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Gunfire, Phonographs, Laughter: Sound Studies and the Promise of an Audible Past

Posted: January 3, 2019

History Graduate Program Speaker Series

World War 1 War Tuba
World War 1 War Tuba

Event Details

  • Monday, February 11, 2019
    7:30 PM - 9:00 PM
    Traill College

Historians have long relied on sonic metaphors to make sense of their craft. We comb through sources in search of subjects’ “voices;” we “listen” to texts and hope to “speak” to or “resonate” with audiences in the academy and beyond. Since the early 2000s, however, historians working in the field of sound studies have moved beyond metaphorical “listening” to investigate the sonic past itself. They have detailed past “soundscapes” from the nineteenth century French countryside to the interiors of twentieth century skyscrapers. They have unearthed sounds' historically-situated meanings as well as the technologies and practices historical subjects have used to amplify, transmit, quiet, conceal, and manipulate them. In this talk, J. Martin Vest will detail the emergence of sound studies in the humanities and social sciences, with particular emphasis on its impact within the discipline of history. Drawing on his own work as well as that of leading sound scholars, he will discuss sound studies methodologies as well as some recent findings within the field. He will make a brief for the promise of a sonically-informed history but will also argue that sound studies represents just one manifestation of a broader—and dynamic—transformation within recent historical scholarship.


J. Martin Vest is a lecturer in the University of Michigan, Department of History and holds a masters degree in history from Virginia Commonwealth University and a doctorate in history from the University of Michigan. His current research focuses on the intersections of sound, hearing, technology and American thought and culture, though his past work has touched on a variety of historical subjects, from the intellectual history of anarchism to tropes of insanity in twentieth century popular culture. His dissertation, “Vox Machinae: Phonographs and the Birth of Sonic Modernity, 1877-1930,” detailed the first half-century of the American recording industry, paying particular attention to the complex interrelationships the industry spawned between machines, money and ways of hearing. He is currently at work on a book based on his dissertation.