As early twentieth-century cities were experiencing rapid modernization, many intellectuals dedicated space in their writing to praising or critiquing not only these urban landscapes, but also the new mentality and behavior that they required of inhabitants. These themes were especially visible in the work of Avant-Garde artists and writers in 1900-30s Spain. Ramon Gomez de la Serna, for example, was known for his playful skepticism and often ambivalent attitude towards Spain’s embrace of the modern (I wrote a short article in Spanish on the manifestation of this concept in his novela “La hiperestésica”). Given that this protean atmosphere informs the cultural background of much of my current research, a short video of 1920s New York City that I found via a recent New York Times article, “Listening to the Roar of 1920s New York,” immediately caught my attention. The film that accompanies the article is especially unique, since it was created to capture the noises and sounds of the street, rather than the visual splendor of new City sights. The article also explains the impetus behind the Noise Abatement Committee of New York’s decision to record city sounds by attaching microphones to a roving truck: They were concerned over how the high noise-levels might affect residents’ health. (Click the image below to open a new window and
watch listen to the 2-minute video):
This same article led me to “The Roaring Twenties” project created by Professor Emily Thompson, historian of sound, technology, and cultures of listening at Princeton University. This fantastic online resource epitomizes the creative and far-reaching possibilities of Digital Humanities scholarship and offers a wealth of unique material for teachers and scholars of history, literature, and a variety of disciplines that welcome interdisciplinary approaches to research. As Thompson points out, concerns with noise levels and distracting sounds were certainly not unique to the twenties… nor to New York City or American Culture.
Thompson asserts in her Introduction that studying aural history is not merely about sound, but about our becoming attuned to “sonic culture” by developing a mode of listening that requires an adjustment of “our modern ears to the pitch of the past.” Yet what I find fascinating is the fact that individual imaginations will nevertheless create a unique “soundtrack” for a given image. Moreover, the inability to incorporate authentic sounds from our (present) lived experiences into our imagination of a past era makes it difficult to identify the aural milieu with precision. Take, for example, the following gorgeous images of 1920s Madrid: What noises would we hear in a 1920s carnival or amusement park that we would never hear today (and vice-versa)? How does the technology used for rides, games, and attractions not only create unique visual experiences, but distinctive sounds? No loudspeakers… no computerized music or voices…
And in the Puerta del sol of the 1930s, what exactly does a Model-T driving on an un-paved or semi-paved road sound like? What noises are present when the flow of street traffic lacks the direction of stoplights and the organization of painted lanes or traffic circles? There are certainly fewer automobiles, yet there are many more trolley cars and cables… pedestrians seem to amble about among the traffic rather than keeping to the sidewalks or “crosswalks”…
In general, our ability to produce an authentic sense of this past atmosphere is essentially impossible without the added use of film or recordings. Vintage photographs are noteworthy for the way in which they challenge our modern-day visual perceptions, but we rarely consider the sounds and noises that would also be present if we were actually witnessing such an event. How might we imagine the sounds, smells, and sensations that would form part of the experience in its entirety? The “Roaring 20s Project” invites us to consider these often overlooked aspects of history.
Returning to the state of urban residents’ mental health and how it might be affected by the rapid pace of modern city life, I could not help but think of Georg Simmel’s well-known essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), which I read several times in graduate classes. Simmell described what he called the blasé attitude adopted by metropolitan citizens in response to the increasing number of external stimuli in modern life. He argues that such an attitude is absent in those residing in “more peaceful and more stable” rural environments; thus the blasé individual is the by-product of modern, urban life. Simmell identifies the essence of this “psychic phenomenon” of the city as:
…an indifference toward the distinctions between things. Not in the sense that they are not perceived, as is the case of mental dullness, but rather that the meaning and the value of the distinctions […] are experienced as meaningless. They appear to the blasé person in a homogeneous, flat and grey colour with no one of them worthy of being preferred to another (14).
Of course, like any good academic, I immediately related these century-old, rather profound philosophical observations to… Anchorman:
Poor Brick Tamland just cannot adapt… He lacks the ability to behave indifferently, and thus his constant attention to the distinctions between noises, arguments, and other external stimuli surrounding him provokes his mental torment. He’d be much calmer – yet much less interesting! (an important consequence of this modern phenomenon) – if he were able to adopt a blasé attitude in the workplace. And who among us today has not tried to shield ourselves from the stressful, incessant, often overwhelming sights and sounds in our own 21st century lives? I would argue that our modern day blasé attitude now consists of smart phones, iPhones, and headphones. In fact, we tend to be so caught up in our own personal (often self-created) worlds that we rarely interact with others in public, whether at coffee shops, on public transportation, or even waiting in line at the store. Thus I found the New York Time’s article and Thompson’s aural history project to be unique for their celebration of a century’s worth of LOUD NOISES and their contribution to and affects on cultural and social progress.
What are some modern-day sounds, sights, or interactions that “affect your health”? How to you adopt a modern-day blasé attitude to compensate for these disturbances?
Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” PDF via Blackwell Publishing
Thompson, Emily. The Roaring Twenties – an interactive exploration of the historical soundscape of New York.
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