Senses of Vibration: A History of the Pleasure and Pain of Sound
by Shelley Trower

Reviewed by Farley Miller


Published by Continuum, 2012   |   224 pages

As the nineteenth-century German physiologist Johannes Peter Müller wrote in his magnum opus, Elements of Physiology, “without the organ of hearing with its vital endowments, there would be no such a thing as sound in the world, but merely vibrations.” Jonathan Sterne further elucidated Müller’s point a century and a half later in The Audible Past (2003): “the boundary between vibration that is sound and vibration that is not-sound is not derived from any quality of the vibration in itself or the air that conveys the vibrations.” Müller and Sterne remind us that any meaningful definition of sound requires that human beings — or, at least, their bodies — be placed front and center, a point echoed in Marx’s famous assertion that “the forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present.” Anthropologists like Constance Classen and David Howes have been at the forefront of reintroducing the senses into cultural studies; such an approach was out of favor in the early twentieth century after post-Enlightenment anthropologists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had employed a sensory-based racism associating sight — whose connoted objectivity has positioned it as the Enlightenment sense par excellence — with Europeans and non-Europeans with the more “bodily,” “lower” and more “sensuous” senses. The study of the human senses naturally supports myriad interdisciplinary approaches and perspectives, and the call to reengage with a more embodied criticism has been sounded by many.

A recent contribution to this burgeoning interdisciplinary field is Shelley Trower’s Senses of Vibration: A History of the Pleasure and Pain of Sound, an interrogation not of the physiology of the human senses as such but, rather, the physical phenomenon — vibration – that they interpret. Trower’s text emphasizes the central role that vibration has played historically in the human endeavor to understand sensory experience as grounded in the human body; indeed, she not only places humans at the center of the sensory world, but also focuses on how the cultural imaginary shapes and is shaped by sensory experience. As Trower writes, “sound is the experience through which the conceptualization of vibration more generally is made possible, and the means by which it is dangerous and beneficial, and painful and pleasurable (or even its dangerously pleasurable) manifestations could begin to be managed. To hear vibration is perhaps to understand it, to control it.” But Trower’s purview here expands beyond sounds to encompass all the means by which vibration impacts the human phenomenological perspective.

The first three chapters of Trower’s book explore the views of a diverse selection of nineteenth-century writers toward the effects of vibration on the human mind. The first chapter, “Nervous Motions,” for example, challenges longstanding notions of a Romantic mind obsessed with the spiritual and the transcendent at the expense of the material and the physical, grounding that mind in its physical body, “[presenting] sensations as originating in both and external stimulus and the body, especially the nervous system.” It does so by introducing the aeolian harp as a model for understanding a radical shift in the “physical basis of human sensitivity” engendered by associationist works such as David Hartley’s Observations on Man (1749). The aeolian harp, a wind-activated “autophone” (a harp “plucked” not by fingers but by the breeze), dates back at least to ancient Greece: Homer’s hymn to Hermes, from the late sixth or fifth century BCE, describes a macabre scene during which the messenger god fashions such an instrument from the shell of a disemboweled tortoise. It was rediscovered in the mid-seventeenth century by the German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kichner and, by the late eighteenth century, became something of a household vogue in an increasingly middle-class Europe. Thereafter it became a central metaphor to the entire Romantic Movement (MH Abrams wrote in his The Mirror and the Lamp: “The Aeolian lyre is the poet, and the poem is the chord of music which results from the reciprocation of external and internal elements, of both the changing wind and the constitution and tension of the strings”). Hartley, on the other hand, modeled his sensory theory after Newton’s mechanics, tracing all nervous activity to mechanical vibrations. Memories in this reading are the remnant vibrations of mechanical impacts upon the sense organs, while pleasure is the result of “moderate” vibrations and pain is produced by more extreme sensory impacts. With an eye toward Hartley’s opus, Trower explores a pair of poems from this period by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Aeolian Harp” (1795) and “Dejection” (1802). Where the instrument in “The Aeolian Harp” repays the stimulus of gentle breezes with harmonious tones, the harp in “Dejection” is coaxed into producing a harsh timbre by a “dull sobbing draft, that moans and rakes / Upon the strings of this Aeolian lute / Which better far were mute.” Through her analysis Trower is able to position Hartley’s doctrine of vibrations as a direct materialist precursor to Edmund Burke’s theory of the Sublime.

As the media theorist Friedrich Kittler has written, “we knew nothing about our senses until media provided models and metaphors.” The aeolian harp is only the first among many technological analogues for understanding the workings of the human mind and body that play a central role in Trower’s text, and indeed, the concept of technology is central to her analysis. Trower writes of bodies as technologies that are “especially sensitive to … vibrations.” It is with the awareness of this biological and evolutionary “purpose” of the senses, according to Kittler’s reading, that the cultural analysis of them can begin. Trower writes:

Auditory technologies in particular, including musical strings and telephone wires as transmitters of sonic and electrical vibrations, were used as an image for the vibrating nerves that were so crucial to the idea of the sensitive body which developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a body that is especially sensitive and responsive to the vibrations of the external world – from light and other forms of ethereal energy to the more palpable, painful and pleasurable vibrations of technology and industry, including the ‘shocks’ produced by railway trains.

The strings of the violin, especially, provide a potent model; whereas early medical theories, for example, postulated that human nerves were tubes through which animal spirits would flow between soul and body, by the end of the eighteenth century the nerves had been re-conceptualized as solid strings that would vibrate in a manner similar to a musical instrument. Furthermore, by seeking materialist correspondences between medical discourse and poetry of the period, Trower opens up a new perspective on a host of “sensitive” literary figures such as Oscar Wilde’s “exquisite violin,” Dorian Gray.

Chapters four and five deal primarily with the late nineteenth century, a period marked by both an increasingly mature scientific and medical study of the senses and a popular conception that increasing quantities of vibrations were producing effects on the human mind and body. Chapter four focuses on the disruptions and deleterious effects of vibration, associated with the Modern, emblematically manifest in the emerging condition of “railway spine.” Chapter five, by contrast, focuses on the restorative qualities of vibration and the possibility of harnessing it — via careful measurement and scientific control — toward therapeutic ends. Trains, a rich symbol for the technological changes engendered by modernism, were a topic of particular interest throughout the period. On the one hand, train rides were occasionally prescribed as kind of physical therapy for “hysterics,” as well people suffering from other illnesses. On the other hand, train rides posed a potential threat to nineteenth-century sexual mores; Trower cites reports from the Lancet that address train ride-induced problems running the gamut from “the conception of unwanted children to accidental abortions and premature deliveries.” Trower notes, “mechanical vibrations thus appear to pose a particular threat to the female body,” and her elucidation of the gendered dynamics of the nineteenth century’s attempt to measure and manage vibration will be of particular interest to many readers.

Senses of Vibration is a pioneering work in its analysis of – via the close reading of a remarkable range of literatures literary, scientific, and medical – the shifts that have occurred over the last few centuries concerning ideas of and attitudes toward vibratory phenomena, as well as the human minds and bodies that perceive and perceived them. Trower touches upon a number of compelling themes throughout her book — the role that vibration played in challenging emergent and shifting conceptions of masculinity, femininity, and sensitivity in the unprecedentedly gender-troubled nineteenth century is only one rich site among many. Were one to critique the book, it may be precisely the diversity of its sources, and the corresponding brief treatment of each, which threatens to prevent the reader from engaging in sufficient depth with them. The substitution of an afterword for a conclusion only further compounds the fluid structure engendered by the varied nature of her sources and readings, threatening to articulate vibration as a phenomenon interesting but ancillary to a number of separate disciplines rather than an important subject of inquiry in its own right. Nonetheless, Senses of Vibration is an engaging text with much to offer for those with interests as diverse as sound, technology, modernism, materialism, medicine and illness, gender, the body, and more.

Farley Miller is a PhD candidate in musicology at McGill University, where his research focuses on technology and identity in popular music. He is active as an improviser and performer of original compositions with several musical projects in Montreal.

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