Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 3, March 2002



Sean Cubitt

Good Vibrations




James Lastra

_Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity_

New York: Columbia University Press, 2000

ISBN 0-231-11516-4 Hbk; 0-231-11517-2 Pbk

270 pp.


Lastra's title is to be taken literally. This is about the technology of sound, specifically as it relates to the cinema, specifically in the USA. The book establishes early on a conception of modernity which it sees as underinflected by the history of sound, while sonic history is accused of ignoring the problematic of modernity. The issue of representation is discussed in terms of how technologies reproduce sound, but also in light of the expectations we bring to sound recording. And perception serves here in the double sense of the auditory sense, and the social reception of sound cinema and its associated technologies. Those who bristle in expectation of a periodisation squabble can rest assured: Lastra's patch of modernity arises with Edison and goes no further than the studio era (though its implications are highly relevant for the digital reconstruction of film technology).


After the obligatory sideswipe at apparatus theory, the book lays out its central premise as a quadripartite conceptual scheme. The device is Lastra's term for the technological machinery employed in sound recording. 'Practice' denotes the employment of devices by professionals (and in some cases by amateurs), the skills and techniques developed, the habits and the innovations. A third aspect is the institution -- the R and D lab, the nickelodeon, the studio -- in which the constraints of economics and administration impinge on design and technique, and finally the discourse concerns the languages deployed by engineers, recordists and managers as well as critics and scholars around the complex of technology. All four aspects range around the technology and constitute it as a meaningful phenomenon.


Deleuze and Guattari's _What is Philosophy?_ notoriously recommends proliferating concepts -- Lastra doesn't so much multiply concepts as refine distinctions, in the process honing the vocabulary into a finer instrument. Again, parallel to but unlike Deleuze and Guattari, he derives his concepts less from the internal workings of an 'empiricist' scheme than from the materialist analysis that grounds his approach and distinguishes it from apparatus theory's idealism. In the first chapter, detailing the development of sound recording in the 19th century, the author advances a distinction between simulation and inscription models, the former associated with devices based in emulations of the human sensorium like Bell's lugubrious telephone employing a human ear, the latter with, for example, Chladni's vibrating plates. Refining this distinction, he sees the same formation reorganised in the debates between those who read recording as a transition from original to copy and those understanding it as a movement from event to structure. The former, which embraces almost all classical and semiotic film theory, presumes the self-presence of an auditory phenomenon to be recorded. The latter insists on the uniqueness of every auditory event and thus the structured nature of every act of recording (and indeed playback). This distinction then informs a more global definitional binary distinguishing reproduction and representation, with the former describing the discourse of the copy, the latter of construction, the whole built on a meticulous reading of technological history, contemporary engineering reports and critical reviews, and close attention to film and exhibition practice.


The result of this kind of meticulously theorised in-depth scholarship is to amend and update some of the canonical texts of revisionist film history and the (post)theoretical film studies now ascendant in the North American academy. Clearly indebted to Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson's _Classical Hollywood Cinema_, Lastra nonetheless gently but firmly points out that there are assumptions there concerning the stability and the ultimately teleological emergence of classicism which cannot be sustained. In this his background -- as one of the first generation of mature scholars to emerge from the Iowa school of Rick Altman and Dudley Andrew -- shows its virtues. The nice distinction reigns: intelligibility confronts fidelity as the ground of what proponents of each regarded as 'realism'. Over the book arches the technological construction of devices according to two competing paradigms. For one, the device is a simulation of the human sensorium, imitating contemporary understandings of its physiology in mechanical devices -- such is the history of Bell's experiments with animal ears in his earliest telephones. On the other hand, there is the conception of devices as in some form literal transcriptions of physical qualities of the world -- photography not as emulation of the eye but as the recording of light; phonography not as an imitation of hearing but as the self-writing of vibrating air. In his conclusion, Lastra points towards the continuing problematic relation between the two fields, instancing discussions of editing in both 3D film and 3D animation, where foreground objects have a habit of leaping into frame on simple match cuts (whence the oft-observed reluctance of early 3D digital animators to cut, preferring instead long 'steadicam' type moves of the virtual lens).


In the process of his historical researches, Lastra uncovers some gems of contemporary observation, for example the startled discovery of one H. B. Marvin in 1928 that synchronism was at least as important as fidelity, a remark premised on the transfer of stage sound effects (coconut hooves, thunder sheets) to cinematic sound. Following this thread, Lastra insists that no sound is 'pro-phonographic', but is constructed in order to be represented (164). Not only does this clarify the issues at stake in the mistaken relationship between perception and representation: it illuminates why sound scholarship is so important to the construction of film-philosophy. The concept of representation, which at times seems to have outlived its usefulness, becomes a significant tool in the analysis of the discursive and institutional reception of technological innovation and standardisation. Lastra will not however relinquish the referential role of representation: 'The recognition of absence by which we classify representations *as* representations, recordings *as* recordings, is a positive condition of possibility rather than a fault'; and: 'Representational reference is finally, as it is in the writing of history, a question of right and law, a question of morality and politics, and a question of social ethics' (152). In other words, Lastra is in pursuit of an aesthetic, and is prepared to trace it to the materials of which it is constituted, rather than belabour an idealist vision of what constitutes the human as a prior condition to which the aesthetic must conform. The model of scholarship is eminently admirable, as the book is immensely enjoyable.


There is a problem, however. The author's 'two basic claims' concern the relation between sound and modernity: 'aurality has been the unthought in accounts of modernity' and, as a consequence, 'modernity has been underexamined in accounts of recorded sound' (4). Lastra admits exceptions, notably Thomas Levin's excavations of Adorno's work on radio and phonography. [1] Oddly, that same issue of _October_ in which Levin's translations and commentary appeared also carried Douglas Kahn's 'Track Organology', an article that might have pointed our author towards both Kahn's _Wireless Imagination_ anthology (1992) and his towering history of sonic modernism, _Noise Water Meat_ (1999). [2] Fair enough, the relation between cinema and radio is fraught matter for another monograph, and it is thus legitimate to leave aside substantial scholarship on modernity and sound in the US from the wireless perspective, [3] while other analysts from Allen S. Weiss to Georgina Born could be discounted geographically. [4] More peculiar is the elision of those -- admittedly few -- philosophers to have addressed the issue of sound and modernity, notably Andrew Bowie's flawed but fascinating account of the deafness of the philosophical discourses at the roots of modernity, and David Levin's 1993 anthology. [5] More curious still -- and significant to at least one participant in this _Film-Philosophy_ salon -- is the omission of the multi-volume work on audiomodernity by Michael Chanan, especially the second volume dedicated to the interaction of the phonogram and modern society. [6] The US academic presses' house style of substantive footnotes, always an irritant, makes it hard to double check the references, but I missed evocation of Douglas Gomery's pioneering work on the emergence of sound in Hollywood. The scholarship is so refined it seems unlikely that Lastra has omitted to read these sources, but the reasons for their omission or minimising might perhaps be more explicit. In the meantime, there is clearly work for further scholarship in the relations between Hollywood and the radio business, counting backward from Orson Welles's soundtrack into the popular radio of the 1930s.


University of Waikato

Hamilton, New Zealand





1. See Thomas Y. Levin, 'For the Record: Adorno on Music in the Age of its Technolgical Reproducibility', _October_, no. 55, 1991; and Levin's translations of three of Theodor Adorno's articles in the same issue: 'The Curves of the Needle', 'The Form of the Phonograph Record', and 'Opera and the Long-Playing Record'.


2. See Douglas Kahn, 'Track Organology', _October_, no. 55, 1990; Kahn and Gregory Whitehead, eds, _Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avant-Garde_ (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992); and Kahn, _Noise Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts_ (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999).


3. See Eric Barnouw, _A Tower in Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United States: Volume 1 -- to 1933_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966); Susan J. Douglas, _Inventing American Broadcasting 1899-1922_ (Baltimore, Mass.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987); and Michelle Hilmes, _Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnes