“Tectonic Microphonics” explores the politics of seismologists’ use of the microphone to listen to the deep, elusive sounds of the Earth in the years around 1900. It argues that seismological representatives of three emerging nation-states and empires—Italy, Japan, and Britain—used the microphone to lay claim to elusive geophysical data, encrypted in fleeting, earthly sounds. It suggests that seismologists’ enhanced knowledge of the subterranean movements of the Earth, a purported consequence of their microphonic aurality, represented a form of geopolitical currency. Such powers of prediction were viewed as an important index of national security and scientific development: the microphone thus represented an opportunity for occupants of seismic geographies (like Italy and Japan) to overcome what Deborah Coen has referred to as the “deterministic geography of security and risk” that, for some geologists, reduced them to the status of “barbarians.” At the same time, this article demonstrates that valorizing the civilizing consequences of this form of technologically mediated aurality relied upon extractive ecologies of capitalism and exploitative human labor that were often obscured by scientific users and their global networks of collaborators and enablers. As the article's concluding section shows, these activities came on the heels of the birth of one of the earliest ideas of the Anthropocene, circulated in the writings of an Italian geologist as a term for the agency of white, European, “steam-powered” men (a circumscribed Anthropos) over the Earth, its fossil resources, and its less-than-human laborers. This article concludes by arguing that the microphone established a standard of anthropogenic aurality fit for the birth of the age of the Anthropocene.
Kirsten Paige is a postdoctoral fellow in music at Stanford University. From August 2021, she will be assistant teaching professor of musicology at North Carolina State University. Her work explores how forms of scientific (especially, environmental) knowledge reshaped musical practices and aural cultures in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany, with a special focus on global cultural and scientific exchanges. Her essays have appeared in journals including The Cambridge Opera Journal, Opera Quarterly, Journal of the American Musicological Society, and Journal of the Royal Musical Association. Her first book, Richard Wagner's Political Ecology, is currently under contract with University of Chicago Press.
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Kirsten Paige; Tectonic Microphonics. 19th-Century Music 1 July 2021; 45 (1): 65–78. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2021.45.1.64
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