Public history

“Sobbing, Whining, Rumbling” – Listening to Automobiles as Social Practice

Who listened to cars in the 1920s? Who listened to the sound of its technical malfunctions in the 1950s? Who were the experts to diagnose failures by their ‘golden ears’ (Perlman 2004)? What role did listening play in early automobility? To answer these questions, my paper will analyze how different actor groups in Germany listened to automobiles between the end of World War I and roughly 1960. Further, I’ll focus on car technology’s middle ground – the space between production and consumption (Borg 2007: 1–12). In other words, I’ll closely examine the difficult relations between car users and auto mechanics.
While in the 1920s car manufacturers started advertising the silent run of their engines, gears and suspensions, listening to the sound of their automobiles still played an essential role for car users to notice any technical malfunctions. The verbalization of the sound experience was a legitimate and crucial means for error detection. Motorists wrote, for example, to the magazine of the German automobile club, ‘Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung’, and tried to express their audio evidence with a wide range of metaphors or by relating it to other common sound experiences: their cars were ‘sobbing, whining or rumbling’. Still in the 1930s these descriptions were regularly printed in a column called the ‘letter box’ and experts gave technical advices on their basis.
Two decades later things had changed: While listening was still a central means for detecting faults, it was reserved to the ‘trained ears’ of car mechanics only. Instead the professionals made a mock of drivers who listened to their cars: the trade journal ‘Krafthand’ told the story of a car owner who claimed that his car was making a strange splashing noise. But during the inspection the mechanics couldn’t find any faults. Later it was discovered that the sound was merely the echo of avenue trees, which irritated the driver while going past. The moral of articles like this one was, that the ears of ordinary motorists lacked the necessary training to listen to their automobiles.
The paper will argue that the observed change of the notion of listening to cars can be explained by using Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘praxeology’: e.g., by conceptualising the here roughly sketched conversion as a symbolic struggle between motorists and auto mechanics about who is the real car sound expert. Then, the stories in the trade journal can be read as descriptions of the auto mechanics habitus, or more precisely: their bodily hexis (Bourdieu 1987: 739). The ability to diagnose malfunctions by listening to the sound of broken-down automobiles became part of the incorporated bodily knowledge of car mechanics. The struggle can thus be interpreted as a negotiation of status: the claim for the exclusive right to listen is then part of the sociotechnical distinction between lay motorists and expert car mechanics. The recurring descriptions of the motorists’ ‘bad ears’ are part of a discursive construction of normal motorists as lay users. Narrations like these are told to exclude motorists from the expert discourse.
However motorists always heard their cars while driving, and they still had to listen whether their cars were running well. That is, on a practical level, mechanics couldn’t prevent users from listening, only on a symbolic level they denied access to the realm of car sound as means for technical diagnosis. Due to this contradictory status of listening as an indispensable means to detect malfunctions and listening as an expert tool for detailed diagnosis, users contested the expert authority of auto mechanics.
For analyzing the role of listening in automobility I’ll investigate trade journals for auto mechanics, special interest journals for motorists, car manuals and technical handbooks. I’ll take into account editorials, articles and requests for reader’s experiences, advertisements and cartoons. As methodological means I’ll use thick description, and embed the struggle between motorists and mechanics into the historical context of early German automobility, e.g., the change in car functions and properties. For analyzing the empirical findings I’ll refer to the vocabulary of the theory of social practices.

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