Net neutrality, Trump’s tweets, and the rise of wireless culture: UC Berkeley professor’s new book illuminates modern issues by exploring the past

Tom McEnaney
Tom McEnaney, an assistant professor in the Comparative Literature and Spanish and Portuguese departments, teaches a class in the Valley Life Sciences Building on Nov. 20, 2017. This year, he released a book, called “Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas.” (Photo by Jami Smith for the University Library)

“Sound is really important in the history of literature, technology, and culture,” Tom McEnaney said. “It’s not merely a metaphor.”

And McEnaney knows a thing or two about sound.

The UC Berkeley professor, who earned his Ph.D. from Berkeley in 2011 and returned this year to teach in the Comparative Literature and Spanish and Portuguese departments after six years at Cornell University, has researched and written extensively on the subject.

He has a forthcoming piece about how This American Life has set a new standard for voices on the radio. (The vocal fry and uptalk you hear on NPR? That wasn’t always so common.)

And he has taught classes on punk rock, co-curated an exhibit about punk history, and has made noise in many punk bands over the past 20 years.

So it’s fitting that sound factors heavily into McEnaney’s new book, Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas.

On Dec. 4, Morrison Library is hosting an event — a conversation with McEnaney, Emory University’s José Quiroga, and UC Riverside’s Freya Schiwy (“two really wonderful scholars whose work I admire,” he said) — that celebrates the book.

McEnaney’s book explores the “coevolution” of the radio and the novel amid influential movements in populist politics in three countries in the mid-20th century: the New Deal in America; Peronism in Argentina, and the Cuban Revolution. The book illustrates how governments, activists, and artists have struggled for control to represent the voice of the people within a changing media landscape.

“This is really the intersection of a turn to populism on the left” — liberalism in the United States, socialism in Argentina, and communism in Cuba — “with wireless (technologies) that open the possibility, not always actualized, of giving power to the people,” McEnaney said.

His book talk will shine a light on the “unknown and unrecognized history of the hand-in-hand development of two strong media of public discourse” — radio and the novel — during pivotal moments for these three countries, said Liladhar Pendse, a librarian who is helping organize the event, along with Natalia Brizuela, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

McEnaney wears many hats. In addition to his research and teaching, he founded the Latin American Journals Project, established through a grant he received while at Cornell, which, in part, aims to provide scholars and the general public with free and open access to Latin American journals, many of which are otherwise be difficult to find.

McEnaney’s work on Acoustic Properties was bookended by two major political groundswells in the United States. He started the book, which evolved from his dissertation, in 2008, the year that Barack Obama was elected to his first term as president. The book came out in 2017, the year Donald Trump took office.

McEnaney’s book is timely, given today’s climate, and provides context for the current discussion about net neutrality. “The debates of how to regulate radio are the same debates we’re having with the internet,” he said.

“It’s about many things,” McEnaney said of his book. “It’s attempting to understand our present moment through histories of technology, literature, and politics.”

The book covers Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “fireside chats,” which saw the president embracing the relatively new platform of radio to convey his message. It’s not unlike the way Trump has embraced Twitter — setting aside the differences in tone.

“(It’s) a different type of politics but very much connected to the way the president of the United States uses wireless technology to create the illusion he’s speaking directly to the people,” he said.

While Trump is known for his shoot-from-the-hip candor, Roosevelt’s style was intimate and controlled. (Roosevelt and his advisers were so concerned with the president’s tone, as the book notes, that they had him use a dental bridge to close a gap in his teeth to prevent the whistle in his voice during his radio addresses.)

With his knowledge of populist movements of the past, did McEnaney foresee the upswell that ultimately catapulted Trump into the White House?

“Did I predict it? No,” he said. “It’s a new, troubling twist in the story.”

The book talk, called “Sound, Media, and Literature in the Americas,” will be held in Morrison Library on Dec. 4, and it starts at 5 p.m.