Thesis ID: CBB274946224

Inaudible Modernism: Techno-Aesthetic Listening in Literature and Film (2021)


Steven Andrew Nathaniel (Author)
Skillman, Nikki (Advisor)

Indiana University
Skillman, Nikki
Publication date: 2021
Language: English

Publication Date: 2021
Physical Details: 220

This dissertation traces the relationship between auditory technology and models of listening in literature and film during the early-twentieth century. It considers a historical moment during which a vivid array of unprecedented sounds arose, such as the roar of the automobile, which, as sensory signatures of much broader cultural movements, implicated revolutions in science, in industry, and in media. While listeners often sought to capture the novel sounds of modernity through literature and film, I argue that many of the most fascinating formal and technical innovations of the period contend with what I call the inaudible. The inaudible refers to silence treated as a creative potentiality, a potentiality whose aesthetic value was dramatically amplified by the advent of such listening technologies as the telephone and the wireless. Thus, this project establishes a vital relationship between technologically inflected auditory models in silent media and listening technologies that facilitated acts of aural imagination. This project reveals the inaudible through the work of numerous writers and filmmakers, from Robert Frost’s poetical eavesdropping in the context of the rural telephone network, to the subterranean and submarine listening practices revealed by poets of the First World War, to the urban architectural acoustics that shape Virginia Woolf’s writing of The Waves, to the exigency of soundstage technology in Oscar Micheaux’s aesthetic of the unspeakable. In each of these chapters, I show a distinctive material context and listening practice engendered by the vicissitudes of technological modernization, which writers or filmmakers recognized as challenges to the traditional aesthetic prerogatives of their media and as stimuli for formal and technical innovation. My chapters reveal a set of listening practices that are enabled through novel auditory technology, but whose aesthetic, social, and phenomenological implications are recorded and articulated through literature or film. By centralizing the inaudible rather than sound as such, this dissertation intervenes in the cultural critical approaches to modernist sound studies and the sonic lexicon that accompanies them. I build my study of modernism’s imaginative listening practices as a long-needed complement to the information-oriented, scientific, and sonic paradigms that dominate the period’s scholarship. Further, this establishes a new approach to the history of modern technology, by integrating aesthetic functionality to prevailing rationalistic explanations of technological innovation. This reciprocation of functionality between art and technology allows me bring into conversation what appears a disparate coterie of writers and filmmakers on the grounds that each faced the daunting challenges of modern aurality, neither by celebrating its cacophony, nor by receding into aesthetic conservatism, but by exposing the imaginative auralities that hid within their technological contexts and by articulating those auralities’ urgent social motivations.

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Authors & Contributors
Berghaus, Günter
Brain, Robert Michael
Colligan, Colette
Dörries, Matthias
Gorman, Carma
Homburg, Ernst
American Quarterly
Technology and Culture
Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences
Social Studies of Science
Harvard University
Princeton University
Cambridge University Press
Four Courts Press
Technology and literature
Communication technology
Technology and film
Technology and art
Wells, Herbert George
Clemens, Samuel Langhorne
Joyce, James
Miyazaki, Hayao (1941-)
Time Periods
20th century, early
19th century
20th century, late
18th century
20th century
United States
California (U.S.)
California Institute of Technology
Radio Corporation of America
American Telephone and Telegraph Company

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