Borderline encounters with voice. A study of the pre-history of bioacoustics at the cutting edge of science, media technology and literature around 1800 and 1900

Division and unification are two contrary effects of the same agent: the voice. Human language is deeply connected to it. The voice is often taken to be a defining feature of an anthropological difference that sets human beings apart from other life forms. And yet, the ability to have a voice is by no means exclusive to humans. Nonhuman animals and some machines are also capable of vocalization. At the cutting edge of the corporeal and the intelligible, of natural sounds and linguistic cultures, the voice is situated in a contested terrain. In the present dissertation this terrain is explored from a historical-systematical perspective. It takes as its point of departure the so-called Sattelzeiten around 1800 and 1900 (as well as their enduring impact on the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries). These were times in which the perception of the voice shifted significantly.

Around 1800, new techniques and methods to synthesize voice and language started to develop. By demonstrating the possibility of isolating the voice from the human body, these methods challenged the belief in voice as a unique feature of human existence. In a second step, they questioned voice as a criterion of an existing anthropological difference. At the time, newly emerging discourses on the origin of language opened up new ways of understanding voice and language as features existing beyond human cultures. At the intersection of physiology, anatomy, technology, philosophy of language and literature the question of the difference between human, animal, and machine voice formation was raised. The years around 1900 mark another turning point in the perception of the voice. At that time, new media technologies such as microphones and phonographs provided access to the soundscapes of animals in ways not known before. These recordings formed part of the contemporary discourse on the evolutionary interrelatedness of human and nonhuman animals. Animal phonographic experiments investigated whether animals also used a rudimentary form of language and how human language could have developed from animal voices. Both around 1800 and 1900, the debates and experiments were embedded in a culture of hearing that took a notable interest in sounds of nature outside of the sonic spectrum audible or recognizable for humans.

The thesis presents six key moments in the history of the voice, introducing its central agents, practices and narratives. Together these key moments form a prehistory of bioacoustics. Only in the 1950s, did bioacoustics become a proper subdiscipline of biology, fostering the systematic investigation of animal sounds. The beginnings of bioacoustics, as this dissertation shows, date back at least to the 18th century. Back then, animal voice research was not yet an established area of research of natural science, but a hotly contested space of possibilities that was occupied equally by anthropologists and literary figures, machine technicians and physiologists. Their debates were fueled by methodological and epistemic challenges that they faced during the exploration of animal sounds around 1800 and 1900, each time under different circumstances. At the same time, these challenges contributed to the progressive differentiation of bioacoustics as an independent branch of research. By paying attention to these various strands of bioacoustics avant la lettre, the dissertation aims to create awareness for animal sounds in cultural and scientific research. It also promotes the cultural studies of bioacoustics.

ZfL Doctoral Fellowship 2014–2016
Head researcher(s): Denise Reimann


Marianne Sommer, Denise Reimann (ed./eds.)

Zwitschern, Bellen, Röhren
Tierlaute in der Wissens-, Medientechnik- und Musikgeschichte

Neofelis Verlag, Berlin 2018, 242 pages
ISBN 978-3-95808-230-4


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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