For the second NUDHL session of 2013-2014, the group had the privilege of hearing from and visiting with Jonathan Sterne who teaches at the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at McGill University, and author of the recent book MP3: The Meaning of a Format. With a focus on “sound studies,” this session especially attracted faculty and graduate students from the various departments of the Bienen School of Music (e.g. Musicology, Music Theory & Cognition), the School of Communication (e.g. Theater & Drama, Performance Studies), and librarians from Northwestern University Library’s Music Library.
After an introduction by NUDHL co-convener Michael Kramer, author of The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture and whose research interests include “sonification” in the context of historical research and argument, Jonathan Sterne started things off by providing the group a definition of digital humanities. Sterne sees DH as humanists using digital technology in order to do new research and forms of publishing they couldn’t previously do, while also placing it in conversation with fields like New Media and those who study digital culture and media technologies. Yet, Sterne was quick to caution against a DH that embraces an “app fetishism” that privileges methods over questions (or, as he described it, “playing with toys”). Sterne then went on to discuss media historically, elaborating on the university mainframe of the past as a collaborative physical space, and the long tradition of humanists appropriating technology (e.g. photocopier, slide projector, card catalog, etc.) for their own uses.
On issues of sound and digital humanities, Sterne stressed the integration of sound into humanist pedagogy and presentations, and, in multimodal publishing, to create auditory content to illustrate arguments. Seeing this as a moment similar to when art historians started using slide projectors, Sterne questioned why we don’t embed sound the way we embed images? One major barrier to this, Sterne thinks, is institutional timidity around fair use. But, once we begin using sound the way we use images, he felt it could bring about major transformations in how we think, talk, study, and listen.
In the question and answer session, the group wondered how the digital might help us better study analog sound technologies? This question had us considering “close listening” and work such as Adorno’s “The Curves of the Needle.”
When it came to a question on using sound in publications, Sterne saw appropriate use being a question scholars have long faced: do you go for broad legibility or poststructural academic prose? This, to him, seemed to be the same question we have to ask ourselves in relation to multimodal argumentation, which can easily overwhelm and obscure through an excess of sound, image, video, and more.
Finally, we also discussed issues of labor (e.g. publishing multimodally usually does not come with institutional support), collaboration (e.g. the need for designers), and, to come full circle, how we need to not get so lost in methods that we stop asking questions.
As the session ended, scholars and graduate students from Northwestern shared their own experiences and challenges with using sound in their pedagogy, making it clear that this was an activity happening more and more throughout a wide range of disciplines, and one that often requires collaboration between scholars, librarians and technologists. Luckily, all of these folks were in the room, so ideas, questions, resources, and contact information were quickly exchanged, connections formed, and plans hatched while we divvied up the leftover coffee and pastries on our way out.