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 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, ideas of vibration have shaped knowledge of mind, matter, and even spirit. In the nineteenth century, where Trower locates most of her analyses, vibration informed the understanding technological experience, as well as medical understandings of the human body and scientific theories of ether; it 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 giving the material basis for the rhythmic satisfaction of music. The thuddings of nightclub speakers give the book its inspiration but Senses of Vibration opens up a remarkably rich and wide-ranging account of quivering things and looks at much more than the pleasure and pain of sound.

Trower's real interest lies with feelings, nerves and technologies that vibrated and interacted in Victorian 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 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 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 aided by historical science. 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. Anxieties over homosexuality made recourse to the idea of vibrating bodies (Trower points out that Wilde's Dorian is likened to a musical instrument) and helped justify seeing same-sex masculine desire as deviant and pathological. Valid though this is, these concerns with gender and sexuality return fewer original insights than the chapter's discussions of science and spiritualism, and a reading of literary 'telepathic vibrations' (66) in texts such as George Eliot's story The Lifted Veil push the argument in newer 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 advances (telegraphy, telephony, X-rays) did not dispel supernaturalist phenomenon but, if anything, granted magical and spectral figures new kinds of existence. Ghosts and machines remained intimately conjoined.

Medical questions are taken up in chapters four and five, which reveal a series of curious conditions attributed to the effects of 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 these 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 articles about it, anticipating the kind of cultural worry that would attach to female cycling in the 1890s 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 it became medically 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, certainly. 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)