Listening to the Novel: The Soundtrack of Postmodernism

By Pedro GroppoNovember 23, 2013

Listening to the Novel: The Soundtrack of Postmodernism

Sound and Aural Media in Postmodern Literature by Justin St. Clair

THE EMERGING INTERDISCIPLINARY FIELD of sound culture studies is usually confined to media that actually contain sound: music, installations, film. Justin St. Clair’s Sound and Aural Media in Postmodern Literature: Novel Listening, the first book-length study of sound in postmodern American fiction, argues that literature should be added to that list. Literature and sound may seem antithetical, but it is hard to overlook the role of the incredibly rich soundscape of the 20th century in postmodern literature. From the noise of weapons and vehicles to TV, radio broadcasts, and Muzak, sound and narrative exist in dialogic tension and compete for the reader’s attention, very much in the same way that extra-textual sound does. Postmodern writers’ “aural fixation,” as St. Clair calls it, revolves around these simultaneous streams, a cacophony that ends up shaping our cultural identity and consciousness. This writerly obsession with sound, writes St. Clair, “echoes larger anxieties regarding the supposedly diminished position of print fiction in the contemporary media pantheon,” at the same time that visual media is seen as diminishing the power of verbal representation.

St. Clair updates Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia — a term referring to the multiple voices orchestrated in a literary text — to include heterophonia, thus expanding its range to encompass “a multiplicity of media transmissions, pervasive to the point of aural ubiquity,” forming a “background against which other sounds were perceived.” The book is very deft in addressing the different kinds of media, media that oscillate between foreground and background, competing for our attention or composing a soundscape to which we only half-listen. Two of the chapters deal with forms of transmissions — TV and radio — that revolve around voice, while the other two deal with rather more abstract media, the player piano and Muzak, which are conventionally thought of as background music but which manage to generate their own kind of (foreground) voices.

The player piano, wildly popular in the early 20th century, is the first step into the virtualization and commodification of sound, “the first mass-produced musical ‘software’ able to deliver songs that were indistinguishable from live human performance.” Consumers bought songs in rolls for their player pianos much in the same way (and for an approximate price) as we do now for our iPods. These simulacra of real piano players were responsible for a reconfiguration of the American public soundscape. A slightly more current (and far less sinister) version of its social function might be the jukebox, but there is no sidestepping the fact that player pianos were robots, and thus the analyses in this chapter include works of science fiction that deal with issues of authenticity and manipulation: Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano and Philip K. Dick’s We Can Build You, along with William Gaddis’s Agapē Agape.

St. Clair shows the history of radio to be analogous. “The cultural history of radio,” he writes, “can easily be read as a history of mass ventriloquy.” The panicked reception of Orson Welles’s dramatic broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938 was a testament to the practice of half-listening; despite its improbability and repeated announcements that the radio drama was not a news broadcast, half of the audience still believed New Jersey was being invaded by aliens. A medium that was once “the voice of authority” increasingly became hardly more than a “reassuring soundbed, little more than burbling white noise or musical ‘presence’,” but even as background, it has not lost its power to inscribe preexisting thoughts. St. Clair illustrates these developments with reference to Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and Philip K. Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth, in which radio actually becomes the inverse of Welles’s drama, a medium of “disaster management during an alien invasion,” controlled by the aliens themselves.

DeLillo is also central to St. Clair’s discussion of TV audio and the ambiguity created by schizophonia (a term introduced by R. Murray Schafer in 1969), or a splitting of sound from source. St. Clair identifies William S. Burroughs as the “template for the heterophonic novel’s schizophonic response to television,” in which TV audio becomes “visible” by muting it or by “crosstracking” (employing alternate soundtracks). This plays a large part in the work of DeLillo, who has a penchant for muting TVs. As St. Clair demonstrates with excerpts from Players and Underworld, this media anxiety between what is seen and what is heard reflects a key aspect of DeLillo’s fiction: “DeLillo’s most trenchant critiques frequently issue from the mouths of marginal characters, and the sly divorce DeLillo often employs between the narrative thrust of his fiction and its cultural analysis creates a formal tension that critics too often ignore.”

These three audio technologies — the player piano, radio, and TV audio — all “aspire,” according to St. Clair, to the “condition of Muzak,” or music as “aural anaesthetic, sonic persuasion, (im)pure background.” Muzak is, in a way, the fulcrum of the study, as it perfectly exemplifies an audio transmission that is supposed to be heard rather than listened to, but that is far from innocuous. Thomas Pynchon is famous for interrupting his narratives with song lyrics, the equivalent of foreground music, but St. Clair devotes the fourth chapter to his background music, the “wordless melodies” and “out-of-frame audio that reverberates in the corners and pervades the margins,” from kazoo concertos to buzzing metronomes. In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas reflects on the role of the Muzak Corporation’s massive social experiment in shaping the American soundscape, one that in a “subliminal, unidentifiable way” influences our behavior: one of their actual slogans was “Boring work is made less boring by boring music.” Gravity’s Rainbow, for its part, exposes the philosophies and strategies of the Muzak Corporation, whose project “seeps” and “contaminates” the soundscape in the same way that the Pavlovian “Mystery Stimulus” (which is, significantly, auditory) does. Pynchon transforms the mystery stimulus into a plastic named Imipolex G, which despite its powerful smell, “behaves in an audible fashion,” and into Soniferous Aether, a kind of of “audioanalgesia,” heavenly and ethereal as Muzak is supposed to be.

St. Clair’s prose is free of the distracting jargon that books grown out of doctoral dissertations usually display, and manages to balance solid amounts of theory, history, and close reading. Packed with information and insight into a fascinating and emerging field, Sound and Aural Media in Postmodern Literature is a vital and accessible inquiry into often overlooked aspects of the postmodern novel. The book’s only shortcoming is its rather brief conclusion, which brings the study up to the present. St. Clair elects Burroughs’s cut-up methodology, now democratized to everyone with a computer, as a template for today’s digital culture of mash-ups. But how do contemporary novelists tackle this? How are these practices making their way into literature? Thomas Pynchon’s recent Bleeding Edge, for example, seems to be doing interesting things with the language and media of the Internet. One waits for St. Clair to publish a follow-up, with speculations on aurality, noise, and heterophonia in the era of YouTube, podcasts, director and fan commentary tracks, and other instances of Burroughsian “crosstracking.”


Pedro is a PhD candidate in the English program at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil.

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Pedro is a PhD candidate in the English program at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil.


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