Kollegienhaus, lecture theatre 118
The Jingle Men of American Letters
Getting something stuck in your ear or head – but which? – is by no means a new phenomenon; nor is the urge to expunge an infectious strain of music a modern occupation. But is it an American one? Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI) has long perplexed lab technicians and clinical practitioners the world over, not just because the syndrome resists formal diagnosis, but because our means of witnessing and treating the notorious ‘cognitive itch’ extend well beyond the parameters of physiological enquiry. The purpose of this talk is to begin to identify the changing forms and effects of this most notorious of acoustic phenomena by delving into a variety of American art forms (prose, poetry, song, and cinema). I will be lending an ear to Poe and Twain, to James and Stevens, and to a crooner – once beloved of T. S. Eliot – called Joey Nash.
In doing so, I’m going to take seriously the possibility that we might come to better understand the phenomenon if we find a way to combine the findings of neuroscience and the humanities. Rather than upholding the often crudely perceived distinction between fact and fiction, statistic and hunch, my aim will be to excavate the parallel histories of otology and the arts, to evaluate their intersections and points of resistance at certain moments in American history, and to gauge their present affinities. The process of description, I want to suggest, is crucial: earworms, earwigs, jingles, maggots, imps, crotchets, cognitive itchiness, sticky music, INMI. Whose vocabulary are we drawing on when we speak of neurotological tedium and trauma? What’s lost, and what’s gained, when we attempt to translate or naturalise the Ohrwurm – once an insect much feared by farmers, now a coil of pesky sound?
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