Making sense of social history.
Eric Hobsbawm was in ebullient mood in 1970. "It is a good moment to be a social historian," he concluded his influential essay, "From Social History to the History of Society." For reasons he'd understand but because of developments in the writing of the history of the senses that he probably didn't anticipate, Hobsbawm might well sound a similar note of optimism were he to write the essay today. (2)
I'd like to suggest why Hobsbawm's understanding of social history seems to have been important to relatively recent work on the history of the senses--most of which is on the history of aurality--even if that influence is not always acknowledged explicitly by some of the authors concerned. Part of the difficulty in determining the influence of social history, especially as opposed to cultural history, is that for many historians generally, including several of those whose work is examined here, there has been a merging of the terms of "cultural" and "social" history so that the two have become virtually synonymous. While there are some methodological differences in the writing of cultural and social history, I see the two as, in fact, having fused, not least because what is commonly identified as cultural history is pretty much within the definition of social history offered by Hobsbawm. I do not mean to suggest that all recent work on the history of the senses has been shaped exclusively by social history methodology and concerns, nor do I wish to suggest that these works are of one piece. Plainly, some of the techniques of cultural history--especially the emphasis on linguistic analysis--have been important to writing on the history of the senses. Moreover, some intellectual historians and scholars of the history of medicine have offered penetrating observations on the history of the senses, observations that should prove helpful to future work on sensory history. (3) What I do argue is that the history of the senses--possibly one of the most significant advances in the writing of history in recent years--owes something to the contributions of social history, particularly as Hobsbawm defined it.
For Hobsbawm, social history's principal promise and strength resided in its expressed desire to examine and reveal the interplay among economics, politics, and culture, a desire reflected in a methodology and a style of historical investigation characterized by a resolute eclecticism, a refusal to be hedged by artificial boundaries, and a drive to contextualize what those working on, say, purely economic, intellectual, or political history tended to isolate. With that main strength in mind, Hobsbawm ventured that the most interesting and relevant work by social historians would flourish in the fields of urban history, the historical examination of classes, social groups, mentalities and cultures, and in work on the rise of modernity, industrialization, and nationalism. (4)
A good deal of work on the history of the senses--much of it very recent--has been informed by the main epistemologies, ontologies, and habits of thinking about the past inspired by social history. (5) Social history's impetus toward a braided analysis, one in part influenced by the Annales school, has a way of alerting historians to the role that senses beside vision--the preponderant way historians still tend to "view" the past--have played in human affairs. Certainly, as George H. Roeder, Jr. has shown, U.S. history textbooks, thanks principally to the influence of social history, are "more likely than those written before 1970 to address seriously the historical role of sensory experience." It is nevertheless the case that the vast majority of historians still work from the assumption that the past is best seen rather than, say, heard or smelled. Indeed, even the examples of the inclusion of the senses in textbooks and some monographs offered by Roeder tend to remain incidental to the main narrative, their presence and function to flesh and excite the writing rather than explore explicitly the roles of all the senses in any systematic way. (6)
The social historians' tendency to consider the breadth, depth, and interlaced aspects of the human experience has helped create a frame of mind and nurse an investigative temper and way of understanding that has prompted some of them to go beyond an unwittingly visualist representation of the past. Thanks in part to this habit, some social historians no longer simply assess past experience through the eyes of historical actors but now also consider hearing, smell, touch, and taste in informing matters concerning urban, religious, political, and economic history and specific questions concerning technology, national identity, and modernity. (7)
Of course, it could be argued that recent work that treats explicitly seeing, visuality, and ocularity is itself refreshing because it unpackages and explains the way that visuality become so dominant in the West by detailing the rise of print culture, the advent of scientific and technological instruments that empowered the eye, and Enlightenment quests for visualist perspective and balance. Judging by Martin Jay's pioneering work--Jay is an intellectual historian who is careful to distance himself from the exaggerated claims for the primacy of the eye made by Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong and who understands that the hegemony of vision didn't mean that there was just one way of seeing--the effect of scholarship on seeing tends, nevertheless, to cast sight as the predominant sense in the modern world. While such work has been helpful in explicitly identifying seeing as one sense among many, it has also tended to stress the hegemony of the eye and, by implication (though hardly by design) has privileged sight to the exclusion of other, related, ways of understanding the past. (8)
In light of this visualist emphasis, historians of the (other) senses have had to make their case by showing, for example, the importance of the sense of hearing and its embeddedness in all sorts of historical social relations, economic arrangements, and political contests. In effect, then, they have had to become social historians, even if it is to show the importance of their topic to all walks of life, which is precisely what Hobsbawm meant when he spoke of the interrelatedness of social history's epistemology. Naturally, advances in the writing of cultural history have affected how historians of the senses conceptualize, narrate, and explicate their projects. But, for reasons that Hobsbawm made clear in 1970, I think the methodological, intellectual, and conceptual touchstones influencing many of the recent books on the histories of the senses are as indebted to the conceptual apparatus of social history as to the innovations of cultural history and linguistic analysis. (9)
A brief disclaimer of sorts is in order. My own interest in the history of the senses derives principally from my reading of now classic social history, especially work by Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson. Although my recent work on listening and aurality in nineteenth-century America has been tagged a style of "cultural" history--a label to which I have no visceral reaction or objection--it was, in fact, E. P. Thompson's social history of work-discipline and time and Hobsbawm's call for an integrated historical approach that alerted me to the fact that the past was not simply mediated through the eyes of historical actors but also through their ears. Thompson's groundbreaking work on time consciousness, how time was communicated through sound as well as sight, led me to inquire further into how individuals experienced, understood, made sense of, and invented their environments and themselves in ways beyond mere seeing. (10) My aim in this essay is not to shoehorn others who have worked on the senses into my own intellectual trajectory, but, rather, to assess to what extent the basic components of social history seem to have shaped their topics and analytic and narrative strategies. As with my own work, which attempted to listen to the meaning of economic, political, and military sounds (and silences) in an effort to convey the flavor of a broadly construed "society" and thereby add depth to our understanding of antebellum sectional identities among a variety of classes and constituents, some of the work under consideration here is equally ambitious inasmuch as it often attends to questions of group mentalities, modernity, national identity, and the relationship between technology and society using not just detailed analyses of texts and language but, more often, the kind of concrete empirical data that Hobsbawm thought characteristic of social history.
My larger point is to suggest that thanks in part to the investigative style of social history, histories of the senses promise to rescue us from an Enlightenment conceit with visuality that is not only pernicious in its silent effect on historical writing but also responsible for a sometimes misleading, partial, and distorted "view" of the past.
Hobsbawm's optimism in 1970 about the future of social history was rooted in a judicious and penetrating survey of the field. Then, as now, defining social history was problematic. The phrase and, by extension, the field, meant several things. On one level, social history referred "to works in a variety of human activities difficult to classify except in such terms as 'manners, customs, everyday life'." Another meaning--one with which Hobsbawm had some sympathy--was the bracketing of social with economic history, not an unhealthy relationship in his estimation because "it threw light on the structure and changes in society, and more especially on the relationships between classes and social groups." Social history also "referred to the history of the poor or lower classes," so-called history from the bottom up, a definition that has proven remarkably tenacious even though, from Hobsbawm's perspective, it was deceptive because an exclusive emphasis on the bottom entailed a deliberate and unhelpful isolation of classes and the social production of power relations contingent on the interplay of those classes. In Hobsbawm's view, social history's examination of "class must therefore involve the rest of society of which it is a part. Slave-owners cannot be understood without slaves, and without the non-slave sectors of society." (11)
Hobsbawm was most impressed with the idea that "[s]ocial history can never be another specialization like economic or other hyphenated histories because its subject-matter cannot be isolated." "The intellectual historian may (at his risk) pay no attention to economics, the economic historian to Shakespeare," argued Hobsbawm, "but the social historian who neglects either will not get far." Here, Hobsbawm expressed his admiration to "the great Frenchmen" who "preferred to describe themselves simply as historians and their aim as 'total' or 'global' history, or as men who sought to integrate the contributions of all relevant social sciences in history, rather than exemplify any one of them." While "Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel, Georges Lefebvre are not names which can be pigeonholed as social historians," that, it seems, is precisely what Hobsbawm thought social history should be: expansive, elastic, eclectic, reluctant to privilege one field of inquiry over another, willing to examine mentalities as well as concrete economic processes and structures. (12)
Several scholars have endorsed Hobsbawm's view. A decade after Hobsbawm wrote his essay, Peter N. Stearns also suggested that one of the strengths of social history was to "deepen understanding" of a variety of topics and he argued convincingly that it was "impossible to define social history adequately by discussing it in terms of period or area." Stearns also contended that social history was not simply "a catch-all category for those subjects that other kinds of history left out;" rather the field was driven not just by the desire to recover the history of daily life but also by an effort to connect "findings with more conventional historical topics," a striving to offer a more complete "portrait of a period, beyond the findings of strictly political or intellectual history." "Social history," maintained Steams, "is separated from intellectual history not only by its explicit concern for the popular resonance of ideas but also by its focus on popular belief systems, by its attention to the variety of sources and artifacts that evidence those belief systems, and by its interest in the interaction of mental attitudes and behavior." The concern for outlook or mental attitude, he ventured, "relates social historians not only to cultural but also to psychological history, in intent if not usually in conceptual arsenal," and such borrowing from other fields necessarily led social history to deal with questions of "emotional as well as cultural causation." (13) So, by 1980, the kind of trajectory anticipated by Hobsbawm in 1970 was, according to Stearns at least, in the process of being realized. (14)
Not everyone agrees, of course. Yet even those who make a compelling case for distinguishing between social and cultural history come surprisingly near to echoing Hobsbawm. By the standards of Hobsbawm's definition of social history, the delineation of cultural history offered by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob seems, well, remarkably like social history, the difference being one of emphasis and degree, less of absolute kind. (15) Although they are probably right to suggest that social historians sometimes depart company from cultural ones when it came to treating the mind "as the site where identity is formed and reality linguistically negotiated," their contention that the "historian of culture sought to dig beneath the formal productions of law, literature, science, and art to the codes, clues, hints, signs, gestures, and artifacts through which people communicate their values and truths" and "began to see that culture particularizes meaning because cultural symbols are endlessly reshaped in everyday encounters," would hardly elicit vehement disagreement from social historians such as E. P. Thompson. And while it is true that cultural history tends to favor anthropological and literary treatments of meaning, it is perhaps too much to argue that cultural historians aim to interrogate meaning while social historians focus on questions of causality. (16)
After all, social historians also look for meaning and casual explanations. The two are inextricable to social historians not least because they examine the interplay--neither reductionist nor determinative--of society and mentality. Thus, when Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob argued that cultural history "implied that people's beliefs and ritual activities interacted with their economic and social expectations and did not simply mirror their socioeconomic situations," most social historians could only nod in agreement since those influenced by Hobsbawm never posited a hard argument concerning simple mirroring in the first place. On the whole, social historians are careful to avoid decontextualizing the life of the mind and culture from the larger structures of which they were a part. While Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob note that E. P. Thompson--someone Hobsbawm considered, rightly, a practitioner of social history--"explicitly devoted himself to the study of what he called 'cultural and moral mediations' and 'the ways these material experiences are handled ... in cultural ways'," they also recognize that Thompson was unwilling to go as far as Louis Althusser. Thompson, they point out, "drew back from the more extreme postmodernist positions associated with the cultural turn," worrying that "postmodernism, especially with its emphasis on discourse, stood aloof from real history by wrenching language from social reality." It was Thompson's training as a social historian--his conviction in interplay, not decontextualization--that led him to recoil from extreme postmodernism, a worry that Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob see as legitimate. (17)
In short, his own penchant for the significance of economic matters notwithstanding, Hobsbawm seemed to suggest that the very strength and vitality of social history resided in its quest for thematic inclusiveness, in its ability to engage and learn from other disciplines, in its interdisciplinarity. Such inquisitiveness and versatility, he ventured, would only augment the historical understanding of "the phenomena which are traditionally the subjects of interest to the social historians--for example, collective consciousness, social movements and the social dimension of intellectual and cultural changes." (18)
If we grant the importance of the Annales school to social history and its emphasis on processes that strive to take account of how the many parts--economic, intellectual, political, cultural--combine and interact to produce (and reflect) the social, we can see the influence at work in some recent books on the history of the senses. Leigh Eric Schmidt, for example, in his compelling history of religion, the American Enlightenment, and aurality, makes the intellectual debt to the Annales school quite explicit. Schmidt explains the relevance of, for example, Lucien Febvre's section on "Smells, Tastes, and Sounds" in The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century and notes Robert Mandrou's contribution "in detailing a history of hearing loss in his inventory of the senses in early modern France." Even though Schmidt isn't particularly impressed by some of the evidence marshaled in support of Mandrou's claim about the apparent denigration of aurality in the modern era, he recognizes that such suggestive arguments were important for helping historians question the assumptions concerning the putative victory of the visualist aesthetic during and after the Enlightenment. For this reason, Schmidt is cognizant that writing on the topic of the history of the senses remains indebted to the efforts of these early social historians. (19)
Schmidt also understands that his examination of "new habits of listening and reasoning" necessarily serve "as the condensing vehicles by which to explore the psychology, history, epistemology, politics, anatomy, and technology of modern perception," thus echoing Hobsbawm's call for an examination of multiple parts to help us understand the process of the creation of the modern whole. Schmidt is equally a social historian in his treatment of classes and social groups, especially in his examination of ventriloquism, popular culture, and elite skepticism. He doesn't focus simply on the lower orders, qua the typical and rather misleading definition of social history, nor just on elites, as intellectual historians are sometimes prone to do. Rather, he examines how different classes and social groups contested the meaning of religious sounds, a point made with best effect in his chapter on "Sound Christians" where he explores the competing definitions of religious sound in the context of the supposedly visually oriented Enlightenment. "Evangelicals were noisy--to their opponents appallingly so," maintains Schmidt, and he explains the roots and religious salvation of the noise for lower orders and the way that antirevivalists such as Charles Chauncy used the charge of noise to construct and demarcate otherness, including women and slaves. Although much of Schmidt's study is preoccupied with debates about the role of sound and silence in divine revelation during the American Enlightenment and therefore skewed somewhat toward elite thinkers--"the literati," as Schmidt styles them--he is nevertheless careful to place these debates within the wider context of American history and is rightly sensitive to the aurality of a diverse group of constituents. Thus, even though Schmidt describes his own work and that of the Annales School as "cultural history," it seems perfectly reasonable that Jon Butler, in his review of Schmidt's book, concludes with the observation that Schmidt's study "opens an important question for any American social historian." (20)
Work by Alain Corbin, the French historian of the senses, is even more redolent of the practice of social history, as Hobsbawm defined it. But the connection isn't necessarily straightforward. Corbin is quite critical of Lucien Febvre's notion of "mental equipment," the modalities of perception in his conception of a history of the sensibilities. For Corbin, it is a "rigid concept which revealed the excessive reification for which the founder of Annales is today justifiably reproached." But Schmidt is surely right when he suggests that Corbin's work, while "richer and more nuanced" that the adumbrated framework offered by the early Annales school, seems to be a refinement of an a priori insight, not least because, as Corbin himself has written, "The attention paid to the regime of sensory values and to the hierarchy of the representations and uses of the senses within a culture owes something to the intuitions of Lucien Febvre, imprecise though he may have been." Corbin's mild impatience with these early, tentative, and sweeping histories of the senses--histories that paid little attention to sensorial hierarchies--is based principally on his worries about the quality and nature of their evidence. In particular, Corbin strives for "the adoption of a more comprehensive viewpoint," one that involves the compilation of data on the senses coupled with the need to historicize that same data--which sounds, for example, existed when and how they were produced and heard at certain moments in time--that is reminiscent of social history's quest. In The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination, Corbin examined the changing perceptions of the French, 1750-1880, toward smells. Like early social historians, he framed his questions along class lines and the attendant perceptual authorities which were rooted in concrete illustrations: the creation of social and physical distance between "dangerous" smells/smelling people, the arrangement of public and private spaces, and the trumpeting of class authority reflected in "the bourgeois control of the sense of smell" to score social others, usually the criminal and working poor. Corbin also examined the seeming capitulation to that marking by those same lower orders by considering their use of cologne and disinfectants, exactly the kind of balanced analysis that Hobsbawm called for when he argued that we need to examine the conservative, not just the revolutionary, aspects of working class culture. (21)
In fact, Corbin marked himself as a social historian by echoing Hobsbawm's call for the need to examine both the lower orders and elites, a tendency that at the time he wrote The Foul and the Fragrant distinguished him from cultural historians, especially those influenced by postmodernism. As David Howes pointed out in his perceptive review of Corbin's book: "it is this emphasis on writing history 'from below' as well as 'from above' (i.e. from the perspective of those subject to administrative regulations as well as those who create and enforce such regulations) that distinguishes Corbin's work from that of most of his contemporaries, particularly the Foucauldians." Corbin also used his class analysis to further and refine social history by considering the impact of smelling on notions of the self. The arrangement of private space and the use of personal, often individuated fragrances entailed delimiting and isolating odors and so inaugurated among individuals a new encounter with their own body and even a new narcissism. This topic speaks to an issue noted by Hobsbawm as important to the social historian's discipline--modernization--in a form that in no way figured in Hobsbawm's essay--the rise of notions of the self. For, as Corbin makes clear, the emergence of the self was itself part and parcel of the coming of modernity. (22)
Some of the same investigative strategies Corbin used in his study of smell resonate in his 1998 study on sound, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the 19th-Century French Countryside. "In order to write the history of the bell," he argued, "one has constantly to shift levels of analysis. The emphasis is on locality, but bells also serve to announce events of significance in the national sphere, be it military mobilization, the declaration of war," and the like. In short, maintains Corbin, "A history of representations of space and of the social imagination can no longer afford to neglect materials pertaining to auditory perception" not least because such perceptions give us access to "a deeper mode of existence" of past lives. (23)
Corbin examines shifts in thresholds of hearing that were in some part class based, the "country people" clashing with the "people of the bourg" not only over the meaning of peals and bells but on their timing and use. In this class conflict resided a dispute over religion and nationalism: "The leaders of the First Republic had sought to descacrilize these instruments, to limit their strictly religious uses, to curb their sensory ascendancy, and to monopolize their solemnity. They also attempted to secularize and municipalize the peals, to subordinate them to the nation, and to insert them into a framework of citizenship" and, in effect, "to alter the prevailing pattern" of the culture of the senses and the social hierarchies shaping that culture. Even though Corbin's study is in part an inquiry into "emotional power" and the control and manipulation of "modes of behavior," he eschews a heavily linguistic emphasis in favor of elucidating representations "based on material facts that shed light on the physical attributes of sensory messages at the end of the Old Regime." As he remarks: "Without a detailed study of peals, we would not be able to grasp with any precision the rhythms of village life, the experienced shape of territories, the acquiescence in and resistance to the expression of hierarchies." (24)
Although Corbin refers to his highly empirical study as a "cultural history"-presumably because it "consists of an endless series of exchanges"--the work reads very much like a Thompsonian social history. Viz.: "Complaining of the discomfort caused by the din of bells was a venerable urban tradition, and one that fit with the familiar theme of the drawbacks of town life. It formed part of a struggle of the elites, who were intent on imposing their fastidious tastes and reducing noise to some sort of harmonious order, against 'rough music,' charivaris, and rackets, which all served to define the people." And, as with his work on olfaction, Corbin rooted his discussion of shifting mentalities (although he'd hate the word) and social representations in concrete evidence ranging from a detailed discussion of the process and mechanics of bell casting and an examination of the function of bells in timekeeping, to a fairly quantitative analysis of the numbers and types of bells used in France in the late nineteenth century. Corbin is as aware of the need for a good, positivist narrative as he is of the analysis of his data: "My aim here has been to write a history of this auditory landscape, to describe it in all its magnificence, and then to retrace the process by which it disintegrated." (25)
While Corbin listened to the French countryside, others have listened to the American city. In his 1970 essay, Hobsbawm identified "urban history" among the "growing-points" for social history. While he thought that "Urban history ... possesses a certain technologically determined unity," it was equally clear "that it raises problems peculiarly germane to social history, at least in the sense that the city can never be an analytical framework for economic macrohistory" principally because cities are not self contained, their economic and political functions necessarily articulate with one another, and they provide a microcosm of a raft of interrelated actions which range, for Hobsbawm, from the economic to the political to the psychological. As he remarked: "urban history must remain a central concern of historians of society, if only because it brings out--or can bring out--those specific aspects of societal change and structure with which sociologists and social psychologists are peculiarly concerned." (26)
Along these lines, Raymond Smilor (an historian of the environment whose work focuses on the urban), first in his 1978 dissertation, then in a series of articles, argued that the period 1893-1932 witnessed shifts in what was deemed productive and unproductive noise and saw a reclaiming of the desirability of relative silence and quietude in northern U.S. cities. As Smilor shows, the sounds of machinery and of the working classes in the late nineteenth century often constituted the sounds of modernity to the ears of many northern urban elites and were considered noise (necessary) to capitalist progress. Progressives, however, reconstituted the sound of modernity into the noise of modernity, painting not just the clamor of workers but also clanking machinery as atavistic, "inefficient," and premodern. They tried to deal with noisy modernity in all its forms by launching anti-noise crusades, legislating what constituted social noise and punishing transgressors, and by trying to make people and machines quieter. Reformers chastised working class discord, pressed milkmen to use rubber on bottles and carts to quiet (and convey the impression of greater efficiency of) their trade, and called for automobiles and various machines to be fitted with quiet ball bearings, gears, and better oil, all in an effort to dampen the excessive noise of the modern, the very thing northern elites of an earlier generation had applauded. (27) While Smilor is not especially sensitive to the mentalities or perceptions of aurality, his work on legal attempts to define noise, the political and economic implications of such efforts, the reaction against modernity, the role of consumption in combating noise, and the class tensions apparent in debates over what was necessary and unnecessary noise fit clearly within Hobsbawm's definition of social history.
Emily Thompson's superb study, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933, treats the same period tackled by Smilor but benefits from a sure and sophisticated grasp of the science of acoustics. Thompson describes her book as "a history of aural culture," one charting "dramatic transformations in what people heard" and "equally significant changes in the ways that people listened." Thompson's study uses listening to give depth beyond the eye, "to recover more fully the texture of an era known as 'The Machine Age'," and to "comprehend more completely the experience of change."
Thompson follows Corbin and conceives of a soundscape as "simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving that environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world," and is less fond of the notion of a "soundscape" articulated by the musician R. Murray Schafer whose pioneering work was influenced by a concern with environmentalism and ecology. (28)
Although Thompson's study is less sensitive to (though not entirely dismissive of) the class-based, contested nature of sound than some of the other works under consideration here, the book is nonetheless a social history in some fundamental ways. Thompson claims, for example, that a "soundscape's cultural aspects incorporate scientific and aesthetic ways of listening, a listener's relationship to their environment, and the social circumstances that dictate who gets to hear what." Rather than focusing exclusively on how "social circumstances" dictated cultural norms of listening, Thompson is also alert to the interplay between subjectivity and experience and changes in structure and society. She locates the changes in how people listened to changes in sound, themselves "the result of technological mediation" in which "Scientists and engineers discovered ways to manipulate traditional materials of architectural construction in order to control the behavior of sound in space." Some of these changes in sound were incidental to the rise of industrial and urban modernity while others were a product of technological and architectural advances. Contingent on these material changes were "new trends in the culture of listening," and Thompson uses shifts and advances in both to trace the emergence of modernity in twentieth-century America. For Thompson, the processes she uncovers were modern for several reasons. First, the sounds and the aesthetics of listening she describes were considered efficient and involved a rejection of unnecessary sounds and an embrace of a purer, signal generated, direct sound. Second, such sounds were modern because they were also commodities "in a culture increasingly defined by the act of consumption, and [were] evaluated by listeners who tuned their ears to the sound of the market." With advances in acoustic technology, consumers could buy quiet and (almost) banish certain types of noise from within their homes. Lastly, the kind of process Thompson describes was modern because "it was perceived to demonstrate man's technical mastery over his physical environment." (29)
While Thompson tends to focus on the work of scientists in their production of sound and manipulation of acoustical spaces, she remains sensitive to the public implications of the Progressive anti-noise crusade, the timing and significance of the creation of quiet zones and municipal authorities' reconfiguration of noise ordinances, and, like Smilor, she situates her work within the broader understanding of how noise and its regulation and meaning were contested by different constituencies and social groups. Central to her task is exactly what Hobsbawm saw as central to the field of social history. "Any exploration of a soundscape should ultimately inform a more general understanding of the society and culture that produced it," writes Thompson, and she applauds the breadth and depth that aural histories written by others have added to our understanding of religion, the Enlightenment, science, popular culture, antebellum American sectional identity, and "changing structures of religious and political authority." Thompson often, and rightly, treats society and culture as braided, making no intellectual distinction between the two. Following Douglas Kahn's admonition, Thompson tries to show that modernity must be heard as well as seen and she doesn't see vision and aurality in necessary tension. Her aim, instead, is to add listening and hearing to future investigations into the rise of modernity and, like Karl Marx, Thompson sees the interaction between materialism and consciousness as critical to investigations of the historical process. (30)
Thanks to Raymond Smdor and Emily Thompson, we are beginning to get a sense of the role, use, and significance of sound in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America; thanks to work by Richard Cullen Rath, we now know a good deal about the sonic order of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America. In his 2001 dissertation, "Worlds Chanted into Being: Soundways in Early America," Rath recovers colonial American modes of hearing and soundways. He shows how sound shaped identities, delimited space and community, and located social relations of power and authority. Rath's approach is temporally and geographically broad (he covers the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and examines "trans-oceanic," Atlantic connections) and he, like many social historians, argues that "[g]ender, ethnicity, and social status" are integral to his examination. Although Rath is sensitive to the vocal, spoken world--and there has been quite a lot written on that topic--he is more interested in the paralinguistic aspects of early America. (31)
Early American soundways, argues Rath, "supplied a perceptual base for ways of thinking that have since been traded away in the acquisition of literacy and the promotion of print culture," and he is quite critical of work by literary critic Walter Ong and anthropologist Jack Goody whose "narrow focus on orality is symptomatic of a sort of tunnel vision into the past, where the audible world served only to set the stage for the rise of print and mass literacy after the Reformation." Although a reading of Foucault is important to Rath's investigative schema, he seems equally influenced by Marshall McLuhan and is well aware, like Schmidt and Corbin, of the role of early Annales school historians, including Lucien Febvre, in helping to identify a history of the senses. (32)
Rath makes a compelling case that to continue to focus on orality is a tremendous disservice to the historical actors who made and experienced a far broader range of sounds, and he rightly shows that unhelpful, artificial distinctions between premodern (oral) and modern (literate) cultures do not withstand scrutiny when we begin to listen differently and to different sounds. Rath is interested in both the historically situated shift in modes of perception in early America--from ear to eye--and the material as well as cultural bases for that shift. He is particularly interested in the ways that sound was used to regulate and create sonic order that arranged social hierarchies and extended civil society's authority. Rath's comparative analysis of North American regions, an analysis based on not only a deep reading of the historical record but also an impressive understanding of architectural acoustics, shows, for example, how bells were used to regulate civil society and mark public space. He also shows how the spatial and acoustical properties of churches and meetings houses reflected and reaffirmed political and social ordering. Moreover, in various sections that would doubtless earn Hobsbawm's applause, Rath remains sensitive not only to elite uses of sound to establish social hierarchies but also to ways in which slaves and Native Americans used aurality, musical instruments, and an understanding of acoustics to both police their own environments and resist authority (his examination of the meaning and almost militaristic use of sound during the 1739 Stono Rebellion is particularly fascinating). In short, although Rath tends to slight the aurality associated with economic development, his meticulous attention to the physical and symbolic significance of sound and hearing, his ability to connect culture with politics, and his drive to consider elites and nonelites gives his study the tenor of a social history project. (33)
Even work on the history of the senses that advertises itself as cultural history seems to borrow much from the kind of social history methodologies and habits of inquiry noted by Hobsbawm. In their pioneering study, Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott (historians and anthropologists), introduce their study with the sentence, "Smell is a social phenomenon, invested with particular meanings and values by different cultures" (the emphasis is theirs). They go on: "Odours form the building blocks of cosmologies, class hierarchies and political orders; they can enforce social structures or transgress them....But smell is repressed in the modern West, and its social history ignored." They, aim, in short, to rescue this social history. In fact, the inclusion of the word "cultural" in the book's title and the text seems to serve less an intellectual function than a stylistic one for "cultural" and "social" are often used interchangeably throughout their study. And while some of their thinking is plainly influenced by the protocols of anthropological inquiry and forms of expression, the authors' determination to examine smell as both an objective and subjective phenomenon, their investigation into the politics of smell, and their ability to locate with some precision the olfactory dimensions of class, seems reminiscent of the kind of social history Hobsbawm had in mind. (34)
Precisely the same seems true of James H. Johnson's penetrating study, Listening in Paris, subtitled, "A Cultural History." Among the authors considered here, Johnson is among the most sensitive to the implications and nature of his methodology. Johnson is not hostage to any given method and his choice of evidence and his choice of investigative strategies are driven less by a desire to mark his study as a particular kind of historical inquiry--cultural or otherwise--than by a need to answer important and carefully formulated historical questions. His principal question is: "Why did French audiences become silent.... Why, over the hundred years between 1750 and 1850, did audiences stop talking and start listening?" Because Johnson shows that the answer to this question is remarkably complicated, and because he understands that its answer resides in a thorough exploration of "everything from the physical features of the [music] hall to the musical qualities of the works," he is necessarily (and refreshingly) eclectic in his choice and use of evidence. Although Johnson describes his work as a "cultural history of listening," by placing listeners' at story's center, he is sensitive to their "aesthetic and social expectations," themselves shaped by politics and society as well as physical and material changes in the use and composition of space. "All public expression of musical response--even silence--is inevitably social," he argues, and his work never loses sight of "two broad categories to understand the political and social influences upon public responses to music, the structural and the personal." Johnson's elaboration sounds very much like Hobsbawm: "On the largest scale, structures of society--monarchical, aristocratic, meritocratic, democratic--produce patterns of behavior that underlie everyday interactions." "To these structures," he continues, "can be attributed certain patterns of behavior during musical performances, patterns that occasionally spill over into the aesthetic and influence how the music is heard." Essentially, Johnson attempts to "understand behavioral shifts as part of larger social transformations." Situating his method between "Macauley and Foucault," he is as sensitive to the importance of physical space and social structure in shaping and reflecting cultural beliefs as he is to showing the meaning of cultural structures of personal experience. Moreover, to answer his principal question, Johnson takes the broadest possible view of French society, treating "everything from the latrines overflowing in eighteenth-century halls, to the threat of decapitation for insufficient patriotism during the Revolution," a scope that invites detailed consideration of the musical tastes and performances of the rich, "the masses," culminating in an examination of "the social roots of silence." Johnson is always careful to provide detailed context for his discussion of shifts in listening and he is never shy of offering numbers, reviews of economic trends, and changes in class composition to that end. (35)
Social historians, then, have been instrumental in shaping and investigating the history of the senses not least because they tend to work with a habit of mind and within an investigative idiom that leads them to pursue topics beyond conventional disciplinary boundaries. Moreover, social historians' tendency to see history not just from the top down but also from the bottom up has given some of their investigative questions a thrust that challenges naturalized, dominant ways of understanding the past. Practicing bottom up as well as top down history helps question the predominance of the rational gaze of the elite eye and takes seriously the supposedly "lower" senses of smell, sound, taste, and touch. If historical investigation is to free itself from the Enlightenment, visualist trope, we could do worse that turn to social history, not least because the investigative leanings of the field have helped produce some superb, innovative studies that have already made the leap from the eye. Such a reorientation could prove of immense, long term significance for historians.
There is still much to do, of course, and the history of the senses still has a very long way to go. (36) Surprisingly, one of Hobsbawm's laments, as he expressed it in his 1997 preface to the reprinted essay, was his failure in 1970 to appreciate the central role women's history would play in the unfolding of social history. Curiously, women figure very little in monographic work on the history of the senses. Although I endeavored to explore the aurality of antebellum American women in my own work and while Richard Rath considers gender, there is still a dearth of work on the gendered dynamics of, for example, aurality, let alone smell, taste, and touch. (37)
Moreover, social histories of the senses have still to inform even the most innovative cultural histories--I'm thinking especially of whiteness studies--some of which suffer from an unwitting visualism that in some important ways limits their larger explanative power about the meaning of "race", the ways in which it was defined, and the depth of American racism. With few exceptions, such work tends to measure and evaluate race and whiteness through the eyes of historical actors, and, with the exception of work on minstrelsy, rarely pauses to consider in any explicit or systematic fashion ways in which whiteness, blackness, and race were mediated and constructed through sound, smell, touch, and taste. (38)
Indeed, and more generally, judging by their relative silence on the other senses, some historians remain seemingly unaware that they write the past through the eyes of actors. (39) More often than not, the most that is ever done in this regard is the inclusion of other senses to add flare and perceived panache to the narrative, especially, for example, in work on the U.S. Civil War where sound makes an appearance, and a fleeting one at that, via cannon booms and soldiers' screams. Indeed, one of the few exceptions, an immensely interesting book by Charles D. Ross, Civil War Acoustic Shadows, shows us what an aural and acoustic history of the American Civil War sounds like when written by someone who is not a social historian (Ross teaches physics). Ross' book has a lot to recommend it for it tells us about the military consequences of sound shadows, the atmospheric and physical distortion of sounds, during some important Civil War battles. While it is still true that social historians need to do a much better job of integrating military history into their analyses, I think it is also the case that inquirers into military history would be well advised to examine the social aspects of the military engagements they examine with such exquisite detail. Such is the case with Ross' book, which, while fascinating (and, to my mind, convincing) in its explanation of some Confederate and Union losses and wins, fails to go much further than a strictly military, tactical, and strategic consideration of Civil War sounds. From Ross, we get little idea of how sounds on the battlefield affected (literally and figuratively) sounds on the home front, what meanings battlefield sounds carried for soldiers beyond their military implications, or how slaves used the sounds and silences of battle to shape their own strategies of escape. (40)
That much said, the way that social history has influenced the writing of the history of the senses is clear. We can gauge its impact by showing what the history of the senses is not in its current state. Emily Thompson, for example, could easily have written (a radically decontextualized) history of technological changes in the history of sound and acoustics. She didn't, preferring instead (and quite rightly) to link technology with mentality and changes in society, exactly what Hobsbawm called for in his essay. Likewise, Leigh Eric Schmidt could easily have written a purely intellectual history of sound and religion with a heavy concentration on highbrow religious discourse as expressed by theologians. He didn't and instead tried to examine the relationship between high and lowbrow religious beliefs and trace the aurality of different classes and social groups.
Histories of the senses also pose some important methodological questions and should prompt us to revisit some fundamental issues about "doing" history. For example, should the historian of smell or sound try to actually recreate or experience the odors and noises of the past? Is it actually possible to do so and, if so, is it also desirable? In short, can we really smell and hear (let alone touch, taste, and see) the past or are we more limited in what we can achieve? For some historians of the senses, visiting extant sites of investigation--in Hillel Schwartz's case, going to living museums to actually hear the decibel levels of blacksmithing; in Peter Charles Hoffer's case, visiting modern Salem, Massachusetts in an effort to understand the sensory dimensions of that world in 1692--has been relevant to their work. As Hoffer remarks, "If we assume also that we have the same perceptual apparatus as the people we are studying in the past, and can still sense the world as they did," we are "another step closer to our objective." In this way, we might overcome the limitations of our reliance on printed evidence, which we use to report a highly mediated representation of the sense of the past (that is, what particular people thought they heard and smelled and saw as opposed to what they really smelled or heard or saw.) That much said, even if we grant that we share the "same perceptual apparatus" of those we study (hardly a certainty), can we be sure that our hearing or smelling or seeing or touching or tasting is an accurate proxy for every historical actor or group we investigate? Did people of different classes, races, genders, sections, locales, hear the same sound, smell the same odor in, say, 1840 in precisely the same way and with the same meaning that "we" do now (and who, it is worth asking, is "we" in this instance)? Or should historians try to remain highly sensitive to context so that we can begin to understand why, for example, an antebellum southern slaveholder and a northern abolitionist could hear precisely the same sound but attribute radically different meanings to it? In other words, would it be helpful to distinguish between the ways in which sounds were produced and the ways in which they were consumed? (41)
In answering these questions, historians of the senses must pay special care to defining their aims, framing their methodology, and shaping their forms of presentation. If they are out to describe the objective sensory worlds of the past, is the historical narrative, print itself, up to that task? Or should we begin to consider alternative and complementary media and presentation including, for example, compact disks or audio files to accompany our books? ('Touch and feel' books, 'scratch and sniff' pages, and 'lickable' print, too?) If the historian of the senses aims mainly to examine past peoples' perceptions of the senses and reveal to which uses they were put, perhaps the traditional monograph and print will suffice (after all, it is worth noting that some historical actors themselves mediated a good deal of what they sensed through print, too, and sometimes only rarely experienced in any direct way the sounds and smells they described in writing). We might also ask, to what extent is it desirable to treat both the subjective and objective worlds of sense and perception in a single work? With all these questions, social historians are well advised to consider the findings of some thoughtful intellectual historians and students of the history of medicine whose work shows how very malleable the senses have proven in the past. As some medical historians have shown, senses could be taught, ears trained, noses directed, and touches educated so that significant changes in, for example, the meaning, use, and understanding of bodily sounds could take place quite quickly. Similarly, intellectual historians have detailed changes in peoples' understanding of hearing, listening, sound, and acoustics, and have explained how these shifts were indexed to developments in philosophy and technology. Such work is important and deserves careful consideration as historians of the senses ponder how best to recapture the senses and perceptions of senses. (42)
While the recent enthusiasm for histories of the senses shouldn't preclude substantive, meaningful discussion about methodology, it seems clear that the promise of sensory history is great and its implications could be very far reaching indeed, far beyond a paradigm shift within a specific field (as with, say, "republicanism"), with the potential to influence all historical writing. (43) If we take the aforementioned work seriously, future research in all fields will begin to include hearing, smell, taste, and touch in both its analytical formulations and narrative techniques. The sudden flurry of books on sound and historical aurality suggests that historians will soon begin to include explicitly the other senses in virtually any topic under consideration. (44) Social historians, I believe, will be instrumental in that inclusion.
My conclusion, put simply? It is a good moment to be a social historian.
Department of History
Columbia, SC 29208-0001
I remain grateful for fleeting but helpful conversations with my colleagues, Ron Atkinson, Larry Glickman, and Paul Johnson, about social and cultural history and the direction of this essay. Thanks also to the members of the History Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who heard a version of this essay on March 21, 2003. Their comments were instructive.
(1.) Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Martin Milligan, trans. (Buffalo, 1988), 108-109.
(2.) Eric Hobsbawm, "From Social History to the History of Society," in his On History (New York, 1997), 93. The essay was originally presented at a conference on Historical Studies Today in Rome in 1970 and subsequently published in Daedalus, 100 (1971): 20-45. In 1980, Peter N. Steams also used Hobsbawm's essay as a starting point and found that, for some reasons different to those offered in this essay, there was good cause for social historians to be enthusiastic about the importance of their work. See Peter N. Steams, "Toward a Wider Vision: Trends in Social History," in Michael Kammen, ed., The Past Before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States (Ithaca, 1980), 205.
(3.) On intellectual history, see, for example, the essays in Charles Burnett, Michael Fend, and Penelope Gouk, eds., The Second Sense: Studies in Hearing and Musical Judgement from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century (London, 1991). On the history of medicine, see W. F. Bynum and Roy Porter, eds., Medicine and the Five Senses (Cambridge, 1993). For an historian of aurality who is indebted to linguistic analysis, see Paul Carter, The Sound In-Between: Voice, Space, Performance (New South Wales, 1992).
(4.) Of course, it may be objected that all historians strive for such interrelatedness. Admittedly, some political history increasingly tends to treat its topic as "political culture," but even in the best works, the operations of the political system, even broadly conceived, provide the determinative engine affecting political culture and behavior. Likewise with economic history. Though some of the very best work by economic historians essays integration of the political and social into analysis and narrative, there is still the powerful temptation for economic matters to drive the story. When Hobsbawm wrote of the aspiration of a braided form of historical inquiry, I think he meant something other than the drive toward a total history that, as Lynn Hunt remarks, "loses all specificity." Hobsbawm was, as his own work shows, keenly aware of the need for context and what he meant was the need to see beyond artificial categories of economic, intellectual, or political history. See Lynn Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History (Berkeley, 1989), 3.
(5.) Because I'm interested in the impact of the practice of social history, I'll limit my discussion to some of the work by historians who have written books or dissertations and necessarily (if reluctantly) exclude significant work by associated inquirers whose methodologies and questions are sometimes informed by a different set of assumptions. Excluded here is excellent work by Bruce R. Smith, a student of English literature and author of The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor (Chicago, 1999); Douglas Kahn (Art and Art History), author of Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (Cambridge, 1999); Jonathan Edward Sterne (Media Studies and Communication), and author of "The Audible Past: Modernity, Technology, and the Cultural History of Sound" (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 1999). (Duke University Press has just published a revised version of Sterne's dissertation, entitled The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.); and Jacques Attali (an economist), author of the influential, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Brian Massumi, trans., (Minneapolis, 1985). For a helpful exchange on the writing of aural history see, Bruce R. Smith, "How Sound is Sound History? A Response to Mark Smith," and my "Echoes in Print: Method and Causation in Aural History," both in Journal of The Historical Society, 2 (Summer/Fall 2002): 307-315, 317-336.
(6.) George H. Roeder, Jr., "Coming to Our Senses," Journal of American History, 81 (Dec. 1994): 1113, 1116-1122. See also, Frederic Jameson, "Foreword" to Attali, Noise, vii.
(7.) For a perceptive evaluation of recent work on aurality, see Douglas Kahn, "Sound Awake," Australian Review of Books (July 2000): 21-22.
(8.) See Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley, 1993), 45, 66-69. On the effect of Jay's work, see the perceptive comments by Steven Connor, "The Modern Auditory I," in Roy Porter, ed., Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to the Present (London, 1997), 204. See, also, the helpful critiques in Constance Classen, Worlds of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and across Cultures (London, 1993). On vision, see David Michael Levin, ed., Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision (Berkeley, 1993); Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1990); Kate Flint, The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (Cambridge, 2000); and Randolph Starn, Seeing Culture in a Room for a Renaissance Prince," in Hunt, The New Cultural History, 205-232. On how some historians unwittingly tend to examine the past through the eyes of actors and thereby naturalize the dominance of vision by not considering explicitly the other senses, see my "Echoes in Print." On Ong and McLuhan, see Walter J. Ong, "The Shifting Sensorium," in The Varieties of Sensory Experience: A Sourcebook in the Anthropology of the Senses, David Howes, ed. (Toronto, 1991), 29-30. For a thoughtful treatment of McLuhan especially, see David Howes, "Sensorial Anthropology," in ibid., 170-173 esp. See too Marshall McLuhan The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto, 1962); Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York, 1988); Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (New Haven, 1967).
(9.) While Hobsbawm correctly predicted the continued vitality of social history, he perhaps overstated the extent to which historians borrowing the basic insights of social history would want to call themselves social historians. Such was Hobsbawm's optimism that he remarked, "Even those of us who never set out to call ourselves by this name will not want to disclaim it today." Hobsbawm, "From Social History to the History of Society," 93.
(10.) E. P. Thompson, "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism," Past and Present, 38 (Dec.1967): 56-97; Mark M. Smith, Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South (Chapel Hill, 1997); Mark M. Smith, Listening to Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, 2001), esp. 319, n.2. Most work on timekeeping and time consciousness is attuned to sound and hearing. See, for example, the works examined and cited in my "Old South Time in Comparative Perspective," American Historical Review, 101 (Dec. 1996): 1432-1469. For commentary on my work on sound as cultural history, see the thoughtful and engaged comments by Mitchell Snay, "Cultural History and the Coming of the Civil War: A Response to Mark Smith," Journal of The Historical Society 2 (Summer/Fall 2002): 297-305.
(11.) Hobsbawm, "From Social History to the History of Society," 71-72, 87.
(12.) Hobsbawm, "From Social History to the History of Society," 75. See also Stearns, "Toward a Wider Vision," 210. On the Annales school and the model of total history see Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York, 1994), 82-83 esp.
(13.) Stearns, "Toward a Wider Vision," 207-209, 212. Like Hobsbawm, Stearns also detected the drive for a flexible and fluid interpretation embedded in social history, pointing to how social historians such as Eugene Genovese had made excellent use of the Gramscian theory of hegemony to explain the "enmeshing of dominator and dominated alike" and in the looser formulations that encouraged a fuller treatment of "semi-independent, identifiable subcultures that allow popular groups some independent basis for reaction to larger systems and processes" and the examination of groups that "coexist within larger structures of power" that were not defined simply in terms of class conflict but also ethnicity and gender. All illustrate social history's tendency towards inclusiveness and its attention to interplay between groups and structures. Stearns, "Toward a Wider Vision," 216-218, 228-230. On social history and the early Annales school as largely quantitative, see Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob, Telling the Truth about History, 86-87, 148 esp. "In many ways the recent interest in the history of 'mentalities' marks an even more direct approach to central methodological problems of social history," maintained Hobsbawm, elaborating "It has been largely stimulated by the traditional interest in 'the common people' of many who are drawn to social history. It has dealt with the individually inarticulate, undocumented and obscure, and is often indistinct from an interest in their social movements." "This very fact," he went on, "has encouraged a specifically dynamic treatment of culture by historians, superior to such studies as those of the 'culture of poverty by anthropologists, though not uninfluenced by their methods and pioneering experience." Hobsbawm then hit on a fundamental methodological point about the social historian's treatment of culture: "The nature of sources for such study has rarely allowed the historian to confine himself to simple factual study and exposition. He has been obliged from the outset to construct models, that is, to fit his partial and scattered data into coherent systems, without which they would be little more than anecdotal," viz.: "Edward Thompson's concept of the 'moral economy'" and "my own analysis of social banditry." All in all, "the history of 'mentalities' has been useful in introducing something analogous to the discipline of the social anthropologists into history, and its usefulness is very far from exhausted." Hobsbawm, "From Social History to the History of Society," 88-89.
(14.) Penelope Gouk explains the same concern with interplay eloquently and incisively in her essay, "Beyond Rationality? The Paradox of Writing About Non-Verbal Ways of Knowing," Intellectual News: Review of the International Society for Intellectual History, 8 (Summer 2000): 44-57. In this essay, Gouk traces the trajectory behind the writing of her book, Music, Science, and Natural Magic in Seventeenth-Century England (New Haven, 1999). Text-based intellectual history, she argues, proved too limiting to explain fully the relationship among music, magic, technology, and the history of ideas and she illustrates how these and other matters were "actually connected to each other, and at the same time, constituting a significant part of the broader cultural environment." Throughout both the essay and her book, Gouk blends strictly intellectual history with a deep knowledge of music, acoustics, and changes in technology and philosophical ideas. Of these ideas, she insistently asks, "what material, social, technical, and intellectual resources were necessary for their production and circulation?" She also ponders whether or not the historical monograph is best suited to conveying the answers to these questions. See ibid., 44-45.
(15.) Writing in 1980, Robert Darnton made a distinction between social history, cultural history, and "intellectual history proper" (intellectual history being the study of systematic thought, usually in philosophical treatises;" social history as "the study of ideologies and idea diffusion;" and cultural history taken to include "world view and collective mentalites") that social historians, following Hobsbawm, would reject as too delimited and certainly not reflective of their actual practice. Thus, when Darnton rightly pointed to a perceived convergence between social and intellectual history--"the social dimensions of thought"--in intellectual history he was, in fact, describing what social historians normally take as their principal remit. Robert Darnton, "Intellectual and Cultural History," in Kammen, ed., The Past Before Us, 337, 341. But Darnton is right to point to shifts within social history from a heavily quantitative to a textual, "anthropological mode" of understanding, especially in the work of E. P. Thompson who did indeed lurch toward anthropology but without abandoning his concern for the economic, political, and intellectual context of consciousness. Thompson was a social historian WhO used a variety of evidence--economic, political, and cultural--to drive home his points about working class identity. See ibid., 345-346. See, too, Gouk, "Beyond Rationality."
(16.) Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History, 218 (quotation), 219.
(17.) Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob, Telling the Truth about History, 220-221 (quotations), 223. See also Hunt, The New Cultural History, 4-5, and 10 for her own misgivings about cultural reductionism. On Thompson s worries, see his The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (New York, 1978). Critics of quantitative social history can point to work that nonquantitative social historians would also find disquieting not simply because of its statistical, sociological bent but because such work seems divorced from Hobsbawm's understanding of social history. See, for example, Larry J. Griffin and Marcel van der Linden, eds., New Methods for Social History (Cambridge, 1999).
(18.) Hobsbawm, "From Social History to the History of Society," 82, 86. Hobsbawm understood that social history is difficult to write effectively, and even E. P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class "is no more than a great torso," even though it did much to further the writing of social history. Difficult did not mean undesirable, however, and Hobsbawm plainly called for social history to continue along this trajectory.
(19.) Leigh Eric Schmidt, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2000), 18; Lucien Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais, Beatrice Gottlieb, trans. (Cambridge, 1982), 423-442; Robert Mandrou, Introduction to Modern France, 1500-1640: An Essay in Historical Psychology, R. E. Hallmark, trans. (New York, 1976). For a brief discussion of the influence of the Annales school and its limitations, see Jay, Downcast Eyes, 34-35 esp.
(20.) Schmidt, Hearing Things, 38-77 esp., quotations on 66, 9, and, on ventriloquism, see ch.4. For Butler's comment, see his review, "Listening for God in America," Reviews in American History, 29 (Dec. 2001): 500.
(21.) Alain Corbin, Time, Desire and Horror: Towards a History of the Senses, Jean Birrell, trans. (Cambridge, 1995), 181-182,183; Schmidt, Hearing Things, 18; Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination, Miriam Kochan, Roy Porter, and Christopher Prendergast, trans. (Cambridge, 1986), 141, 199, 231-232, 94-96, 140; Hobsbawm, "From Social History to the History of Society," 88.
(22.) David Howes, "Scent and Sensibility," Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 13 (1989): 93; Corbin, Foul and the Fragrant, 77-85 esp.
(23.) Alain Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the 19th-Century French Countryside, Martin Thorn, trans. (New York, 1998), xi-xii.
(24.) Corbin, Village Bells, xv, xvii, 3, 288-289 , 4-5, 288. Although Corbin is appreciative of the value of studying "rough music" (along the lines of E. P. Thompson) and while he doesn't disagree with the interpretative thrust of such an inquiry, he argues that the emotional power of bells gives us access to deep collective identities. See ibid., 288; E. P. Thompson, "Rough Music," in his Customs in Common (London, 1991), 467-538.
(25.) Corbin, Village Bells, 289, 299, 80-93, 110-118, 391-392, 306-307.
(26.) Hobsbawm, "From Social History to the History of Society," 83-85.
(27.) Raymond W. Smilor, "Confronting the Industrial Environment: The Noise Problem in America, 1893-1932" (Ph.D diss., University of Texas, 1978); "Cacophony at 34th and 6th: The Noise Problem in America, 1900-1930," American Studies, 18 (1977): 23-38; "Personal Boundaries in the Urban Environment: The Legal Attack on Noise: 1865-1930, Environmental Review, 3 (1979): 24-36; "Toward an Environmental Perspective: The Anti-Noise Campaign, 1883-1932," in Martin V. Melosi, ed., Pollution and Reform in American Cities, 1870-1930 (Austin, 1980): 135-151. See also Bernard Hibbitts, "Making Sense of Metaphors: Visuality, Aurality, and the Reconfiguration of American Legal Discourse," 16 Cardozo Law Review 229 (1994) available online at http://www.law.pitt.edu/hibbitts/meta_int.html (15/1/00). On the northern celebration of the sounds of modernity, see my Listening to Nineteenth-Century America, chs 4-7.
(28.) Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (Cambridge, 2002), 1. While Schafer's concern was to sensitize our ears to effect changes in public policy and while the associated investigators in the World Soundscape Project tend to record existing sounds in order to protect them from future cacophonies, Schafer's conceptualization of a soundscape--and associated soundmarks--was, in essence, formulated along historical lines and took into account the kind of psychological, material, and cultural aural and auditory interactions dealt with by both Corbin and Thompson. See R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester, 1994), 3-12; Smith, Listening to Nineteenth Century America, 262-265.
(29.) Thompson, Soundscape of Modernity, 1-4, ch.5.
(30.) Thompson, Soundscape of Modernity, ch.4, 9-11. Thompson notes that she has been "particularly inspired by the material histories of Wolfgang Schivelbusch" (329, n21.) Douglas Kahn, "Introduction: Histories of Sound Once Removed," in Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead, eds., Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, 1992), 1-29. See also Hillel Schwartz, "Beyond Tone and Decibel: The History of Noise," Chronicle of Higher Education (January 9, 1998): B8.
(31.) Richard Cullen Rath, "Worlds Chanted into Being: Soundways in Early America" (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 2001), 6, 7. A revised version of Rath's dissertation is scheduled for publication by Cornell University Press in the fall of 2003. Our understanding of the senses in early America promises to be greatly enriched and expanded with the publication, also in the fall of 2003, of Peter Charles Hoffer's study, Sensory Worlds in Early America (The Johns Hopkins University Press). Professor Hoffer kindly provided me with a draft of the introduction to his book, which, from my reading also seems influenced by social history (hereinafter cited as Introduction.") A full evaluation of Hoffer's important study obviously awaits its publication, however. For a sampling of recent work on speech, see, for example, Edward G. Gray, New World Babel: Languages and Nations in Early America (Princeton, 1999); Jane Kamensky, Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England (New York, 1998); and Christopher Grasso, A Speaking Aristocracy: Transforming Public Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut (Chapel Hill, 1999).
(32.) Rath, "Worlds Chanted into Being," 3-4, 5, n.5, 10. While acknowledging some of McLuhan's clumsier formulations, Rath nonetheless (and rightly) suggests that McLuhan's work was instrumental in alerting us to the notion that senses have a history and that one way to approach that history is through an examination in the shift in the ratio of the senses as a consequence of the invention and dissemination of print. See ibid., 11, 14, 92-93, 96, esp. n.3.
(33.) Rath, "Worlds Chanted into Being," 24, 30, 94, 90-107, 117, 160-178, 191-194.
(34.) Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott, Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (London, 1994), [ii], 3, 7, 8.
(35.) James H. Johnson, Listening in Paris: A Cultural History (Berkeley, 1995), 1-4, 6, 228-229.
(36.) It is also worthwhile remembering that insights on the history of the senses can be gleaned from some unexpected quarters. As Anthony Synnott explains in a brief but insightful essay on "Puzzling over the Senses: From Plato to Marx," many thinkers were aware of the role of hearing, touch, smell, and taste in human affairs and, as such, have something to teach us about our own often unwitting acceptance of the notion of modernity as an exclusively visualist aesthetic. In fact, we have a good deal to learn by looking backwards and social historians, with their interest in interplay, breadth, depth, and multiplicity, are well suited to reading and rereading pre twentieth-century texts for clues on how to venture beyond the eye. While we can leave aside the important discussion about how Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Descartes, Hume, Adam Smith, Hegel, and Marx, among others, ranked the senses--vision nearly always came out on top because of its association with reason, the other senses nearly always being more visceral and animalistic--it is worth pausing to consider briefly how one of these thinkers understood the senses. Of these thinkers, only Marx, arguably a social historian of the first order, offered an explicit incorporation of the senses into a model of historical development and, in the process, ventured a resounding rejection of most Western thinking on the topic that touted the primacy of the eye. His most pronounced comments on the senses are in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, where he examines the impact of capitalism on the sense of self. Marx's observations on the senses occur in the context of his discussion on the "social mode of existence," alienation, and the degradation of the senses as a result of the emergence of private property under capitalism. For Marx, "man is affirmed in his objective world not only in the act of thinking but with all his senses" and he claimed that the "forming of the five senses is a labor of humanized nature. The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present." Thus, Marx suggested that an understanding of the history of human experience must take into account the mediation of the world in its full sensory capacity and to understand how historical developments, in particular the ascendancy of capitalist social and economic relations, shaped the forming of those senses and how they impacted on notions of self, freedom, and dependency. See Anthony Synnott, "Puzzling over the Senses: From Plato to Marx," The Varieties of Sensory Experience: A Sourcebook in the Anthropology of the Senses, in David Howes, ed. (Toronto, 1991), 70. See also, Jay, Downcast Eyes, ch. 1; Adam Smith, "Of the External Senses," in his Essays on Philosophical Subjects, W. P. D. Wightman, ed. (Indianapolis, 1982), 135-168. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 103, 108-109. For the influence of Marx's observations, see Sterne, "Audible Past," 33, 35-36, 34, 28, 38-39.
(37.) Hobsbawm, "From Social History," 71. An exception is Jane Kamensky, Governing the Tongue, although, as Rath shows, her work focuses on words and speech, not what Rath calls paralinguistic sound.
(38.) The sensory construction of race in southern history is something I address in my next study, Sensing Race: From Slavery to Integration in the American South. One of the only historians to have examined the evolution of racial consciousness and racism through the nose is Winthrop D. Jordan in his still remarkable study, Black Over White: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, 1968), 256-257, 459, 492, 501, 518. Note, too, the perceptive remarks on race and touch by Sander Gilman, "Touch Sexuality and Disease," in Bynum and Porter, eds., Medicine and the Five Senses, 215-224 esp. The literature on whiteness is voluminous, although critical engagement with it, less so. A good starting point for both a review of the literature, a critical evaluation of it, and some sturdy defenses of the concept is in "Scholarly Controversy: Whiteness and the Historians' Imagination," International Labor and Working-Class History, 60 (Fall 2001): 1-92. On minstrelsy, see, especially, Eric Lott, Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York, 1995).
(39.) See my "Echoes in Print."
(40.) Charles D. Ross, Civil War Acoustic Shadows (Shippensburg, 2001). See also his "Ssh! Battle in Progress!" Civil War Times Illustrated, 35 (Dec. 1996): 56-62. Earl J. Hess is another exception and offers some helpful if brief observations on the meaning of sounds to Union soldiers. See his The Union Soldier: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat (Lawrence, 1997), 15-18, 28, 46, 112-113. Some of these issues concerning the literal impact and metaphorical meaning of Civil War sounds are addressed in my "Of Bells, Booms, Sounds, and Silences: Listening to the Civil War South," in The War Was You and Me: Civilians and the American Civil War, Joan Cashin, ed. (Princeton, 2002): 9-34; Smith, Listening to Nineteenth-Century America, chs. 8, 9. I hasten to note my own shortcoming here--I do not consider the important questions addressed by Ross and instead treat perceptions of sounds during the war. For social history that examines military events within a larger social framework, see J. Tracy Power, Lee's Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox (Chapel Hill, 1998); Cheryl Anne Wells, "Civil War Time(s): Temporality, Identity, and Experience in America, 1861-1865" (Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 2002).
(41.) Schwartz, "Beyond Tone and Decibel"; Hoffer, "Introduction." It should be noted that Hoffer's introduction offers a very thoughtful discussion of these issues, one worthy of greater consideration than I can offer here. Similarly, I fully expect Schwartz's forthcoming book to examine such questions and advance our understanding even further. My own position is outlined in my debate with Bruce R. Smith. See "How Sound is Sound History? A Response to Mark Smith," and my "Echoes in Print," 307-315, 317-336.
(42.) See, for example, Malcolm Nicolson, "The Introduction of Percussion and Stethoscopy to Early Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh," in Bynum and Porter, eds., Medicine and the Five Senses, 134-153; Charles Burnett, "Sound and Its Perception in the Middle Ages," in Burnett, Fend, and Gouk, eds., The Second Sense, 43-69; Penelope Gouk, "Some English Theories of Hearing in the Seventeenth Century: Before and After Descartes," in ibid., 95-113; D. R. Woolf, "Speech, Text, and Time: The Sense of Hearing and the Sense of the Past in Renaissance England," Albion, 18, no.2 (1986): 159-193.
(43.) Daniel T. Rodgers, "Republicanism: The Career of a Concept," Journal of American History, 79 (June, 1993): 11-38.
(44.) For an excellent overview on the limited inclusion of sensory history in college textbooks, and for hints that things are beginning to change, albeit modestly, see Roeder, "Coming to Our Senses," 1112-1122. As more explicit work is done on the history of the senses, I suspect that the findings of specialists will percolate into new textbooks, which is entirely appropriate since the more we ignore the smells, sounds, tastes, and textures of the past, the most we are simply repeating a trope and denying ourselves and our students to the multiple dimensions of the past.
By Mark M. Smith
University of South Carolina
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|Title Annotation:||New Topics And Historians|
|Author:||Smith, Mark M.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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