Thinking with Sound. A New Program in the Sciences and Humanities around 1900 - Viktoria Tkaczyk. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2023


By Joeri Bruyninckx 


The rise in academic concern for sound and listening across the sciences, arts, and humanities – not least in sound studies – has frequently led commentators to consider whether one can speak at all of a “sonic”, or perhaps “acoustic”, turn. Regardless of how such a turn would be conceived, Thinking with Sound shows that it would certainly not be the first, nor very unusual, in its wide interdisciplinary scope. Its author, Viktoria Tkaczyk, is professor of Media and Knowledge at Humboldt University in Berlin (and former leader of a research group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science of which I was – full disclosure – part). Tkaczyk masterfully guides the reader through a moment at the turn of the twentieth century when the sciences and humanities became deeply preoccupied with processes of auditory perception and cognition. Philosophers, psychologists, physicists, acousticians, musicologists, literary, and theater scholars turned to incorporate their reflections on the nature of listening in their own particular epistemological approaches. Why is it, she asks, that such a diverse set of disciplines began to think with and through sound at this particular moment in time? 

The immediate instigation, she argues, was a discovery of the auditory cortex by neuroanatomist Theodor Meynert in 1866, which seemed for the first time to locate the ability to process sound and speech in the human brain. But the book is not framed as a history of auditory neuroscience proper. Rather, it traces how this finding itself began to resonate outwardly, from neuroscience through neighboring disciplines, less proximate fields, and ultimately domains outside the university walls. By 1900, Tkaczyk shows, this discovery had begun to animate new and exciting questions about auditory cognition in various (and often unanticipated) directions. The discovery shed light on the (unconscious) processing of auditory information and hitherto unexplained phenomena, such as the role of internal monologues and inner speech that may resonate so vividly in memory, how language may be rooted in auditory images, or why sounds that are heard or read may involuntarily provoke muscle movements in the mouth. Such questions touched on problems that were at once fundamental and practical: could auditory perception be relied on as a mode of scientific observation; how plastic was the brain, and how malleable were speech and language patterns; what implications did this have for the treatment of issues such as aphasia, neurosis, or speech impairment? 

This focus places the book in conversation with a string of recent works at the intersection of sound studies and histories of science, technology, and medicine that have sought to historicize how sound, music, and listening shaped the practical and epistemological agendas of varied scientific disciplines. Such work has shown, for instance, how the scientific study of sound and sensation became entwined with new and old media, artisanal knowledge, aesthetic traditions, technical innovations, and political ambitions. Focusing on the sonically turbulent period around 1900, Thinking with Sound convincingly weaves these themes into a histoire totale. But it also moves beyond these works by showing, in a panoramic and wide-ranging sweep, how these questions stimulated work in so many fields at once. It shows how a wonderful cast of scientists and scholars – many of whom defined turn-of-the-century intellectual life – such as Jean Martin Charcot, Sigmund Freud, Ferdinand de Saussure, Henri Bergson, Ernst Mach, Sigmund Exner, and Carl Stumpf, began thinking with sound. The extent of this thinking has often not been acknowledged by existing scholarship. To achieve this, the book combines an erudite approach to intellectual history with careful attention to material research practice. On the one hand, the book places these individuals in a thick and richly layered genealogy of ideas while, on the other hand, revealing their thinking in practice through a close-reading of their correspondence, work notes, and even instruments. Citing inspiration in science and technology studies concepts, such as “boundary object” and network, this approach traces clusters and exchanges of people, ideas, and research materials across cities like Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, and Vienna. This in turn aims to show how theories and so-called “knowledge techniques” formed over a period of nearly seventy years and travelled across (sometimes) disparate academic and practical fields. 

That these clusters and fields became so explicitly drawn to sonic phenomena at this particular point is explained, according to Tkaczyk, by at least three other factors. The first is a disregard for emerging disciplinary boundaries. Despite a growing disciplinary specialization and categorization in the academic landscape at the time, she shows that – for those included in the book – science, medicine, and humanities often proved to be heterogeneous, fuzzy, and highly mutable categories. This allowed de Saussure, for instance, to incorporate clinical notions of auditory image in his theory of language or physicist Ernst Mach to draw on psychophysics to legitimate his observational method. A second factor involved the great variety in musical instruments, acoustic technologies, and visual inscription devices that were available around 1900 and with which scholars eagerly experimented in their work. The phonograph, in particular, helped to effect epistemic shifts in linguistics, phonetics, speech therapy, and comparative musicology – whether as a model to think with (or against) or as a practical instrument to store and study sound. The third factor lies in the peculiar embrace of various non-academic, aesthetic, industrial, and political actors of these ideas and their openness to experiment with how these theories could be applied, for instance, in language education or the use of mass media. Such liaisons resulted, among other things, in new institutions, such as Carl Stumpf’s humanities laboratory or Wilhelm Doegen’s sound archive. As the book suggests, this also facilitated the persistence of such practices, in therapists’ couches and radio studios alike. 

These factors do not characterize or explain all of the case studies in Thinking with Sound as a whole. In that sense, the singular “program” that the book’s subtitle promises, is somewhat misleading. More than a unified program, Tkaczyk traces a Wittgensteinian family of individual programs across numerous disciplines, each with their own histories and epistemic and practical allegiances. This showcases the book’s strength: tracing connections, parallels, and differences between individual and disciplinary programs in formation, the book makes a compelling argument that turn-of-the-century intellectuals shared an interest in auditory cognition, which they pursued and applied in different ways. Bringing such complexly-shaded tones together is itself a major compositional accomplishment, even if the program that these authors appeared to subscribe to remains somewhat implicit throughout the book.

Although Thinking with Sound in first instance frames its contributions as primarily oriented toward histories of science and technology, the book has much to recommend it to the scholar of sound studies who has a broad interest in the field. Many of the authors discussed in it are still read and continue to inspire sound studies scholarship, and the book suggests ways to read their theories anew. Moreover, the research fields, sound technologies, and practical knowledge that emerged around auditory cognition paved the way for contemporary scholarship in audio software or speech recognition that some sound scholars work with or study. More importantly, the book also offers a historical imaginary for a boldly and self-aware inter-disciplinary field of sound studies. To “think with sound”, this book suggests, one can be both firmly embedded in the humanities and social sciences while critically engaging with developments in the sciences and technological engineering. It offers a model for a sound studies that confidently embraces such developments by building counter-theories, by tinkering with technologies, and by fusing theoretical and practical knowledge. A historical call, in other words, to rethink how one may think with sound.