Project (2019)

A Political Ecology of Sound Insulation

My project counts the cost paid for sound’s insulation as a reproducible matter of concern. The “political ecology” I am assembling documents the importance of signal insulation to telecommunicated sound. My subject is vulcanized india-rubber, an alchemy that was chosen, over gutta-percha, to insulate the Pará-Cayenne undersea telegraph cable of 1873, as well as related cables laid around the time in the Ethiopic Ocean. (Because of its resilience, “Pará fine” was favored for military use and for environments associated with “extreme” tropical conditions.) I am using my time at MPIWG to incubate the fourth chapter of my forthcoming book Creatures of the Air, 1817–1913.

 

My provocation is to understand telegraphic biotechnology, in terms of its history, as a musical instrument, one that conveyed not so much signal information as the tonal nervosité fundamental to rubber’s colonial ecology. For this reason, I recognize intercontinental biotransfers of latex/thermoplastics within the infrastructural logics of cable-laying and in view of colonial practices of caoutchouc extraction in the lower Amazon and what is now Congo/Gabon. My aim is to establish what modern sound was made of and how knowledge of it was propagated. The biocultural matter in view was conjured by structures of power, ones that in turn supplied conduits for the apprehension of propagated sound. For the purposes of my book, I am drawn to explain how techno-industrial capitalism exploited equatorial climates and labor markets in the service of modern ecologizing cosmologies.