This week’s readings on soundscapes are helpful in trying to understand another facet of material culture study. Mark M. Smith traces the historiography of sound in history and argues that the history of sound allows historians to enhance our understanding of the past and helps us to see how past peoples interacted with their environments. Looking at three different examples, Smith shows that sound studies are not just a minor perspective, but that this entire methodology is an opportunity to explore more than just the things that we can see.
One example that Smith draws upon in his historiography is Emily Thompson’s Soundscape of Modernity. Focusing on the first three decades of the twentieth century, Thompson looks at architecture, among other things, to understand how Americans in urban spaces such as New York, Boston, and Los Angeles shaped their built environment around their cultural constructions of sound. Sound, shows Thompson, helped to create modernity, which she defines as efficient, a commodity available for consumption, and an overall sense that humans had “technical mastery” over the environment. Thompson shows us how we can use sounds to understand place and time, which will certainly be helpful in my project.
When I first began researching my project on the license plate, all I could think about was the loud noises that must have been created as it was manufactured. Once I located my plate’s provenance, the sounds, conversations, and uproars of the Western State Penitentiary and the male inmates who made these plates between 1971 and 1976 became even more intriguing to me. This made me think about how its location shaped the area's sounds as well. Located just outside the city of Pittsburgh, a major steel manufacturing town until 1980 or so, is equally important to understanding Western State’s surrounding conditions. As deindustrialization crippled Pittsburgh during these years, I wonder about how the city’s soundscapes changed over time. I wonder if they became quieter over time as factories were abandoned, rendering Western State and the surrounding area even more invisible than they may have already been. Thompson’s source base is helpful in my project in the sense that it helps me to understand how the built environment of the penitentiary created a soundscape that shaped the reality of those who encountered and created it every day.