Jeffrey Ostler once stated that the contentious field of Populist studies was, “one of the bloodiest episodes in American historiography.” The historiographical debate over Populism is, to say the least, long and nuanced. Historians as different as Richard Hofstadter, Walter Nugent, Lawrence Goodwyn, Elizabeth Sanders, Michael Kazin, John Judis, Jan-Werner Muller, Charles Postel, and Omar H. Ali (to name just a few) have all found different ways to interpret Populist movement of the nineteenth century and populism more generally. Yet what is particularly fascinating about the subject of Populism is that despite this considerable amount of scholarship, historians disagree over the most basic definitions and characterizations of Populism.
In my doctoral dissertation “Vox Machinae: Phonographs and the Birth of Sonic Modernity, 1877-1930,” I presented a cultural history of the early recording industry in close conversation with the so-called “New Materialisms.” Drawing on Science and Technology Studies (STS), phenomenological philosophy, and other strains of materialist literature, I sought to make sense of the ways in which machines and other material entities exercise agency over cultural processes. How, in other words, did the early phonograph itself—with its motor and governor and nuts and bolts and belts—shape how people responded to recorded sound?