Thomas Ross Miller

Visiting scholar
Ph.D., Professor of Liberal Arts, Berkeley College, Adjunct Instructor, New York University, USA
February 1, 2012 to February 29, 2012

Current work:

Corporealism: Sensory Classification, Embodied Knowledge, and the Origins of Anthropology

The role of sound in the scientific enterprise of classifying human bodies through models and measurement has been largely overlooked. At the turn of the last century, many investigators who came to the emerging disciplines of psychology and ethnology from a background in medicine or physics considered the voice in physiological as well as culturological terms. Yet in the historiography of anthropological science, visual modes of representation and statistical compilations of anthropometric data have been privileged as the principal means used to codify populations into physical types. While skulls, eyes, and skin were all heavily scrutinized the voice was largely cast aside, either as a strictly linguistic and aesthetic phenomenon or as a disembodied, transient object which could only yield to analysis via the imperfect mediation of mechanical reproduction. Various machines designed to measure and emulate the vocal production of speech sounds and song were devised and sold to experimental psychology laboratories. The phonograph was one such device, employed by Carl Stumpf and Erich von Hornbostel as the central tool in establishing the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv and the new field of comparative musicology. Born in the late 19th-century context of colonial encounters and an alliance between scientists and the producers of popular shows featuring exoticized native subjects, ethnographic recordings along with other sensory mediations of embodied knowledge were then used to support the eugenics movement in the United States and racialized anthropology in Germany. 

In America Franz Boas, trained in the German school of scientific methodology,  collected voluminous anthropometric and ethnological data for museums, in a quest to establish inductive historical particularism and the museological reconstruction of ethnogenesis as correctives to the hierarchical classification of peoples into inherently inferior and superior categories. During the 1890s Boas was an early adopter of the portable wax-cylinder recorder, and he continued to enthusiastically advocate its use as a valuable part of the ethnographer’s collecting kit. Yet in his own work the technical difficulties and representational limitations of treating recorded sounds as ethnological evidence led him to abandon the phonograph in favor of visual and textual methods of analysis. Boas would not return to the collection of sound recordings until the 1930s and the emigration of Hornbostel’s assistant George Herzog to the United States. Meanwhile the collecting activities of the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv came under the control of the state museum bureacracy and were repurposed to provide aural evidence in support of the racial theories of National Socialism. This project investigates the crucial links between physical-type anthropology and early recorded sound collections in museums and archives which contributed to both the development and distortion of the human sciences in the 20th century.