Thomas Levin

Thomas Y. Levin is chronicling the history of gramophonic audio letters and building a vast digital archive of this forgotten chapter of media history. He is Professor in the German Department at Princeton University.

»I am constructing a media archaelogy of voice mail«

Were records also used to make voice recording?

Yes, though it's all but forgotten. There used to be a widespread culture of gramophonic recording from the early 1930s until the late 1950s in Europe, in North and South America, and elsewhere. Public recording booths were virtually ubiquitous: in post offices, train stations, amusement parks – even on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building! Bourgeois households often had a device to make gramophonic recordings at home.

Many of these unique records were sent by post as audio letters. My Einstein project is a reconstruction of this important cultural history of literal "voice mail" captured on small metal or cardboard gramophonic discs. It all started a few years ago at a flea market, when I stumbled across a curious aluminium record in an envelope that had been sent by post. When I went to research it and found almost nothing, I realised that this curious, but widespread, type of recordable record had been completely ignored by media history. The first years of my Einstein project were thus largely occupied with hunting down examples of such "phono-post" and then cataloguing, scanning, and digitising them. This archive is now the basis for the monograph I am writing. 

What makes the phono-post archive unique?

Historically, these recordings represent something deeply important: the moment when, for the first time, people could hear themselves as others did. For the first time, the voice could exist outside the body. Not surprisingly, people often started talking about death, because their recorded words would ultimately outlive them. This is an archive of largely anonymous voices from the past. It is also a vernacular archive: everyday people making everyday comments about everyday things. As such, it documents a nascent media literacy: we can follow the process of learning to use a new technology. 

How does this project fit into your general research and personal interests?

The phono-post project is marked by a media theoretical materialism that characterises much of my research. I am deeply interested in how these seemingly mundane artefacts can shed new light on a wide range of cultural practices. One of the most satisfying aspects of this project is the opportunity to combine my passion for "hoarding" with my research. I am a collector. I love finding objects, tracking them down, and figuring out what they mean. There is no greater feeling for a collector than making a great find. The same goes for researchers and their own different discoveries. It's the perfect example of a happy coincidence.

Interview: Mirco Lomoth
This page will not be updated after the end of the fellowship.