Veit Erlmann, Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality

Review by Lloyd Isaac Vayo

Erlmann, Veit. Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality (New York: Zone Books, 2010). 422 pages.

[1] Veit Erlmann's exacting and detailed examination of the uneasy relation between reason and resonance and its centrality to notions of aurality and modernity continues in the path of some of his more recent work with hearing, listening, and their relation to the modern (seen most clearly in his 2004 edited volume Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening, and Modernity), taking a more abstract theoretical bent than that present in his ethnomusicological studies on South Africa. Erlmann, as the Endowed Chair of Music History at the University of Texas at Austin's Butler School of Music, comes to the topic with a notable gravitas, and his latest offering does not disappoint on that account, giving definitive treatment to his subject.

[2] Erlmann's main objective in Reason and Resonance is to trace the variegated discourse surrounding the tension between the rise of the understanding of hearing based on sympathetic resonance and the simultaneous epistemological absenting of that resonance in favor of a mind whose relationship with the world is marked by distance and reflection. At the outset, Erlmann contends that "these corresponding histories of reason and resonance are both a key element of modern cultural practice and at the heart of modern aurality" (11), positioning his auralcentric account in opposition to prevailing narratives of a rational remove that must first silence sensory input before reason may fully operate. To date, no full-length rendering of not only the importance of resonance to the production of modern rationality, but even the nature of the tension between the move to that reason and the accompanying dismissal of that resonance, has been available, and in that sense, Erlmann's is a noteworthy and vital contribution.

[3] To accomplish this decidedly ambitious task, Erlmann attempts to move beyond the more obvious and frequently used theoretical and historical touchstones, starting with Descartes rather than Joseph-Guichard Duverney, and omitting a number of major otologists like Alfonso Corti as part of an effort to "chronicle the genealogy of modern aurality in terms that do not rely on the sole criteria of objectivity or empirical fact, but that also take into account the deep interpenetration of fact and value, objectivity and affect, and most of all – science and music" (25). With this strategy in mind, Erlmann thus begins at Descartes, moves next to Charles Perrault, Claude-Nicolas Le Cat, and the Early German Romantics (including Samuel Thomas Sömmerring and Wilhelm Heinse), continues on to Johann Wilhelm Ritter and Johannes Müller, Hermann von Helmholtz and his interlocutors, and finally addresses Günther Anders, broadening and deepening the scope of inquiry with salutary results.

[4] From this laundry list of not-so-central (yet newly centralized) figures, who represent only the chief participants from among a cast of dozens, Erlmann crafts an expansive narrative of the burgeoning theorization of resonance in both the physiological and philosophical registers and the challenges posed to it by the persistence of Cartesian rationality, a brief tracing of which will prove valuable in making the thrust of his argument more apparent. At the outset, Erlmann finds Descartes himself to be less than stable in his proferring of the divide between mind and body, suggesting an interest in aurality that carries through to Perrault's more overt refutation of that divide; sees Le Cat move beyond the limitations of pure physiology in criticizing the shortcomings of the ear-as-"human harpsichord" metaphor common to seventeenth-century theorization, a transition seized upon by Heinse and Sömmering's focus on waterfalls and the role of fluid as an interface between the auditory nerve and the soul; and follows an increasing (though far from complete) distantiation from resonance as performed by Ritter, Müller and, most importantly, Helmholtz, whose theory of cochlear resonance is at once more deeply rooted in physiology than anything that comes before it and, as a product of uncertainties therein, less sure of the resulting resonance than all forebears.

[5] Yet, to limit Erlmann's analysis to these primary players is to overlook what is perhaps best about his project, the numerous minute accountings and historical peculiarities that happen in the course of the stalemated negotiations between his titular concerns, some of which may prove even more relevant in the present moment. To wit, while discussing Derrida's relationship with the ear and its premising on the eardrum as an equalizing entity, Erlmann notes that approach as being "marked by a surprising... anatomical blunder. Strictly speaking, the eardrum is incapable of equalizing inner and outer pressure" (48), suggesting that Derrida's quest for elegance may have exceeded its factual basis. Theoretical banter aside, Erlmann problematizes the "emancipatory potential" (269) of Helmholtz's listening subject, who hears selectively, rationally but, at base, is still servant to the whims of resonance, finding that "[t]he modern tempo of life...prevents the subject from crafting itself into a unified whole by violating a key human principle, rhythmic symmetry" (280). It is this violation, in concert with the din of modernity and its accompanying "loss of echo... the individual's dwindling capacity for self-reflection" (315), which characterizes Erlmann's modern listening subject, caught in the interstice between twinned declines of resonance and reason.

[6] It is here that Erlmann's analysis reaches its culmination, its logical (and resonant) endpoint, in the uneasy détente between resonance, once prominent, then in descent, now returned to haunt the modern listening subject, and reason, nascent, ascendant, yet under threat in much the same manner. In response to a hypothetical call for resolution of the reason and resonance debate, Erlmann states that "[p]erhaps there is no definite answer to this question, and the best way to end this book is not by way of a conclusion, but an oscillation" (340). As such, there is no definitive advantage taken by either reason or resonance, but rather a near merger in "the intertwined histories of the reasoning ear and the resonating mind" (341), a crosspollination of a sort that contends that closure of the tension between reason and resonance is not only impossible, but also, and perhaps more importantly, undesirable.

[7] Though Erlmann's text constitutes a notable and long-overdue intervention in the discourse surrounding reason and resonance, it is not without its occasional warts which, though minor blemishes, one cannot help but notice in passing (though also with qualification). First, Erlmann's is, beyond any doubt, a specialized text, one which expects a firm grounding in the attendant theory and history from its first page, and which pauses only occasionally, and with some reluctance, to fill in gaps for the uninitiated reader (though most who come to it will do so with that background in place, or with the requisite ability to elide those gaps). Second, in addition to the chief figures outlined above, Erlmann includes a dizzying array of individuals among his historical anecdotes, so much so that, if one is not already familiar with them before entering the analysis, some degree of confusion is nearly unavoidable. Finally, though not a flaw per se given the demonstrated difficulty of reaching any sort of closure on the reason and resonance debate, that Erlmann travels so far only to leave the reader essentially back at the beginning, certainly older, but perhaps only some the wiser, is the slightest of disappointments, (although preferable to a hasty and unjustified foreclosure).

[8] Despite these token missteps, Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality provides a much-needed and ably realized analysis of the persistent tension between reason and resonance. In light of the emergence of auditory culture as a theoretical concern in recent years, as well as the ongoing challenges posed to the modern subject by crises economic, geopolitical, and environmental, in which respective cognitive dissonances problematize both perception and rationalism, Erlmann's study takes on greater importance by the day.