Altergott on Brehm (2023)

Brehm, Brett. Kaleidophonic Modernity: Transatlantic Sound, Technology, and Literature. Fordham University Press, 2023, pp. 288, 30 illustrations, ISBN 9781531501501

In Kaleidophonic Modernity, Brett Brehm makes a case for analyzing the historical period of 1830–1880 to expand and enrich scholarship on the transatlantic auditory imagination of the nineteenth century. Probing the relationship between literature and media, Brehm uncovers the ways in which literature provided a sort of laboratory for exploring metaphors of technological change and for conceptualizing new inventions and their impact on society. Brehm demonstrates how writers and poets elaborated direct and implicit “protophonographic” approaches to representing sound and listening in the decades before sound reproduction was finally realized by Edison in 1877. 

In this study, Brehm rehabilitates the obscured figures of poet-scientist Charles Cros (1842–88) and pianist, muse, and salon hostess Nina de Villard (1843–84), contextualizing their contributions alongside canonical figures of urban modernity such as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Walt Whitman. These new pairings enable Brehm to side-step well-trodden trajectories on Poe and Baudelaire to say something new about sound and modernity. By offering close readings of the neglected acoustic substrates in these authors’ literary works, Brehm shifts the scholarly conversation on aesthetic modernity to better account for its auditory dimensions, showing how the visual and acoustic informed each other. Amassing a wide-reaching corpus of published and unpublished literary works, paintings, and audiovisual media, Brehm takes a deft interdisciplinary approach that brings new understanding to this historical period. 

In parallel to the contrast between well-known and obscure figures, Brehm examines lesser-known audiovisual media such as the “photophone” and the “phonautograph” alongside the familiar daguerrotype, stethoscope, and phonograph, establishing a more complete picture of the technological landscape and the literary traces of urban noise. Accordingly, Charles Wheatstone’s short-lived kaleidophone (1827) inspired the theoretical framework for Brehm’s monograph. Brehm adopts the term “kaleidophonics” to refer to the interweaving of the audio and the visual, as opposed to attempting to separate the senses. This term also frees the author from the limiting implications of the term “phonographic,” to instead account for a broader range of audiovisual futures imagined by inventors and authors alike. In a fitting conclusion to the book, Brehm notes that Erik Satie himself would articulate an idea for a “kaleidophonic recording” in his 1912 essay, “Ce que je suis” (193), thereby confirming his status as the modern inheritor of many of the ideas that passed through Villard’s salon, from Zutistes to Symbolists.  

In chapter one, Brehm recovers the history of Cros’s scientific and literary contributions to audiovisual technology, and his impact on later authors and movements such as Albert Robida and the Surrealists. Using close readings of poems, short stories, and scientific documents, Brehm reveals that Cros nevertheless held a certain ambivalence about technological futures. For Cros, literature served as a means of probing the darker implications of audiovisual preservation and reproduction, namely its entanglement with centralized power and a nascent state surveillance. 

Brehm then examines how various sound technologies and instruments help us deepen our reading of the sound and listening in the works of Edgar Allan Poe (chapter two). Especially convincing is his reading of “The Black Cat” (1843) as a response to the new stethoscope, which opened up new sonic worlds of human interiority through the practice of auscultation. Brehm draws from Brian Kane’s work in his 2014 Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice on the “acousmatic,” or a sound whose source remains hidden, to show how many of Poe’s texts hinge on an obscured sound source. Since Poe often uses auditory hallucinations to interrogate the limits between rationality and madness, Brehm’s analysis sheds light on an overlooked nuance in the Académie Française’s original 1762 definition of “acousmate”: “the noise… that one imagines hearing in the air” (79).

Building on an oblique reference to “a rag of music (un lambeau de musique)” evoked in Baudelaire’s prose poem, “Widows (Les Veuves)” (1869)—itself an echo of his famous metaphor of the ragpicker who collects “the material detritus of urban life” (103)—Brehm contemplates the latent sonic “residue” (24) of the city contained within Baudelaire’s poetry (chapter three). However, the “prophetic” aspect of audiovisual literature is tempered by Baudelaire’s general contempt for the bourgeois cult of progress. The corresponding malaise present in his poetry provides an important counterpart to Cros’s and Nadar’s dreamy optimism. 

In chapter four, Brehm uses the works of Walt Whitman to explore “the fate of the literary voice” (138) in the face of the competing economy of sound recording. For Brehm, the poet’s encounter with the increasingly noisy uproar of urban New York crowds led him to develop an aesthetics of acoustic recording, conceiving of voices and sounds as living vibrations, buried beneath the city streets. Brehm thus qualifies section twenty-six of “Song of Myself” as “an expansive catalog of sounds” (140), sparked by the poet’s commitment to sustained attention to the world around him: “‘I will do nothing but listen’” (140).

Brehm concludes his study with an ambitious chapter on Nina de Villard, spanning from her personal writings, fictional representations of her by authors such as Catulle Mendès, and contemporary discourse on sound and noise in her literary salon (chapter five). Crucially, Brehm asks how we might reckon with the loss of the literal sounds of Villard’s salon—qualified by Mendès as an “impenetrable wall of sound” (“muraille sonore,” cited Brehm 177)—right at the dawn of mechanical sound reproducibility, when such sounds were understood as “newly recordable and preservable” (157). Probing her reputation as a “singular listener” (159), Brehm uses literary sources to recover the once-lost soundscape of Villard’s singular auditory space that had influenced so many artists and movements of the Belle Époque.

It is fitting that Brehm’s rigorous study culminates in the figure of the noisy literary salon, an interdisciplinary crucible for artistic creation par excellence. By bringing together Cros and Villard with Baudelaire, Whitman, and Poe, Brehm has orchestrated his own literary salon of sorts, sparking new contrasts between, for example, deafness as a prompt for technological advancement versus deafening noise as a prompt for poetry; or the ways in which Baudelaire’s lambeaux and Whitman’s intentional listening both anticipate Apollinaire’s figure of the poète phonographiste (1914). Brehm’s synthesis of this rich period of “kaleidophonic modernity” will be essential reading to scholars of French literature, sound studies, and cultural history of the Second Empire and Third Republic.