Dissecting Sound: Speaker Identification at the Stasi and Sonic Ways of Knowing

In The Lives of Others, a 2006 fiction film staged in East Berlin in the mid-1980s, an agent working for the Ministry of State Security (Stasi) of the Germany Democratic Republic (GDR) spies on a couple by eavesdropping on their lives day and night.

The Lives of Others had an enthusiastic reception and informed a wide audience on the extensive surveillance practices by the GDR Stasi, its use of civilian informants, and the ways in which its agents eavesdropped on telephone calls and private conversations.

Just like fictional agent HGW XX/7, Stasi employees at times grappled with understanding what they were exactly listening to. In fact, they did not always know whose voices they were monitoring. This is why they started, from the late 1960s onward, a research program on the issue of how to identify speakers by the characteristics of their recorded voices. In this paper, I aim to unravel how the Stasi staff members and their collaborators worked on this research program—a program that is an intriguing case of “hearing modernity,” albeit in a grim appearance. How did Stasi employees try to identify the taped voices? Which aspects of the recorded sounds did they consider relevant for their diagnostic purposes? How did they dissect these sounds, and how did listening become a legitimate way of knowing in this context? In exploring answers to these questions I will not just rely on the Stasi archives, but also compare the Stasi strategies with twentieth-century “listening modes,”
“sonic skills” and “knowledge organization” in science, engineering, and medicine more widely. My claim is that Stasi’s take on sonic ways of knowing, its technology-invested “acoustemology,” largely followed the scientific logics of the era, but undermined its own effectiveness by hesitating between embodied and mobile knowledge organizations—a hesitation that expressed its totalitarian embedding. Eventually, this hesitation would not only prove daunting for those under surveillance, but also detrimental to those doing the surveillance.