manifestation becoming known as `trumpet mediums’. The spiritualist use of the trumpet was probably first suggested by the use of speaking trumpets for the deaf, as well as Biblical uses of the instrument as a sign of spiritual warning and revelation, rather than by the characteristic amplifying horn of the phonograph and later the gramophone. But the technique of making spiritual voices audible comes increasingly to cohere with the technological means of amplification. I think we might interpret this use of the apparatus of reproduction and amplification in terms of the anthropomorphism of the telephonic and phonographic apparatus that has been suggested by Charles Grivel: }

The flourishing of the direct voice during the twentieth century has undoubtedly been encouraged by the development of acoustic technologies – the telephone, the phonograph, the gramophone, the microphone, the megaphone, the radio and the tape recorder. One of the most successful and widely-known of direct voice mediums, Leslie Flint, first manifested his power to conjure voices in the darkness of the cinema during the early 1920s; his psychic gifts were a technological supplement to the silent film, providing a kind of soundtrack.

The séance occupies a central position in the Victorian exploration of the possibilities of a world governed by the principles of sound, and a form of human embodiment governed by hearing, and the proximity senses with which it is associated. The suffusive body of the séance is a body characterised by the mobility of sound, in its influx into the interior of the body, and its passage outwards again into the world. (Later, in the twentieth-century, ectoplasmic materialisation itself would be explained by reference to a theory of matter vibrating at different rates.) Where the optical body is an anatomy unfolded to the eye, which allows it to be clearly differentiated from its outside and from other bodies, the phantasmal body of the spiritualists is a transmissive or connective medium; it is experienced in terms not of the relationship between interiority and exteriority but in terms of passage between them. Hearing the voice from beyond, issuing from the mouth of the medium, and, in later years, hearing the `direct voice’ of the spirit, separated from the medium’s body, bring about a temporary ascendancy of acoustic over visual space. For all of the startling visual apparitions of the séance, its tendency is to replace a visual body with the fundamentally auditory/acoustic phenomenology of the sonorous body.

Telephones and phonographs were initially enjoyed and sometimes even dismissed as mere tricks and gadgets. From Galileo’s telescope onwards, inventions which began life as toys and gimmicks have developed `serious’ scientific or social uses. Serious purposes, notably military, industrial and medical purposes, were quickly invented for the telephone. It was employed in coalmines, and in hospitals; there was very considerable interest in the medical and in the military applications of the telephone; and the powers of the telephone to assist in the maintenance of public order quickly became apparent – the Boston police force had already installed a telephone network by 1878. Early representations of the telephone stressed its involvement with the worlds of commerce and work (women, for example, are not presented as users of the telephone until relatively late in its development, when, in the 1920s and 1930s it began to be marketed as a leisure device; women by contrast, were addressed by the telephone, and formed part of the circuit or exchange of voices.) The telephone came rapidly to be seen as a way of making businesses and other kinds of serious social processes more efficient. The telephone as a rationalising device channelled speech into calculable purposes. It reconfigured discursive relations into the form of networks, mapped the vectors of speech. The development of the telephone belongs to that generalised dromology, or rationalisation of speed which has been the subject of Paul Virilio’s enquiries.

Seen in this way, there is an unbroken continuity between the sciences and technological enhancements of the senses and the cruder forms of technology characteristic of the earlier nineteenth century; a putting of the senses to work in the same way as steam engines derived work from the principle of thermodynamic equivalence. But alongside these developments, the telephone and the phonograph, along with ancillary inventions like the microphone and the loudspeaker, also represent something new. They retained their early associations with fantasy, pleasure and secret excitement. The telephone and the phonograph would develop as part of the commodification of information and communications. But, in entering and transforming intimate, everyday life, technology itself also began to play. In these inventions, science would begin its long and uncompleted sojourn with pleasure, style and the techniques of the self. Like the camera and the cinema, the telephone began to provide forms for self- imaging, and self-transformation. It is surely no accident that the cases of divided and multiple personality encountered and analysed by Pierre Janet and Morton Prince at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century took the forms not of the multiplication of appearance, or presentation of visual symptoms, but the production from a single human body of multiple centres of personality identifiable by their different voices. In these examples, as in the paranoia of a Schreber, pathology lies close to the mainstream of techno-cultural transformation. If the telephone plays a part in the reduction of `culture’ to rationality, the putting of the senses to work, it also installs culture and sensation at the heart of rational structures and cognitive operations, and begins to transform them from the inside out. The technologies of the voice and the ear inaugurate the process whereby the subordination of culture by science was inverted; in which science became `culturized’. At the very inauguration of that fierce antagonism of professional scientific expertise and the realms of culture, whether in the commodified forms of the culture industry, or the idealised forms of antiscientific avant-garde art and culture, an antagonism that has often been said to characterise the modern world, we can see the beginnings of that commingling of scientific ideas and cultural practices which has become characteristic of our contemporary epoch.