In the later 1950s and 1960s, the American neurologist John Cunningham Lilly (1915–2001) undertook an unorthodox set of experiments on bottlenose dolphins (tursiops truncatus). The centerpiece of this research was their bioacoustic practices, including hearing and phonation. Lilly’s work sits at the crossroads of many vectors in postwar American culture: the birth of the counterculture from the spirit of Cold War militarized science; the cybernetic dream of flattening the differences between animal, human, machine, and alien intelligence; the exploration of otherness through drugs and madness; and the rise to cultural prominence of dolphins as archetypes of intelligent liberated beings. Sound technologies, especially tape, were the conditio sine qua non of Lilly’s cetacean research. He used tape obsessively in his efforts to decrypt dolphin communications and later to liberate human consciousness from its tendency to get stuck in repeating loops. Remarkably, he failed to reflect on the media a priori of his interspecies imagination.
“Memorable Equinox”: John Lilly, Dolphin Vocals, and the Tape Medium
John Durham Peters is María Rosa Menocal Professor of English and Film and Media Studies at Yale University and author of Speaking into the Air (1999), Courting the Abyss (2005), The Marvelous Clouds (2015), and, with the late Kenneth Cmiel, Promiscuous Knowledge: Information, Image, and Other Truth Games in History (2020).
John Durham Peters; “Memorable Equinox”: John Lilly, Dolphin Vocals, and the Tape Medium. boundary 2 1 November 2020; 47 (4): 1–24. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-8677814
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