Aural Philology: Listening, Reading, and Cultural Difference in Eighteenth-Century Germany

Thursday, April 12, 2018 - 5:00pm

Tanvi Solanki

Cornell University


In my talk, I will discuss the key role played by listening practices in formative ideas of culture and reading as they were conceived in eighteenth-century Germany, most notably by figures such as Johann Gottfried Herder or Friedrich Klopstock. Herder marked a turning point in the historical arc of the concept of culture: he redefined and shifted the use of the term from a universal abstraction to one indicating the particularity of groups of people and their mother tongue, which he saw as the organ and medium of these cultures. Acoustics, I argue, formed an indispensable framework for interpreting not only Herder’s, but Enlightenment scholarly elites’ pedagogical pursuit to form a nascent German culture, one no longer shackled to a rarified Latinate culture of lettered erudition. Herder’s aim was to find a way to re-mediate listening into an altogether different operation, reading, for the purpose of forming community and of demarcating cultural differences. I will focus on some key texts of Herder’s, such as the Kritische Wälder (1768-9), to show how he aims to enact such a re-mediation through reforming contemporary philological reading practices. Broadly, philology is concerned with excavating the sediments of textual histories in hopes of unearthing their original source. For Herder, such philological aims intersect with a desire to reconstruct the sounds of antiquity and of oral cultures to result in what might be called an ‘aural philology.’ The acoustic reading practices Herder envisions would serve to re-activate the afterlife of oral cultures into Germany’s eighteenth-century print culture, well as a potential site of cultural conversion