Mediated Auscultation aligns cinema and the stethoscope. It asks how one form of media (the stethoscope) might reveal something about another (cinema), thinking through both as technologies of “mediated auscultation”. This phrase hails from stethoscope inventor Rene Laennec’s treatise on the diagnosis and diseases of the lungs and heart from 1819 and it is defined in contrast to immediate auscultation—that is, the direct application of the ear to the body of the patient. More recently, sound theorist and historian Jonathan Sterne defined mediated auscultation as the practice of “listening to movements inside the body with the aid of an instrument, at a physical distance” (2003: 128).
It is this definition of mediated auscultation that this video essay extends to cinema, conceiving of it as an instrument that opens a technologically mediated aural pathway towards the body via sound, allowing us to listen to its murmurings and exhalations at the surface and at a physical distance in ways that decompose the traditional boundaries of the body. In both cases - cinema and stethoscope - sound is subtended by an image, by sight, a stillness; both provide an immersive experience of the interior; and both entail a split between sound and body, sound and listener. This unique combination of factors provides the basis for the analogy of cinema as stethoscope.
I bring together examples from contemporary cinema, with its focus on the body, alongside earlier modernist and avant-garde examples which stress the heterogenous materiality of the filmic text. In doing so, this video essay brings together moments where camera, sound design or the film as a whole take on properties of the stethoscope, without one necessarily being diegetically present. Returning to cinema’s birth from physiology and the photography of Étienne-Jules Marey, I ask how an attention to acoustic signals from the living body reanimates debates in film theory about the stillness that subtends the illusion of cinematic movement. Marey himself attempted to record the human heartbeat in his examination of biological motion, while Thomas Edison originally invented the kinetoscope to “complement the phonograph and to synchronize it with an image machine” (Elsaesser 2009: 106-107). This shows how questions of sound haunt the birth of cinema and disrupt established chronologies that begin with the arrival of sound in the late 1920s.
Both cinema and the stethoscope are schizophonic technologies, producing a split in time or space or both in the production of sound and listening. R. M. Schafer defined schizophonia as the “cutting free of sound from its natural origin” (1969: 46) and in this sense, the process of making the video was itself a schizophonic practice, as I detached the original audio from the film clips in order to amplify and attend to certain sounds. The stethoscope entails a spatial split that transforms the encounter between patient and doctor, body and listener. It provides an acoustic umbilical connection to the body that reconfigures the zones of the intimate, the personal, the social and the public. Likewise, cinema reconfigures the distances and spatial relations between bodies through sound and technology in a process that Arnt Massø has termed the “proxemics of the mediated voice” (2008: 36). This is the idea that technology itself plays a role as a sign in the spatial relation between speaker and listener, an aspect which Massø claims has not been adequately examined in theories of film sound. For example, how does microphone perspective suggest different levels of “closeness” or “distance” in relation to a listener? Massø develops the question of proxemics and mediation in relation to the human voice, though here I broaden the idea of the voice to include all manner of human sounds from the interior that cinema invites us to listen to at the body’s surface.
By bringing the analogy of the stethoscope to cinema, I revisit ontological questions of cinema’s medium specificity: issues around time, stillness and motion, life and death, visibility and invisibility as well as the phenomenological experiences offered by film. Working with moving images, still images, voiceover and editing alongside the sounds of my own breath and the thump of my own heart, which seemed to intensify as I pressed record to begin speaking, I worked within the very cinematic intervals that a reflection on cinema as stethoscope opens up. For example, the heartbeat in the soundtrack of La Jetée is the heartbeat of Jean Ravel, the film’s editor, which animates sequences in the film across the photographic units of the frame. Likewise, the heartbeat in Thriller is the director and editor, Sally Potter’s, own. Intervening in the fabric of these films through editing in order to attend to this heartbeat opened up the full resonances of the heartbeat that an editor gives to units of filmic time.
Elsaesser, Thomas. 2009. “Freud as Media Theorist: Mystic Writing-Pads and the Matter of Memory,” Screen, 50 (1), 100-113.
Laennec, R. T. H. 1830. A Treatise on the Diseases of the Chest and on Mediate Auscultation. 3d ed. Translated by John Forbes (New York: Samuel Wood; Collins and Hannay).
Massø, Arnt. 2008. "The Proxemics of the Mediated Voice," in Lowering the Boom: Critical Studies in Film Sound, ed. by Jay Beck and Tony Grajeda (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), pp. 36-50.
Schafer, R. M. 1969. The New Soundscape: A Handbook for the Modern Music Teacher (Scarborough, Ontario: Bernadol Music Limited).
Sterne, Jonathan. 2003. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University Press).
Biography: Emilija Talijan is a postdoctoral fellow at St. John’s College, Oxford. Her research interests include film sound, technology and the body. She is the author of Resonant Bodies in Contemporary European Art Cinema (Forthcoming 2022, Edinburgh University Press) which explores how contemporary directors have worked with sound in ways that rethink all aspects of the film experience. Her articles, on topics ranging from utopia and the musical, sound in pornography and art cinema, and soundscaping in refugee filmmaking have appeared in journals such as Screen, Film-Philosophy, Studies in French Cinema and Alphaville.