The ephemeral is that which slips away the moment it is discerned. It has no sooner appeared than it disappears. Even metaphors of the ephemeral are deceptive in spite of their visual nature. Something seen can be examined and perceived repeatedly, possibly from a different perspective, for that which has been seen is an “object” beyond visual perception. Acoustic perception, however, is the most ephemeral, since the perceived “object” fades away in the moment of its sounding. The acoustically-perceived object – in opposition to visually- and tactilely-, as well as gustatorily- and olfactorily-, perceived objects – is the most precarious, because the auditory perceiver is dependent on the object being carried to the ear in the form of acoustic waves. No matter how hard one tries to draw closer to the acoustic object, it does not become more clearly discernible, because it is bound to time and space. What can be re-experienced by the other senses is lost forever, and irretrievably, depending on reverberation, in the acoustic realm. What has been heard cannot be heard again; sound cannot be perceived repeatedly. When we speak of acoustic microephemerality, we are referring to an acoustic event that cannot be repeated identically, because it is the farthest from an “object.”
In auditory perception, the musical differentiation of tonal quality, pitch, articulation, and dynamics is a matter of mere centiseconds, which constitute the length of the musical event for the listener. Of course, in his recollection, the listener pieces together the individual elements into sounds, intervals, phrases, bits and pieces. Nevertheless, the event’s distinct, acoustically non-repeatable, character is concentrated on this musical moment. Semiotics would call this a seme, the smallest unit of meaning. Language itself, in its acoustic realization, relies on even smaller units of time in order to distinguish semes from one another: the discernment between aspirated and non-aspirated plosives (such as [b] vs [p], [d] vs [t]) occurs in the timespan of milliseconds. Although at first glance it might seem astonishing that the linguistic-acoustic event is even briefer than the musical one, thus demanding, purely in terms of processing, an even more precisely tuned hearing performance, it is ultimately irrelevant. People with a so-called Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) not only encounter difficulties in discerning the direction of an acoustic source or differentiating individual sounds or language from noise (Anderson and Kraus 2010), but also in converting acoustic-linguistic signals into information. All of these APD impairments are far less present in music than in language, not only because of the musical “timeframe” being significantly larger, but also because music – in its tonality – does not necessarily require a translation of information.
The specifically linguistic nature of acoustic ephemerality is surprising. There is thus all the more reason to conduct an examination, by way of example, of how literature which fosters an aesthetic relation to language treats acoustic microephemerality. Literature holds a heuristic advantage by simultaneously doing something and commenting on it, or, respectively, simultaneously doing what it is describing. Roman Jakobson, as we will see, calls this self-referentiality and the doubling of the literary subject matter the poetic function. As perception is pivotal in the context of acoustic ephemerality, and thusly the function of the receiver, our method will make recourse to Jakobson’s literary model of communication. If literature is analyzed as the subject matter of acoustic microephemerality, in which the gradual disappearance of orally-realized literature is averted by the medium of writing and thus relativized, then the second aspect of acoustic macroephemerality moves into the foreground and, as such, the question of how an acoustic “object” can even be retained in a form that allows its reproduction.
The difficulty inherent to acoustic retention becomes apparent in the limited shelf life of records and cassettes, of CDs and MP3-Files. Retention of the acoustic is also ephemeral from the perspective of a “longue durée.” Here, I choose to speak of macroephemerality. The writing of literature is merely an indirect acoustic medium, because – in an analogy to music – it serves as written score. In order to regain its phonetic attributes, writing cannot rely solely on its visual reproducibility in the form of type; it is dependent on the rendition of sounds during reading. In writing, in order to reveal its communicative function, its process of origin is explicitly brought into relation to its process of reception. Thus, the relation between the literary process of origin and that of reception is once more thematized within both the material as well as conceptual self-reflection components of literature. Two examples from Swiss literature – Robert Walser’s Mikrogramm 364 (Microscript 364), written in 1925, and Peter Weber’s novel Silber und Salbader (Silver and Windbags), written in 1999 – perfectly illustrate this relation. While Robert Walser made use of the most minute form of writing, kurrent, to privatise the process of reading – and thus the acoustic realization of the written score – and employed visual deprivation to re-depict literary acoustic microephemerality, the narrator in Peter Weber’s novel attempts to retain the macroephemeral acoustic trail left behind in narration as enduringly as possible by fixing it within historical and geological fantasies.