KONF: Sound Images. Visualizing Language in Science, Literature, and Art (eikones/University of Basel, October 17-18, 2019)

Tobias Wilke's picture
October 17, 2019 to October 18, 2019
Subject Fields: 
Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Cultural History / Studies, Linguistics, Literature

In his Course in General Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure defines “sound images” (images acoustiques) as purely psychological “representations” of linguistic sound in the brain. These representations, he famously posited, are associated with corresponding mental “ideas” (concepts) and constitute a system of signs (langue) that exists—immaterially—in the minds of all members of a given language community. Sound images, in Saussure’s understanding, are thus neither acoustic nor visual in kind; they structurally precede, and remain independent of, any “execution” in audible discourse (parole) and any “translation” into the graphic medium of script (écriture). Significantly, Saussure does not specify wherein the particular “image”-character of mental sound images actually resides. Yet his reflections make clear that the concept serves to establish both a strict separation and a distinct hierarchy between the primary linguistic data of internal consciousness and their secondary external realizations: “Language,” he contends, “is a storehouse of sound-images, and writing is the tangible form of those images.” (CGL, 15)

Later linguists like Roman Jakobson would criticize Saussure for his “mentalist point of view” that denigrates the material manifestations of the linguistic sign in an effort to carve out a specific domain for the new discipline of linguistics, and to secure its independence vis-à-vis 19th century sciences like acoustics, physiology, and experimental phonetics. As Saussure himself certainly knew well, it was precisely in the context of these other disciplines that the notion of sound images had previously been associated with quite different meanings and purposes. From the Romantic-scientific debates sparked by Ernst Chladni’s discovery of the so-called sound figures (Klangfiguren) around 1800, to the physiological analysis of voice and articulation by means of graphic methods from the 1850's onward, to new phonetic notation systems that proliferated toward the end of the century under the banner of a “visible speech” (Alexander M. Bell): What drove all these developments was a profound interest in linguistic sound images as thoroughly material—acoustic, graphic, and corporeal—phenomena. Though methodologically shunned by Saussure in the years after 1900, this interest would continue to shape not only the work of various 20th century linguists (including Jakobson, whose phonological analyses built extensively on visual records of speech sounds). It also came to inform the conception, creation, and investigation of sound images in manifold aesthetic contexts, ranging from the poetic and (typo)graphic innovations of the historical avant-garde movements (e.g., Italian Futurism, Russian za’um, Dada), to experimental writing strategies of the postwar era (e.g., Concrete Poetry), to the media and performance arts of the last decades. In recent years, moreover, the imaging techniques of neuro-scientific research have given rise to another variety of sound images, which visualize speech at a cortical level and thus afford new material entry points to the brain’s linguistic system.

The conference will bring together historians of science, literary historians, media historians and art historians to collectively explore the cultural history of linguistic sound images from the 19th through the 21st century, and to discuss questions like the following: What are the epistemic, technological, and methodological conditions under which the sound-aspect of language has been made accessible to certain forms of visual representation? Which kinds of operations (such as inscription or translation) have been theorized and performed in various historical contexts with the goal of creating Lautbilder at the intersection of acoustic and graphic materiality? Which semiotic principles (symbolic, iconic, indexical) have come into play in the process? And how have scientists, writers, and artists negotiated the relation between the embodied character of linguistic sound production and its preservation, transmission, and reproduction by means of various non-corporeal media?





Thursday, October 17



18:15 h          

Ralph Ubl (Basel)



Tobias Wilke (Berlin)



18:30 h

Robert Brain (Vancouver)

In the Beginning was the Word Image:

Vocal Inscription and Some Projects of European Regeneration, 1870-1940



— followed by Reception —




Friday, October 18



Panel I: Sound Images – From Romanticism to Modern Linguistics


Chair: Philipp Ekardt (Basel)



09:00 h          

Martin Danneck (Basel)

Making Speech Visible: Prosodic Notation in the Declamatory Movement around 1800


10:00 h          

Sarah Pourciau (Durham)

The Face of the Waters: Wave Pictures from Grimm to Saussure


11:00 h          

Coffee break


11:30 h          

Viktoria Tkaczyk (Berlin)

Listening to Inner Speech: Neuroanatomy, Psychoanalysis, and Linguistics around 1900



12:30 h          

Lunch buffet




Panel II: Sound Images – From Modern Linguistics to Contemporary Art


Chair: Malika Maskarinec (Basel)



14:00 h

Tobias Wilke (Berlin)

Sound Images and/as Letters: Experiments in Speech Photography


15:00 h          

Simon Aeberhard (Basel)

Found in Translation: Carlfriedrich Claus’ Sprachexperimente In Between Oral and Graphic Articulation


16:00 h

Coffee break


16:30 h          

Claudia Benthien (Hamburg)

Voice, Image, Script: The Literary Aesthetics of Video Art




The event is sposored by eikones and the NOMIS-Foundation.


For further information, please contact tobias.wilke@unibas.ch.

Contact Info: 

Tobias Wilke

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