Earshot: Perspectives on Sound - Bruce Johnson. Milton: Routledge, 2023


By Kevin Toksöz Fairbairn


Bruce Johnson’s latest contribution to the discourse on sound studies and auditory culture presents a wide-ranging overview of the oral and aural influence on culture and history in the Anglophone world. With a particular focus on the feedback loops between anthropogenic sound and the trajectories of cultural history, Johnson offers a compelling case that in several periods of recent history sound has played an important – if not primary – role in the epistemological underpinnings of Anglophone culture. 


Although the book begins with a brief discussion of the Lascaux chambers and the pioneering archaeoacoustic interventions of Iégor Reznikoff, it departs very quickly from both that geographical region as well as that historical period to focus in earnest on Anglophone culture. This limited focus derives from Johnson’s own expertise, derived from decades spent studying literature, culture, and sound in primarily Anglophone contexts, and the author is open and explicit about the fact that the book is limited by this circumscription. However, given its openly-stated goal to “disclose a body of research, in ways that make it available to general readers who might be curious to consider the role that sound has played in the shaping of history” (p. 1), this proves no great hindrance to Johnson’s ability to demonstrate that oral and aural epistemologies can influence human society and its unfolding cultural developments. Nevertheless, this reader would have greatly appreciated a wider contextualization of many of the themes in this book, particularly given several salient references to non-Anglophone cultures that hint at the importance of such a wider view without delivering on that promise (e.g. references to archaeoacoustic studies on Mayan culture [p. vii], acoustemology in Inuit culture [p. 5], and drumming as sonic telegraphy in Africa, Papua New Guinea, and Caribbean Maroon culture [p. 5, p. 124]). 


Johnson gives a comprehensive overview of the ways in which sensory and corporeal experience affect our ways of knowing and acting in our environment, summarizing the discourse around the competing paradigms of visual and aural. Throughout the book, he maintains a firm focus on “how the difference between hearing and seeing actually feels, and what are the cultural and social implications” (p. 4). His introduction to acoustemology draws interesting connections between various forms of acousmatic sound, from the disorienting acoustics of medieval cathedrals to the immersive overpowering sensory experiences of war to the contemporary ubiquity of Low Frequency Noise. These various examples, and particularly the latter, allow Johnson to forcefully assert the very real implications that sound has for the body, for health, and for social wellbeing, which in turn generate our myriad perceptual, non-, or pre-cognitive emotional responses to sound. In focusing on the ways in which humans’ physical and perceptual responses to sound affects their development and interaction, he discusses how “the shift from an era of magic and religious awe to one of modern technologized secularism can be charted through the shortening reverberation times of historically specific architectural forms” (p. 25). This argument undergirds the ensuing chapters, as he focuses in particular on the fact that “[t]he evolution of architectural acoustics has more subtle implications. It doesn’t just suggest a movement from an atmosphere of spirituality to this material world. It affects what can be said or sung” (p. 29). 


In the following chapters, Johnson focuses more closely on “the distinctive phenomenology of hearing and the particular power of sound in social groups and formations: it can help form and project individual and collective identity and its territorial spaces” (p. 34). In particular, he focuses on vernacular and popular songs that help form national – and at times revolutionary – identities as well as international class solidarity. Extrapolating from the immersive, corporeal, and emotional affects of sound, Johnson examines situations where collectivity is engendered and heightened by song. In these cases, there is a sense that aural immersion triggers a more complex sensory engagement, fostering connection between bodies. From very specific situations in which these heightened emotional connections are aroused in real time and localized space, Johnson moves on to larger scales of affective and discursive sonic influences, such as “convict songs” (p. 40) in the early colonization of Australia. In these instances, popular songs nourished collectivity among the recently settled, criminalized population, using the emotional and discursive power of vocal music to advance class consciousness and political agendas. He notes especially the way in which these songs provoked strong reactions from the penal authorities, whose record of punishments indicate that these songs were deemed especially unwelcome and subversive. Unwittingly shaped by the powerful class interests who sought to silence them, these convicts and their assertions of sonic agency created their own “oral counter-histories […] show[ing] a different and much more politicized narrative of struggle against oppression, nationalist or even secessionist movements” (p. 43). 


Having considered how sound can reveal aural countercurrents in cultural history, Johnson builds on the simultaneously immersive and discursive power of sound to examine earlier periods of Anglophone history, before the scientific revolution and the radical cultural shifts sparked by the printing press. Although he acknowledges that “the binaries orality/literacy and literacy/illiteracy are not straightforward” (p. 53), he argues that they nonetheless represent “not only complementary but also sometimes competing ways of knowing” (p. 54). The gradual cultural shift from an intensely oral epistemology to an overwhelmingly visual one occupies much of this book’s middle chapters. Johnson reserves special attention for the way that sound and orality affected theater. He details extensively how a highly oral culture cultivates types of cultural intelligence far removed from modern culture, including: “memory skills […] not confined to the literate and educated” (p. 57); a “whole set of memorizing strategies, mnemonics and ways of organizing information [that] have fallen into disuse” (p. 57); “hearing [that] was likely to be in general more alert, acute and discriminating among the physically healthy than is now the case in urban society” (p. 60); and – perhaps most interestingly – a highly developed “delight in puns, through which different orders of experience converge sonically” (p. 55). For Johnson, the pun in particular underscores a particular gulf between Elizabethan and modern culture. Whereas today, the pun might be “regarded as too trivial to carry any significant burden as a bearer of knowledge, in the Elizabethan era, the pun was a sonic exploration of unexpected resemblances between incongruities” (p. 55) and a “sonic phenomenon which violates the stable protocols of a scientific language” (p. 56). Because of its ability to destabilize the hearer’s aural epistemological relationship to their environment, Johnson argues, the pun was an especially powerful tool in Elizabethan theater. 


In addressing Elizabethan theater, Johnson returns to prior discussions of the role architectural acoustics play in culture, noting for example that, while “[t]he cathedral favoured the monophonic end of the spectrum of musical complexity and the single voice of the preacher over the hubbub of the crowd […] [t]he playhouse was a place of vocalized enquiry and sonic conflict” (p. 75). He argues forcefully that the cultural shifts in this period are embodied in the sonic experience of the theater: “The difference between the acoustics of the cathedral and the playhouse provides both vehicle and metaphor for the transitional nature of the age” (p. 76). In order to support these assertions, Johnson embarks on an extensive analysis of sound in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a digression that – for this reader at least – did little to further the book’s broader arguments about sound’s importance as a fulcrum of cultural adaptation and evolution. His arguments also seem to rest on an assumption that Elizabethan theatergoers were an “audience preoccupied with the socio-political questions associated with a fundamental ‘in-between-ness’ in the transition between knowledge systems” (p. 83), comprised of “crowds seeking entertainment [who] wanted it to resonate […] with their own aspirations and anxieties, the issues of the day and of the epoch” (p. 85). While Hamlet is undoubtedly a sonically rich play “about transition, instability, ambiguity and ambivalence” (p. 89), I was left unconvinced that its “sonic jumble is not merely arresting theatre, but a parallel to the jostling of multiple orders of reality and ways of knowing” (p. 87). 


The following chapters return to earlier preoccupations with the cultural fault lines that developed as orality and literacy competed for cultural and epistemological dominance. Having previously noted how “as literacy percolated down through the social scale, it became a new line of social differentiation and began to politicize the relationship between silence and volubility” (p. 69), Johnson now addresses a “growing imbalance in the relationship between sight and sound and how that change functioned to ‘silence’ the underclasses produced by capitalism, emergent industrialization and growing urbanization” (p. 98). He embarks upon a particularly engaging and provocative analysis of popular criminals in 19th-century Anglophone culture, echoing his earlier discussions of convict songs and the web of sonicity that undergirded growing movements of class consciousness and political radicalism. Detailing how the public spectacles of execution backfired on authorities, “unexpectedly provid[ing] a forum that literally gave voice to the underclasses that potentially threatened th[eir] power,” he shows how “[c]losing down the public rituals was a recognition by the authorities of the alarming power of public tumult” (p. 111). These stories, rooted in oral popular culture, demonstrate forcefully how “we can measure the growing power of the state by the violence of the conflict between sound and silence” (p. 111). These astute observations connect to a wider discussion of the history of noise regulation and its inextricable relation to class conflict. 


As Johnson’s ambitious historical account approaches the 20th century, he spends considerable time outlining what he calls the Aural Renaissance, addressing technological developments in sound transmission and recording that, for a brief period of decades, seemed to tilt the balance of power from the visual back to the aural. “The sound recording conferred a new status on sonic information, which, since the advent of print, had been demeaned through such terms as ‘rumour’, ‘gossip’ and ‘hearsay’ […] The sound recording not only enabled sound to be circulated as widely as print, but to become as permanent a record, with authority as evidence in the court of law” (p. 127). Johnson convincingly documents sound’s new epistemological gravity and the power that it exerted over culture and history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 


In the 20th century, though, Johnson’s focus shifts slightly, returning to the opening pages of the book and its attention to sound’s viscerally corporeal power. The book’s stated focus is anthropogenic sound, and while previous chapters addressed popular music and theater, cathedrals and public streets, Johnson’s focus in the 20th century turns to the drastic escalation in sonic power and sonic violence enacted by new technologies, ranging from the sounds of industry, to the onslaught of war, to the use of sonic weapons in crowd control, to the ubiquity of Low Frequency Noise in contemporary (primarily urban) life, to “piped music […] deliberately deployed to deter ‘undesirables’ from occupying various public space” (p. 168). While the early decades of the Aural Renaissancewere characterized by its emancipatory potential (Johnson notes particularly its role in the emancipation of women and the “transformation of gender politics” [p. 155]), the 20th century ushered in instead an alarmingly wide range of sonic violence. Johnson’s final pages take a close look at how “[t]he struggle for the right to make noise, or to suppress it by the imposition of silence, is one of the ways we can chart the emergence of modernity, in all forms of social analysis: cultural studies, cultural history, demographics, welfare, class, race and gender studies, studies of aesthetics and the arts” (p. 178). The book closes with a powerful reflection on this “radical change in the sonic order and its politics” and voices a timely call for “a reassessment of assumptions about human rights that have long been taken for granted” (p. 192).


Johnson’s work provides an ambitious overview of sound’s entanglement in a wide range of Anglophone history. Its scope distinguishes it from other literature in the field, providing a useful document charting the intergenerational intersections of many relevant issues surrounding sound’s role in health, violence, industry, culture, and the environment. General readers will find it provocative and informative, while educators will find that many of these chapters can serve alone or together as insightful and erudite introductions to major themes in the study of auditory culture and sound studies.