Rebecca P. Scales, Radio and the Politics of Sound in Interwar France, 1921–1939

Rebecca P. Scales, Radio and the Politics of Sound in Interwar France, 1921–1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) 304 pp. $80.00 PDF, £64.99 Hb., £24.99 Pb. ISBN: 9781107108677

Even though scholarly concerns with auditory developments are still largely marginal when compared with analysis of sight and reading – the sight paradigm continues to maintain an overwhelming influence on contemporary societies – Humanities have witnessed, over the last two decades, the resurgence of interest in sound-related technologies and in their contribution to society. A resurgence which is more than deserved given the profound changes sound technologies effected on societies during Modernism. Rebecca P. Scales acknowledges the epistemological bias in the field: ‘where a vast scholarly literature has examined the role of material and visual culture, from national monuments and paintings to the mass press, film, and even television, in shaping French political culture and national identity over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the auditory dimensions of politics have rarely been studied outside the circumscribed domains of singing and music’ (7). It is therefore with great pleasure that we witness the release of a work which intends to amplify the sensorial regimes of Modernity and therefore provides an expansion of the historical perspective which no doubt contributes to the annulment of long-running epistemological blindness.

It is undeniable that the wide array of technological apparatus brought profound changes which Modernity witnessed first-hand: Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s phonoautograph (1857), Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone (1876), and Thomas Edison’s phonograph (1877) preceded radical transformations and set the path for the new media ecology of the twentieth century. Still, none of these inventions would have such profound and lasting consequences as radio and a quick look at any statistics sheet concerning the number of households where a radio could be found at the beginning of the century seems to prove it. Radio and the Politics of Sound in Interwar France, 1921–1939 seeks therefore to provide a thorough account of the political, social, and cultural transformations in which radio played a significant role during the interwar period.

We must not forget the particularly problematic period, in civilizational terms, to which this work is directed, a period so marked by discouragement and shock that Paul Valery would write ‘Nous, civilizations, savons maintenant que nous sommes mortelles’. This is the state of mind in post-war France and it is against this background that Scales’ analysis unfolds.

The author writes that ‘This book investigates how France’s incipient auditory culture sparked a series of virulent debates about the role of broadcast sound and listening in modern life’ (3) and also ‘investigates how broadcasting transformed the dynamics of politics in France and its empire’ (3). The analysis presented in the work uses several levels, which range from domestic use of radio, and the strategies of reception, to full scale political propaganda and the use of state sponsored strategies.

Scales’ argument revolves around three main axes: the idea that radio ‘contributed to a “sustained crisis in definitions of public and private”’ (24); the idea that ‘factors such as gender, social class, and geographical region complicated access to radio technology and listeners’ reception of broadcasts’ (25); and the idea that ‘radio’s impact on French society and politics cannot be understood without considering it as the technological centrepiece of a much broader transformation to the soundscape’ (25). This set of assumptions adds new layers of analysis to the radio phenomenon and structures the presentation of the chapters which follow an order that corresponds approximately to chronological events.

In the first chapter (‘Radio broadcasting and the soundscape of interwar life’), the author starts by analysing the transformation of the sound landscapes, and the way in which this transformation brought significant reconfiguration for daily life in the cities. It can be seen thus as a case study of a global phenomenon that was recurrent throughout Europe. In fact, ‘Chapter 1 explores how radio transformed the soundscape, spurring virulent arguments over the meaning of “noise” and “quiet”, and producing a new everyday politics of listening preoccupied with questions of when, where, and how people listened to broadcast sound’ (20). The chapter invokes matters of identity and it is of added interest to think about contemporary technological developments. The second chapter (‘Disabled veterans, radio citizenship, and the politics of national recovery’) deals with the question of war veterans and the first steps towards the definition of an imagined community constructed through the possibilities brought by radio. How could the new medium collaborate in healing a society deeply marked by the scars of conflict? How could radio be a part of a social renegotiation between civil society and disabled veterans? The general idea of the chapter is to understand ‘how broadcasting shaped postwar debates about national recovery by mediating the renegotiation of citizenship for disabled veterans of the First World War’ (66). The third chapter (‘Cosmopolitanism and cacophony: static, signals, and the making of a “radio nation”’) ‘uncovers how a combination of listeners’ demands and top-down state initiatives together shaped interwar broadcasting policies’ (113), and further expands the theme discussed in the previous chapter while seeking to analyse the idea of a French space constructed from the negotiation of French language. The fourth (‘Learning by ear: school radio, partisan politics, and the pedagogy of listening’) and fifth (‘Dangerous airwaves: propaganda, surveillance, and the politics of listening in French colonial Algeria’) chapters are those that deal with more political issues, stricto sensu, and seek to determine the role played by radio in broader political processes related to the different political forces which characterized the interwar period in France.

From the microstructure to the macrostructure, radio is at the centre of the hurricane, that is to say, at the centre of the broadcast. The shift of perspectives offers an interesting change between private and public listening regimes and strategies, and the way they interact with one another. The complex point of view that this method allows for produces a powerful insight into twentieth-century France. The intersecting set of relations established by the author helps to draw, from a full-spread perspective of the political phenomenon, the consequences and the effects that radio imprinted in French society.

A final note should be added. The French case was not, as we know, an isolated case. Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and even the United States, albeit more commercially, relied on radio as one of the battlefields for the definition of a national identity, and used media, Clausewitz style, as an extension of war and politics. Scales’ work is thus of particular importance to understand this global phenomena, and gives us a detailed picture of the French case, thus contributing to the deepening not only of the History discipline but also of Archaeology of the Media and Cultural History Studies, an exercise that seems to be, given the current state of the world, increasingly necessary: saturated with fake news and in the midst of daily media wars, it can only be salutary to look back and try to learn from it.​

Nuno Neves, University of Coimbra