Smith 1999

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Smith, Bruce. The Acoustic World of early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999.


"from the listener's standpoint, there are two quite distinct ways of attending to sound: one that focuses on the thereness of the sound, on the sound-producer; and one that focuses on the hereness of the sound, on the physiological and psychological effects of sound on the listener. Both dimensions aer present all the time, and we can readily shift focus from one to the other." (7)
"Since knowledge and intentions are shaped by culture, we need to attend also to cultural differences in the construction of aural experience. The multiple cultures of early modern England may have shared with us the biological materiality of hearing, but their protocols of listening could be remarkably different from our.s We need a cultural poetics of listening. We must take into account, finally, the subjective experience of sound. We need a phenomenology of listening, which we can expect to be an amalgam of biological constants and cultural variables." (8)

silence (or lack thereof) (9)

orality vs. literacy -- Renaissance rhetoric gave primacy to orality (12)

"By and large, the artifacts that survive from early modern England ask to be heard, not seen: compared, say, to Renaissance Italy, the number of buildings, paintings, tapestries, pieces of furniture, and utilitarian objects are few. What we have, in great abundance, are verbal artifacts. Our knowledge of early modern England is based largely on words, and all evidence suggests that those words had a connection to spoken language that was stronger and more pervasive than we assume about our own culture. Can we be so sure -- especially in a culture where 'orality' and 'literacy' were reciprocally defined in ways quite different from today -- that speaking and listening were experienced as uncomplicated acts of self-presence?" (13)

Luhmann: body, psyche, media and society -- communication as "a process, not of transferring meaning, but of negotiating meaning" between these autonomous systems (16)

"If language, media, and society are configured as environments, each one functioning as such for the others, then we can identify three consensual zones, three sites of resonance, that together constitute an ecology of communication: (1) the zone between language and society, (20 the zone between language and media, and (3) the zone between media and society." (17)
"Rather than imagining a rigid distinction between oral culture and literate culture, between aural media and visual media, we should imagine a continuum between speech and vision. At one pole of the continuum are communications that have little or no direct contact with litters: ballads from oral tradition, St. George plays, morris dances. At the other pole are communications that have little or nothing to do with voice: texts in legal French, treatises on mathematics, books on geometry. In between are ranged broadside ballads, scripts for the stage, sermons and orations, familiar letters, manuscript commonplace books, accounts of the New World." (19)
"Different speech communities stand in different relationships to different media, according to how open or closed those media are to the polyphony of dialects and argots, songs and sonnets, whoops and hollers that filled the ambient air of early modern England." (25-26)

women and ballads (26)

"O as asks us to listen for multiple voices, for competing voices, even for noise." (26)
"O is not about ontology, but phenomenology. It is concerned not with 'voice,' but voice. O is not about metaphysics, but materialism -- the materialism of the human body, of sound waes, of plaster, lath, and thatch, of quill pens ,ink, and paper, of lead type." (29)

Mapping the Field

movement within speech fields -- different registers, dialects (43); middling group had largest speech field and the most extended speech networks

soundspaces: speech --> music --> ambient sound; dreasing specificity of meaning along this axis (45)

acoustic communities (47)

acoustemology (Steven Feld); "cultures establish their identities not only through things seen but through things heard and said" (48)

The Soundscapes of Early Modern England: City, Country, Court

London soundscape; less broadband sounds than today, more clattering, clacking; heard conversations (58-9)

  • St. Paul's; quid novi? (what's the news; gathering before midday meal; 60); likened to a Tower of Babel
  • Exchange; polyglot gathering spot before midday meal
  • Westminster Hall
  • Tower Wharf, guns/cannons discharged on ceremonial occasions (63)

street cries /hawkers turned into music (64-7)

pageants displaying the sights and sounds of the city in aggregate; "in these emblems-brought-to-life, the city was made to speak" (71)

Re: Membering

"In the acoustemology of early modern England the body is the site of three activities having to do with sound: voicing, listening, and recalling." (97)
"To early modern ways of considering the matter, the word 'voice' meant, first and foremost, a concatenation of bodily members: muscles, gristly tissues, fluids, and 'soul'. Voice as a political concept -- that is to say, 'voice' as it signifies in poststructuralist theory -- certainly existed in early modern English." (101)

animal spirits conveying sensations through the body (104)

sound communicated through motion and time (unlike color) (105)

communication, for Bacon, as the transmission of spirits (106)

"To understand voicing and listening in early modern culture we have to keep our sight much more focused than we are accustomed to on the material realities of metal, wood, air, and the members of the human body." (106)

moistness vs. dryness of the brain: too moist = quick learning but bad memory, too dry = long memory but slow learning (107-8)

  • "Early modern physiology invited people to think of their memory as something physical and graphic: a trace in the brain tissues that could practically be seen and touched." (108)
"memory mediates between the senses and bodily actions, between bodily actions and the senses. With respect to the sense of hearing in particular, memory transforms air waves into embodied action. It remembers sound in various parts of the human body: in the other ventricles of the brain, in the ears, in the hands, in the eyes, in the body as a kinaesthetic whole." (109)

fantasy/imagination --> processed by reason --> stored in memory (109)

house of memory as a acoustic as much as visual space (110) -- memory theater vs silent repository

ballads, "sung to the tune of.." -- drawing on readers' memory (112)

"With respect to gaps on the page, 'reading' a musical score is like reading a verbal text: the reader has to fill in the music, the gaps are filled not so much by the reader's cognitive experience as by his somatic experience." (114)
"Hands can also function as sites of recalling. In marks made by is or her own hand a speaker has the power to member speech in an immediate, physical form. The sounding body actually touches the surface on which fugitive words can be remembered." (114) (see also Sherman 2008)

hands as both connecting and separating the body from writing (115)

synonymy of voice and word in early modern thought (117)

physicality of sound; reading aloud when one learns to write

  • "The effect of such exercises, for the writer at least, would be to imbue his hand with the sound of his own voice." (119)
"If we step out from under the category of 'writing' and look around instead at individual acts of writing, we can distinguish not one writing technology in early modern England but several. Instead of writing we find writings." (119)

swift writing (closest connection to speech) --> calligraphy (closest connection to materiality of writing) (119-120)

graphic signs of speech in early modern writing (120)

  • "What we need to look for are not morphemes, minimal units of semantic meaning, but graphemes, minmal units of visual meaning. Styles of hand, typefaces, illustrations, spaces on the page, the physical medium on which these marks are made -- all of these things can signify in a communication system that gives primacy to speech." (121)
"Graphemes mediate between sound-in-the-body and sound-on-the-page. The common denominator in this transaction is body: paper and ink as material entities stand in for muscles and air as material entities. The paper functions as a kind o membrane, or skin" (121)
"As a system of graphic signs, print exceeds even the most elegant and singular set writ in its thereness, its separation from the speaking body." (124)

three timeframes of writing: "ti remembers the past, it captures the process of thought in the present, and it opens out into the future. Printing -- or at least the act of print -- has always the quality of pastness about it"

  • Brown: printing as "a technology infinitely less sensitive than writing is to the unfolding of events in time" (124)
"Gauging the relationship between handwriting and movable type, historians tend to speak in almost military terms. Print is said to 'triumph' over the script; he newer medium is said to 'conquer' the older. In oblique ways as well as direct, early modern witnesses suggest a more complicated relationship." (126-7) -- readers responding to oral cues
"'Sentences,' the early modern term for those membered and re-membered texts, catches the oral basis ... A reader might even transfer remembered passages into a commonplace book, but he or she would do so, not to fix the text like a flower pressed between the leaves of a book, but to keep the text even handier for use in the reader's own conversation." (128)
"In hindsight, it is easy for us to talk about the 'triumph' of printing in early modern Europe. What we are apt to miss is the resistance of voice to the new medium. In a culture that still gave precedence to voice -- in legal practice, in rhetorical theory, in art made out of words, in the transactions of daily life -- we should be looking, not for evidence of the hegemony of type technology, but for all the ways in which that newly discovered resources was colonized by regimes of oral communication." (128-9)

graphemes of sound in early modern writing not as symbols but indices with a metonymical connection between sign and signified

"A reader takes in hand a printed book, but she turns the fixed body of type into a living, sounding thing by marking 'sentences,' copying them down perhaps in a commonplace book and making them part of her own conservation." (129)

Games, Gambols, Gests, Jests, Jibes, Jigs

noise of the games: "For such performances the vocabulary of literary criticism lacks a term, in large part because the events themselves lack verbal substance. They cross generic boundaries: neither song nor dance nor drama, they are at once none of the above and yet all of the above." (136)

country dancing: rings, circles; courtly dancing: squares, lines (137)

"Gests themselves lack a verbal text,e ven as they are surrounded by verbal texts. they exist at the point, illegible in itself, where a range of verbal texts -- ethical, antiquarian, scholarly, literary -- happen to converge." (139)
"As a combination of combat and communion, morris dancing enacts the dynamics of male identity-formation i nearly modern England" (145)
"St. George of Wells, St. George of Norwich, St. George of Kingston: it is the localization of combat games -- their presence in the here-and-now, in this city or village, within this circle of sound -- that helped make them suspect to increasingly centralized authority in early modern England. Depending on local circumstances, robin Hood games could be supportive of the social structure, as villagers in green garb collected funds for the parish, but they could also be subversive of the social structure, as disaffected men used Robin Hood's outlaw status as a convenient front for rudeness, or even riot." (153)
"Kemp's Nine Days' Wonder is constantly pressing the limits of textualization, even as it tries to exploit textualization for Kemp's own ends." (162)
"What Stubbes and his sort want to do in political terms -- what they in fact do in their printed pamphlets -- is to take a four-dimensional bodily sensation and turn it into a two-dimensional text. Something heard, felt, en/joyed becomes, in their hands, something seen, known, mastered. To turn gests into objects of surveillance is, in effect, to turn them into texts. What gests mean is presumed to exist on the outside, as a message that an onlooker can read. But gests take place in four dimensions, not two: they sprawl in the three dimensions of physical space, they pulsate in the fourth dimension of time. They possess depth: in space, in time, above all in the interiors of the sounding bodies that do them." (166)
"The politics of mirth is, in part, the conflict between two different ways of locating meaning: in sounding bodies and in inscribed bodies." (167)

Ballads Within, Around, Among, Of, Upon, Against, Within

upwards of 4000 broadside ballads printed before 1600; outnumber books and plays in the registers from 1557-1642 (168)

"Partly as a result of the commerce of print, partly as a result of the rift between 'the great tradition 'and 'the little tradition,' ballads became ever more conspicuously autonomous in the course of the sixteenth century." (172)

ballads as highly "resonant" medium: "that is to say, they interact in highly volatile ways with the physical body, with soundscapes, with speech communities, with political authority, with the singer's sense of self." (173)

women spinning and singing ballads (174)

ballads -- showing orality and literacy, "far from being polar opposites, exist only in terms of each other" (177)

earliest surviving printed broadside is an untitled sheet of verses said in first person by the seven virtues, "possibly intended to be cut apart as scrolls to be put above or beneath figures representing the seven Virtues on the wall of a room, as many of Lydgate's verses are known to have been" (177) -- titulus verse, as Alan Nelson calls it

author of ballad acknowledged via 'quod' or 'quoth' at the end of the text (178)

workroom for spinning (sound of machines, women singing) produces its own soundscape; "To the ear, the room would be the women's song." (180)

"Ballads may begin within, they may reverberate around, but they have their social being among. Ballads help to confirm a speech community's identity." (184)

singer becoming the event in the ballad (192)

"From the standpoint of the authorities, ballads were dangerous not only for what they might say but for how' they might say it. To ballet a subject was to commandeer the subject." (196)
"One transformative mark of print on ballads is greater dependency on third-person narrative." (199)
"Third-person narrative could be regarded as a corruption of oral immediacy, but printed broadsides offer a singer or a listener a wider choice of subject positions, both among ballads and within ballads." (200)
"To a much greater extent than texts in 'the great tradition,' popular ballads invited singers and listeners to occupy a female subject position." (200) -- "what ballads offer the singer and the listener is the possibility of becoming many subjects, by internalizing the sounds and rhythms of those subjects' voices" (201)

after 1649, it was illegal to sing ballads in the streets (playhouses closed in 1642) (201)

Within the Wooden O

shape of the theaters like the shape of a throat

theater "not so much a building itself as a rge, free-standing object that could be erected inside a preexisting building" (207)

"The South Bank amphitheaters were, in fact, instruments for producing, shaping, and propagating sound." (206) -- "the largest, airiest, loudest, subtlest sound-making device fabricated by the culture of early modern England" (207-8)

When Lord Chamberlain's men were forced to vacate The Theater in Shoreditch in 1597 and they transported the building across the river, "they were transporting part of the company's professional equipment, like viol-players bringing their instruments with them to a concert" (208)

The Globe

  • made of timber -- vintage instrument, because of rising price of timber at the time
  • shaped like a throat
  • stage as vibrator (208)
  • twenty-sided polygon, open at the top with highly absorbent material at the bottom leads to a broad (rather than round) sound (213)
    • "In a cylindrical space listeners can locate sounds horizontally far more accurately than they can in a space enclosed on six sides. Applause sounds on the left and the right, not all around; loud laughter comes from over there, a rude comment from over there." (214)
  • "An actor may occupy the position of greatest visual presence at the geometric center of the playhouse, but he commands the greatest acoustical power near the geometric center of the space beneath the canopy." (214)


  • rectilienar space -- "dispersed sound waves throughout the room rather than focusing them in the center" (216)
  • round sound rather than broad (217)
"In effect, speech sounds gendered as male would pervade the wooden O, filling it from side to side; speech sounds gendered as female would be heard as isolated effects within this male matrix." (229)
"Circularity, no less than the joints of the human body, is a 'natural' way of visualizing speech. The shape of the field of sound is in fact a circle. Circularity is to the physicsof speechmaking what the human body is to the physiology. Read on the page, a period is the end of something; heard within the circular field of sound, a period is something in itself, and the 'shape' of that something is round. Comma, colon, and period occupy three conceptual categories at once: physiological, rhetorical, and orthographic. They are members of the body, members of speech, and members of a sign system, all at the same time. Spoken within the wooden O, they are also acoustic phenomena -- dimensions of speech that can be heard." (239)
"What the audience hears, in the last analysis, is not just physical properties of sound, nor even psychological effects, but the acoustic equivalent of a visual scene -- an 'aura', perhaps." (243)

Circling the Subject

Cicero: oratory demands appeal to emotions (248)

conversationalist plays people around him like an organist plays the pipes of an organ (253)

elevation of the Eucharist, highlight of the Latin liturgy; Protestant theologians designed worship services around the sermon (261)

"As the embodied Word of God, Christ was the sounded Word of God. Christ was not a written text; he preached. The written gospel (traditionally understood as god-spell, 'God's tidings') records Christ's words, but the true power of those words is released when they are heard." (263)

Christ/God as the voice, Donne sermon (264)

noise of theater as diabolical detraction from the voice of sermons (270)

"the power of public theater in early modern England lies at the intersection of these three scenes of speaking: oratory, conversation, and liturgy. Audiences liked it because it engendered, through sound, a subjectivity that was far more exciting -- and far more liberating -- than those created by oratory, conversation, and liturgy by themselves." (270)
"It was, perhaps, the heard dimension of dramatic impersonation, rather than the actor's visible presence, that most powerfully caused early modern audiences to 'interiorize' characters." (279)
"theater inserted listeners into a scene of speaking that was unlike any other in early modern culture. It subjected them, not to the voice of authority, but to the voices of diverse persons, every one of them competing for air space. And it permitted them to carry on conversations with persons above and below them in social station, something not allowed in conduct books." (283)

Listen, Otherwise

"In its circularity, continuity, and directionality, the shape of empire replicates the shape of sound." (288)
"The acoustemology of early modern England can be considered from two vantage points: internal and external. On the internal front, inherited ideas about sound from Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Priscian, and other authorities served, quite literally, to harmonize body, society, psyche, and media as self-maintaining systems." (297) -- "radically logocentric" acoustemology
"In teaching the Indians to read, Eliot and other missionaries were in fact engineering a shift in the site of philosophical, moral, and oplitical authority. The Indians were expected to transfer reverence from the human voice to a physical object -- and in that act to forget thousands of years of tradition. The Indians responded by revering the object just as they had formerly revered the voice." (321)
"Like the Irish, like the Powhatan Indians in Virginia, like the Indians of Massachusetts Bay, Africans are described as inhabiting a sound-world in which language keeps turning into noise. Human communication merges with sounds in the ambient world to create an acoustemology that frightened the English speakers who found themselves situated within it." (328)