An Acoustics of Determination in Faulkner and Benjamin

This essay proposes a historical material theory of air and resonance in experience, consciousness, and literature. Atmosphere carries breath, sounds, and voices, but history itself moves through the air in the work of Faulkner and Benjamin, the air being charged with mediation to become an archive of incomplete experiences and desires.


Faulkner’s “circumambience” is a sensitive recording apparatus, more sensitive than any mechanical device (radio, telephone, phonograph). There are consequences to this determinative air for racial consciousness, which becomes in Faulkner “circumambient,” an overtone or sound effect of reading. Understood in their technical expression, Faulkner’s literary acoustics help us to interpret some of Benjamin’s most elliptical points regarding the possibility of an acoustical unconscious, an underappreciated counterpart to his famous theory of the optical. Benjamin did not live long enough to write about Faulkner, though he read him in the last year of his life. If we consider Benjamin’s experiments with radio, what would he have heard in Faulkner’s voices and sounds? Could this material have been fodder for the development of Benjamin’s latent theory of the acoustical?

To engage such questions, literary history itself must proceed through resonance and the acoustical unconscious. Both Faulkner and Benjamin, particularly in the techniques they share with Eisenstein’s “overtonal montage,” teach us that the acoustical unconscious and its airy medium far exceed the boundaries of the individual life or artwork.

Thanks to the editors of the special issue in Materialisms and the organizers of the “Object Emotions” conference at Yale.

Photo by Emil Bruckner on Unsplash