Erlmann: The missing ear (Session 7)

I must have first become aware of Siegert’s book around 2005 when I was working on my own Reason and Resonance. At that point I had written the first couple of chapters on theories of hearing from Descartes through the Enlightenment, basically arguing that these theories focused on acoustic resonance as the central mechanism governing pitch perception. Of course, this shift toward mechanics put paid to centuries of theorizing about harmony in geometric-arithmetic, i.e. Pythagorean terms. Philosophically speaking, this shift also corresponded to the emergence of the Cartesian episteme of representation. By the time I got to the pivotal moment of “around 1800” – that is, to Siegert’s “Riss” – I noticed that yet another, rather profound shift had occurred in how leading figures in a wide variety of disciplines began to think about sensation, biology, the human body and of course what it means to think in the first place. The cast of characters is similar to Siegert’s: Chladni, Ritter, Sömmering, Kant, Oersted etc. Because little had been written at the time about Ritter – although the latter had long fascinated Walter Benjamin (more about that further below) and more recently Bettine Menke had discussed him in her monumental Prosopopeiia – Siegert’s placing of Ritter within a theory of emergent media was certainly most welcome. Chladni’s work too had been sorely neglected and what little had appeared at the time was more of a biographical character or alternatively, was discussed from the perspective of social history such as in Myles Jackson’s Harmonic Triads.

But there was a problem. Neither Chladni nor Ritter were medically trained scholars, although Chladni at least is known to have studied the works of the Italian otologists Scarpa and Cotugno. Siegert failed to explore the significance of the “revolution” that had been underway in biology, medicine and physiology from the middle of the eighteenth century. His references to Haller, Mesmer, and the whole sensibilist cult that had swept French and British sciences and letters are somewhat sparse, particularly when it comes to the anatomy of the ear and the physiology of hearing – which are of course the focus of Reason and Resonance. Scarpa and Cotugno had cast doubt on Descartes’ reflexological, wax-seal concept of sensation (discussed quite well by Siegert on p.257); the first by describing the round window, the latter by discovering the endolymph filling the inner ear. Instead of air, Cotugno had shown, the medium for wave motion in the inner ear was a watery substance. Both findings basically complicated the Cartesian model of nerve action as far as the ear was concerned, displacing the mirror-concept of human sensation by adding further stages sensory impressions had to traverse on their way to the mind. In that sense, Cotugno – and of course, much later, Johannes Müller and the Weber brothers (whom Siegert does not mention) – might be considered as having prepared the shift from representation to signal processing. It is no longer sound-images or geometric proportions that the ear-mechanism transmits for the “soul” to contemplate, but, in Siegert’s terms, “signals.” In other words, the shift toward fluids and the mechanics of continua such as oscillations, waves etc. that Siegert correctly diagnoses, had already occurred much earlier in otology.

Read against the backdrop of earlier discussions of “romantic” science – especially those we inherited from nineteenth-century positivists such as Helmholtz – and in light of the most intriguing critique offered by Carl Schmitt – “Riss” is particularly striking because it sees “romantic” acoustics not as a mere scientific camouflage for post-Kantian philosophy a la Schelling and Hegel or as some kind of cultural context for an older musicology’s uncritical acceptance of transcendental aesthetics (as exemplified by Charles Rosen, among others). Siegert, one might say, almost celebrates this shift “around 1800,” as a kind of postmodernism (well) avant la lettre. In this his reading dovetails rather nicely with Benjamin’s infatuation with Ritter and his messianic-Utopian project – contra Carl Schmitt who saw romanticism as too individualistic or “occasionalist” and, hence, as potentially detrimental to his nationalist-fascist agenda – of salvaging Romanticism for a critique of modernity. There are also convergences between Siegert’s take and the re-evaluation of Romanticism that had been underway since the 1990s in cultural studies more broadly. Other points – which I adopted from Siegert – are the intriguing discussion of Soemmerring, the Elektrisirmaschine and Kant’s brainspasm and gesturing toward some kind of post-transcendentalism; or the section on Ritter, trance, and the unconscious of media.

At the same time, I feel that Siegert’s text, brilliant as it is, tends to be rather monolithic. This may be the ethnographer in me for whom analysis never exhausts itself in the attempt to reduce complexity to essentials, but I’m missing contradictions, slippages, incoherences, blind spots. In Siegert’s account, Chladni and Ritter simply come across as proto post-structuralists whose visionary powers almost magically seem to have spanned centuries.

Above all, however, I felt (and still feel) that there might be a way to combine Siegert’s fascinating analysis with my preoccupation with what I called the intimate animosity of reason and resonance around 1800 or, to bring the whole conundrum into our present moment, body and mind. Being a music person, naturally, the privileged space for this articulation, again c.1800, was aesthetics and here especially music, having emerged, after centuries of denigration, as the foremost among the arts. It’s an unfortunate effect of Kittlerian theorizing that aesthetics has lost some of that precarious primacy it held for the Romantic (equally fragile) project of grounding a new subjectivity. And while it may be naïve to simply want to reinstate this moment of the birth of the Absolute in and through art, there might still be something worth remembering about the invention of the transcendental in Jena and elsewhere. Similar to Benjamin’s attempt to hold on to Ritter’s Utopian impulses and their grounding in the merging of “Schrift” and event, or perhaps, theory and practice, what one might retrieve from the epochal “Riss” is what two centuries of instrumental reason have erased and that now experiences something of a renaissance: an incredible cross-fertilization of science and aesthetics in fields from neuroscience to digital arts. In this context, might it be important to revisit Ritter’s last work, Die Physik als Kunst or Oersted’s writings on music?

 

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