The Fact of Resonance: An Acoustics of Determination in Faulkner and Benjamin

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This essay proposes a historical material theory of resonance in experience, consciousness, and literature. Understood in their technical expression, William Faulkner’s literary acoustics help us to interpret some of Walter Benjamin’s most elliptical points regarding the possibility of an acoustical unconscious, which I argue to be a counterpart to his famous notion of the optical unconscious.

Faulkner crafted a narrative space that is a sensitive recording apparatus, more sensitive than any mechanical device (radio, telephone, phonograph). In Faulkner, history moves through narrative space and its atmospheres; the air is charged with media to become an archive. But there are consequences in this determinative air for racial consciousness. In Faulkner’s narrative space, racial identity becomes, above all, an overtone and sound effect, or what I call a “fact of resonance” rather than of substance.

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 an acoustical unconscious? To engage such questions, literary history itself must proceed through resonance and the acoustical unconscious. Both Faulkner and Benjamin–in the techniques they share with Eisenstein’s “overtonal montage”–teach us that the acoustical unconscious far exceeds the boundaries of the individual life.

Thanks to the editors of the special issue in Materialisms and “Object Emotions”