Analyzing Textualized Sound
Review of Schweighauser, Philipp. The Noises of American Literature, 1890-1985. Toward a History of Literary Acoustics. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006. $59.95 (cloth)

How do literary writers textualize something as transient as sound? How do they express the sounds of their times, endue sound with meaning, or evoke noise? With what literary strategies do they write about sound, and to what effect? Recently, literary scholars have begun to publish on these issues, probably in response to the wider scholarly interest for the role of the senses in culture. Some of their publications center on textualized sound in experimental poetics, poet-performances, and poetry (Morris 1997). Others focus on the expressions of sound in Shakespearean theatre (Folkerth 2002) and in twentieth century plays (Meszaros 2005), or on textualizations of noise in late nineteenth and twentieth century literary texts. For instance, Michael Cowan (2006) has written wonderfully on Rainer Maria Rilke’s resistance to worldly noise in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, originally published in 1910). And Philipp Schweighauser (2006) intelligently unravels the noises of naturalist, modernist, and postmodernist American literature in his “history of literary acoustics.”

Both Cowan and Schweighauser show how literature represents noise. Cowan notes how Rilke’s work is full of images of artists in “search for a contemplative refuge from the noise of the industrial world”, a topos frequently employed by the intellectuals of Rilke’s time. In Malte, noise is represented as sound that malevolently interferes with concentrated, distinguished, and authentic thought (Cowan 2006: 126). Noisy things even have an “imaginary animism.” Their location is unclear, but they “seem to be coming” toward Malte, and “the very obstinacy of Malte’s efforts to determine their spatial location betrays his own lack of mastery over his environment.” The sounds “conspire in a deliberate violation of the subject’s bodily boundaries,” malevolent and external to the narrator (Cowan 2006: 139).

Like Cowan, Schweighauser is interested in the literary representation of noise, and thus in interpretation, but his study also aims to analyze literature as a site for the cultural production of noise. By this he means that literature can be the white noise of culture by disturbing the mainstream signals of society through an aesthetics of negativity and interruption. This cultural role is not constrained to modernist literature, widely viewed as the noise of its time through its critical distance from the processes that sustained the social system. On the contrary, literary texts outside modernism can play this role as well, notably if they venture into fictionalizing the sonic environment. This follows from the paradox that while noise is the opposite of language and communication, the textual evocation of noise necessarily has to employ language, and thus tends to make the disorderly orderly. Literary texts need to come to terms with this paradox, and can give voice to noise—the marginal, illusive, or inaccessible—without effacing it, often by employing new literary strategies.

One of Schweighauser’s naturalist examples is The Red Badge of Courage (1895) by Stephen Crane. In this novel, Crane vividly conveys the noisy violence of war by exposing his readers to “chaotic fragments of subjective experience rather than a coherent plot structure” (Schweighauser 2006: 195). Here, the writing not only represents noise, but also produces noise. It accomplishes this by contradicting official, orderly accounts of the war without recurring to structured narrative, but by keeping an interruptive quality intact through style. At the same time, Schweighauser stresses that he does not want to conflate the production of noise with innovations in form. Just giving voice to the marginal, “to forms of cultural expression that fall outside the perimeter of official culture” also produces cultural noise (Schweighauser 2006: 21).

Yet Schweighauser does even more than providing the reader with examples of the representation and production of noise in American literature. His history of literary acoustics also makes sense of the changes in how American writers have represented and produced noise between 1890 and 1985. He does so by analyzing between three and five literary texts for each of the three literary movements the book covers. As to the kind of noises represented, he shows how the sounds of industrialization and urbanization—trains, factories, the co-presence of languages in cities—are the keynote sounds of the naturalists’ soundscapes, in addition to the sounds of war. The modernists add to these the sounds of the mass-consumed automobile, telephone, typewriter, gramophone and radio. The postmodernists, finally, textualize the ubiquitous noise of air-conditioning, computers, radiators, refrigerators and muzak, relatively low in sound level, yet broad-band in its frequency range.

More important however, are the notions Schweighauser introduces to make clear what the authors do with their evocations of noise. The naturalists, for instance, produce “soundscapes of the soul” in order to orchestrate the states of mind of their protagonists. In Frank Norris’ McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899), McTeague “was restless during the night. Every now and then he was awakened by noises to which he had long since become accustomed” (cited in Schweighauser 2006: 33). In addition, “audiographs”—“sets of distinctive acoustic properties” that introduce and position characters—picture the social position of these characters, with loud bodily noises as the signs typical of the lower classes. A modernist work such as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) creates an “antiphonal play” by infusing African-American oral narration in the literary format. And John Dos Passos’s 1919 (1932) ruptures the narrative flow and thus the conventional patterns of communication by using montage techniques that oppose nationalist songs to socialist ones without providing explicit comment and by dislocating words as if they are wrongly typed. A postmodernist such as Don DeLillo is less innovative in the literary form of his White Noise (1985). His innovation, however, is the ironic manner in which the omnipresent broad-band noises herald ecological problems. Although such noises have mystical qualities, they interfere with human communication. Yet, as the characters comply in their noise-generating life, and no independent voice extricates itself from it, the novels’ environmental critique is of an ironic nature.

These changing literary acoustics express, as Schweighauser announces in the opening chapter of this book, a “fundamental revaluation of noise” over time—a change from seeing noise as a chaos that should be “mastered at all cost,” to noise as a source of rich multiplicity that precludes the violent search for one dominant voice (Schweighauser 2006: 2-3). In the naturalist work, indeed, “the sheer magnitude of noise has a detrimental effect on the characters’ minds and bodies” (Schweighauser 2006: 48). Noise is acoustic violence, both in the sonic destruction of the war and in the chaotic roar of everyday life, and should be controlled. In contrast, DeLillo’s White Noise leaves no room for one, unambivalent judgment of the sonic surroundings.

Schweighauser needs a remarkable large number of words to rescue DeLillo’s novel from the views of those who consider it a typical example of the conflation of culture and capitalism in postmodernism—a conflation that can never result in cultural noise. In this case, Schweighauser’s argument becomes a bit forceful, as if DeLillo’s work simply has to fulfill its role in the production of cultural noise, just because of its title and ear for sound. This occasional experience of entering a closed worldview may also be due to the fact that the literary texts discussed are not introduced in any concise way: the reader of Schweighauser’s study just encounters the characters of the novels and stories along the argument, without further ado. I know that this is customary among literary scholars—they are supposed to read novels, aren’t they?—but it reduces the openness of Schweighauser’s book to students from other disciplines—like me, an historian of science and technology. In my field, we wouldn’t even think of not introducing to our readers the scientific work that substantiates our claims about scientific change. We do not expect these scientific studies of the past to be well-known.

Schweighauser’s credo is that literary studies should not be practiced in isolation from the discourses of science and technology, nor from other disciplines, something I can only applaud. In presenting his analysis, Schweighauser lives up to his starting point by having his analysis very elegantly informed by theories from information theory, auditory studies, philosophy and sociology. Bourdieu’s linguistic capital for instance helps to build up the notion of the audiograph. It is this openness to non-literary studies that has contributed to my enthusiasm for Schweighauser’s wonderful book. If only literary scholars would be slightly more considerate with those reading less novels than they do. If so, we could, together, attempt to create academic versions of cultural noise at the intersections of our disciplines.

     —Karin Bijsterveld, Maastricht University

Works Cited

Cowan, Michael. "Imagining Modernity Through the Ear." Arcadia 41 (2006): 124-46.

Folkerth, Wes. The Sound of Shakespeare. London: Routledge, 2002.

Meszaros, Beth. "Infernal Sound Cues: Aural Geographies and the Politics of Noise." Modern Drama 48 (2005) 118-31.

Morris, Adalaide. (Ed.). Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997.

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