Shelley Trower, Senses of Vibration

Shelley Trower, Senses of Vibration: A History of the Pleasure and Pain of Sound (London: Continuum, 2012). 214pp. £14.99 Pb. ISBN 9781441148636.

Good vibrations, as the Beach Boys knew, promise more than just musical pleasure. Indeed, a history of modernity can be written from the perspective of vibration, as Shelley Trower demonstrates in this fascinating book, which encompasses a great deal more than the notion of sound. Since the eighteenth century, Trower shows, ideas of vibration have shaped understandings of mind, matter, and even spirit. In the nineteenth century theories of physical vibration underpinned technological innovation, as well as medical understandings of the human body and scientific theories of ether; vibration indicated sexual responsiveness and emotional sensitivity, becoming a part of new theories of nervous illness; and later it facilitated new forms of sound communication and contributed to the eventual development of mass culture and urban noise – not to mention also being recognised as the material correlate of musical rhythm. Charmingly, the thud of modern nightclub speakers supplies the starting point for the book's subtle historical journey through these earlier forms of trembling, quivering and pulsing, taking in much more than the pleasure and pain of sound.

Trower's real interest lies with feelings, nerves and technologies that vibrated and interacted in nineteenth-century life, with the physics and physicality of sound, with the history of human sensation, and with a variety of literary writing from the likes of Coleridge, Dickens, George Eliot, H. G. Wells, Wilde, and others, which illustrates its development and import. Vibration, Trower insists, continues to be bound up with sensory knowledge per se: 'Vibration crosses sensory thresholds in so far as it can be simultaneously palpable and audible, visible and audible' (5). But widespread fascination with sound vibrations, with measuring frequencies and describing the materiality of noise, first gripped the cultural imagination during the nineteenth century. Vibration offered a way of thinking about sensation more generally from the Romantic era onwards, as mental life became increasingly regarded as an embodied phenomenon, and as air and matter were understood to harbour the property of motion. An excellent chapter exploring auditory technology and the nerves shows how the conventional understanding of Coleridge's aeolian harp as a symbol of mental passivity might be revised in the light of Hartley's theory of sensory vibration in his Observations on Man. This is all well supported by reference to the Biographia Literaria and wider Coleridgean thinking, leading to a rewarding examination of the Romantic poetic trope of wind from the perspective of the period’s scientific knowledge, especially of the nerves. In line with a number of other recent critics, most notably Sharon Ruston, Trower seeks to recover a materialist reading of Romantic texts through their relation to the period's scientific culture. Hence the figure of the wind harp ‘became one of the chief emblems of a culture in which new technologies helped to produce and served to demonstrate a mechanized understanding of mind in relation to the material world’ (36).

Being highly strung was - and still is - a sign of feminine sensibility, however much the metaphor of vibration derived from the rise of materialist psychology. Effeminate sensitives crop in a variety of literary genres in the second half of the nineteenth century, as chapter two explores alongside a more sustained encounter with contemporaneous scientific theories. The idea of vibrating bodies fed into wider anxieties over homosexuality and decadence (Trower points out that Wilde's Dorian is likened to a musical instrument in the novel) and helped justify seeing same-sex masculine desire as deviant and pathological. Valid though this is, these concerns with gender and sexuality return fewer fresh insights than the chapter's discussions of science and spiritualism. A reading of literary 'telepathic vibrations' (66) in texts such as George Eliot's story The Lifted Veil push the argument in more promising directions. Latimer, the antihero of Eliot's story, and a quintessential highly strung narrator, has a marked scientific curiosity while also describing his telepathic mind as being like 'an importunate, I'll-played musical instrument' (58). Chapter three, which looks at the similarity of nerves and wires in the Victorian imagination, shows that a culture of technological advancement (telegraphy, telephony, X-rays) did not dispel supernaturalist phenomena but, if anything, granted magical and spectral figures new kinds of credence. Ghosts and machines remained frequently conjoined.

Medical questions are taken up in chapters four and five, which reveal a series of curious conditions attributed to the effects of physical vibration. A brief but fascinating account of street noise in the 1860s develops out of a discussion of railway shock and the din of steam engines. Trower takes a moment to notice how the medicalised discourse of nervous health extended to sexual matters, too: the vibration of railway carriages caused enough concern over bodily arousal for the Lancet to run a series of articles about it, anticipating the kind of cultural worry that would attach to female cycling in the 1890s and the New Woman, and later to the use of sewing machines. 'The opposing views of mechanical excitation as being both dangerous and beneficial is symptomatic of the deeply divided attitudes to women taking on new roles and using the new machines' (137), Trower suggests. Vibrators, or percuteurs, were genital stimulating device that illustrated the contrary directions in which these attitudes moved, as some medical opinion accepted that vibration offered a palliative treatment in certain settings, such as childbirth. Meanwhile, late-Victorian worries over bicycling amongst boys of adolescent age, not to mention male masturbation, suggested that issues of bodily pleasure and self-control had significance ideologically as signs of national cultural (and imperial) health.

Vibration, this book reveals, is an almost incomparably rich category for thinking about mind and body in the nineteenth century. Physical, yet only visible through its effects on bodies, vibration helped explain the transmission of nerve energy in the physiological body, the contagious nature of social communication and affect, the basis of acoustic experience, the function of the senses in general (gatekeepers to external life), and ultimately nothing less than a physics of everyday existence. The history of the senses is fast becoming a recognizable part of cultural history, perhaps intellectual history, and Senses of Vibration adds to it significantly. Its range of research is highly impressive, yet lightly worn. And, appropriately for a book about the throb of stuff, it manages – commendably – to be at once sensitive and keenly energetic.

Peter Garratt (Durham University)

 

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