Making the Perfect Record: From Inscription to Impression in Early Magnetic Recording

The Spirit of Sound

Of course, the very idea of an immediate or immaterial sound somehow preceding the recording process was itself a cultural production imbricated with the popular emergence of audio technologies (including Edison’s phonograph) during the 1870s and 1880s. If recording was invented, then so, too, was the spirit of sound. A speaking spool was at once aura and artifice. That said, Smith’s magnetic thread is curious neither as a vehicle for deconstructing the metaphysics of presence nor as an opportunity to interrogate copies as aberrations of their originals. As Jonathan Crary (2001, 4) asserts, critiques of presence are now well rehearsed, and perseverating on them simply ignores larger historical issues related to how the senses are enculturated, organized, and disciplined. Equally familiar to media studies is what Jonathan Sterne (2003, 286) calls the “ontological split between an original and copy,” which “only offer[s] a negative theory of sound’s reproducibility, where reproduction can reference only that which is not reproduced.” As goes the fallacious assumption, copies are always at a loss

A more complex question, then, is how media and their metrics co-construct (rather than merely compensate for) human perception and memory, manufacturing faith in what eyes cannot assess and what ears cannot replay. And to push this inquiry a step further, scholars invested in the materiality of media must unravel how particular procedures of inscription, transfer, and playback facilitate particular forms of record making, including—to return for a moment to love “warranted 200 yards long”—how the physical specifications of magnetic storage shaped the processing of proof and fostered a faith in evidence.

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