Listening to a speech, among large crowds, in an open landscape, in the mid-19th century

David Gissen

Reviewed by Charles E. Morris III

08 Oct 2016

Lis­ten­ing at a dis­tance of 100 feet

Of course and every year I go out far abroad on the intent that our age will announce civil­i­ty and cre­ate a dis­pen­sa­tion to all omens of evil. Now all are in rage at the cry of our war, dust­ing away all van­i­ty to bring on a meet­ing ded­i­cat­ed to our ardor. We meet at a great bat­tle of hor­ror. We defer from more, to come bring a new deci­sion. We advise this place and what we see here who gave their lives that an angel at night leads. It is alto­geth­er fit­ting to our old sense.
And of our sick we can­not ded­i­cate, we can­not con­sid­er all on the ground. The remain­ing liv­ing and dead who held dear lad above the proud that strug­gled in fear. I would nev­er know nor long remem­ber mis­ery, but I can nev­er for­get the debt here. But just for us the liv­ing rather to divide here who have van­ished words, which they ought to have were it that nobody had death. But with the refuge to be ded­i­cat­ed to the great path, I mean for us to believe our dead. We take a piece devot­ed to the costs, which great as the ocean, that we here right­ly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. These names are called and shall have a new earth that even in the inter­minable abysmal odes of my peo­ple are ever part of the earth.

Lis­ten­ing at a dis­tance of 80 feet

I’ve sworn that every year I’ll know how far I brought on dis­con­tent, a new age in unci­vil­i­ty and edu­cat­ed to the prop­er dis­po­si­tion that a mean­ing is greater than evil. Now all are enraged in the grind of our war, test­ing the way all van­i­ty here can bring on such mean­ing ded­i­cat­ed to long endure it. We are met on a great bat­tle wield­ed for more. We have come to bring a new deci­sion. Be advised of this place of what we see here, who gave their lives at an age one might live. It is all togeth­er fit­ting to pre­pare our old and new dues.
But, for our sake, we can not ded­i­cate, we can not con­sid­er it, we can­not crawl on this ground. The remain­ing liv­ing and dead, who we held dear cre­at­ed a love above our proud dead who strug­gled here. Ah world, you’ll nev­er know, nor long remem­ber the mis­ery here, but it can nev­er for­get the dead here. It has forced the liv­ing, rather, to bide care here, to a van­ished work which they ought to have or that for nobody had asked. It is a refuge to be ded­i­cat­ed to a great task, a mean­ing for us, that for these, our dead, we take a piece devot­ed to that cost for which a grave is a posthu­mous notion. That we here right­ly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — as his name is our God — shall have a new earth of Eden and the atone­ment of a vig­il, by a peo­ple, forth ever now parched under earth.

Lis­ten­ing at a dis­tance of 40 feet

For­sworn in sev­en years I know how far they brought for our dis­con­tent: A new nation, can it see lib­er­ty? And ded­i­cat­ed to the prop­er deci­sion that all men are great and equal. Now we are engaged in the Greys at a still war, test­ing the way our damna­tion, or any one so can’t see and so ded­i­cat­ed, can long endure it. We are met on a great bat­tle­field yield­ed for war. We have come to ded­i­cate a por­tion of it. Feel the vile rest­ing place of what we see here — who gave their lives and oppo­si­tion. It is all togeth­er fit­ting and prop­er that we do this.
But, for our sake, we can not ded­i­cate, we can not con­sid­er it, we can not halt our ground. The bereave­ment, liv­ing and dead, shel­tered in this part of it. Ah world, Ah world, to have to, for what will, nor long remem­ber what is we may err, but it can nev­er for­get what they did here. It has forced the liv­ing, rather, to head and laid here to van­ished work which they entrust­ed us in order to save the nation. It is rather fierce to bare, ded­i­cat­ed to a great task remain­ing for us that for these our dead we take a priest devot­ed to that cost for which a grave is a blas­phe­mous devo­tion. That we here leave resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — as his name is our God shall have a new birth under heav­en — and that cov­ered over the peo­ple, the peo­ple, a peo­ple, all now per­ished under the earth.

The above envi­ron­men­tal trans­la­tions” of Abra­ham Lincoln’s Get­tys­burg Address bring the speech into the con­text with­in which it was orig­i­nal­ly read. They enable us to con­sid­er writ­ing as a spa­tial­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive, phono­graph­ic form. It returns this mon­u­ment of Amer­i­can Eng­lish to the time and space with­in which it appeared and opens this work to the pos­si­ble expe­ri­ences of the audi­ence who first heard and mis­heard it.

There are over six print­ed ver­sions of what peo­ple think they heard Lin­coln say on Novem­ber 19, 1863. Most are sim­i­lar, but at least one sur­viv­ing tran­scrip­tion of the speech — com­plet­ed by a jour­nal­ist from the Illi­nois news­pa­per, the Cen­tralia Sen­tinel—was tran­scribed into far less poet­ic prose than the orig­i­nal. Of those close to the offi­cial ver­sion, all have var­i­ous dif­fer­ences in empha­sis. Most lis­ten­ers who were not report­ing on the speech could not recall with accu­ra­cy what they heard but appre­ci­at­ed Lincoln’s ded­i­ca­tion of the first nation­al mil­i­tary ceme­tery at Get­tys­burg and his mourn­ful reflec­tions on death and the Union’s future com­mit­ment to the war.

In the weeks fol­low­ing his deliv­ery of this speech, Lin­coln reviewed var­i­ous tran­scrip­tions and decid­ed which of the tran­scribed ver­sions of the ded­i­ca­tion would be the offi­cial Get­tys­burg Address that we know today. How­ev­er, as a read and unrecord­ed speech, orig­i­nal­ly lis­tened to by an audi­ence of thou­sands, the address was and is not the sta­ble doc­u­ment that we mon­u­men­tal­ize today. Lis­ten­ing to a speech” empha­sizes the address as a fluc­tu­at­ing doc­u­ment read in a large land­scape to thou­sands of peo­ple and that reflect­ed on themes of death, sac­ri­fice and war. With its sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences to what we under­stand of the orig­i­nal, the envi­ron­men­tal trans­la­tions shown above also empha­size lan­guage as some­thing that can record a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of sound and space, much like a phono­graph­ic record­ing. It is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the strug­gle to lis­ten among crowds and at a dis­tance and the frag­ile, unpre­dictable aspects of lis­ten­ing and appre­hend­ing any spo­ken language.

I chose to cre­ate a phono­graph­ic, spa­tial rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Get­tys­burg Address due to most Amer­i­cans famil­iar­i­ty with the doc­u­ment, the evoca­tive con­text with­in which it was first deliv­ered, and because of its his­tor­i­cal vari­abil­i­ty due to the fact that so many peo­ple heard it slight­ly dif­fer­ent­ly. But the orig­i­nal mate­r­i­al was manip­u­lat­ed with tech­niques that could be applied to oth­er documents.

I cre­at­ed Lis­ten­ing to a Speech” with sev­er­al sim­u­la­tion and tran­scrip­tion tools that can be applied to oth­er spo­ken doc­u­ments and that can cre­ate com­plex rep­re­sen­ta­tions of lan­guage, com­pre­hen­sion and mis­com­pre­hen­sion and notions of space and distance.

The cre­ation of Lis­ten­ing to a speech” begins with a record­ing of a con­tem­po­rary read­ing of the offi­cial” Get­tys­burg Address. This audio file was fed into a dig­i­tal audio work­sta­tion (DAW) with a con­vo­lu­tion reverb proces­sor, uti­liz­ing an impulse response file that sim­u­lates a large, open landscape.

When fed through the DAW’s proces­sors, the Get­tys­burg track sound­ed as if it were being read in a large open space in the dis­tance. Two addi­tion­al audio tracks were also fed through the DAW at the same time: one of ran­dom­ized white-noise that sim­u­lates the sig­nals of crowds and is used to test hear­ing aids and the oth­er a sim­i­lar track of white nature noise. Var­i­ous dis­tances were sim­u­lat­ed with the con­vo­lu­tion reverb and vol­ume set­tings. The result­ing, slight­ly rever­ber­a­tive, cacoph­o­n­ic audio of the address was direct­ly fed into a dig­i­tal speech-to-text proces­sor that trans­formed the audio of spo­ken lan­guage into writing.

When lis­tened to at a dis­tance and with (or with­out) the addi­tion­al audio inter­fer­ence, high­er-pitched spo­ken tones are more dif­fi­cult to per­ceive. In some cas­es, such tones sim­ply dis­ap­pear. This includes the sounds phh,” sss,” thh,” and huh” that are com­mon in words such as father,” sev­en,” the,” and here.” The remain­ing sound of the word will appear bro­ken and some­times will blend with sounds before or after. Addi­tion­al­ly, both we and the speech-to-text proces­sor mis­hear in rhyme. So, a word such as heav­en” might sound like eleven” at a dis­tance or hear” might sound like ear.”

The three ver­sions of the speech pre­sent­ed are based on the results of the speech-to-text pro­cess­ing. In each ver­sion, the DAW’s set­tings were changed to rep­re­sent a greater dis­tance from Lin­coln. The speech-to-text proces­sor sug­gest­ed the most like­ly ver­sion of what the audio is stat­ing, but it also offers alter­nate word pos­si­bil­i­ties for cor­rect­ly iden­ti­fy­ing the lan­guage of the record­ed Get­tys­burg reading.

Rather than tak­ing the sug­gest­ed speech-to-text tran­scrip­tions as the final ver­sions, I fur­ther stud­ied the ety­mol­o­gy of the speech-to-text processor’s word sug­ges­tions and their his­tor­i­cal usage. I mod­i­fied the dig­i­tal tran­scrip­tion to rep­re­sent lan­guage that would have been under­stood in the mid-19th-cen­tu­ry Unit­ed States and that would have addressed the sub­ject of war, loss, and mourn­ing. Thus, the final envi­ron­men­tal trans­la­tion of the orig­i­nal rep­re­sents both aspects of loca­tion (dis­tance, crowds, and nature) and aspects of time (his­tor­i­cal uses of language).

DAW utilizing recorded speech, convolution, and interfering sounds

Speech to text processing from DAW

Speech to text processing from DAW


By Charles E. Mor­ris III

A strange yearn­ing, his­tor­i­cal ache: Walt Whit­man, smit­ten though he was, nev­er got close enough to hear Lincoln’s breathing. 

As I com­plete this response to David Gis­sen, I am in the after­glow of host­ing at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty the 15th Bien­ni­al Pub­lic Address Con­fer­ence, a beloved sym­po­sium in the dis­ci­pline of Rhetor­i­cal Stud­ies fea­tur­ing lead­ing lights and ris­ing stars deliv­er­ing papers about speech that has mat­tered in U.S. his­to­ry. Lincoln’s face, pho­tographed from the solemn James Ear­le Fras­er bronze repli­ca on cam­pus, con­sti­tut­ed the pro­gram cov­er. That Lin­coln should rep­re­sent this ven­er­a­ble gath­er­ing is alto­geth­er fit­ting and prop­er. Lincoln’s dis­course has been cen­tral to the field from its incep­tion, and a live­ly 1987 pan­el on him in part inspired the con­fer­ence found­ing. My own pre­oc­cu­pa­tions as a queer his­tor­i­cal crit­ic and fif­teen years’ puz­zling over the vicis­si­tudes of Lin­coln (sex­u­al) mem­o­ry also influ­enced my choice of the con­fer­ence theme: The Con­ceit of Con­text.” The hope is to unset­tle any exces­sive con­fi­dence in this key term’s tak­en-for-grant­ed under­stand­ing, and to kin­dle reimag­in­ing and recon­ceiv­ing of how we might do” context.

With such motives in mind, David Gissen’s envi­ron­men­tal trans­la­tion” of Lincoln’s Get­tys­burg Address has cap­ti­vat­ed me. His cre­ative sim­u­la­tion and tran­scrip­tion, Lis­ten­ing to a Speech,” offers a provoca­tive engage­ment with the rela­tions among lan­guage, sound, and space — of prox­im­i­ties and bod­ies and mean­ings, of the con­texts of hear­ing and mis­hear­ing. The dif­fer­ence that embod­ied dis­tance makes, as Gissen’s exper­i­ment exhibits, tells us much about a fluc­tu­at­ing doc­u­ment” even as famil­iar and canon­i­cal as Lincoln’s Get­tys­burg Address, and the frag­ile, unpre­dictable aspects of lis­ten­ing and appre­hend­ing any spo­ken lan­guage.” At a moment in the his­to­ry of Rhetor­i­cal Stud­ies when researchers are pro­pelled by the turn to field” but have yet to ful­ly fig­ure out how to pro­duc­tive­ly apply the prospects of ethnog­ra­phy to rhetor­i­cal pasts, per­haps espe­cial­ly as we seek to strength­en our grasp of the sen­so­ri­um of expe­ri­en­tial and ephemer­al his­to­ry (how­ev­er inevitably elu­sive it may be), Gissen’s sound­ings con­sti­tute an entic­ing clar­i­on call. Across dis­ci­pli­nary lines we have much to share in con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing his­tor­i­cal recon­struc­tion.1

Gissen’s audi­to­ry scene and its impli­ca­tions left me mulling two con­cepts I would like briefly to explore as poten­tial con­tex­tu­al projects cen­tral to the life and after­lives of the Get­tys­burg Address. First, I am curi­ous about acoustic shad­ow. All these years lat­er, I’ve nev­er for­got­ten this obser­va­tion in Ken Burns’ series The Civ­il War: More than once dur­ing the Civ­il War, news­pa­pers report­ed a strange phe­nom­e­non. From only a few miles away, a bat­tle some­times made no sound, despite the flash and smoke of can­non and the fact that more-dis­tant observers could hear it clear­ly. These eerie silences were called acoustic shad­ows.”2 Acoustic shad­ows evi­dent­ly were influ­en­tial in shap­ing the sec­ond day of bat­tle at Get­tys­burg; con­fed­er­ate strat­e­gy, which hinged on the audi­to­ry cue of artillery fire, fal­tered because Ewell nev­er heard the sound of Longstreet’s guns owing to refrac­tions of ter­rain and weath­er.3 In imag­in­ing cog­ni­tive, affec­tive, and polit­i­cal vari­a­tions of acoustic shad­ows and spot­lights, in imag­in­ing the copi­ous mean­ings of prox­im­i­ty and dis­tance (how­ev­er many feet one might stand from the plat­form), we might con­sid­er the diverse array of con­tex­tu­al rea­sons that pro­duced in the ears of audi­ence mem­bers silence, sta­t­ic, melody, dis­tor­tion or ampli­fi­ca­tion and thus shaped (mis)apprehension. Gabor Boritt’s The Get­tys­burg Gospel, for exam­ple, not­ed the panoply of trans­la­tions in account­ing for diverse echoes” of the Get­tys­burg Address in press cov­er­age. Famil­iar is the most obvi­ous case of ide­o­log­i­cal ter­rain and tem­per­a­ture that pro­duced seething and singing inter­pre­ta­tions of All men are cre­at­ed equal.” Many in the press seemed not to hear Lin­coln say any­thing at all, even as folks cheered and a cap­tain with an emp­ty sleeve buried his face in his good arm, shak­ing and sob­bing aloud,” as Lincoln’s mem­o­ry pol­i­tics — The world will lit­tle note nor long remem­ber” — resound­ed.4

The oth­er con­cept on my mind is rever­ber­a­tion. Gissen’s lis­ten­ing moves toward Lin­coln, and I have long been inter­est­ed in the per­for­ma­tive recita­tion of the Get­tys­burg Address in increas­ing dis­tance across space and time, efforts that seek prox­im­i­ty to Lincoln’s voice and vision even as con­text changes, some­times rad­i­cal­ly, how Lincoln’s under­stand­ing is uttered and embod­ied. Soci­ol­o­gist Bar­ry Schwartz has done much in teach­ing us how gen­er­a­tion and nation­al cir­cum­stance change the mean­ings of the speech,5 but what of those con­texts in rela­tion to the oth­er non-lin­guis­tic dimen­sions of say­ing and sound­ing that affect trans­la­tion, inter­pre­ta­tion, cir­cu­la­tion? Peo­ple at the time, across the expanse of the coun­try, read swatch­es of the text aloud. At the 1913 and 1938 reunions, lau­reled vet­er­ans of the epic bat­tle (many depict­ed in archival footage with ears cupped, strain­ing to hear) lis­tened again to Lincoln’s words, sit­ting among a throng not yet born in Novem­ber 1863. Mul­ti­tudes of Amer­i­cans for more than a cen­tu­ry have spo­ken Lincoln’s Get­tys­burg Address, espe­cial­ly in the nation’s class­rooms, but also on diverse epi­de­ic­tic occa­sions call­ing for words of con­so­la­tion and reded­i­ca­tion, such as on the first anniver­sary of 911. Trans­la­tions are inven­tion­al and recep­tion­al, and per­for­ma­tive inflec­tions reflect and refract, shap­ing echoes of Lin­coln and how they might be heard. 

Espe­cial­ly as I think about those boys with lan­guage-based learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties at the Green­wood School in Ver­mont, mem­o­riz­ing and mov­ing­ly recit­ing The Address,” and as I imag­ine how queer kids and their teach­ers might ben­e­fit from a queer Lin­coln rhetor­i­cal ped­a­gogy,6 I hope that we might all find mean­ing­ful inspi­ra­tion, vex­a­tion, and mobi­liza­tion in David Gissen’s attune­ment to lis­ten­ing at distances.



See, for exam­ple, History’s Appa­ra­tus: An Inter­view with David Gis­sen,” Land­scape Futures: Instru­ments, Devices, and Archi­tec­tur­al Inven­tions, ed. Geoff Man­augh (Reno, NV: Neva­da Muse­um of Art; Barcelona, Spain: Actar, 2013), 49 – 72.


Ken Burns, The Uni­verse of Bat­tle,” The Civ­il War (PBS1990).


Charles D. Ross, Civ­il War Acoustic Shad­ows (Ship­pens­burg, PA: White Mane Pub­lish­ing, 2001).


Gabor Boritt, The Get­tys­burg Gospel: The Lin­coln Speech that Nobody Knows (New York: Simon and Schus­ter, 2006), chap­ters 5 and 6, and p. 118.


Bar­ry Schwartz, Reread­ing the Get­tys­burg Address: Social Change and Col­lec­tive Mem­o­ry,” Qual­i­ta­tive Soci­ol­o­gy 19 (1996): 395 – 422.


Ken Burns, The Address (PBS, 2014); Charles E. Mor­ris III, Sun­der the Chil­dren: Abra­ham Lincoln’s Queer Rhetor­i­cal Ped­a­gogy,” Quar­ter­ly Jour­nal of Speech 98 (Novem­ber 2013): 395 – 422.

landscapepoliticshistoryrhetoriclincolnacousticsenvironmental translation


David Gis­sen is a his­to­ri­an, the­o­rist, cura­tor, and crit­ic whose work exam­ines his­to­ries and the­o­ries of archi­tec­ture, land­scapes, envi­ron­ments, and cities. His recent work focus­es on devel­op­ing a nov­el con­cept of nature in archi­tec­tur­al thought and exper­i­men­tal forms of archi­tec­tur­al his­tor­i­cal prac­tice. Gis­sen is the author of Man­hat­tan Atmos­pheres: Archi­tec­ture, the Inte­ri­or Envi­ron­ment, and Urban Cri­sis (Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2014) and Sub­na­ture: Archi­tec­ture’s Oth­er Envi­ron­ments (Prince­ton Archi­tec­tur­al Press, 2009), and he edit­ed of the Ter­ri­to­ry” issue of AD Jour­nal (2010) and Big and Green (Prince­ton Archi­tec­tur­al Press, 2003). His essays have been pub­lished in jour­nals such as AA Files, Cab­i­net, Grey Room, Log, Quaderns, and Thresh­olds, as well as a wide range of mag­a­zines, news­pa­pers, blogs, and books. His cura­to­r­i­al and exper­i­men­tal his­tor­i­cal work has been staged at the Muse­um of the City of New York, the Nation­al Build­ing Muse­um, the Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Archi­tec­ture Gallery, the Toron­to Free Gallery, and the Cana­di­an Cen­tre for Archi­tec­ture, among oth­er venues. Gis­sen is cur­rent­ly an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of the Arts. Email: dgissen@​cca.​edu

Charles E. Mor­ris III is Pro­fes­sor and Chair­per­son in the Depart­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion & Rhetor­i­cal Stud­ies, Col­lege of Visu­al and Per­form­ing Arts, at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty. He is co-edi­tor, with Thomas K. Nakaya­ma, of QED: A Jour­nal of GLBTQ World­mak­ing, pub­lished by Michi­gan State Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Mor­ris is the author of Queer­ing Pub­lic Address: Sex­u­al­i­ties in Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Dis­course (Uni­ver­si­ty of South Car­oli­na Press, 2007). Select­ed recent essays include Context’s Crit­ic, Invis­i­ble Tra­di­tions, and Queer­ing Rhetor­i­cal His­to­ry,” Quar­ter­ly Jour­nal of Speech (2015); Lincoln’s Queer Hands,” Rhetoric & Pub­lic Affairs 18 (Spring 2015); and Sun­der the Chil­dren: Abra­ham Lincoln’s Queer Rhetor­i­cal Ped­a­gogy,” Quar­ter­ly Jour­nal of Speech 99 (Novem­ber 2013). For his work on LGBTQ mem­o­ry and his­to­ry, Mor­ris has twice received the Gold­en Mono­graph Award for arti­cle of the year (2003, 2010) from the Nation­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion (NCA), as well as the NCA’s Karl Wal­lace Memo­r­i­al Award (2001) for ear­ly career achieve­ment and its Randy Majors Award for Dis­tin­guished Schol­ar­ship in LGBTQ Stud­ies (2008). In 2016. Mor­ris was named a Dis­tin­guished Schol­ar by the Rhetor­i­cal and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion The­o­ry Divi­sion of the NCA. Email: cemorris@​syr.​edu