Aural Media – Speech, Sound, and Literature from Plato to 20th Century Sound Poetry, from Dialogue and Oratory to Radio to MP3

Course Number: ENGL 236
Prerequisites: Graduate Standing
General Education Areas Fulfilled: Check on GOLD
Catalog Course Entry: ENGL 236
Quarter: Winter 2014
Instructor: Warner, William
Day(s): T
Time: 5:00 PM – 7:50 PM
Location: SH 2617

Modern media theory and media studies have evidenced a bias for vision and the eye. It is difficult to know if this bias is due to the ancient epistemological equation of vision and knowledge (where ‘do you see?’ becomes equivalent for ‘do you understand?’); or, is this bias the result of the formative influence of the visual media of writing and print (as McLuhan thought); or, alternatively, results from the sheer allure of modern visual technologies of photography, film, television and the computer screen. This course will track the long history and theory of aural media, media that can be heard but not seen: speech, the non-human sounds of nature, music, and those sounds of things on a ‘soundtrack.’ In this long history of mediation we won’t neglect what has been there from the beginning of aural media: the live speaking body, difficult to grasp in its mobility and suggestive plurality.


Here are some of the readings that will help guide our historical and critical exploration of aural media.

  • John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication: Peters 2nd chapter (“dialogue and dissemination”) allows us to explore—through his contrast of Plato and the Gospels—how writing begins as a speech recording technology, where the long dream of the dialogue (the melding of two minds) is a haunted by an errant reception that leads Jesus to emphasize (in the parable of the sower) the necessity of practice of dissemination.
  • The Classical and Medieval practices of rhetoric are grounded in the performance that is both oral and written (Guest seminar leader: Professor Jody Enders, UCSB, French and Comparative Literature).
  • A polemical case for the primacy of the oral: what Marshall McLuhan suggests in his indictment of the linearity of the alphabet and the printing press (in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man – 1962) Walter Ong turns into a fully developed polemic in his celebration of primary orality (in Orality and Literacy, 1982).
  • Jacques Derrida in Of Grammatology and Speech and Writing challenges the argument for the primacy of speech and hearing. Derrida’s philosophical reading finds writing is always already inscribed within speech; Derrida insist that the idea of speech free of writing is a form of “phono-logocentrism,” part of the metaphysics of presence.
  • The Medium Is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, illustrated by Shepard Fairey
  • Orality and Literacy: 30th Anniversary Edition by Walter J. Ong with a Foreword by John Hartley


After this theoretical and historical solicitation of aural media, we will read a series of theoretical, historical and literary texts that allow us to track its history: Bakhin on dialogism in the “conversational” novels of Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne; Jay Fliegelman, Paula McDowell, and Sandra Gustafson on the late 18th century oratorical movement of Sheridan and others designed to popularize and democratize communication (a test case—Declaration of Independence); Lisa Gitelman on the new 19th and 20th century technologies of sound capture and replay (the Edison phonograph; telephony); Susan Douglass on the history of radio (Listening In), on to the sound film, portable music technologies and the audio file (MP3, etc) of our own time. Along the way we’ll consult literary writers’ negotiation of writing, print and aurality (for example two brief early chapters from Thoreau’s Walden).


Here are some questions that will be explored in the seminar: What are the special virtues and ‘affordances’ of aural media? Does it have “liveness” and immediacy by comparison with print and most optical media? Does aural media have a special pertinence for literature, which, though it usually takes the form of writing and print, requires the supplement of the voice to realize its full range and meaning? How does literature resist ‘silent reading’ through periodic returns to aural/oral communication? (e.g. the Romantic return to the ballad)?


Requirements: one in-class 10-15 minute presentation on a reading from the course; a final term paper (12-14 pages), where seminar members will be encouraged to explore the general issues concerning aural media to a research topic and media object of their own choosing.