Liminal Voices. On the History of Culture and Knowledge of Non-Human Vocalization around 1800 and 1900

A sign of human reason? Embodiment of animalistic speechlessness? Or proof of artificial intelligence? The voice appears to both shore up anthropological demarcations and refute them. On the threshold between meaningless sound and articulated message, between the sounds of nature and a culture based on language, between animal, man, and machine, the voice commonly finds itself as a source of potential conflict. This dissertation pursues the conflicted status of the voice from the perspectives of cultural history and the history of knowledge.

Two significant upheavals in voice-related technology from around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries provide the starting points for the study: Wolfgang von Kempelen’s invention of the speaking machine in 1784 and Thomas A. Edison’s discovery of the phonograph in 1877. These new media devices were responses to longstanding debates on the genuine humanness of voice and speech that were once again stirring up the world of philosophy, literature, and the natural sciences in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the inventions also helped break new ground. Since the speaking machine and phonograph (as well as other auditory recording devices such as microphones and echographs) enabled its users to hear sounds beyond the limits of what humans can normally perceive or articulate themselves, they made people more aware of questions about the voice of the other, more precisely, the speech and language abilities of animals and machines. Evidence of such developments may certainly be found in the case of talking automatons and speaking animals that came to the fore in the romantic literature around 1800 and the fin de siècle literature one hundred years later. But further indications can be found in the philosophical and scientific knowledge and practices of the time, which often involved producing and displaying animal and mechanical voices. While animal phonography captured the interest of scientists and scholars around 1900 with its new technological means of recording, presenting, and interpreting animal voices, a long tradition of examining creaturely voices precedes the inception of the new discipline. Technology developed around 1800 was already attempting to artificially reproduce voices in nature to provide insights into their (species-specific) functions – whether in the context of experimental phonetics and speaking machine technology or within the debates around speech evolution and related practices of the comparative anatomy and physiology of phonation.

The dissertation project investigates the epistemic and aesthetic approaches, the anthropological points of contention, and not least the political visions, which all converge upon the exploration of non-human vocalization. To what extent were the boundaries that distinguished between the human, the animal, and the mechanical around 1800 and 1900 negotiated through the scientific and cultural work on and with non-human voices? What role do the limits of sensorial-epistemic perception play in defining the cultural boundaries of the voice? What recurring gestures, interpretive patterns, and problems tend to mark the cultural history and history of knowledge of non-human vocalization? And finally, to what extent does the latter permit the emergence of a history of the voice, which takes into account the close ties between human and non-human voices?

Head researcher(s): Denise Reimann


27 Nov 2015 – 28 Nov 2015

Zirpen, Bellen und Trompeten. Tierlaute in der Medien-, Literatur- und Wissensgeschichte

Universität Luzern, Frohburgstr. 3, 6002 Luzern (Schweiz) Hörsaal 8

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