The Ear as an Organ of Knowledge: Scientific Auditory Culture and Auditive Rationality

While in recent years studies in the areas of cultural studies, the history of science, art history/studies, and media have delved intensively into questions of the status of “scientific images,” there has been little work done in the area of the acoustic dimension of scientific knowledge production. While there are numerous works devoted to the creation and dissemination of the practice of stethoscopy (auscultation) in medicine or the use of Geiger counters in radiation detection, these studies do not thematize the auditory form of the creation and representation of knowledge. This subproject, entitled “The Ear as an Organ of Knowledge: Scientific Auditory Culture and Auditive Rationality,” therefore pursues the question—on the basis of concrete case studies—of how scientific facts are created through hearing and listening practices and acoustic representations. Furthermore, the project asks what kind of significance these may be given in the history of the sciences. Within the framework of the section on scientific auditory knowledge, “Listening in the Laboratory,” the subproject thus thematizes auditory events not as objects, but rather as tools of scientific research.

At the same time, the project’s historical point of departure is the establishment of auditory diagnoses on the basis of the stethoscope. The constellation formed between hearing scientist (doctor), acoustic medium (stethoscope), and auscultated knowledge body (patient) simultaneously represents a model that productively lends itself to latter case studies in other areas of science. Therefore it shall be demonstrated, for example, how the telephone, in the physiology of the late nineteenth century, was introduced as an indicator or gauge of weak electrical currents. The Geiger counter in radiation physics, as well as acoustic representations in brain research starting in the 1920s and seismology starting in the 1950s, serve as further objects of investigation. These historic examples are discussed vis-à-vis the research practices of the “International Community for Auditory Display” (established in 1992), which had as its aim the systematic exploration of the possibilities of an acoustic representation of scientific data, as well as knowledge production by means of hearing. These case studies confirm that the sciences have employed not just optic-visual “phenomeno-technologies” (Bachelard), but also acoustic instruments and media, making measuring signals and data hearable for the purposes of analysis, and, in this way, transforming them into sounds that produce and support knowledge.

This project is guided by the thesis that the production of objective knowledge is not tied to visual access and means of representation. These findings, therefore, are in stark contrast to the aforementioned generally accepted apriori assumptions about the area of auditory senses. Since “hearing” is, in general, bound together with the emotional, intuitive, and irrational, and not with scientific rationality, this project seeks, via an analysis of the history of scientific knowledge production through hearing and listening, to reveal and problematize the historicity of notions and attributions about the senses.