Theses Doctoral

Spaces of the Ear: Literature, Media, and the Science of Sound, 1870-1930

Whitney, Tyler

Spaces of the Ear examines the concomitant emergence of new forms of acoustical embodiment across the diverse fields of literature and science in the historical period beginning with the Franco-Prussian War and ending with the introduction of early information theory in the late 1920s. In opposition to popular accounts of changes in listening practices around 1900, which typically take the disembodied voices of new media such as the phonograph and radio as true markers of acoustical modernity, the dissertation emphasizes the proliferation of new modes of embodied listening made possible by the explosion of urban and industrial noise, contemporary media technologies, the threat of auditory surveillance, and the imposition of self-observational and self-disciplinary practices as constitutive of artistic, scientific, and everyday life. In doing so, I show how distinct elements of modern soundscapes and corresponding techniques of listening informed both the key thematic and formal elements of literary modernism. In particular, I argue that modernism's often-cited narrative self-reflexivity drew on conceptions of a uniquely embodied listener and the newfound audibility of the body, and overlapped with contemporaneous scientific knowledge surrounding the physiology of the ear and the role of the body in the perception of sound.

Chapter 1 focuses on the role of non-literary discourse on urban noise and the cacophony of the modern battlefield in formal developments central to late nineteenth-century literary aesthetics, taking the largely forgotten Austrian impressionist Peter Altenberg as my primary case study. In Chapter 2 I analyze the ways in which Franz Kafka appropriated elements of the modern soundscape and, in particular, ontological disorders common to the factory worker, in conceptualizing the mechanisms of the modern legal system and its epistemological and perceptual effects on its subjects. Chapter 3 again focuses on works by Kafka, this time juxtaposing scientific practices of self-observation within acoustical research with Kafka's literal and metaphorical figurations of self-auscultation and its function as a narrative strategy in "The Burrow" (1923/24).

Chapters 4 and 5 sketch out a competing conception of hearing within Gestalt psychology, early stereophonic sound experiments, and literary texts by Robert Musil, which portray the modern listener as surprisingly active and confident in deciphering and navigating an increasingly complex auditory environment. In the process, the site of acoustical embodiment is displaced from the side of the subject to that of the object, engendering notions of "auditory things (Hördinge)" with physical, corporeal properties, which can be traced through space as three-dimensional entities. In the final chapter, I situate the effacement of the listener's body and simultaneous foregrounding of `auditory things' in Musil's novella, "The Blackbird (1928), against the backdrop of early information theory and non-corporeal notions of Rauschen (noise, rustling, static).


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Germanic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Andriopoulos, Stefan
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 22, 2013