September 7 Readings - Peters

John Peters, a professor in Communication Studies (and most recently the department chair) at the University of Iowa, published his article on “Helmholtz, Edison, and Sound History” in German in 2002 and in English in 2004. He is, perhaps, best known for his seminal text "Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication" where he traces communication history from Aristotle to Jesus, all the way to communication with the dead and 19th century spiritualism (there is even a chapter on communication with aliens!). Peters is primarily a media historian but is a prolific writer and has published on topics ranging from Habermas and the public sphere, maps and Borges, numbers, vowels, to schizophrenia and German media theory. He is currently working on a book about Google and communication. To further understand the origins, later history and cultural significance of the recorded voice, Peters looks at the works of Thomas Edison and Hermann von Helmholtz. He is interested in the storage of sound (recording) and its transmission and larger cultural amplification. What happens when the ear and voice become disembodied? Peters is making the case for linking media and the study of physiology. To understand the voice in "the age of its technical reproducibility, one must appreciate the ways that it was already externalized before it was mechanized." Peters looks toward Helmholtz for the externalization and then Edison for the mechanization.

Helmholtz was a 19th-century scientist who played an important role in the externalization of the human senses. He contributed to our understanding of the physiology of the eye and the ear. He was trained to look at how small, minute differences had larger consequences. Helmholtz believes the human voice is the preeminent musical instrument and it is the piano with its one fifth of a semitone off pitch that corrupts. In his work on Obertone and musical acoustics he shows how tone qualities of voice, musical instruments, and all sounds derive from these upper partials or Obertone. This means that all sounds are synthesizable and what matters is the wave form, not particularly the source of the sound. What is most important to our course are his discoveries and experiments having to do with the ear and hearing sound. To Helmholtz, the ear was an acoustic apparatus that could be reconstructed outside of the body.

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, a way to record sounds and keeping them from fading away and being lost forever. It results in an era of blurring; bees, humans, dogs, and angels are all mixed as well as the idea of originals and doubles. Sound media argues that "absence is as good as presence" and that death, discretion, and distance could be overcome. Edison even argues that the combination of a telephone and phonograph could get rid of misunderstandings in face-to-face communication. The phonograph started as an aid to transmission and ended up as a technique of recording, originally for voices, but later used for music too. To Edison, the recordings were a re-creation of the human voice, a copy. Lastly the perfection of the recording technologies points to our own human disability and lacking. The technologies reflect back on the imperfection of our own bodily organs. As Freud says the creation of a prosthetic make us gods but also reveal how we were previously missing and crippled. Disability, or a sense of incompleteness, is a part of the human condition.

Peters uses the ability to record sound as an example of new media bearing a messianic power which forever alters the past. In this he means that with new technology, adapted from observing and reproducing human sense organisms, we become aware of abilities our human bodies lack that we never realized we were missing. The uniquely 'human' is defined by what machines cannot copy. These new media are artificial extensions of the human nervous system reveal what has always been there but also what is lacking. As examples, Peters uses the telephone which made us able to communicate with distant voices and the phonograph which made us deaf to past voices, the phonograph to past voices. So even as the phonograph liberated voices and allowed them to travel and live forever, it also revealed its mortality, the grain of the voice and what it ultimately lacks. Peters thus brings to light that in order to understand how this media effects us, we need a philosophy of history that recognizes the production of the “new already.” New media as vehicles that carry our senses and bodies across space-time must say something about old modes of experience we didn't recognize before and now seem new.

What might this "philosophy of history" look like? How might the technologies discussed in the other articles for this week be analyzed with this "philosophy of history?" How would this "philosophy of history" deal with the topic of our class: Music and Cyberculture? How could 'new' mediated technologies be situated and rooted within larger historical understandings of externalization and mechanization? What are the old modes of experience recognized through 'new' media?


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