The Sounds of History

by John Raimo

So far as writing history goes, the British historian G.M. Young wrote, “The secret is to treat every document as the record of a conversation, and go on reading till you hear the people speaking.” This characterization remains striking, and it cuts to a certain number of timeless historiographical issues. A first one seems clear enough. Many of the great texts which intellectual historians look to easily enough afford monolithic interpretations, that is, as worlds unto themselves. (Lest the point seem simple enough vis-à-vis intertextuality, &c., one can look to any number of recent studies delightfully lost in the tangle of Hobbes.) Recapturing the dialogues and polemical dimensions of such texts poses a different challenge—not least in reading demolished, perhaps boring, and justly or not forgotten arguments and thinkers. Few are likely to end up on most syllabi. Then archival work also enters the equation. What kinds of scaffolding fell away in correspondences, marginalia, pamphlets, and newspapers? Moreover, what sort of actual spoken conversations leave only the slightest traces in written documents or other forms of evidence?

At this point ‘hearing the people speaking’ begins to suggest a deeper level of comprehension. It cuts toward style. Appreciating this in full entails something more than teasing out allusions, references, and even the connotations of central terms. It means understanding something like the context, backgrounds, and circumstances of syntax, diction (not least regionalisms), rhythm, color, and the pitch of an author’s language. Style naturally enough implies an audience, or at least betrays expectations and anxieties floating behind the text. The hermeneutic demands were already daunting enough: now literary sensitivity, a lifetime’s worth of broad reading, and something like native fluency in a language all become necessary. So far as methodology goes, there’s nothing left but to “go on reading” until those voices begin to sound—and hopefully not the crazier ones.

Historians of the intellectual history of the twentieth century may have an easier job of this. Namely, television and radio all furnish not only a different source of evidence, but also evidence of a new order: the aural record as such. Here rich resources await anyone with patience, YouTube, and access to interlibrary loan programs. Before, during, and after the Second World War, public intellectuals of all kinds began making conscious use of all the media at their disposal. One fascinating earlier instance comes to mind in Thomas Mann’s BBC broadcasts to Nazi Germany (which were indeed later published), though Mann’s first broadcast actually happened more than ten years earlier. And so it’s little wonder that, another ten years after the war, the great intellectual Hans Magnus Enzensberger would begin his career in part as a Hörfunkredakteur of “Radio Essays” under Alfred Andersch at the Süddeutscher Rundfunk.

The floodgates open in postwar Europe with everything from the BBC’s renowned Reith Lectures to Günter Gaus’s famous interviews, André Malraux’s grand public speeches, and the Nobel Prize banquet speeches. This was hardly unusual: media groups such as the ARD in West Germany, Radio France (with quite an interesting chronology), and the BBC among others all made eager use of novelists, philosophers, and other public figures to both reach and create new audiences beyond print. Some scholars such as Tamara Chaplin have written sensitively about this as a phenomenon in its own right, and indeed it continues in many places until the present day.

Yet there is also a dearth of twentieth century studies connecting audio, visual, and print sources in terms of intellectual history. Here I mean how form modified the content, often through successive rounds or versions. This includes lectures recorded in the classroom, round-tables, interviews, and talks given before academic audiences, say Raymond Aron at the Sorbonne in 1963 for instance. These figures tailored and tried out formulations before committing themselves to print (and then often revising the texts afterwards). One particularly interesting case here might be Theodor Adorno, a wonderful public speaker who tested his 1964 attack on Heidegger in lecture form (an uncut form can be purchased here). The text is slightly different and, perhaps more importantly, his listener can’t escape the heavy irony laden in Adorno’s voice. And he’s quite funny to boot (an idea which likely has yet to take in studies of the great thinker). Or similarly, one hears not only Berlin but a Berlin of another time and place in Gershom Scholem’s autobiographical recollections.

Does listening to old recordings automatically make historians better readers? Of course not. Nor do historians hear things the way they were once heard, with all the hermeneutic baggage that texts pose alongside additional ones drawing on what can only be called our aural formations (i.e. our native languages, academic experiences, tempo of daily speech, and so on). Nothing threatens to pull written texts down from their pedestal unless we specifically turn to film, music, art, and other materials. On the other hand, nothing precludes a movement between sound and word for historians so fortunate as to have this great legacy at hand. So it may still make for better readers among intellectual historians and—just as importantly—it also humanizes the endeavor. One hears the tired, young, provincial, sick, laughing, charismatic, high-pitched (e.g. Otto von Bismarck) and even occasionally boring people behind, in, and sometimes escaping beyond the text.

*There are several resources to recommend here. Ubuweb, the Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA) the Bibliothèque national de France (where I recently stumbled onto a recording of Émile Durkheim), the British Library, and the ubiquitous YouTube are wonderful Internet resources. Many archives also have scattered holdings, albeit ones which must be visited in person. There are also lines of recordings, however, which can purchased from INA, the British Library, Hörverlag, Gallimard, Fremeaux et Associés, and Quartino among other publishers, including more boutique companies like Brigade Commerz and Supposé. A few others spring to my mind, but I’d like to hear comments and suggestions from other audiophiles among the intellectual history community.


  1. Definitely worth the–not very long–wait. And not so marginal to the marginalia after all. This too is a way of expanding our archives and making ourselves more sensitive to dimensions of texts that we may miss in simply reading them in modern editions. For some wonderful work in related areas, see my colleague Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity and her website, The Roaring Twenties ( What I’m really reminded of, though, is a column by the great Weimar journalist Gabriele Tergit. In exile in Britain at the end of World War II, she heard a BBC broadcast in German, by someone who with great eloquence and wisdom welcomed the German nation back to European civilization. The speaker, she wrote, himself spoke a wonderfully civilized German, of the sort she had not heard in public since the early thirties. Only at the end of the broadcast did she learn that she was listening to Bertrand Russell. The archive of sound has many surprises in store for us–interpretative and other. Thank you, John!

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  2. Thank you for the wonderful note, Tony, to say nothing of the references! The Bertrand Russell anecdote is similarly fantastic. That’s very much something I’ll have to find soon. (Need I add the Russell left a particularly rich audio legacy behind? Take a peek here at his Reith Lectures for starters: .) The story also touches upon something I forget to mention above, namely class. Prose can be edited and burnished to such a degree that it does not betray how far someone rose from below or descended from on high. For instance, as any study of received pronunciation (let alone of wonderfully tongue-in-cheek appraisals of U- and non-U English …. ) in Britain would show, class accents carry an enormous charge of information to listeners. I’m always amazed how at how British friends can still puzzle out someone’s grandparents’ birthplaces, their parents’ income, and their own educational background from these intonations. All of this goes into how speech may be received, not least in just who is taken more seriously or not by whom. I’ve also heard stories of how people with thick lower-class or regional accents (e.g. from Bavaria) were limited to local radio and television markets or even simply kept off the air. There’s a lot to be said about those intellectuals whom refused to accommodate these tastes and still found or made their audiences.

    I should also add a rather selfish request here. Should any of our readers know of any recordings of Reinhart Koselleck, do please contact me: he’s one of the few major figures in my pantheon whom I haven’t been able to track down (except for a few videos dubbed in Italian).


  3. This is super-great, John! Just to build on your last point, there’s also the question of accent drift/change: people make fun of how the Queen speaks, but many more upper-class people spoke the way that she does fifty or seventy years ago, and even she’s changed her accent over the course of her life. And of course, the spread of broadcast media in many countries has helped to homogenize accent.

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