Asking questions of culture: media studies at Cornell

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio Fireside Chats reached into the homes of frightened Americans to soothe and reassure them during the Depression and World War II. The chats were made possible by newly sensitive microphones that created an emotional intimacy with the audience – but also required Roosevelt to use a dental implant to reduce the whistle caused by the microphone.

Scholars in the field of media studies, and its sub-discipline, sound studies, examine topics like Roosevelt’s chats and how the medium and message interact. Though the field is young, technical and production-oriented study of media has been around for a long time. Media studies includes everything from podcasts to the history of books to Aristotle’s interest in the ways voices move through the air. 

“For me, to study media is to study the words, images, and sounds with which our minds are ceaselessly inundated and stimulated every day. They are caught up in our most intimate life struggles, our dialogues with ourselves and with others. It seems to me that finding the words with which to reflect on these questions in today’s university classrooms---where people of diverse backgrounds and sensibilities gather face-to-face---is perhaps the most important preparation we can offer our students for life in today’s world,” says Brett de Bary, professor of Asian studies and comparative literature.

Media Studies is a highly inter-disciplinary field, drawing on many methodologies and fields of study, such as computer sciences, the physical sciences, psychology, fine arts, history, sociology, and literature. Cornell’s long history of cross- disciplinary collaboration and fruitful cross-pollination of ideas is important, because the objects of media studies “refuse in their very nature to be easily siloed or neatly taxonomied,” says Nick Salvato, associate professor and chair of performing and media arts.

Media studies research and teaching at Cornell elaborates on traditional techniques of scholarship, bringing in new objects of analysis and combining disciplines.  There is an important wing of media studies that proceeds from deconstruction and high theory, areas in which Cornell has a long history of strength, notes Jeremy Braddock, associate professor of English, and other approaches have developed out of cultural and literary studies, history, and philosophy.

“It’s a really exciting moment to be in the humanities because the variety of new technologies available to us can extend the work we’ve been doing for generations,” says Tom McEnaney, assistant professor of comparative literature. “We’re reinventing the basic media platforms in which we make art and narratives, so everything from the past looks new again. But technology will only help the humanities—and, really, everyone who engages the technological world—as long as we have great intellectual dialogue about it.”

Braddock points out that the invention of a new technology can reorganize society in ways that are unintended and not clearly perceived for a long time after. “This is the reason for media studies and the reason humanists have a crucial role to play,” he says.

“The work of interpreting new cultural developments, making meaning of them, is what the humanities is all about,” adds de Bary. “Because when you confront the new, it’s not a matter of looking for answers---you don’t even know what the right questions are yet! It has been thrilling to watch whole new schools of criticism emerge from scratch, as it were.”

The Book as Medium

Movable type, which allowed the mass-production of works like the novel, ushered in a new era of print culture. But print is seen now as just one among many media. In her studies of Japanese literature, de Bary demonstrates how that modern literature emerged in an environment where it was both influenced by and influencing many other vibrant practices and traditions, including woodblock prints, oral story-telling, theatre, and the photograph.
“Media studies involves recognition that the study of culture is less focused on the book than in the past,” explains de Bary. “At the same time, a fundamental insight of media studies is that new media tend to incorporate and conserve older media in myriad ways. So the study of the old and the new are inseparable, and studies of the book are flourishing in media studies.”

Braddock points to Twitter as an example; the literary use of Twitter, he says, is in some ways “a completely unprecedented form of literary community, but one which should be understood against the history of literacy and literary communities.”

A Global View

Anindita Banerjee, associate professor of comparative literature, says that the bulk of work in media studies used to be conducted from the perspective of the global West. But at Cornell, she and many of her colleagues are looking at non-Western theories and histories of media. In her new book, “Fuel Fictions,” for example, she examines the way that the punk art and videography of Pussy Riot activists sought to inspire Russian oil workers to organize for better conditions.

Ziad Fahmy, associate professor in the department of Near Eastern Studies, advocates for the importance of sounds and soundscapes in studying history, as he explains in “Coming to our Senses: Historicizing Sound and Noise in the Middle East,” an article he contributed to the journal “History Compass.” Fahmy argues that interpreting how peoples of the past sensorially experienced their world makes possible a richer, more comprehensive grasp of historical events.

Comparative literature’s McEnaney has researched digital photography’s role in the construction of divided global and national publics. His current book project, “Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas,” investigates the co-evolution of radio and the novel in Argentina, Cuba, and the United States, charting how authors in these countries began to re-conceive novel writing as an act of listening.

De Bary’s book, “Still Hear the Wound,” co-edited with Rebecca Jennison (Kyoto) is a collection of essays by Japanese critics on young artists who use new media to explore memories of traumatic events they have learned of only indirectly, through  parents and grandparents. The Battle of Okinawa, for example, is evoked through the media of performance art, painting, and sculpture/installation works in this collection.  

Sound and Sense

An important sub-field of media studies is sound studies, simply defined as “anything to do with listening.”

Although Cornell doesn’t have a dedicated sound studies program, according to Benjamin Piekut, associate professor of music, there are probably more faculty working in the field at Cornell than just about anywhere else in the U.S. 

In sound studies, says Piekut, instead of scholars operating solely within their disciplines, they gather around shared problem areas. “These contact zones seem to unlock vocabularies, new problems, and new complexities. I like that, being led to places I never anticipated going.”

When Trevor Pinch, Goldwin Smith Professor of Science & Technology Studies and professor of sociology, taught a sophomore writing seminar on sound studies in 2004, the field barely existed. “Now there are journals, handbooks, conferences and new programs,” he says. “It is one of the most exciting new interdisciplinary fields in the academy."

Last semester, Pinch taught a new undergraduate course in sound studies. His goal was to teach students to listen and think about sound and to consider what sonic experiences mean and how they are mediated by science and technology.


Professor Trevor Pinch

One fundamental question in sound studies is what constitutes meaningful sound. Andrew Bass, professor of neurobiology and behavior, studies the language of animals and how they communicate with each other. “That creates immediate connectivity to the humanities as well as the communications sciences,” Bass says. “Part of the reason we study mechanisms of hearing in non-humans is to identify fundamental principles by which we also interpret sound.”
Bass notes, for example, that the sounds fish make were once perceived as simply noise. “But there’s meaning in their sounds,” he says. “They make different kinds of sounds in different social contexts. And we describe their language with the same metrics as we apply to human speech: frequency, duration, amplitude, modulations. Fish detect, interpret and react to a rich acoustic landscape using the same perceptual dimensions of sound as humans.”

Near Eastern studies professor Kim Haines-Eitzen looks at a different kind of sonic landscape, drawing on the field of bioacoustics in her work. In her current project, “Acoustic Encounters in the Late Ancient Desert,” she focuses on the desert monastic literature of late antiquity and its attention to sensory landscapes, especially the acoustic dimensions of the desert environment.

“Interpreting auditory imagery in a text is as challenging as understanding visual references,” Haines-Eitzen says. “I hope to show how experienced and imagined acoustic landscapes shaped religious identity in late antiquity. Modern recordings of natural environmental sounds help us understand much more deeply the imagined and experienced ‘acoustic encounters’ as described in late ancient monastic texts. If we want to understand what’s going on in the text, we have to tune our ears to the sound of the environment.”

Sound Research in Music

Music is sound studies’ closest cognate, and many of Cornell’s music department faculty are deeply engaged in the field.

For example, Associate Professor of Music Alejandro L. Madrid studies soundscapes in Mexico and is interested in how democratic values are expressed through music, media and technology. 

Piekut’s new book examines techniques of experimental music outside of the concert hall, such as the music of Henry Cow, a rock band that existed from 1968 to 1978. The group emphasized improvisation, using their studio as a creative element itself, with tape loops and innovative microphone work. 

Experimental music unlocks new kinds of sonic textures, says Piekut, one of the reasons he likes it. “People working in electronic music for a long time can usually make sounds that no one else can.”


Assistant Professor of Music Roger Moseley is particularly interested in the mediation of nineteenth-century music and the technologies by which Romantic yearning was made audible. During that period, instruments were often seen as a necessary evil, says Moseley. Wagner hid the orchestra because his music purported to transcend the conditions of its performance. “The irony is that the ineffable has to be wrought by material means,” says Moseley, who is interested in “exploring the paradoxes that emerge when the ideal meets the mechanical—and the roles of humans as mediators between the two.”

Moseley’s new book, “Keys to Play: Music as a Ludic Medium from Apollo to Nintendo,” looks at play as a mode of engaging with music. As part of that exploration, he examines the keyboard as an interface that allows us to order sound. “The piano’s keys are assembled as a grid that has to be navigated via discrete movements of the fingers. In that sense, it is a classic example of a digital interface. Yet our digits can also bring forth an infinite range of tone colors by way of subtle variations in touch and timing. The piano mediates between digital and analog forms of communication in terms of both how it is played and the ways we make sense of the stream of notes it produces.”

Judith Peraino, professor of music, co-teaches a university course with McEnaney on punk. The students write audio “podcast essays,” using sound recording as a way to create critical work. “They think in an entirely different way, freed from the page,” say McEnaney. “They compose really smart, really critical, aesthetically savvy works. Then I tell them to bring that back to your writing.”

The Society and Sound

The Society for the Humanities has been an important hub for media and sound studies. Its focal theme in 2011-12 was “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics”: Pinch, Moseley, and McEnaney were faculty fellows at the Society that year.

“At that stage, sound studies felt like a new discipline that was still forming,” says Moseley. “For us, it was a mutual voyage of discovery. As a music scholar, I had to question my assumptions about the relationship of sound and music, which meant acquiring new skills and unlearning some old ones.”

McEnaney, Moseley, Braddock and Banerjee are all members of a media studies reading group supported by a grant from the Society for the Humanities. “It provides opportunities for faculty and graduate students to work together across disciplines,” explains Braddock.

Media Archaeology

Media archaeology is a subfield of media studies that has been generating growing interest; one example of the field would be tracing back the history of an MP3 player to the telephone.

“Media archaeology can be liberating, encouraging us to make direct connections to the past that have bearings on the future,” says Moseley. “Cornell’s rich holdings in material culture, like its collection of historical keyboard instruments, allows for hands-on experimentation and learning at all levels.”

Braddock's new work focuses on technological development and its effects on the habits of writing and of listening. His current project examines the work of the Firesign Theatre, an American comedy troupe best known for record albums which used extensive mulit-track recording and multiple levels of sound. 

“Firesign Theater understood the mixing desk in an innovative way,” says Braddock. “The dense layering of sound that the emerging technology afforded, together with the extended format of the LP, created the possibility of a new kind of verbal art and aural experience.”

Performance studies

In his work, and that of others in the Department of Performing and Media Arts like Samantha Sheppard, Salvato examines how media studies and performance studies resonate with each other and what that might teach us about the contemporary cultural landscapes we inhabit. “We all live with live performance and media messily all the time, and scholarship that is sensitive to and enlivened by that messiness seems to me to have great promise,” he says.

“For instance, one might say about living in the presence of screens in the way that we do, that nobody reads well anymore and that we’re constantly distracted,” Salvato adds. “I think that’s a gross overgeneralization of how we live with media and I’m trying to offer a challenge and a corrective.” His forthcoming book, “Obstruction,” explores media and performance in popular music, experimental theater, independent cinema, cable TV and blogging to find new ways to think about the meanings of thinking, work, and value. 

De Bary says she’s found that students today are deeply engaged in the meaning and significance of consuming contemporary media. The kinds of questions raised by media studies are questions constantly on their minds, “deeply embedded in each student’s ‘stream’ of consciousness.” 

This feature is part of the New Century for the Humanities "Big Ideas" project to explore broad contemporary themes in the humanities. The New Century for the Humanities is a series of events and projects initiated to celebrate the opening of Klarman Hall, the first building dedicated to the humanities on Cornell's central campus in more than 100 years.


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