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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas

  • Author(s): McEnaney, Thomas
  • Advisor(s): Masiello, Francine
  • et al.

In Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas, I write the unrecognized history of the co-development of radio and the novel in the middle half of the last century. I argue that just as photography helped re-invent pictorial representation in the nineteenth century, so authors across the Americas employed radio to retune the "unspeakable sentences" of the novel and string them together into rich acoustic environments, supplanting the narrator with the chorus, transforming character into a vocal effect, and turning away from the realist enumeration of Things to amplify instead the sound of social space. In representing and formally incorporating the radio into their narratives, John Dos Passos, Carson McCullers, Richard Wright, Gertrude Stein, Raymond Chandler, Severo Sarduy, and Manuel Puig wrote against the monolithic, charismatic, and nationalist orators who reached them over the radio. Taking seriously Jean-Paul Sartre's search for a "literary art of radio" and Frederic Jameson's speculation regarding a "radio aesthetic" in the novel, I demonstrate that authors in the radio age responded to radiophonics by developing a new kind of writing that was also a practice of listening. From the 1930s to the 1970s, they shaped the cultural imagination of radio's new social network, and initiated a project to define the neighborhood of the Americas.

I organize my dissertation around three thematic axes: acoustic engineering and aural media innovations developed in connection with the radio; the legal and political challenges posed by the commodification of sound; and the mutual influence between the novel and the radio that transformed narrative genre and fashioned radio's content and use. I show how, in contradistinction to the "Good Neighbor Policy," narrative artists from the founding nations of broadcast technology--the United States, Argentina, and Cuba--built an alternative sonic community connecting neighbors North and South. I bring together this new neighborhood of writers who latch on to the long legacy of sound technology's resistance to legal concepts of property--both intellectual and material. They find in radio a medium that occupies the domestic space of the phonograph at the same time that its range and reach contests national borders. In the novel, this means teaching readers how to listen, converting intimate scenes of overhearing into critiques of transnational relations.

However, I argue that rather than overtly seizing the means of radio production, as Brecht forcefully proposed, these writers used the novel to record the act of listening--archiving scenes radio itself cannot so easily represent. Attentive to listeners instead of speakers, these writers valorize listening as a creative, critical, and collective action against the nationalist and colonial voice. They underscore the novel's capacity to remediate other oral technologies, and the printed medium's own particularly dense work with multiple vocal registers. In addition to its own changes, the novel becomes a testing ground in which to work through the cultural value of the radio, its distinct reconfiguration of public and private space, its new forms of rhetorical address, and its previously unheard of massive and long distance communication. The novel emerges as the privileged form through which to understand radio's historical and cultural influence.

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