Contested Sound Spaces: Acoustic Politics in Early Modern Zurich

Early modern urban societies were primarily integrated through communication amongst those living there. The media of such communication were composed of sounds in addition to speech, rituals, and print media. All of these elements helped to structure the social, cultural, and political space of the state in a way that is specific to its epoch. The sounds of early modern cities were “legible”: they formed a highly complex acoustic media and communications system that brought a rhythm to everyday life, gave a structure to the space of the city, and, moreover, indicated specific events through specific acoustic signals. In a way that is analogous to optical media, sounds at this time can be interpreted as a networked communication or media system that is culturally formed: such a system is governed by societal norms and interwoven with societal conflicts. Historical actors did not just hear differently, but followed those specific “soundways” that formed their social world and provided them with meaning.

The guiding questions of my project include the following: to what extent can sounds be understood as media of political power? What kind of knowledge about political regimes can be communicated with regard to which sounds? Who is in control of the power that decides which sounds will be a part of the city? Conversely, can we identify strategies of acoustic subversion? What kinds of sounds would be “read” in addition to being heard, understood, and interpreted? Can one speak of a distinct sound environment of early modern urban societies? It is the hypothesis of this project that political sonic and auditory knowledgeis created mainly vis-à-vis the knowledge of the acoustic frameworks of legitimacy ordering a society. Legitimacy and illegitimacy of sounds are categories of societal power structures. Therefore, political power is always, to some extent, a measure of legitimate sound production and appropriate listening practices in a political system. At the same time, however, that which would have been deemed illegitimate or offensive noise at given period of time is by no means a priori, but rather was the result of political conflict.

My project traces the politics of acoustics through the example of the early modern urban society of Zurich in a longitudinal perspective from the fifteenth to the early nineteenth century. I am especially interested in the relationship between political, religious, and social processes of transformation and their respective production of acoustic knowledge.