Researching the Tariff Board: Finding Culture in a Surprising Place

Today we have an entry cross-posted with the blog of the Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand (EHSANZ). It is by Henry Reese, a newly-minted ECR who picked up two awards associated with the AHA’s recent conference at the University of Southern Queensland. An AHA-CAL travel bursary supported his attendance, and he won the EHSANZ Postgraduate and ECR Development Prize for the paper he delivered. He describes his research and the challenges and rewards of working in an interdisciplinary setting—a cultural historian in the field of sound studies finding himself making a mark in the AHA conference’s economic history stream.

parlophone

Source: Australasian Phonograph Monthly 1(7), January 1926, 2.

I was honoured to discover that I’d been awarded the 2019 Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher Development Prize. Like many others who were trained — and have long understood themselves — as cultural historians, I have been thrilled to integrate the material and economic into my understanding of the Australian past in recent years. The economic history stream at the 2019 AHA conference, deftly coordinated by the great Claire Wright, was a fantastic place to tease out the historical links between culture and economy in a constructive and warm intellectual environment. This session was a masterclass in how to fruitfully bring disparate fields of scholarship together. As you can read here, the stream’s panels were diverse, fresh and (for me) often downright thrilling. Presenters engaged with multiple facets of economic history from a slew of methodological standpoints. Postgrads and early career academics featured prominently, a good sign of the healthiness of the discipline.

The frisson of interdisciplinary is something that most postgrads face, for better and worse. It is the cousin of the perennial imposter syndrome that obtains in an academic environment in which we are expected to know everything. It’s something I’ve had to engage with plenty throughout my academic career. As a historian whose work is informed profoundly by the emerging field of Sound Studies, itself an inter-discipline, I have often felt the apprehension that comes with interdisciplinarity. A few years ago, I presented my work at a Sound Studies conference at Stony Brook, New York, where I found myself rubbing shoulders with a motley group of musicologists, anthropologists, literary scholars and even the occasional scientist, all concerned with the same big questions. It was an eye-opening experience. Everyone was equally a fish out of water, and this made for an open and exploratory intellectual space. One lesson of this experience is that, if efforts are taken to foster a respectful and reflexive environment, where multiple viewpoints and levels of expertise are welcomed, then the discomfort that comes with exploring a fresh area needn’t be a problem; rather, it can be productive. Conference organisers, consider this a challenge: be open and respectful of diversity. Postgrads, it’s worth remembering: we can’t know everything, but our views are valid and we’re much more competent than we might think.

The paper I presented at the AHA was entitled ‘Protecting the National Soundscape: The Gramophone Industry and the Nation in the 1920s.’ Whereas I had previously only ventured ankle-deep into this topic, now I had the chance to throw myself headfirst into the deep end of public battles over trade policy in the tumultuous interwar period. This was a paper I had looked forward to writing for several months as I polished off my PhD. My thesis, entitled ‘Colonial Soundscapes: A Cultural History of Sound Recording in Australia, 1880–1930,’ is the first cultural history of early recorded sound in Australia. Combining business history, the history of anthropology and sensory history with the close attention to context, performance and thick description that are the bread and butter of cultural history, I explored settlers’ changing relationships with the phonograph and gramophone over the first generation of this technology’s existence. By integrating recorded sound into the wider soundscape of Australia, I argued that the development of a modern outlook on Australian place developed in tandem with settler understandings of, and appreciation for, the fact of sound reproduction.

In my paper, I interpreted a 1927 Tariff Board inquiry into the duty on imported gramophone records as a cultural document, as well as an instrument of business policy. Perhaps this was one way of making the research task ahead of me tolerable. After all, it’s easier to read over one hundred pages of dry argumentation regarding recorded music imports if you understand the Tariff Board transcript as a document that was charged with the richness and spice of a courtroom drama! Here a small group of rich white men laid bare their prejudices regarding the gender, class and aesthetic tastes of the Australian consumer, which, I argued, were central to the eventual outcome of the inquiry. This was not just a debate over the value of imports compared to the locally manufactured product; it was an occasion when Australian business elites were called upon to adjudicate on the relative merits of musical taste in an anxious society. The bottom line: the Australian consumer, gendered female, was not to be trusted with the artefacts of mass culture; racialised American jazz music was an agent of cultural and musical decline; and compared to the older networks of wholesalers and music dealers preferred by the large gramophone importers, the modern, commercialised department store was no fit place to find musical uplift.

I had some firm precedents in my interpretation of the Tariff Board inquiry in light of wider debates about music, culture and Americanisation in Australian society. Kenneth Lipartito’s work on the expressive facets of business culture has been eye-opening for me, as has Toby L. Ditz’s artful interpretation of business correspondence, often a dry and formulaic tranche of source material, as evidence of the gendered performance of masculine identity. In the hands of both scholars, business is seen as influenced by, and productive of, wider cultural shifts in the society of which it is an integral part. In the Australian context, the work of Hannah Forsyth, Sophie Loy-Wilson, Melissa Bellanta and Julie McIntyre, among others, has been crucial in my thinking regarding the culture of business, and the business of culture, in a modern capitalist settler society. The gramophone trade, as a powerful axis of the so-called ‘culture industry,’ had an outsized impact on Australian tastes and patterns of consumption. It is worthy of deeper analysis using the powerful tools given us by such path-breaking business and cultural historians.

I was fortunate to receive an AHA-CAL Bursary for this paper. I encourage other postgrads to apply for the same at future AHA conferences. Through this scheme, each student is assigned to a senior mentor, who provides feedback on their paper. My mentor, Richard White, went above and beyond, and deserves credit in the shaping of my argument here. I am also extremely grateful to Hannah Forsyth and Jennifer Bowen for their generous comments on my paper at the conference. The final, and largest, thanks are due to Claire Wright, whose efforts to foster closer connections between economic and ‘other’ historians is paying fantastic intellectual and social dividends. Thanks all, and don’t hesitate to get in touch with questions or comments!

Henry Reese
University of Melbourne
henry.reese@unimelb.edu.au
Twitter: @HPReese

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