Gilmer Post 8: Souls, Sirens, and Sound

The New Materialism approach, while useful in its ability to push against human-centric scholarship, excludes the human entirely. I’m on board with the momentary suspension of the human bias, but I struggle to see how “human culture does not lose but rather wins” by silencing human voices in our approaches to media archaeology (72). I’m reminded (and like Erin, I’ll warn everyone that I’m basically going to slip back into narrative) of a moment in AMC’s Breaking Bad: Walter White, famed chemist and aspiring meth-dealer, breaks down the chemical composition of the human body on a chalkboard:

Hydrogen – 63%
Oxygen – 26%
Carbon – 9%
Nitrogen – 1.25%
Calcium – .25%
Iron – .00004%
Sodium – .04%
Phosphorous – .19%
This brings the total to 99.888042%, leaving .111958% unaccounted for. When his partner suggests the missing element must be the “soul,” Walt laughs uproariously and insists, “There’s nothing but chemistry here.”

This, for me, illustrates the fundamental one-sidedness of Ernst’s paradigm. Both Parikka and Ernst utilize Homer’s Sirens as an example of human bias—technology assists us in resisting their charms. But this metaphor fails to account for the human element imbedded within our media technologies. Like Kittler, Ernst argues that “the act of communication in its physical distributing and effective channeling of signals stands at the core of media” (Parikka 69). I can agree with this summary, but I’m thinking back to Jockers’ “big data” project: any slight manipulation of code affected the project’s representation on a large-scale. Moreover, the machine’s ability to analyze data is wholly informed by human programming, human language, and in many cases, human error. How can we view such projects as purely data-oriented? How can we say this signal “channeling” is a one-way-street? I can’t help but feel that discussions of purity in the academe are dangerous at their core. Ernst’s desire to write out the human pollutant, i.e. Walter White’s soul, in favor of “pure data navigation” (68) is reminiscent of the search for the ideal or purely authoritative text (which I’m studying in Thora’s course): pointless and violent.

To illustrate the effects of the human bias, Ernst provides the following thought experiment: “imagine an early phonographic recording. Surely we acoustically hallucinate the scratching, the noise of the recording apparatus” (Ernst 69). The point he’s making is this: our ear is intrinsically biased before we even perceive sound due to our subjective preconception of said sound. Along these lines, he argues that sound recorded by a synthesizer represents liberty from the bias of the human ear. I wonder if anyone who’s ever seen a live concert would agree. I’m curious as to how this freedom from bias aligns with Ernst’s claim that “the event of the voice itself [comprises] the materiality of culture” (71). Does a recording function in the same way? (I’m thinking about Plato’s critique of writing as disembodiment—does Ernst’s prioritization of aural culture, i.e. the spoken word or ‘sound,’ strengthen Foucauldian hierarchies of descent?) This is a very relevant question for me, as I spent the last week or so recording various “sounds” of the MAL to recreate a functional soundscape. If that effort is meaningless, please—someone let me know before I spend another 3 hours doing it.

Since we’re focusing on media archaeology this week, I’d like to set up a quick thought experiment for our own beloved MAL. I attended the Media Archaeology Lab’s homecoming tour last week and just so happened to record the Edison phonograph as it was “scratching,” to use Ernst’s phrase. They call that fate, ladies and gentleman. So I thought it would be fun (or cheesy, you know, whichever) to complete Ernst’s challenge. I’d like everyone to take approximately 5-10 seconds to imagine this sound—how loud is it? How quickly is the mechanism rotating? Is the record skipping?

Now let’s listen to the actual recording:

What were the differences? What preconceptions were deflated?

At this point, I’m sure you’re all confused. I just proved Ernst’s point after hating on him for three paragraphs. But the element of human error is, once again, inarguably present. The simple fact is that I couldn’t get the phonograph working! I didn’t wind it up long enough, fast enough, or move the needle appropriately. It took the magical hands of Aaron Angello and another very sweet lab worker to get the thing running properly. The point I’m making is this: there is no sound freed from human influence. Listen to the recording again—note that it gets slower and slower. This was because Aaron’s hands were physically on the machine, changing its pace.

Whether Ernst’s posthumanism represents freedom or imprisonment, it simply isn’t possible to cleanly separate the human from the machine at this stage. Nor do I anticipate such a clean-cut separation in the future. Ernst’s characterization of “human performativity” and “technological algorithmical operations” positions them as “two different regimes clash[ing]” (59), but doesn’t this reify Snow’s ‘two cultures’ on some level? New Materialism, as formulated by Ernst and Kittler, fails to acknowledge the human’s mutual role in orchestrating and ‘programming’ the machinic realm.


2 thoughts on “Gilmer Post 8: Souls, Sirens, and Sound

  1. Also, guys–I changed the privacy settings on the Drive document so that anyone with a email can view the sound byte. I can’t really test this myself, so if you can’t access the link, that’s something I should know about ASAP.


  2. georgie a says:

    Jill, I’m having a go at your thought experiment! (And the recording works just fine =) ) I’ve heard the phonograph before, so I’m a biased participant, but my memory is vague. I imagine that it is LOUD (perhaps due to the small room it’s housed in?) and rotates slowly, with a scratchy yet billowing type of sound that tends to skip. Listening to the recording, it’s much more rhythmic in sound than I had imagined, and of course as you note it slows in pace. I’m absolutely in agreement with your claim for the human as tied to machine; even those technologies that are created with the intent to ‘just keep working forever’ are biased in human design and fallible to malfunctions that require human interference again.


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