Northwestern Events Calendar


Michael Rossi - "Bad Language: Rogue Linguistics and Experimental Policing in Postwar America"

When: Monday, April 15, 2024
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM CT

Where: University Hall, Hagstrum 201, 1897 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208 map it

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Cost: FREE

Contact: Janet Hundrieser   (847) 491-3525

Group: Science in Human Culture Program - Klopsteg Lecture Series

Category: Lectures & Meetings



Micheal Rossi, University of Chicago


"Bad Language: Rogue Linguistics and Experimental Policing in Postwar America"


L.G. Kersta was a “rogue linguist” in the eyes of his peers. In the 1960s he transformed spectrograms — a standard tool of nineteenth century phonology and speech pathology - into a crime-fighting device for the twentieth century. Where a “fingerprint” serves to identify people through the distinctive marks they leave on surfaces that they touch, a “voiceprint” was (said Kersta) a way of identifying people through recordings of their voices, translated into distinctive visual patterns through use of a spectroscope. With a “voiceprint,” law enforcement could identify lawbreakers through recordings of their voices — a perfect identification technology when paired with new mass media and surveillance. This talk examines a central episode in the development, explication, and — ultimately — downfall of voiceprints as law enforcement technologies: the trial of Edward Lee King over his participation in the Watts uprising of 1966. The case provides, on the one hand, a cautionary tale about the roles of new technologies, old ideologies, and fantasies of knowability in science and law enforcement. On the other hand, it brings the history of linguistics — often seen as an arcane and ethereal science — into closer dialogue with histories of science, perception, and everyday lived experience. 


Michael Rossi is an historian of medicine and science in the United States from the nineteenth century to the present. His work focuses on the historical and cultural metaphysics of the body: how different people at different times understood questions of beauty, truth, falsehood, pain, pleasure, goodness, and reality vis-à-vis their corporeal selves and those of others.

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