Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Neil Verma reviews Eco-Sonic Media

Jacob Smith. Eco-Sonic Media. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015. 272 pp.

Review by Neil Verma

Three fields harmonize in Jacob Smith’s Eco-Sonic Media, each signaled by an element of the book’s cover art. The design by illustrator Tang Yau Hoong features the outline of an Edison phonograph, whose centrality in the field of sound studies Smith has previously explored in his widely admired volumes on vocal tracks and phonograph cultures. The simplified image of the phonograph here is depthless, however, its silhouette blemished by hatches and micro-splatters that hint at the preoccupations of media archaeology, with its emphasis on noisy accumulations of technological inscription. Then, in the negative space of the design, a second figure emerges like the faces on the sides of a Rubin vase illusion: the head of a bird perched just under the phonograph horn, signaling an ecohistory attending the device. Using this intermingling of sound studies, media archaeology, and ecocriticism, Eco-Sonic Media opens up an astounding set of histories, from forgotten periods of sustainability in sound reproduction industries to the rise of sound devices that sensitize consciousness toward ecological crisis through experience and representation. In Smith’s words, the book uses “green media archaeology to make sound studies vibrate at an ecological frequency and open the ears of eco-criticism” (p. 5). 

The disciplines that form Eco-Sonic Media’s vertical weave bind together four horizontal historical threads that correspond to its chapters. The first begins with the forgotten role of the Indian lac, the insect source of the biodegradable, nontoxic (it’s even edible) resin that was the first plastic used to make records during what Smith calls the “Green Disc” era, a period characterized by low or no-wattage activities, in which recording relied on vocal energy and playback relied on hand cranks and bamboo needles. It is a practice you can hear: “The pops of Green Discs can be heard not simply as noise to be eliminated,” he explains, “but as an eco-positive attribute of shellac, giving voice to the kusum trees and reddish insects that provide a material base for the voices of Gilbert Girard or Enrico Caruso” (p. 38). The second chapter also amplifies material biohistory, focusing on the symbiosis of celebrity bird mimics, famous whistlers, and trained roller canaries, each a kind of “phonography by other means” in the early sound recording era (p. 49). The third chapter borrows from Ursula K. Heise’s work to show how sonic media conjure a sense of place and of planet. Smith outlines the history of underground probing from divination rods to metallophones, Geiger counters, and metal detectors. “Divination practices can be a powerful means of interweaving the experience of multiple spatial scales,” he writes. “As when practitioners toggle from the moment-to-moment monitoring of personal space, to encounters with local place and traditional lore, to the interaction with natural habitats, to the intimation of planetary depths that comes with the perception of underground veins of water or minerals” (pp. 106–107). A darker “sense of planet” emerges in the fourth chapter, which probes the role of sound in accounts of polar exploration. Situating these nightmarishly icy tales in the ecological thought of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, Smith also analyses a series of uncanny radio dramatizations of the windy reaches from Orson Welles’s 1938 radio play “Hell on Ice,” to recent adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft, showing radio’s affinity for what Timothy Morton calls “dark ecology.”

There is shared music between these four chapters that crunch, whistle, tick, and freeze. It turns out, for instance, that the Harz mountain range of Germany is the birthplace both of canary training and of modern underground sensing for minerals. Empire, from the colonization of the Canary Islands to the conquest of the poles, is another recurring theme. But while astounding connections between chapters lend the book scope, Eco-Sonic Media also represents a passionate case for minimalism. Seeking a sound media history that is also ecologically sound, Smith challenges equipment-heavy assumptions about doing media studies. The concluding passage draws lessons from history to explore low-carbon ways of teaching media, such as building phonographs with cardboard and cactus needles, interacting with canaries, creating soundwalk pedagogies, and developing “labor-intensive low-carbon” radio as an alternative medium (p. 167). Against the lumbering work of media studies as a field of moving images stowed in humming servers scattered across a warming earth, Eco-Sonic Media daringly imagines a minimalism—a sonic field, agile, birdlike, and unburdened.