New Isis: The Unmusical Ear, Normal Child Development on Film

The September 2020 issue of Isis includes two articles of interest to AHP readers. Full details below.

The Unmusical Ear: Georg Simon Ohm and the Mathematical Analysis of Sound,” Melle Jan Kromhout. Abstract:

This essay presents a detailed analysis of Georg Simon Ohm’s acoustical research between 1839 and 1844. Because of its importance in Hermann von Helmholtz’s subsequent study of sound and hearing, this work is rarely considered on its own terms. A thorough assessment of Ohm’s articles, however, can greatly enrich our understanding of later developments. Based on study of Ohm’s published writings, as well as a lengthy unpublished manuscript, the essay argues that his acoustical research foreshadows an important paradigmatic shift at a time of discursive instability prior to Helmholtz’s influential contributions. Using Ohm’s own dismissal of his supposedly “unmusical ears” as a conceptual frame, the essay describes this shift as a move away from understanding sound primarily in a musical context and toward an increasingly mathematical approach to sound and hearing. As such, Ohm’s work also anticipates a more general change in the role of the senses in nineteenth-century scientific research.

Normal Development: The Photographic Dome and the Children of the Yale Psycho-Clinic,”
Carola Ossmer. Abstract:

This essay traces the history of normality’s development through a photographic research program that itself began with a critique of that very concept. In the 1920s, a group of child development researchers around the psychologist and physician Arnold Gesell constructed the photographic dome—at once laboratory, observatory, and film studio—to assess normal mental development. Although seeking to challenge standardized measurements of the normal, the researchers created a set of developmental norms that shaped a universal understanding of what constituted a normal child. This essay examines the foundation of this pervasive knowledge by tracking the material factors of visual technology and media production: organizing scientific research like film production, Gesell and his team began to think of development in photographic sequences. Film technology configured their ideas about the individuality of every child, gave rise to a democratic variety of norms, and linked the scientific laboratory with private households and public life. The essay thus argues that visual technologies, beyond merely providing a scientific method and a means of popular distribution, constituted far-reaching theories regarding the normal child. This media-material perspective demonstrates that focusing on visual technologies in science can help to denaturalize knowledge about human nature.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.