Mark Smith, update

Mark M. Smith (again)

I have mentioned Smith’s work before, and directed you to some of his articles.

smith book

Today I want to direct you to a wonderful book he published in 2007 – Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History. Specifically I want to highlight some of his key points in the chapter on hearing.

In his Introduction Smith argues that the senses are “… historical, that they are not universal but, rather, a product of place and, especially, time, so that how people perceived  and understood smell, sound, touch, taste and touch changed historically.” (3)

In the chapter on hearing, he notes that traditionally, historians have ‘privileged’ music “as the art of sound”, but that he attends “…much more to work on the history of sound, construed broadly, and taken to include noise and silence too.” (42)

And then he starts in. Looking to the ancient Greeks, he suggests that “… sound was also essential for establishing political, social and religious space.” (43) One example: that the Greek polis was “sometimes delimited by the range of the crier’s voice.” (ibid)

He points out that sound was important even in relationship to “word-oriented circumstances” – e.g., wills were often spoken at death, and then recorded in writing. (ibid)

In early modern Europe, sound was still “critical to daily life”. (44) Example: the tolling of bells (where he draws on Corbin’s work on bells in France).  Sounds began to blend and blur across cities, which led to those in the upper classes seeking seclusion, seeking silence, seeking escape from the growing city noises. (45)

Moving into the ‘modern’ period, Smith points out that sound was still vital to development. Example:  the role of hearing in the development of medicine, with the specific example of the stethoscope and its role in ‘hearing’ the internal sounds of the patient. (48)

He addresses the role of sound in the USA, in the division of North and South, with the North applauding the “hum of industrialization” and the South viewing their “hierarchical society as reassuringly quiet”. (49)

But in the face of industrialization came the urban anti-noise campaigns of the early 20th century, which “were important not just for redefining the nature of noise but for reconfiguring how people thought about the sounds of modernity.” (53)

Smith also discusses the role of clocks and bells and their role in colonizing, in imposing industrial, European discipline on native populations in Africa and Australia. (56)

He ends the chapter thusly: “In fact, hearing, sound, and aurality generally were critical in many ways to the unfolding of modernity and to downplay its importance only deafens us to the meaning and trajectory of key developments of the post-Enlightenment era.” (58)

The rest of the book focuses on the other senses. But even if you only read his chapter on hearing, you will start to understand Smith’s approach to studying sound in history.

And here is a review of the book.

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