12 June, 2008

Home Cinema - Part I

Because home is where the head is...

"The expropriation of anonymous corpses as fixed capital for the production of knowledge is illustrated nowhere better than in the history of an ear attached to a machine."
Sterne J(2003) The Audible Past, Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press. pp. 69

Jonathan Sterne spends a lot of time on Bell and Blakes' 'Ear Phonautograph' in the first chapter of his vast history of early modern sound and its meanings. For him, this 'machine' is emblematic of a change in thought about sound's nature. What you can see in this picture is the excised middle ear mechanism from a corpse, attached to a horn into which sound (almost always the voice) was projected. Instead of a cochlea, auditory nerve and living brain, the end of the chain of tiny bones was adorned with a hogs bristle, which scratched traces onto a smoked glass slide dragged across the back of the 'mechanism'. This was a modification of Scott's 'Phonautograph' - some tracings of which have recently been sonified to great excitement in the lab. More pictures of the Phonautograph than you will ever need can be found here.
For Sterne, this artifact could only come about once the ear was understood as a mechanism, and once sound moved from being something which emanated from a source to something which was an effect - vibrations in the medium of air acting upon the tympanum. The diaphragm is king in the world of sound reproduction...
Something about the description of the ear being 'attached to a machine' doesn't ring true. This may seem like nit-picking but it feels important all the same - there's no machine without the middle ear mechanism. The ear and its interfaces are a composite, where meat and steel are coerced into a union for the sake of instrumentation. When looking at this terrible wonder, I begin to reify the consciousness that it once served; a ghost with a head occupying a notional space. It feels like an explication of the way that sound burrows into the hearer - it brings us a bit closer to what has been called the world knot*; where the world ends and we begin. I bet it smelled a bit weird as well.
The description of a corpse as 'fixed capital' refers to Sterne's account of how the lower classes ended up as the fuel for much of modern medicine through dissection - the 'Massachusetts Anatomical Act' made legal the offering up of unclaimed corpses (ie, poor ones - families could not afford the funeral) to science:

"The medical historian Charles Snyder casts the "donors" of the ears in Bell and Blake's experiments as the "true heroes" of the research"

Sterne (2003: 69)
More on early sound visualization and class later, you'll be delighted to know.

*Schopenhauer's term. Via Edelman and Tononi's 'Consciousness, How Matter Becomes Imagination'.