Sonic Time Machines: Explicit Sound, Sirenic Voices, and Implicit Sonicity - Wolfgang Ernst. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016
By Melle Kromhout
In Gleichursprunglichkeit and Chronopoetik, published simultaneously in 2012, German media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst began the development of a new, explicitly ahistorical approach to the analysis of technical media based on the argument that the micro- and macro-temporality of media technological processes fundamentally escape and subvert a human sense of time and thus require radically different, post-human modes of inquiry. Given the inherently temporal nature of sound, both as physical waveforms unfolding in time and as a phenomenological object in relation to the human sensorium, Ernst already reserved a privileged position for sound media in these two hefty volumes (an abridged version of which was recently published by Rowman and Littlefield, translated by Anthony Enns). This focus on sound media as a way to assess the disjunction and interrelation between the temporality of media and human temporality is further developed in Im Medium erklingt die Zeit, published in 2015, and most recently in Sonic Time Machines. Explicit Sound, Sirenic Voices, and Implicit Sonicity, published in 2016 in the “Recursion”-series of Amsterdam University Press, edited by Jussi Parikka, Anna Tuschling, and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young: household names in what in the Anglo-Saxon world is often called “German Media Theory.”
The “inquiries into sonicity” of Sonic Time Machines, Ernst states in his opening sentence, “should not be confused with Sound Studies” (p. 21). Whether this is true remains to be seen. The statement somewhat oversimplifies the field of sound studies, which is more a diverse set of loosely affiliated approaches to sound than a well defined discipline in the traditional sense of the word, but it clearly indicates Ernst’s attempt to offer a radically different perspective on the relation between sound, media, and temporality. This attempt is largely informed by the legacy of Friedrich Kittler’s media theory and, if anything, such a Kittlerian take on sound media is long overdue. Although Kittler wrote a book called Optical Media and is renowned as a prophet of the age of digital media, sound and music run through his entire oeuvre. This interest eventually culminated in the unfinished multi-volume magnum opus Musik und Mathematik, but by then Kittler’s theoretical focus had radically shifted, leaving the topic of sound media as a separate line of enquiry somewhat underrepresented in (the reception of) his work. Ernst’s work on sound, music, and media corrects this oversight.
The three parts of Sonic Time Machines investigate various ways in which both explicit sound and what Ernst calls implicit sonicity offer a way to assess the epistemology of technical media and their relation (or, often, non-relation) to human sense-making. The central concept of the book, sonicity, is an epistemological extension of the “sonic” that deals with, as Ernst’s defines the concept toward the end of the book: “sound production that is subliminal to human perception” (p. 141). For example, Ernst writes, “a sonic articulation, once transduced by an electronic device into variations of electric voltage has an intermediary spatio-temporal in between existence. Within an electronic system, sound exists implicitly” (p. 25).Outlined in the first part of the book and further developed throughout, this concept is its strongest and most productive point, as it enables the creation of new conceptual relations between the explicit sound registered and processed by human ears and brains and the vast array of implicit sound-like wave phenomena (from sub- to ultra-sonic) that travel through the channels of technical media systems.
Exactly this focus on the continuum from explicit sound to implicit sonicity is the reason why Ernst is so adamant about the fact that his approach is, as he repeats toward the end of the book, “not to be confused with so-called Sound Studies” (141). Ernst is not interested in traditional hermeneutic interpretations, anthropological contextualization, or historical narratives. Instead, focusing on sound that is neither necessarily sonic nor necessarily human, he mines the close affinity between sound, music, media, electricity, and electronics in order to get away from historiographical interpretations that represent time as more or less linear. As such, Ernst’s media archaeological ears apply hi-tech excavations to uncover simultaneity, superimposition, and non-linearity, for instance, as the way “the phonographic voice […] short cuts the ‘historical’ distance between presence and past” (p. 85), or the cross-temporal resonance between the Homeric Sirens and the technical siren, in which “an ahistorical short-circuiting of distant times takes place when the technical siren as a sound generator confronts its mythological precursor” (p. 56).
Overall, the idiosyncratic writing style based on staccato sentences, little signposting, and many short, often rhetorical statements, does not make the book an easy read. True to Ernst’s rejection of historicity and linearity, rather than presenting a straightforward, linear argument, the book is a dense patchwork of conceptual analysis, case-studies, and heavy theory with the main themes appearing recursively, slowly gaining substance as the book progresses. However, the great wealth of sources, references, influences, and disciplines Ernst brings to the table is impressive and often makes for an engaging and inspiring read. Nonetheless, with the main thread of the argument only revealing itself over larger stretches, it is sometimes difficult to keep track of where Ernst is going. This occasionally leaves the reader wishing the book was a little less dense with information and offering more in the way of a lucid argument. The fact that there are quite a number of editorial inaccuracies (especially in the latter half) gives the impression that the book might have benefitted – both stylistically and argumentatively – from a more thorough editing process. However, this critique does not distract from the fact that Sonic Time Machines offers many highly original and provoking insights that will undoubtedly contribute greatly to contemporary media archaeology and, regardless of Ernst’s own reservations, toward the field of sound studies.
Ernst, Wolfgang (2012). Chronopoetik. Zeitwesen und Zeitgaben Technischer Medien. Berlin: Kadmos.
Ernst, Wolfgang (2012). Gleichursprünglichkeit. Zeitwesen und Zeitgegebenheit von Medien. Berlin: Kadmos.
Ernst, Wolfgang (2015). Im Medium Erklingt die Zeit. Berlin: Kadmos.
Ernst, Wolfgang (2016). Chronopoetics. The Temporal Being and Operativity of Technological Media (transl. Anthony Enns). London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Kittler, Friedrich (2006). Musik und Mathematik, vol. 1, part 1. München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag.
Kittler, Friedrich (2010). Optical Media: Berlin Lectures 1999 (transl. Anthony Enns). Cambridge: Polity Press.