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Sound Technology and the American Cinema

Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity

General Editor John Belton
James Lastra
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Sound Technology and the American Cinema
    Book Description:

    Representational technologies including photography, phonography, and the cinema have helped define modernity itself. Since the nineteenth century, these technologies have challenged our trust of sensory perception, given the ephemeral unprecedented parity with the eternal, and created profound temporal and spatial displacements. But current approaches to representational and cultural history often neglect to examine these technologies. James Lastra seeks to remedy this neglect.

    Lastra argues that we are nowhere better able to track the relations between capital, science, and cultural practice than in photography, phonography, and the cinema. In particular, he maps the development of sound recording from its emergence to its confrontation with and integration into the Hollywood film.

    Reaching back into the late eighteenth century, to natural philosophy, stenography, automata, and human physiology, Lastra follows the shifting relationships between our senses, technology, and representation.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50546-8
    Subjects: Film Studies, Technology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: DISCOURSE/DEVICE/PRACTICE/INSTITUTION: Representational Technologies and American Culture
    (pp. 1-15)

    Observing passersby from the window of a London coffee shop, the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” (1840) becomes so emotionally and physically distressed that he rouses himself from his seat and pursues for twenty-four hours a face that “like a certain German book … does not permit itself to be read.” In a story that has been described, alternatively, as an “x-ray” or “the embryo” of the detective story, Poe presents us with what one scholar has called a specifically modern and urban crisis of “legibility.”¹ Confident in his capacity to “read” the types in...

  5. CHAPTER 1 INSCRIPTIONS AND SIMULATIONS: The Imagination of Technology
    (pp. 16-60)

    Was it really so clear only ten years after its first exhibition and mere weeks after its initial commercial availability what, exactly, the “Phonograph [had done] for the Ear?” And, assuming it was, in what sense could these acoustic transformations be duplicated for the eye? What made it appear obvious to discuss the two instruments as if somehow equivalent in effect? Given the numerous incommensurabilities between the visible and the audible, it seems strange to think of motion pictures and the phonograph in the same terms, and as accomplishing the same effects. Whatever their conceptual weaknesses, however, such cross-media and...

  6. CHAPTER 2 PERFORMANCE, INSCRIPTION, DIEGESIS: The Technological Transformation of Representational Causality
    (pp. 61-91)

    Despite the proliferation of commentary on the century’s newest devices for making pictures and recording sounds, the emergence of new representational technologies was, of course, not simply a matter of public discussion and debate. To concentrate on what was said about devices at the expense of the devices themselves risks minimizing the materiality of these forms while it simultaneously risks overemphasizing (to the point of idealism) the role of discourse. However, neither discourse nor device is as neatly definable as these warnings might suggest.

    As I do elsewhere, here I assume the importance of proximate verbal discourses to an adequate...

  7. CHAPTER 3 EVERYTHING BUT THE KITCHEN SYNC: Sound and Image Before the Talkies
    (pp. 92-122)

    It is the purpose of the remaining chapters to examine the factors conditioning the emergence of “sound” within the American cinema. I will demonstrate not only how these events recapitulated several of the key features I associate with the emergence of the technical media more generally, but also how entirely new and unimagined possibilities may emerge out of a limited and concrete set of historical and material conditions. More specifically, in this chapter I examine how the entities “the cinema” and “sound” came to be defined in relation to one another historically, and how the very devices and institutions we...

    (pp. 123-153)

    While the basic issues I have identified as arising from the emergence of the technical media are in some ways of quite general import, the manner in which any particular representational technology is normalized, regularized, and institutionalized is always quite specific. Just as the nature of Marey’s and Helmholtz’s experiments placed specific representational demands on contemporary sensory devices in order to render them adequate to the rigors of science, the emerging phonography and film industries asserted their own requirements for the proper implementation of both camera and sound recorder, shaping their characteristic uses in thoroughgoing ways. Contrary to what we...

  9. CHAPTER 5 STANDARDS AND PRACTICES: Aesthetic Norm and Technological Innovation in the American Cinema
    (pp. 154-179)

    One of the most important characteristics of the classical cinema is surely its stability over time. As I argued in chapter 3, scholars such as David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson have shown how a paradigm of bounded and hierarchically ordered formal options structured filmmaking during the classical period, and how the dominance of a particular form of efficiently conveyed—and profitable—narrative ensured the paradigm’s hegemony. They further show how the structure of industrial production ensured the interchangeability of personnel and therefore a kind of stability regarding the practical aspects of filmmaking.¹ While this may be an adequate...

    (pp. 180-216)

    If, ultimately, the sound engineer accommodated himself and his standards to the classical Hollywood paradigm, and thus to capitalist rationalization, the process was not without its hesitations, discontinuities, and disruptions. Too often examinations of Hollywood’s methods of representation assume as self-evident that the classical paradigm’s norms were predetermined by the apparatus’s built-in ideological predispositions. Crucial questions about the classical construction of space, for example, are answered as if by simply illustrating a similarity between filmic images and Renaissance paintings we prove their mutual implication. This approach, widespread as it is, not only mistakes essential elements of a Renaissance mode of...

    (pp. 217-222)

    The interplay of senses, technology, and aesthetics outlined in the preceding pages haunts us still, shaping our reactions to and understandings of current representational technologies. The scenes we witnessed in the nineteenth century found experimenters explicitly modeling sound devices (for both producing and recording) on the human body in the belief that there was no other logical, or indeed appropriate, way to proceed. Bolstered by a belief in the perfection of God’s design of the human voice and sensorium, mechanical attempts to emulate the human became the royal road to scientific knowledge. However obvious, the ideal of human simulation was...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 223-264)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 265-276)