The Emergence of Cultural Acoustics, ca. 1750–1800

Reading in Tones: The Emergence of Cultural Acoustics, ca. 1750–1800

My current research project, leading up to a book manuscript, traces eighteenth-century concepts and practices of tone, rhythm, and prosody in the fields of anthropology, theology, philology, and literary criticism. I call these media practices “cultural acoustics” and develop the concept by excavating the scattered theories on tone and acoustics found in the works of polymath, pastor, and pedagogue Johann Gottfried Herder, who redefined the use of “culture” from a universal, binary abstraction differentiating between the civilized and the “barbarians” to one indicating the particularity of groups of people and their “mother tongues.”

In my project, I situate cultural acoustics in a broader historical and interdisciplinary network of praxis-oriented pastors, musicologists, anthropologists, physiologists, and physicians in Germany, England, and France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In particular, I focus on “acoustic reading,” a program to translate qualities of the voice such as rhythm and tone into silent reading practices. Reading, in Herder’s view, should be an embodied form of reception. Rather than depending on the semantics of written words, it should be a physiological process akin to listening. In his acoustically charged performances as a pastor, for example, Herder trained his listeners to read the printed words of the Bible as if they were audible. He aimed to form a congregation as intimate as the communities found in oral cultures, at the very moment in which print was gaining faster and wider circulation among a larger, mixed public. Herder sought to systematize a “cultural acoustics” that would both respond to the “German ear” and spoken accents, corrupted from the idealized ones of the Ancient Greeks due to the expansion of vernacular print media.