Kolonialgeschichte hören: Das Echo gewaltsamer Wissensproduktion in historischen Tondokumenten aus dem südlichen AfrikaAnette Hoffmann. Vienna: Mandelbaum Verlag, 2020


by Marcel Cobussen


In 1984 the Viennese physician and cultural anthropologist Dietrich Schüller released a short movie entitled Buschmann spricht in den Phonographen (Bushman Speaking Into the Phonograph). The movie is based on a recording made in 1908 by the Austrian ethnologist and doctor Rudolf Pöch (1870 - 1921), who did extensive field research in southern Africa between 1907 and 1909, carrying with him, besides a camera, a phonograph to make audio recordings of the indigenous people.


Pöch and (to a lesser extent) Schüller act as two of the main characters in Anette Hoffmann’s book Kolonialgeschichte hören, a fascinating study on the potential (and all too often neglected role) of sound studies and sonic archives for historical and ethnographic research. In less than 175 pages, Hoffmann, a cultural scientist and curator from South Africa, has managed to write a page-turner that reads like a detective novel and simultaneously holds up a mirror to anthropologists from the past like Pöch, as well as to contemporary historians and ethnographers. While the historical anthropologist can, at least sometimes, be accused of blatant racism, their contemporary counterparts are almost always ignoring the wealth of sonic archives that can be used to shed a new light on colonial histories and knowledge production. In that sense, the book almost reads like a pamphlet, a plea against so much unnecessary ignorance as only very few scholars seem to be interested to thoroughly investigate colonial histories from the perspective of “the other” (the indigenous people) and to study them through sound and sonic archives, even though these can be found all over Europe.[1] 


Although Hoffmann had broader research in mind, she decided to concentrate on Pöch’s travels and fieldwork in southern Africa, not only because this was interesting in itself or already quite an endeavor to access his heritage, being scattered over many archives in Austria, but also because Pöch’s working methods and ways of presenting his materials to the Western world are perhaps a paradigmatic example of ethnography in the beginning of the 20th century. 


What did Hoffmann find while digging into Pöch’s archives, his writings, his photographs, and especially his audio recordings? One important conclusion she draws from her research is that, even though Pöch – and later Schüller – seemed to have had the intention to give a voice to the original inhabitants of southern Africa, their voices remain inaudible, distorted, and betrayed in the actual recordings. In Schüller’s movie, for example, the narrative of the speaker withdraws: the movie has no subtitles and no one seemed to care to translate the speaker’s Naro. Instead, Hoffmann argues, the man is turned into a research object, presented as a real primitive, and primarily there to be looked at. Pöch, too, was mainly interested in the acoustics and “musicality” of the interviewees’ speech and not so much in what they had to say, something which Hoffmann qualifies as “a selective numbness in the colonial knowledge production” (p. 16). However, Pöch did transcribe some of the audio recordings he made. With the help of a native Naro speaker, Hoffmann found out however that these transcriptions are not very reliable: across various examples, it is obvious that Pöch didn’t speak nor understand Naro very well (p. 50); that he simply omitted all displeasing information that he was able to understand (p. 99); and that he couldn’t distinguish which stories that were told to him were fiction and which ones were non-fiction (p. 101). 


Hoffmann makes the case to treat these recordings differently than what people like Pöch had in mind when they brought them back to Europe: epistemic practices and imperial power constellations have determined far too long how certain events in colonial history are presented to us and how they are interpreted today. As long as contemporary researchers only rely on evidence coming from colonialists, the Western imperialist episteme continues to dominate the historical and ethnographic discourses, Hoffmann writes (p. 151). Captured in archives, these indigenous people are talked about but not allowed to speak themselves; the interviewer-scientist was cast as being the main character. Important and critical questions should therefore be asked: Who was allowed or forced to speak?[2] What was recorded? What was the position of the recordist and what were their aims? And how was the information presented?


Kolonialgeschichte hören makes very clear what a thorough and aural investigation of sonic archives can contribute to the existing discourse on Western colonial history. To stay in line with the questions formulated above: for all historiography, it is important to know who speaks and in what kind of setting or situation. But the practice of archiving and the politics of each specific archive also determine what is kept and what isn’t.[3] In the cases described by Hoffmann, these archival practices and politics are made visible and audible by revealing the (at times) rather fundamental differences between the acoustic collection and the written documentation. What cannot be read in the written documents, registers, and protocols, can (sometimes) be heard in the recordings, thereby providing an alternative access to the position of the subaltern within colonial power structures. Voice inflections, style, and prosodic performance show what transcriptions can only communicate in a far more rudimentary form (p. 113), sometimes leading to the conclusion that the information from the written sources is almost diametrically opposed to what can be heard on the audio recordings.[4] Therefore, Hoffmann advocates a close listening: besides paying attention to the voices, besides becoming aware whether phrases are uttered while being afraid, ironic, uncertain or angry, researchers should lend an ear to the environmental sounds, to coughs and other paralinguistic elements, to the timbre and melody of the speech, to rumbling of the phonograph, etc. to become better informed (p. 28). In short, by using all senses – and in particular the ear – as well as other archival materials, new information becomes available (p. 134).[5] 


Of course, Hoffmann is very well aware that recordings cannot and should not be regarded as unfiltered voices from the past. However, she writes, they are audible echoes of our history, and a non-neglectable part of colonial archives. Because of their ability to expose how historical and ethnographic discourses were constructed and manipulated during their emergence, and because of their ability to speak to us differently, that is, multiphonically, it is a real pity that, so far, these precious artefacts have not been treated as potential materials to study Western colonial history (pp. 156-158).


Unlike for example Goodreads, the reviews in the Journal of Sonic Studies are not accompanied by stars, instantly showing the reviewer’s general opinion. However, if this would be allowed, I would not hesitate but rate this book between 4.5 and 5.0 (on a scale from 0 – not recommended – to 5 – highly recommended).