Thursday, April 3, 2008
Pierrot Talks Back
Everyone’s list of the world’s greatest inventors would probably include Alexander Graham Bell, Guglielmo Marconi, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, maybe the Wright Brothers…
Wait. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville?
Scott was a Parisian inventor in the 19th-century, and one of his creations, the phonautograph, is one of the objects that media archaeology values. The phonoautograph, unlike Edison’s phonograph (invented 17 years later), was not intended for use in audio playback; it would “write” sound, committing a picture of sound waves (a phonautogram) onto paper. According to an article in the New York Times, researchers recently discovered a phonautogram in such pristine condition that they were able to scan in its image and, using computers, reconstruct the sound that had produced them. The result: an 11-second recording of a voice singing, “Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit” – “In the moonlight, Pierrot responded.” The words seem fitting for such a spectral communiqué from the past. The recording recalls Ernst’s description of the “signal-to-noise ratio” in recordings of Foucault. The “techno-corpse” of the phonautogram communicates age through sonic distortion.
The computer-mediated archaeology performed by these scientists has literally given voice to a silence, filling an absence in the historical record, and reconstructed a path that deviates from the dominant historical narrative. The phonautograph does not devalue Edison’s accomplishment; as one researcher put it, “What made Edison different from Scott was that he was trying to reproduce sound and he succeeded.” It merely casts Edison’s achievements in a new light.
The role of the computer in all of this was essential. Without the ability to digitally scan the sound-picture and reconstitute it, none of this would have been possible. Interestingly, the role of digital media in all of this is one of deconstructing historical narrative: we can now listen to a recording that was made before anyone had conceived of the idea of playing back recorded sound. The computer, by being able to read what we can only see, disrupts our sense of the continuity of the past.