On a Review in H-Soz-u-Kult on Sound Studies

For those of you not familiar with it: H-Soz-u-Kult is an online periodical which distributes reviews of books, conferences etc. on a daily basis. Its background lies in history, but it has become an important resource for the humanities in general in the German speaking countries.
What called my attention was a review on two books which was published on November 9th and simply entitled ‘Sound Studies’. Being represented as a field of research in this manner in a widely acknowledged academic communication platform is yet another important step in the field’s ongoing establishment in Germany. I took a closer look and discovered that the author was no stranger: The review was written by Daniel Morat, a historian and sound studies researcher working at the Free University Berlin. He co-edited a volume which was published last year on policy and culture of sound in the 20th century. I haven’t read the books myself yet, but I think it is worthwhile to convey some aspects of Morat’s review to English speaking readers.

The works he reviewed here were The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, edited by Karin Bijsterveld and Trevor Pinch, and a volume on Germany’s sonic history: Germany in the Loud Twentieth Century. An Introduction, edited by Florence Feiereisen and Alexandra Merley Hill. Since most of you probably took notice of the Oxford handbook I will just briefly summarize what Morat had to say about the latter book.

Its editors stem from a German literature background and collected a wide range of essays concerning sonic aspects of German cultural history of the 20th century. Literature is for example represented in an essay by Curtis Swope on sound and space in Das Provisorium, a novel by one of former GDR’s most interesting writers, Wolfgang Hilbig. According to his own background, the reviewer favored a paper by Yaron Jean on ‘sonic mindedness’ in World War I. In this article he examines and compares the different auditory experiences in the trenches, aerial warfare and submarines.

Overall, he acknowledged the efforts of the editors, who also set up some online tasks which support the use of the book in teaching. Morat is critical though of the general concept: He thinks the different articles aren’t tied together in a convincing way and the work fails to give a concise and systematic introduction to German sonic history in the 20th century. Nevertheless, he recommends it as a collection of predominantly interesting and insightful individual essays. Personally, I am looking forward to reading, among others, Nicole Dietrich’s paper on Berlin sounds: Audible Cartography of a Formerly Divided City.

As for the status of sound studies, he concludes that both works, although calling themselves ‘handbook’ and ‘introduction’, don’t really offer an overview as systematic and condensed as such types of works are supposed to. Sound studies knowledge doesn’t seem to be that consolidated yet. He thinks that this needn’t be a deficit, for it shows that a lot of work remains to be done. I just want to add that I think it is a sign of the vibrancy of the field and of the promise that is sound studies. Also, the different objects of research, methods and perspectives of people feeling associated with sound studies doesn’t necessarily need to be gathered under a unifying approach. Let’s be open-minded as long as it is possible and sound studies research isn’t saturated! Of course, that doesn’t mean that efforts to systematize the different approaches and to develop overarching concepts and theories aren’t as important and fruitful. Both impulses should keep on challenging each other.

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