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NIAS Seminar

Slicing Sound: Sonic Skills and Speaker Identification at the Stasi

When 28 June 2017 from 11:30 to 12:30 hrs
Where A0.03, Jorishof, Korte Spinhuissteeg 3
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Karin Bijsterveld, Professor of Science, Technology and Modern Culture, elaborates on her project on the history of sonic research behind eavesdropping in state security and crime fighting in the former German Democratic Republic beyond the 1960s. 

About the Seminar

Security services have a longstanding interest in identifying the voices of unknown “dangerous” subjects  like spies, criminals and dissidents, usually recorded through systematic eavesdropping. A case in point has been the Ministry of State Security in the former German Democratic Republic that wiretapped widely, listening in on the conversations of both foreign and East-German citizens. Against this backdrop it developed a keen interest in techniques and technologies of speaker identification, such as audio analysis and the “voice print.”

How did Stasi employees slice sound to this purpose? And why did their auditory work not become as successful as the Stasi had hoped for? Empirically, my talk is based on hundreds of documents from the Stasi’s former archives, as well as on a selection of sound recordings of wiretapped calls and hearings. I will play these unique audio documents during my presentation. Theoretically, it draws on modes of listening in the sciences to clarify the Stasi’s identification practices, and distinguishes between the logics of forensics and the logics of surveillance to understand why these practices undermined the Stasi’s intended politics of sound.

About the Speaker

Karin Bijsterveld is full professor at the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, Maastricht University, and works on the cultural history of sound. Her key publications are Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 2008), the Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (Oxford UP 2012, with Trevor Pinch), Sound and Safe: A History of Listening behind the Wheel (Oxford UP 2014, with Eefje Cleophas, Stefan Krebs & Gijs Mom) and a special issue on Auditory History for The Public Historian (2015).

She is currently finishing the book-length essay “Sonic Skills” (Palgrave Pivot, see also and exploring a new project on the GDR Stasi and its program on audio analysis.

About NIAS Seminars

NIAS Seminars are aimed to stimulate scientific cross-pollination within the NIAS academic community, but seminars are open to others who are interested. Please  if you wish to attend.

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