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.
I am grateful to hosts and audiences at Columbia, Concordia, the IKKM (International Research Institute for Cultural Technologies and Media Philosophy), UC Berkeley, and Yale who heard earlier versions of this essay. Thanks for help along the way to Bruce Clarke, Brian Kane, Peter McMurray, Cynthia Paulsen, John Shiga, Gavin Steingo, Viktoria Tkaczyk, Fred Turner, Douglas Khan, and others I may have overlooked.