Too Cool for Internet Explorer


September 27th, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Not Drowning, Waving: Maps for Sonic Adventurers (2006)

grinding through dreams

This week I have had a series of unpleasant dreams, all of them thoroughly about me, and all of them about dying alone, whereupon I wake up—you guessed it—alone. Not even the kitties have been sleeping with me. And I cannot keep my night-guard in my mouth, which means I’m probably having even more nasty dreams than I can remember.

My ten pound companion Jesus—who sleeps in his crate at night—has been finding my night-guard in the mornings. I’ve usually recovered it, sanitized it, and simply used it again (the night-guard is super-hard plastic stuff, seemingly indestructible). This morning he found it and loved on it for a long time. Lone time. Long, lone time before I noticed he had been loving it. It is in shambles, a tiny, clear plastic heap of slobbery, tasteless calories. $400 down the drain.

Given the essay I’m rapping up, my dreams, and the dog, it would seem that abandonment, death, and destruction, are the themes of the week.

Speaking of destructiveness, the dream from the night before last. I am at a performance in a laboratory theatre painted black. It is not the HopKins Black Box at LSU, but some inferior attempt to be that (I think I’m at UT, but I cannot recall). There is a very self-reflective avant-garde performance going on, some very bad acting but highly theoretical conceptual art stuff happening. I am wearing one of my favorite outfits as of late: khaki shorts, a white dress shirt, a conservative blue and green tie, a Polo navy jacket with brass buttons, matching green socks, and brown saddle shoes. I call it my British Schoolboy outfit. As the performance yawns on, a young male performer over-smoking a cigarette comes off stage, approaches me, and puts out his cigarette on my neck tie, spouting off prose from Derrida about deconstruction vis-à-vis textiles.

I am livid and blurt out expletives, I start screaming about how inferior these performances are to those at the Black Box and that destroying the property of the audience is off limits, and then start demanding my money back plus cash to replace my

[The dog just literally peed on my feet and, it appears, a number of student papers I had collected on the floor. I have just thrown him outside and gathered some Simple Solution . . . FUCK!]

Where was I? Oh yes, I demanded my money back plus cash to replace my tie. And then I woke up.

brass buttons

Yesterday I wore dream outfit to teach class. I received many comments (to say these were complements would be a strain). At the end of the day, to my profound dismay, I discovered I lost one of the brass buttons. You see, this same button I lost months ago while standing outside of the lodge. It was night, and using my car headlights I searched through the sod for a half hour to locate it (as replacing it would be very hard). I found the button and was elated (insert Golem noise here). I carried it around for weeks in search of a drycleaner who would also tailor, but without much luck, until one of the office staff said she would sew it back on. She did a fantastic job, but, nevertheless, the button is now gone. I don’t know what to do, which is why allegories are no very comforting.

At least I still have my striped tie, intact; it’s a relief to know that the cigarette burn was only in my dream.

letters from my mother to my father

(The days of begging, the days of theft. No nation that began for the sake of escape and by fire can be all that bad. Even if democracy is a myth. Myths make actuality, that’s what myths do. Me, I’ve always been on fire for the sake of fire.

(Listen. They thought they could have their freedom through something called democracy, but they forget about knowledge, an no one’s ever had freedom, anyways. So now it’s all falling apart, this economy, and so-called culture and a society, so-called, and anyway, there’s never been anything except loneliness, the days of begging, the days of theft.

Stolen from the late Kathy Acker’s “novel,” My Mother: Demonology (New York: Grove Press, 1993).

a flash of the susquehanna, burning loins

It is pretty much the consensus of sensitive men that hearing Dale Smith read his work can make you want him, to fall in love with him, but not in a dirty way. It’s more of a spiritual “please [fuck with] me” sort of way. He’s married, anyway.

the price of (forced) love

I’m not happy with Jesus, who destroyed my night-guard and who is, as I type this, terrorizing the cat for sheer boredom. He also just peed on my foot, which required fifteen minutes of clean-up. When you add to the destruction of my night-guard the $200 I’ve spent to replace the couch cushion he had an unfortunate liquidy bowel movement on, the oodles of bottles of Simple Solution and rolls of paper towels I’ve used to clean up his accidents, and the money spent on various sundry replaced things (slippers, the throw blankets, and the irreplaceable blanket my grandmother hand-made for me), all told I’ve spent probably a grand on his destructiveness.

In addition to night mares, after today’s two incidents I also dream of returning to my “foster” status. Maybe I am just not a dog person and a new mommy and/or daddy is the better route to go here. Alas, we still have 10 pre-paid training sessions to go (thank goddess I didn’t spring for the deluxe package). Tonight it is “beginner down.”

a split and a squeal, burning hearts

I didn’t know that James Brown recorded a Live at the Apollo, Volume Two, but he did, and its been recently released in a “Deluxe” version without edits. It’s even better than the first, and I’ve been listening to it all week to keep my mood from jumping off the float of sad-but-hopeful into that dreaded pool of despondency (this is hyperbole, but you know what I mean). Mon Dieu! the album is most excellent, with one of the horniest versions of “This is a Man’s World” I’ve ever heard; the audience squeals in anticipation, and when the song reaches the seven minute mark, Brown issues a series of “uh! uh! uh!” with suggestive comments about the ocean and motion and getting notions. This continues for almost twenty minutes, and one wonders why he just didn’t collapse in a heap when the song was over. The lyrics are sexist, to be sure, but the delivery—man, it’s something to hear. The sound of the entire album is so crystal, and the rhythm section is right on the cusp of wow-chica-wow-wow but still safely in the zone of R&B (this is not quite funk yet). It’s simply a warm, upbeat, happy, pelvis pumping record. Josh likey.

voices from the groove

September 26th, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Jefferson Airplane: After Bathing at Baxters (1968)

I’ve wrapped up a draft of the vocalic projection essay. Here is the remaining part and the conclusion; there is much work to do. There’s really no “ta-da” to the ending, but I’m writing this in mind of the chapter that comes before it (a chapter on John Edward the psychic) and the chapter that comes after it (a chapter on Nine-eleven emergency phone calls). This is the last chapter of the book—the fourth one—before it gets pretty somber.

Repression in Reverse

Just five minutes from the protagonist’s first contact with his wife’s voice in White Noise, the dead voices get nasty. Presumably days later in the diagesis, a disconcerting harmony arrives during River’s second visit to Price’s home. Price claims that he has discovered a new communiqué from Anna, which he amplifies and runs through a sound-filtering program on a computer:

RIVERS: So, will I get to see her this time [on a television tuned to static]?

PRICE: Uh, no, no, this will just be sound [again, the primacy of speech over image is underscored]. You have to be a little patient, that’s all. Trust me John, this is just the beginning. Sit, here, now [pushes button]. If you want to hear it again just press that key. I’ll be back in a moment [leaves room]

VOICE OF ANNA: Johna-[unrecognizable]

UNCOGNIZEABLE VOICE: [female scream of agony]

CHORUS OF ANGRY VOICES: Bastard! Bastard! [unrecognizable but angry voices, some obviously backwards]

PRICE: [abruptly returns to room, taps computer keys]

RIVERS: Who was that?

PRICE: Eh, it’ ok, ok. Ah, we have some very bad people out there. But um, you just have to press that [hits key], and they’re all gone. . . . they can’t all be nice. They can’t all be Anna.

Quickly the good voice yields to a bad, threatening voice and Rivers is confused. His certainty about hearing Anna is unsettled, as speech gives way to the disturbing excess of something in the voice more than the voice, something we experience as mystical or religious or, as seems more frequently these days, untrustworthy and demonic. As Nass and Brave’s work on brain research suggests, it is this need to fix an identity to this something more in voice that White Noise’s filmmakers exploit to create a sense of the uncanny.

Of course, the differential basis meaning would suggest that there is no good voice without a bad one. There is controlled speech-the speech of control-and then there is voice that comes up from one’s lungs, throat, and mouth uncontrollably: hiccups; laughter; sneezes; cries of pain; or the alternately silly and disturbing bleating of orgasmic release. As the psychoanalytic theorist Mladen Dolar has argued, voice is thus fundamentally ambivalent and much less stable than we tend to assume:

for psychoanalysis the auto-affective voice of self-presence and self-mastery [is] constantly opposed by its reverse side, the intractable voice of the other, the voice one could not control. If we try to bring the two together, we could tentatively say that at the very core of narcissism lies an alien kernel which narcissistic satisfaction may well attempt to disguise, but which continually threatens to undermine it from the inside. (41)

The “good voice,” rooted in maternal sonority, can give way to the bad voice, that which undermines the taken-for-granted self-transparency of the subject.
For Steven Conner, one can locate the source of the unsettling or “bad” voice in the need and helpless displeasure signified in the cry of the infant:

The baby is hungry and cries; hunger fro young humans is inseparable from crying. No hunger for humans without crying. The cry is the response to the hunger and the means employed to defeat it. . . . The voice is the means-the sole means-that the baby has to escape from so much suffering, and reach and fetch to it the comfort and sustenance. But the voice is also the voice of the infant’s suffering and need. When the cry does not bring instant relief, it becomes the symbol of unsatisfied desire, even the agency of the frustration of this desire. (30-31)

Thus the “bad voice” is initially not so much from the scolding or “no!” from without, but from one’s own mouth in infancy. As the child ages and matures, she “comes to recognize [her] own voice as the good voice,” as a elementary (and necessary) form of narcissism, and she begins to project the bad voice onto outside sources (32). The “bad voice” is always coming from someone else, and, at least in part, this is why many people detest hearing recordings of their own voices: such recordings betray aspects of self, memories, and feelings that we would rather keep repressed (Conner 7).

In the recorded voices of popular culture, the repressed often seeks return through reversal. In everyday life the repressed returns involuntarily in slips of the tongue, but in more extraordinary practices like EVP experimentation, sometimes the repressed returns in unsettling messages from Hitler-in some sense the opposite of mother (or at the very least closer to Mommy Dearest). Although mother always comes through first, Raudive reports that of the many famous dead statespersons with whom he intercoursed, “the German dictator Adolf Hitler manifests most frequently . . . . ” Raudive continues:

one gains the impression that even in the transcendental dimension he now inhabits, he shows exactly the same traits that characterized him on earth: self-glorification (megalomania), persistence in pushing himself forward and a certain spiritual depravity-all sharply rejected by other voice-entitles. To illustrate the situation, two examples: [offset] “Hitler Pack te.” (Germ., Latv.: “Here Hitler is [of the] rabble.”) “Kosti, te Hitler baigs.” (Latv.: “Kosti, here is Hitler uncanny”). . . . Utterances from Hitler or about him could fill a separate book. (88)

Shortly after the publication of Raudive’s Breakthrough, a controversy broke-out in the UK on the pages of Psychic News, a low-circulation newsletter read by paranormalists, psychics, and Spiritualists (Bander 77-87). For some Spiritualists, Hitler’s visits to Raudive’s tape recorder were simply too much to take; a number of them denounced EVP wholesale. “The Raudive voices stem from discarnate entities living in a lower astral hell,” some argued, and thus should be shunned (Bander 83). In May of 1971, Gordon Turner wrote in the Psychic News that “there is a direct link between fascism, black magic and contact with impersonating earthbound entities who deliberately pervert others. . . . If,” he continues, “the Raudive voices are stemming from a paranormal source, then I would regard some of the references to Hitler as significant and dangerous” (Bander 83-84). After the controversy with the Spiritualists, EVP enthusiasts did not like to discuss “bad voices,” only the good ones. Many regretted Raudive ever mentioned them, and much like the Price character in White Noise, they sought to mute them or explain them away.

From the publication of Breakthrough to present day, however, the “good voices” of EVP have found their most constant counterpoint in backmasking, a term that refers to both the practice of encoding secret messages in music as well as figuring out ways of decoding them. Laura A. Brannon and Timothy C. Brock summarize the practice for a college textbook on persuasion:

Messages embedded in rock songs are supposed to be evident when the music is played backwards. When the recordings are played normally (forward), critics claim that the messages are heard subliminally (backmasking). The typical criticism is that youthful listeners of rock music are unknowingly “led down a path of loose morality and behavioral aberration. Belief in the effects of backmasking is so strong that Arkansas and California have passed bills demanding that records and tapes with backmasking have prominent warning labels. Indeed, the state of Texas and the Canadian parliament have funded investigations of backmasking (par. 16)

Most histories of backmasking locate its origin in the rumor panic that began with the Beatle’s 1966 Revolver album: Stoned out of his mind, John Lenon accidentally played some tracks the band had laid down for the album backwards. He liked the sound, and with the encouragement of producer George Martin, convinced the band to use some backwards elements on the album. The song “Rain” features the backward lyric, “sunshine/rain/when the rain comes, they run and hide their heads” (Stevens 149-156). The conspicuous, strange sound inspired fans to play subsequent records backwards on their turntables, and consequently, the hunt for secret messages on record albums commenced. (In fact, music fans and artists have become so comfortable with the unusual timbre of backwards sound that, today, “scratching” has become its own musical technique and is ubiquitous in certain strains of hip-hop and dance music.)

Unlike the miraculous voices emphasized by EVP enthusiasts, however, the voices found by backspinning DJs were understood not so much as coming from the dead as they were understood as deadly. Michigan radio personality Russ Gibb helped to ignite an urban legend when a listener phoned to request that he play the Beatles’ song “Revoluion 9” backwards. He did, the message “turn me on dead man” was heard, and many fans were consequently led to believe in the rumor that Paul McCartney had died and there was some sort of conspiratorial cover-up (Searcey A1). Gibb’s stunt also fed into a growing evangelical Christian, “anti-rock” movement, which was further exacerbated by Lennon’s claim that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” and that “Christianity will go” (Sullivan 313). In the span of a decade, concerned parents and fearful young people were being told by groups like the Parents Music Resource Center and the Majority for Musical Morality that they should ban albums like Styx’s Kilroy was Here (1983) because they contained “secret backwards messages” encouraging drug-use, suicide, and the sacrifice of household pets to Satan (Holden par. 1).

In the deep south, especially, scenes from my own personal past were common in church youth groups across the country. When I was twelve years old, an itinerant preacher showed up at Rockbridge Baptist Church in Centerville, Georgia, where I had taken by my grandmother ever since I can remember, to give a series of presentations on the harmful influence of rock music (if readers were wondering about the personal motives of this essay, here they come, straight outta a childhood trauma). He argued that, like Plato and numerous revered thinkers after him, Satan understood the powerful effects of music and designed the beat of rock specifically to pound sinful messages into the heads of unsuspecting, hormone riddled teens. I remember that, for me, the chilling highlight of these sermons came on the second of night of a series of presentations. On the alter at the front of the sanctuary the preacher had assembled a turntable and placed a microphone up against its built-in speaker. After a brief sermon about the Satanic beliefs of Jimmy Page, his obsession with the infamous occultist Aliester Crowley, and the sexual debauchery of Robert Plant, the preacher placed a copy of Led Zeppelin IV on the turntable and played the song “Stairway to Heaven,” creating a memorable scene that echoes Erik Davis’ reportage of the backmasking craze on television:

Some evangelical TV broadcasts from the early 80s even include top-down shots of the minister’s DJ decks so that viewers can admire the technique of squeezing sense from sound. However, while rap and all the sampled music that follows it treats the vinyl LP as an open form capable of multiple meanings and uses, Christian turntablists remained literalists, convinced that they were revealing a single “fundamental” message intentionally implanted in the grooves by a diabolical author. (127-128)

Although these “DJs for Jesus could not agree on the exact wording,” most of them focused on the devil (128). After the song had continued for over four minutes or so, just after Bonham’s drums kick in, Plant sings
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow

Don’t be alarmed now

It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen

Yes there are two paths you can go by

but in the long run

There’s still time to change the road you’re on

The preacher applied pressure with his forefinger to the center of the record and the turntable sloweeeeed toooooooo aaaaaaaaaaaaaa stoooooppppppppppppppppppp. Then he began to reverse the music with his finger and played the record back toward the beginning drum-crash. There was a rhythmic swooping of pure gibberish. He played the verse again foward, and stopped at the proverbial choice of roads, but this time right before he played the record backwards, the preacher told us what we should hear: “Satan . . . my sweet Satan . . . six six six.” Sure enough, we heard it. All of us. At eight years of age I was terrified, crying, surrounded by a congregation full of preteens and their parents in the back pews. It was on the basis of these presentations that I was eventually “born again” at the age of thirteen, haunted and ashamed by my secret love of Black Sabbath and Duran Duran. Obviously the technique so typical of EVP “proof,” in which the auditor is told what she is going to hear before she hears, was also at work in backmasking. Vocalic projection requires a priming pedagogy for hearing angels and demons; once one is told what to hear, the spirit or demon appears, seemingly clear as a bell . . . and sometimes straight outta hell!

Despite the fact that in controlled research settings there is “no evidence that listeners [are] influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the content of backwards messages” (Moore 1236), and despite a flood of firm denials from the accused, a full-blown Satanic rumor-panic in the 1980s and early 1990s helped to sustain a widespread belief that rock musicians were channeling demonic forces through secret backwards messages on record albums (see Gunn; Vokey and Read). One of the more famous media events involved the heavy metal band Judas Priest, who were taken to a Nevada court in 1990 for the suicide attempts of two young men by their parents (both of whom died, one instantly, the other later from complications). The parents alleged that the song “Better By You, Better Than Me” contained the subliminal encouragement “Do It,” which caused the young men to pull the trigger (Moore). Numerous experts for the defense explained how vocalic projection works-mostly from a cognitive perspective-and the case was eventually dismissed for lack of merit. The Judas Priest trial came at the time when the compact disk was becoming the dominant musical medium. Cassette tapes, like the eight track tape, helped to shrink the vinyl market-but it was the CD that finally put record albums to rest. Consequently the hyped dismissal of the trial effectively squashed the rumor panic surrounding backmasking, and it virtually disappeared from the popular imagination in the 1990s. The bad, reversed voices of backward living, just like Raudive’s maternal broadcasts from Beyond, were silenced.

Backmasking and other forms of vocalic projection have recently reappeared in popular culture in part because of a nostalgic resurgence of vinyl production among “alternative music” fans and artists, a nostalgia that is motivated by the archival impulse to both return to and escape from the sonorous womb/grave. With compact disks, many audiophiles have lamented the loss of “the warmth and richness once common to stereophonic sound” (Furchgott 1). Certainly the term one sees repeated over and over in connection to the vinyl LP, “warmth,” refers to an empirically verifiable sound, yet as a libidinal topos and a term in close figural proximity to fetishization (signaled by the substantially higher price and LP-only tracks), warmth is code for projection as well; although it is not the case with the tinny, flat sound of an MP3 file, with a decent amplifier, only the audiophillic music snob could tell the difference between the chill of Compact Disk and the heat of vinyl.

Cheaper computing technologies have also cultivated a new interest in different forms of vocalic projection. The wider availability of sound manipulation software, for example, has encouraged a “reverse speech” movement to flourish on the Internet. Originally inspired by the backmasking panic, David John Oates developed a strain of psychotherapy that encourages the analyst to examine the speech of clients in reverse in search of backwards messages from the unconscious (Oates). The film White Noise also stimulated renewed interest in EVP phenomena in the popular media, and its DVD release features a number of how-to segments that updates techniques for the digital age. Popular Internet web sites, such as Jeff Milner’s Backmasking Site, or tagline is “more backmasking clips than you can shake a stick at”-has also succumbed to archive fever, transforming the once-terrifying voices of reverse speech into the comfort of amusement. To the classic, gloomy examples from the albums of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and the Electric Light Orchestra are stored more cheerful and inspiring messages. Teenage pop princess Britney Spears sings, “with you I lose my mind, give me a sign,” but backwards, Jeff Milner reveals, she issues a delightful invitation: “sleep with me, I’m not too young.” In the final instance and example, the audio archive remains both a grave and a womb.

An Uncanny Refrain

The good voice and the bad voice, heavenly music and demonic growls, are simply alternate ways of reckoning with the ambivalence we have toward the human voice as such. Recording technologies amplify this ambivalence by plugging into what Derrida has described as an archival impulse. In this essay I have attempted to describe how our profound ambivalence about the voice is rooted in infantile experience. I have also suggested it is demonstrable in Raudive’s Breakthrough and the EVP movement it inspired, as well as the counterpoint practice of backmasking and the “anti-rock” movement obsessed with reserved speech. Although these examples of vocalic projection are among the most conspicuous, the longing for immortality and fear of death that inspire them are also easy to locate in other speech-based recordings, especially in the news media. After Nine-eleven, the release of the voice recordings of emergency personnel were top stories (Gunn, Mourning); for over five years The New York Times battled with the city government of New York to release their archive of 9-11 calls about the terrorist attacks to the public (they eventually won; see Dwyer B1-B5). Every time an airplane crashes tragically, the release of its fateful “black box” recordings becomes a media event. Unlike Jimmy Page in reverse or Raudive’s discovery of an errant shortwave signal, these traumatic voices are real and sensible. There is increasingly less of a need to hear voices of the dead as voice recordings of the dying continue to heap-up at the feet of contemporary Angel of History. Like voices of the dead, the speech of the dying are objects of archival affection and projection, but not simply for the catholic ear.

the audio archive is the mother of memorials

September 23rd, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Between Interval: Secret Observatory (2005)

Last night I had a delightful dinner with colleagues, and then a splendid time at a kind of after-party at Dale’s. The after-party was boy-heavy, but that’s ok. I like fraternities, after all. I was a little fuzzy this morning, but managed to write a bit more on the acoustic projection essay. I just may get this done before the deadline. I have hope. Here is the next section:

Embalmic Sonority and the Archival Womb

For Walter S. J. Ong, “communication, like knowledge itself, flowers in speech” (2). Ong argues this is because words are the most fundamental unit of communication, and they are assigned such a status because they are sonorous:

Sound, bound to the present time by the fact that it exists only at the instant when it is going out of existence, advertises presentness. It heightens presence in the sense of the existential relationship of person to person (I am in your presence; you are present to me), with which our concept of present time (as against past and future) connects: present time is related to us as is a person whose presence we experience. It is ‘here.’ It envelopes us. Even the voice of one dead, played from a recording, envelops us with his presence as no picture can. (101; my emphasis)

It is no mere coincidence that Ong’s primary example of presence is recorded speech, and that this example is immediately yoked to death: voice betokens an aliveness, an immediacy that one senses when playing back a recording of the dearly departed. Recorded speech cheats death. Unlike the word or the letter-the parchment message and the email missive-speech has long been assumed to be the bearer of life and the trace of the soul. The letter and image alike are dead, requiring the animation of spirit that speech betokens by default (Sterne 17).i Although Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence displaces speech as “the center of subjectivity and the point of access into the divine,” Ong’s observations give voice to common, soul-deep assumptions about vocality (Stearne 17). As EVP makes clear, whether or not speech is truly alive-and not, say, just another form of writing-does nothing to deny its powerful, haunting purchase in the popular imaginary.

Ong’s recourse to the example of speech from the dead also helps to underscore a point that numerous media scholars have argued in the past half-century: communication technologies-from writing on parchment to banging out email messages-amplify anxieties about death and hopes for immortality. And as Jonathan Sterne has argued, none has been caught up with the figure of the ghost more so than phonography. Of course, the double- and over-exposed accident of spirit photography had convinced some that the existence of ghosts was demonstrable with the image, yet owing to the strong association of human speech with presence, Victorian writers “believed there was something special about the relation between sound recording and death” (Sterne 291). The Spiritualist practices of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a direct consequence of vocal disembodiment; the intellectual leap from voices of the living traveling across a geographical distances to the speech of dead souls traveling across the spiritual plane is a rather short one (Sconce 59-91). As Sterne demonstrates in his history of sound reproduction, writers interested in sound recording

repeatedly produced tracts on the possibilities for hearing voices of the deceased as some kind of guarantee or signature for the cultural and affective power of recorded sound. The chance to hear ‘the voices of the dead’ as a figure of the possibilities of sound recording appears with morbid regularity in technical descriptions, advertisements, announcements, circulars, philosophical speculations, and practical descriptions. (289)

Telepresence promised communication with deceased loved ones; sound recording, however, promised a new form of archival immortality-one that escaped the deadness of script to dwell in the interior presence of recorded speech. “Death has lost some of its sting since we are able to forever retain the voices of the dead,” read one early reaction to the phonograph (308). In an 1877 reaction to the news of the invention, Scientific American declared that “speech has become, as it were, immortal” (298).

To the cognitive and psychological predispositions, as well as the logocentric habit of associating voice with presence, then, we should add that EVP intrigues listeners because it amplifies fantasies of immorality through its use of a new writing technology: sound recording. In his landmark study of the human sensorium, The Presence of the Word, Ong heralded the arrival of the “new orality” in reference to recording technologies at the very same moment when historians began the oral history “from below” project, an endeavor to cheat death in the name of Humanity by capturing the verbal stories of the isolated and forgotten who lived through history’s worst hits, and an endeavor only made possible by increasingly smaller, portable recording machines (insert sources here). Only in the late sixties could Dr. Raudive conduct his EVP experiments in Peter Bander’s dining room. With portability, History’s archive was freed from bricks-and-mortar buildings in a way that also frees bodies from the sarcophagus, and in so doing, the soul from this mortal coil.

The association here drawn between death and sound is literal. Sterne argues that sound recording arrived shortly after the historical moment when there was a profound need for preserving the dead soldiers heaped-up by the Civil War. Matthew Brady’s widely publicized pictures of piles of dead bodies only intensified the zeal for the preservative properties of chemicals (insert source here). “Recording,” writes Stearne, “was the product of a culture that had learned to can and to embalm, to preserve the bodies of the dead so that they could continue to perform a social function after life. The nineteenth century’s momentous battle against decay offered a way to explain sound recording” (292). Thus, when the phonograph arrived the American public was already primed to think about recording as way to prevent soul-rot. This is why the trope of “voices of the dead” began to appear in writings about phonography that has continued right up through the work of one of our most revered media ecology gurus, Father Ong.

Because of the intertwined history of canning, chemical embalming, and sound recording, taped voices of the deceased are unmistakably associated with mourning. The preservative impulse to record the human voice consequently leads to the archive, usually understood as “a place where documents and other materials of public interest are preserved,” but also increasingly recognized in the theoretical humanities as a memorial to the dead and departed and a repository of mournful inscriptions (Manoff 10). The idea of an archive usually entails the notion of pilgrimage, a religious form of traveling to a auratic site to re-member something that has been forgotten or something that has died. “At the heart of the archive,” argues Ann Cvetkovich, “are practices of mourning, and the successful archive enables the work of mourning” (271). Voices of the dead, collected first on records, then tape, and today in digital form, enable the auditor to do a kind of mournful labor. When we reckon with EVP as a practice of vocalic projection, then, for Raudive and his colleagues, finding of departed loved ones was not simply a means of mourning another’s death, but the inevitable future of one’s own.

According to Freud and countless thinkers after him, mourning is better understood as the ability to detach oneself from a loved object (usually a person) by working through and filing-away the mnemonic traces and memories of that object (243-258). Insofar as the archive is simultaneously a memorial and a storehouse, however, Jacques Derrida has argued that the labor of mourning encouraged by the archive is inherently paradoxical, at once driven by the violence of putting a corpus to rest as well as the drive to re-member and revive (29-30). In this respect archives are simultaneously ghostly prisons and parlors. Because for Derrida psychoanalysis was principally preoccupied with processes of remembering and forgetting (e.g., “repression,” “projection,” and so on), it

proposes a new theory of the archive; it takes into account a topic and a death drive without which there would not in effect be any desire or any possibility for the archive. But at the same time, at once for strategic reasons and because the conditions of archivization implicate all the tensions, contradictions, or aporias we are trying to formalize here, notably those which make it into a movement of the promise of the future no less than of recording the past, the concept of the archive must carry in itself, as does every concept, an unknowable weight. (29-30)

Such an unknowable weight nevertheless leaves mnemic traces and “inflects archive desire or fever,” metamorphosing the mournful labor of the archive into a kind of melancholy, an abject inability to detach oneself from the beloved object because something about it-that is, something around it-eludes us. However metaphorical, “archive fever” is the restless, ceaseless process of memory itself; the archive is not a thing or a place, but a doing, a putting away and a taking-out; it is repression . . . and the return of the repressed.

Perhaps nothing betokens repression more than the return announced in the English translation of Raudive’s archival achievement: Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead. Reportedly based on an archive of over 100,000 audio tapes, almost 300 pages of the 400 page book consists of transcriptions of voices that have broken through from a “hidden world” to ours, interspersed with and brief commentaries from Raudive. His first example is indicative of the mournful work of the archive and the drive toward origins it represents:

Amongst roughly 72,000 audible voices the “mother-motive” is statistically the most frequent. My mother appears in manifold forms and uses various languages, including some she did not know during her lifetime; Spanish, Swedish, and German, for instance; but most of all she uses Latgalian, the dialect of Latgale, a Latvian province. Usually she addresses me directly and personally, but sometimes other entities report her presence, introduce her or give some messages regarding her. [offset] A female voice: “Tava mate!” (Latvian: “Your mother!”) “Mote te atrudas. Tekla.” (Latg.: “Mother is here. Tekla”) . . . At times she uses very tender terms in addressing me: “Kostulit ta tove mote.” (Latg.: “Kostulit, this is your mother.”)

Although Raudive’s voices frequently brought unpleasant or confused messages, their capture always registered the delight of discovery in a manner that underscored a quest and longing for the good, comforting voice, embodied by mother’s speech, which is a delight that is similarly reflected in Ong’s arguments about the presence of the word. Owing to privileged status of human speech, the audio archive is the mother of memorials.

There is, then, an archival association to be made between the womb and the grave by means of speech. Previously I noted the research of Nass and Brave that suggested the human voice is the first medium for identity in the developing child. Insofar as she is the primary source of sustenance inside and outside the womb, the mother’s voice-as Kate Bush once sang-“stands for comfort.” In the theoretical humanities, the idea that maternal speech is the original site of social relationality and therefore subjectivity has been termed the “acoustic mirror,” a concept that was developed by Guy Rosolato, a psychoanalytic theorist and critic, in the 1970s. As later elaborated by Kaja Silverman, the acoustic mirror refers to a pre-verbal form of identification that precedes image-based identification (in Lacanian argot, the so-called mirror stage). Because

the subject lacks boundaries [as an infant], it [does not] yet have anything approximating an interiority. However, the foundations of what will later function as identity are marked out by these primitive encounters with the outer world, encounters which will occur along the axis of the mother’s voice. Since the child’s [symbolic] economy is organized around incorporation, and since what is incorporated is the auditory field articulated by the maternal voice, the child could be said to hear itself initially through that voice-to first “recognize” itself in the vocal “mirror” supplied by the mother. (80)

Raudive’s mother is his first example and “statistically the most frequent” for a reason that is determined in infantile life. The violence of the archive-the death drive central to its practice-that Derrida is at pains to detail is thereby reflected in the violence of independence central to subjectivity itself: self-consciousness entails the realization that one is not one’s mother, but rather a separate entity with a voice of his or her own (Lacan 3-9). The pleasure of learning of one’s independence is simultaneously a violence of separation from the maternal bosom. This is why psychoanalyst Melanie Klein has argued that living as such, especially living ethically, is fundamentally mournful; the responsible life is a continual reparation toward a maternal figure (211-229). In this sense, Raudive’s Breakthrough might have simply been re-titled, Regression On a Stick.

By transposing the infantile scene of maternal sonority with its later-in-life surrogate in romantic love-that is, the way in which the maternal voice is replaced in life by the speech of a lover-Geoffrey Sax’s 2005 EVP thriller White Noise captures the ambivalence we have toward human speech, as well as the paradox of archive fever, in a stark and helpful way-a way in which, I should add, real-world EVP enthusiasts rarely acknowledge. In a pivotal scene from the film, Sax and screen writer Niall Johnson movingly capture this longing for the good or maternal voice in the desperation of a widower: Jonathan [DH1]Rivers (played by Michael Keaton) is a successful architect who tragically loses his wife Anna (played by Chandra West) in what is initially presumed to be a car accident. One day at work he is followed by Raymond Price (played by Ian McNeice), an EVP expert who eventually tells Rivers that his wife has been sending him messages from beyond the grave. Rivers is incredulous, but eventually gives into his desire to communicate to his wife and visits Price at his home, which is cluttered with boxes of videotapes, cassettes, and disks of all sorts, and stacked-high with various kinds of electronic equipment. They sit together in a parlor in front of a bank of screens, computers, and media and, in a tone that reflects Ong’s wide-eyed excitement about the possibilities of new sound technologies, Price explains to Rivers the fundamentals of EVP detection. As Rivers sits dumbstruck, Price retires to another room in search of a Sony mini-disk:

RIVERS: [yelling slightly] Is this your job, or hobby, or what?

PRICE: [off-screen; laughs] I think obsession would be more appropriate, Mr. Rivers. Ah-here we are [returns to frame with disks]. Now they don’t always appear visually the first few times. We tend only to pick up their voices, and people can find that frustrating. But when it works, and you see the faces of the people you’re able to help . . . nothing, believe me, nothing comes close. [inserts disk into player]. Mr. Rivers: do you want to hear your wife?

RIVERS: [long pause] yes. [Price presses the play button]

VOICE OF ANNA: [static; garbled voice] Johnathan [inaudible]. Johnathan [gable].

RIVERS: [weeps].

Notably, in every scene in which Price explains EVP to someone he stresses the primacy of voice: when the dead first reach out to touch someone, they do so by vocal expression.ii Furthermore, in the film speech is used to establish the uniqueness of a visitor. When Price, Rivers, or others see the dead on a screen, it is difficult to determine identity (for example, later in the film when the presumed face of Anna appears on a snowy television screen it turns out to be the face of someone else).

Although Rivers announces his desire is to see Anna, Price urges Rivers to believe him and attend more closely to sound as the authentic stamp of communication. Once he hears the voice of Anna, Rivers’ tears suggest that he realizes Price was right after all: a voice is what he longed to hear, a comforting voice sounding his name affirmatively, as if to say “I’m alright . . . [and therefore] so are you.” This regressive narcissism of EVP enthusiasm is in a sense reflected in a familiar, cheerful refrain: “Sometimes you want to go/where everybody knows your name/and they’re always glad you came.”iii As I soon detail, however, if you play that refrain backwards the threatening “bad voice” of Satan or Hitler emerges to dispel such fantasies hospitality.

“you are sleeping; you do not want to believe!”

September 22nd, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Armageddon Dildos: Homicidal Maniac (1993)

A broken record: For the past couple of weeks I’ve had a lot of trouble sitting down and writing. I have everything I want to say in my head, I just cannot make it come out. I am never in need of ideas; I find I am frequently in need of something akin to a mental diuretic.

Frustrated and “blocked,” I also tried my hand at editing: sitting down just to cut it out. That task seemed even harder. The “Father Trouble” essay has been given a green light, I just need to cut 3,000 words. The “Speech is Dead” essay has also been given a green light, I just need to cut 3,000 words. I usually don’t have trouble cutting, but this time it’s like someone telling me I have to cut a toe off: pick one. So, the only thing I’m good at doing lately is prepping for class. If not inspired, at least my recent lectures have been tidy.

One of the things I decided to do to jump-start writing is read Konstantin Raudive’s Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead, published in English in 1971 (it was published in German as The Inaudible Becomes Audible in 1969). The book is long out of print, but I managed to find a copy online. It’s simply a fascinating book, and a window into the “structure of feeling” of the early 1970s: Raudive’s statements about life after death are so adament. It’s as if he had been locked in a room with Jean-Paul Satre for a week—Existential Big Brother, as it were—and then wrote this thing when he got out. Hell is other people, but heaven, well, that’s where voices from the dead come from.

I think as a result of reading this weird book that purports to document EVP in scientific terms, today I managed to eek out a few paragraphs for that essay I have Explorations in Media Ecology in mind for. I’m pasting in the section I crafted below (with some of the dross from the review essay). But before that . . . I have a very special bonus!

When Breakthrough was first published, it came with a 7″ vinyl record. A lot of the voices that Raudive analyzes in the book are on this record with his commentary. His remarks are read by a stuffy Nadia Fowler. I have some MP3s of that record that I uploaded (about ten minutes a side). This is fun stuff: Side A is here, and Side B is here. If you listen to the whole thing, some of you with more exotic musical tastes will recognize some of the “translations” are used as sound-bites by the immortal industrial/dub king, Jack Dangers, in some of his Meat Beat Manifesto records. If you’ve ever wondered where that “you are sleeping!” sample came from, now you know. How hot is that?

Finally, and this is only tangentially related, last night I played with my shortwave radio in search of “numbers stations” broadcasts. I didn’t find any. I know this is the most exciting thing you’ve ever heard of for a Friday night’s fun: scotch and shortwave. Woohoo. I’m a party animal. I was trying to stay up for Coast to Coast, but alas, was in bed by ten.

The Voice of An Angel: “Raudive there!”

So here is the story: at a German book fair in 1969, an English publisher Colin Smythe approached Professor Peter Bander and handed him a copy of Raudive’s Unhörbares Wird Hörbar (The Inaudible Becomes Audible [1968]) with the suggestion that they may want to translate and publish it in English. The former German-born Senior Lecturer in Religion and Moral Education at a Cambridge-affiliated college had resigned to become an editor and translator at Smythe’s publishing house. His initial response to the book was negative:

Browsing through the pages, without actually reading the complete story, I formed the opinion that Konstantin Raudive, the author, had joined the host who are set on telling us that life after death is a reality which can be scientifically proven. I don’t think I would have given the book a second thought but for the section containing letters and comments by scientists I personally know to be of the highest integrity, and incapable of supporting anything scientifically suspect . . . . (in Raudive vii)

Nevertheless, after translating a few of the “how-to” passages from the book, Bander decided they should not republish it and told Smyth so, whereupon the publisher produced a tape he had made following Raudive’s instructions. Smyth insisted that there was a voice on the tape and that he wanted Bander to listen to it. “As far as I can remember,” reports Bander,

I must have listened to the section on the tape which had been pointed out to me for about ten minutes, and I was on the point of giving up when suddenly I noticed the peculiar rhythm mentioned by Raudive and his colleagues. After a further five or six play-backs, out of the blue, I heard a voice. It was in German, and . . . I believe this to have been the voice of my mother who had died three years earlier. (Bander 10)

Astonished, Bander assembled a number unsuspecting guests at his home for a dinner party and invited Raudive to join them. He wanted to make sure the voice phenomena were real, and he wanted others to confirm that his astonishment and growing convictions were justified.

The scene Bander proceeds to detail in the preface to Raudive’s Breakthrough is, rather unsurprisingly, reminiscent of a séance from the nineteenth century. As John Durham Peters has argued, a centuries-old belief in “soul-to-soul” communication, rooted in Plato and extended through the work of Christian theology, was literally amplified to a popular, Spiritualist craze by the technological innovations in the Nineteenth century (63-108). The “dream that electricity can mingle souls” was exacerbated by the advent of telepresence-via telegraphy and telephonics-and led to a popular movement with mediums claiming to be psychic telegraph and telephone operators to the hereafter (94). It is not a surprise, then, that EVP “experiments” resemble a Spiritualist séance with “experimenters” asking questions of disembodied spirits, only instead of a Ouiji board, tarot cards, or a crystal ball the medium wields a microphone.

Bander describes a group of twenty people sitting around a dining room table. On the table is a reel-to-reel recorder, a microphone, and various instruments that are inspected and operated by an sound engineer Bander invited to come. After a jovial and excited dinner conversation, Raudive tried three distinct methods of capturing dead voices over a period of some hours. First the group tried simple microphone recording; ten minutes of recorded ambient air was scrutinized. To the disappointment of everyone, all that was heard was the deafening tick of a clock on the mantle. Raudive then tried recording the static of a radio tuned to an unused frequency. Still nothing. Finally, the Latvian professor resorted to his favorite, microphone-less method, the use of a germanium diode with a short, three inch aerial stuck into one of the tape recorder’s inputs. Nothing. But then:

I think the tape had only been running about two minutes . . . when Dr. Raudive asked Stanley [a recording engineer Bander had at the party to run the machines] to play the recording back. With about twenty people talking and wishing each other a Merry Christmas, it was most surprising when four of them suddenly rushed to the tape-recorder. There, clear and without a shadow of doubt, a rhythmic voice, twice the speed of human voice said “Raudive there” . . . . there was a voice and it called the name of the one person who was most concerned with it all. (in Raudive xxi)

At that instant Bander became a true believer, and drew up a contract to translate and publish Breakthrough, which Raudive signed the very next day.

Reading the accounts of the early days of EVP research, one frequently encounters a similar narrative form: disbelief becomes profound conviction—“I was deaf, but now I hear!” Today we know that such conviction is built upon human habits of cognition, habits that prioritize sound as a stimulus and which are “hard wired” in our brains. Because humans are “the only species that is wired to understand speech fully,” argue Clifford Nass and Scott Brave, we depend on speech as a (if not the) principle means of identifying one another: personality, likeness and difference, competence, gender, and related attributions are made involuntarily by listening to someone’s voice (1-2). Research on the brains of infants has demonstrated, for example, that we begin processing human speech very early in life:

Even before birth, a fetus in the womb can distinguish its mother’s voice from all other voices (demonstrated via increased heart rate for the mother’s voice and decreased heart rate for strangers’ voices). Within a few days after birth, a newborn prefers his or her mother’s voice over that of a stranger’s and can distinguish one unfamiliar voice from another. By eight months, infants can tune in to a particular voice even when another voice is speaking. (2)

Although early infantile perceptions of speech do not rely on a distinction between “inside” and “outside,” we eventually learn to associate voice with “interiority,” that a voice indexes the consciousness of another person.

For decades brain research has demonstrated that the human brain, and the left side in particular, is so deeply dependant on speech for information that “people even process nonsense syllables and speech played backwards as if they were normal speech” (Nass and Brave 11-12). Nass and Brave argue that the brain has a “very liberal definition of speech” that predisposes listeners to regard “all speech . . . as a communicative act, and people will struggle through assigning meaning to sounds even when they are garbled or unclear” (11-12). In other words, when one apprehends sound she often attributes to it a sense of presence; if that sound even remotely resembles speech, her brain is likely to attribute consciousness to it (the brain makes these attributions even if one consciously resists it). Hence, many have dismissed EVP as the aural equivalent of the Rorschach inkblot test, which also operates on a “hard-wired” human tendency to find patterns in otherwise nonsensical sensory stimuli (Banks 80; Nass and Brave 2-7).

In addition to our well-documented and researched cognitive tendencies, however, the vocalic attribution that underwrites these postmortal preoccupations also participate in the emotional processes of projection. As a common defense mechanism, projection typically refers to a practice whereby “qualities, feelings, wishes or even ‘objects’ which the subject refuses to [recognize] or rejects in himself, are expelled from the self and located in another person or thing” (Laplanche and Pontalis 349). Projection, in other words, is the psycho-affective counterpart to cognitive attribution. As Joe Banks has detailed, studies from Gestalt psychological perspectives identify projection as a central mechanism of listening, such that our cognitive tendencies to “read familiar shapes into clouds, or melodies into the monotonous rattle of a train” are motivated by “emotional agendas,” of which an individual may not even be conscious aware (78-79). For example, although an individual cannot help but recognize a pattern in a Rorschach inkblot, the character of what she sees is shaped by latent and overt fears and desires. Hence, projection is not simply a process whereby an individual displaces things she does not like about herself onto another, but is at the same time a form of wish fulfillment.

From a secular standpoint, then, EVP is a practice of acoustic or vocalic projection that relies both cognitive and psychological/affective predispositions. These dispositions, however, still do not explain the desire that propels the skeptic toward true belief, nor explain how it was (and remains) that well-educated scientists, professors, and engineers heard polyglot poltergeists from the Beyond. “Even if their messages were often bleak,” argues Jeffrey Sconce, “the Raudive voices did speak of an immortal essence that transcends the alienating modes of Darwin, Freud, Sartre, and all other demystifying assaults on the transcendental dimension of the human psyche” (90). In other words, Sconce suggests that these voices seemed to promise hope in the increasingly bleak intellectual climate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when existential outlooks reigned supreme, a war in Vietnam was seemingly endless, and a stabbing at Altamont killed off the counter-cultural dream of a new Age of Aquarius (Wood 336-351). Yet there is something about recorded speech itself that defies theory (after all, the Greek theoria bespeaks “a viewing of”), something that resists a familiar, party-line, scholarly agnosticism. Dr. Raudive, after all, was an Oxford educated scholar, but he had a powerful desire to believe in spiritual speech. Indeed, Dr. Raudive’s scientistic rationalizations often invite incredulity and wonder at his willful lack of discernment:

The main difficulty for effective research lie in the “listening-in” process. Because the ear has only a very limited range of frequency, I have found that it takes at least three months for the ear to adjust itself to the difference: to begin with, though it may hear speech-like noises, it cannot differentiate words-let alone understanding what they mean. . . . listening-in tests have shown that children and people with a musically trained ear have least difficulty in following the voices; military-trained radio-operators achieve a high degree of accuracy and for some unknown reason specialists of internal diseases and Catholic priests also seem to be able to discern the voices with relative success. (20)

We know that if one stares at patterns in the wall long enough he may soon see the visage of God; Stewart Guthrie has even argued that visual anthropomorphism is the basis of all religious thought (1-38). But what about sound? Raudive’s curious mention of the discerning yet catholic ears of priests does suggest another rationale for his gullibility, for it is an obvious one that many of us share: an unwillingness to accept mortality or, alternately, a strong desire for immortality. This fear or hope is that which motivates what Jacques Derrida has dubbed the “metaphysics of presence,” a soul-deep ideology of Western thought that privileges speech as presence, as interiority, and as the vehicle of the soul. Recording the speech of the dead is thus a peculiar form of writing, a feverish scribbling toward presence and a defiant denial of death.

Next section: from metaphysis to archive-mania . . . .

stuck between the moon and austin

September 20th, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Christopher Cross: Best Of . . . (1992)

Sometimes after a really good seminar discussion, coming home is a big come/let-down. Are ideas and “theory” intoxicants? You bet.

I had put on a bit too much cologne before class; thankfully, it faded. I worried someone would comment, and had developed a come back in my head:

“You smell nice, Josh.”

“Why thank you. I’m stylin’ the transference, but you only get to sniff it.”

When I first started teaching here at the University of Texas, my seminars were on Monday afternoons from three to six in the evening. I tried to extend my own advisor’s tradition of retiring after seminar to a watering hole for drinks and more discussion—a buffer between, say, excited discussions of Benjamin and going home to an empty screen. Because seminars were on Monday this didn’t quite work, so I ended up treating myself to Chili’s. It was pathetic, but the wait staff got a little friendly after a few weeks.

I’m happy to report this semester seminar is on Wednesday, and so the discussion “ramp down” buffer zone is happening at the Hole in the Wall. It makes coming home after seminar much less of a let down (although I think I would prefer staying out all night; alas, I’m getting too old to do that anymore—if I want, at least, Thursday to get some work done without a foggy head). Last night as I was talking to students from various seminars, it occurred to me something like my own graduate student experience was being replicated (for them, and for me). The only thing(s) missing was David, Christopher, and a dart machine. And R.L. Scott to buy the pitchers of beer. Amy to bring on the late-night shots. And Rob’s loud laughing. And Popcorn.

I reckon it’s my job now to buy the beer. Roles change. I want them to have the same kind of experience that I had. And I want the experience again too. You can’t have it both ways, or lines get crossed. This is the suckdom of becoming a (/an ethical) professor. I only let myself get unethical on Halloween and Mardi Gras, at least (and that just means drunk in front of others)

Last night on the way home I was listening to Christopher Cross, his solitudinous voice wafting “like the wind to be free again.” There is a joke to be made, riding like the wind. And sailing takes him away. Hot tubs and massages do that for me, and I’m confident so would heroin, but I know shouldn’t do herion, so I don’t.

Sometimes in my dreams, though, I fancy a horsey.

Whatever happened to Christopher Cross, that golden-tongued native son of San Antonio? I’ve always liked his voice, like I like Alan Parson’s voice. [Oh lord—-the dog sitting on my shoulders just farted . . holy cow that’s stinky] I remember in 1980 getting a cassette of Cross’ self-titled album, which sold like crazy. In preschool when Ms. Linda and Ms. Whoever drove us around in VW busses we would do Christopher Cross and REO Speedwagon sing-a-longs (all of us youngsters knew the words). I also remember getting a cassette of Hall & Oats H20, the song with “Man Eater” on it. (Which reminds me: last weekend at the opera I ran into a woman I used to jokingly call “the man-eater,” cause for a year straight she had a new boyfriend every other week. She reported she was engaged.) Where was I? Oh, yes, the Cross: “Sailing” was ubiquitous in my pre-teen years, and then he did the theme to Arthur which sort-of sealed the deal. A trip to Cross’ official website leads one quickly to the conclusion he is still, pretty much, riding the past (his latest album was a double-album with his greatest hits, a bundle literally wed to 1980). He’s doing gigs in Slovenia. He’s playing his first album, live, on satellite radio. I reckon soon he’s coming soon to a State Fair near you! (Like the Violent Femmes do these days, or that one time keyboardest for John Lynne’s band that appears for free as ELO II).

Reliving the past: this would be an academic as well as a personal issue, something uncanny were it not for the humor or possible trouble. Cross’ emblem is a lonesome, pink flamingo standing in the water; its on his first album, the drum set, the road-ready cases.

I have a new gnome. His name is Kyle Wimberlton. Or Wimberlton Kyle, I cannot remember. He was bought in a town named Kyle on my way back from Wimberly. I finished painting him the first week of class. Isn’t he lovely? Why does he have a fish? Gnomes I thought existed to protect treasures, tap kegs, harvest magic mushrooms, and provide garden tools. But a fish? I googled “gnome with fish” but got no answer, just a lot of lawn ornaments for sale. Maybe it’s a symbol of fertility? That would be funny, because I’ve never seen a lady gnome. Maybe gnomes are really ancient Greeks?

Also, at Dr. Mmmm’s behest, I bought this shirt. It arrived a few days ago. I have not worn it yet, but I will. I will.

on forums and polemics

September 14th, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: The Today show

Yesterday the new Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies issue arrived, and I was excited to see another neat forum section—this one on political economy vis-à-vis cultural studies—helmed by Barbara Biesecker. Forums are non-peer reviewed places where both contemporary and pressing issues can be discussed, or a debate on some disciplinary issue can happen. Owing to the fact that only the forum editor vets the short essays, they’re usually pretty fun to read (that is, without the hoop-jumping and gate keeping the review process often represents).

During my graduate education, reading forums was popular in seminars because they marked one of the few places where one gets to peek behind the decorum of the scholarly essay to emotional and political agendas. Reading disagreements among scholars (over the “rhetoric as epistemic” debate, or between Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Barbara Biesecker) were often watershed moments in my education. It seems that, in the past decade there has been a steady decline in forums in all of the journals in Communication Studies (the last significant one that I can think of was in Philosophy and Rhetoric, a sparing between Marxism and Postmarxism). One reason we are seeing less forums is that a number of journals that used to feature them have gone social scientific. Another is that, as the number of publications required for tenure increases across the board, editors are choosing to reserve space for peer reviewed articles. Finally, I think forums are on the decline because of globalization: as Communication Studies journals widen their reading circulation to “the continent” (marked by the move to international publishers, increased submissions from foreign countries, and the blurring of disciplinary boundaries), there is a concern to “represent” or make sure newer audiences find the work we Communication Studies scholars do is up to par.

Regarding the latter reason, Jennifer Daryl Slack’s forum essay, “Duel to the Death?” in the recent Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies (in vol. 4, 2007) reflects—unquestionably in an unintentional way—the reason why forums are going the way of the Dodo: non-Speech familiar audiences misread polemics as bad scholarship. Speech communication is a discipline that had debate and agonism at the center of its pedagogy since its inception, and many people currently housed there—including myself—have been trained to engage ideas and dialogue about them argumentatively, sometimes heatedly. This approach to ideas often appears in forums. Today, however, students and folks not “reared” in Speech are sometimes shocked to learn that conversants in a forum are having drinks together at the next conference (for example, I remember a shocked graduate students’ face when he saw me joking and socializing with Don Shields, a scholar who has attacked my work—with much venom—in print). Barry Brummett and Rick Cherwitz often joke that their sparring in print gave each other tenure. My point is that agonism in print is usually not personal. There’s exceptions, of course, but in general Speech Communication sparring in journals is built on a certain understanding of argument as ad bellum purificandum.

Slack’s essay reflects to a certain degree an ignorance about this Speech tradition. I’m not familiar with her work or her person, but I suspect she does not come from the same disciplinary background that Dana does. “Duel to the Death” is, presumably, a critique of my friend and colleague Dana Cloud’s essay, “The Matrix and Critical Theory’s Desertion of the Real” (also in CC/CS, vol. 3, 2006), however, it also registers anxieties about how one is to appropriately argue in journal essays, if not misplaced anger (she suggests that Dana’s work is unprofessional, irresponsible, and careerist). As someone who nominated Dana’s article for an award, of course, I disagree with Slack’s critique, which I think misreads the essay as something that it does not announce itself to be. As the counterpoint to a polemic, an apologia is perhaps fitting: Cloud’s article is an unapologetic and earnest polemic designed to promote dialogue and discussion about the relatively uncritical acceptance of certain en-vogue theories in the humanities and their implications for politics.

Again, presumably, the primary critique Slack offers is that Cloud lumps too much into terms like “cultural studies,” “poststructuralism,” and so on—that she equivocates among various paper tigers. Although Slack suffers from her own critique (she reduces “cultural studies” to the British tradition, among other gaffs), I think this critique is fair, and I told Dana this recently and back when the essay was in its invention stage. But this is really not what the author is up to. Rather, she begins the essay by telling a story about her graduate education: a highly regarded visiting professor instructed students that all one had to do to develop a career is attack people. She then says, “sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand to keep the raccoons out of the chicken coop. Sometimes you have to assert: the fence goes here.” Next, she offers what I think is a fair critique in the section “radical decontextualization,” but then moves on to argue Cloud’s footnotes are designed to create the false impression of “learnedness.” The upshot of the critique is that Cloud is a careerist and a charlatan uninterested in dialogue.

How does one put this? What a crock of shit!

In department colloquies, over dinner, and in numerous other places Dana and I have engaged in spirited discussion. She stands her ground and is (deliberately) stubborn, but she is also among the most kind, generous, and dialogic professors that I know. Slack’s ad hominem, clothed in a (again) legitimate critique not only “misses the boat” and fails to discern the true context of Dana’s argument (which cannot be squared with E.P. Thompson’s battles with Raymond Williams, a very different debate), is—to use Slack’s own words—“a new low.”

The point: the newer, wider audience that is coming to the journals of the field that was formerly known as Speech Communication may read polemic as “personal,” and respond in an inappropriately personal way. And in Slack’s case, apparently, theoretical discussions should be absented of one’s politics—an ironic charge when one considers the American Cultural Studies tradition, which refuses—following the program of the Birmingham School—to cleave the two.

It’s funny how accusing another scholar of “careerism” will get one noticed.

nine-eleven as mundane thing

September 11th, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Lanterna: Desert Ocean (2006)

Anniversaries seem to participate in a kind of thing-making that, amplified, become exemplars of “reification”—the thingification of something essentially human in origin or the attribution of agency to something wholly abstract and conceptual. Treating people as pieces of shit that stand in the way of your consumptive habits, or wars waged against abstract nouns, are familiar examples. Reification is a certain form of alienation: people become alienated from each other and de-subjectify the other as an object (even one to be consumed, as when people-watching at a club or something). Or, we’re so out of touch with the dynamics of events that we isolate moments as things with agency.

For the past six years the United States foreign policy has been built upon a reified concept: “terror.” Like Reagan’s “war on drugs,” the U.S. armed forces have been fighting an abstract noun that is, presumably, a real and deadly thing.

As I watched the commemorative sing-song athem-izing and silent prayers on television this morning, I was trying to discern whether the events of September 11, 2007 have become reified, or if reification is the proper term for it at all (my Lukács is at the office, and I’m at home today, and google doesn’t yield any relevant passages, but I seem to recall some “events” are reified too). For years I have written as if this was the case I have taken to writing “Nine-eleven” in order to underscore the consumerist thing-if-fiedness of an event-cum-agent. I’m tempted to say Nine-eleven, because it is imbued with an agency of its own, is also a special form of reification (and thus alienation—alienation from cause, we might say). Nine-eleven stands for a series of objectified/frozen social relations, predominantly that of paternal sovereignty and a victimized citizenry in the most abstract, down to certain commercial ventures, deployed troops, and so on. Nine-eleven stands for a kind of spiritual transformation of the “born again” or “Phoenix from the flame” variety. Nine-eleven stands for a seeping wound that continues to justify aggression. And Nine-eleven stands for the fantasy of immortality.

As a form of mourning, the reification of Nine-eleven was inevitable. With the souring of support for the occupation of Iraq, among other things, the repetition compulsion that fueled an ever-consuming, melancholic citizenry has given way to the truly mournful American Subject. Yesterday the general’s report was measured; this morning there were no lengthy speeches, no pleas for more troops. Disney still attempts to trigger the melancholic impulse on the ABC network (Extreme Home Makeover on Sunday was about Nine-eleven families), but in general it seems like Nine-eleven is a dead motivator. That is, it is fully or completely reified, like death and love.

I’m not quite sure I’m using the concept correctly, but I think if I ain’t it can be stretched to accommodate the New Surrealism of our Object-centered lives today. It’s not the cyborg we need to worry about so much, the afeared standing-stockness of the human that discussions of reification originally focused on. Maybe we should fear the moment when the mourning becomes mundane—when Nine-eleven now becomes a somber agent of its own, slogging through the day, year after year, like an exhausted sleepwalker bumping into this or that object and foreign policy, a necessary touchstone everyone acknowledges but fails to question anymore.

the weight of motherhood

September 10th, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Space: Tin Planet (1998)

More important than Patraeus’ pending report on Iraq or how much weight college freshpeople will gain this year, the top headline this morning was Britney Spear’s “comeback” performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards last night (video is here). Admittedly, her rather uninterested going-through-(and-forgetting)-the-motions performance is entertaining to watch. I’m not so sure, however, the overly critical pouncing is warranted. Perhaps St. Britney did want to perform, although I gather her publicist et al. was really pushing for this to overshadow the years of bad publicity and the K-Fed albatross. Critics of the performance are also only fleetingly mentioning that the act she had worked on with illusionist (and rumored squeeze) Criss Angel was cancelled by VMA folks at what—at least in showbiz—most of us would term “the last minute.” This was a hurried act that, given all the promotional hype, was bound to disappoint.

What totally surprised me was Perez Hilton’s “open letter” to Britney rant. Perez, now a legitimized celebrity reporter with the added bonus of foul language and absolute freedom to say what he wants, begins his open letter with a “Fuck You” and it gets worse from there: “Your performance was beyond pathetic. The old Britney Spears, who was at one point (a long time ago) truly great, would be embarrassed by your lack of professionalism and utterly shiteous appearance at the VMAs.” Apparently key to this appearance was the “beer belly” Perez was clearly interested in deriding.

If Perez can be said to reflect the interests and thoughts of many readers (not to mention that strange gay misogyny one sometimes senses in the insensitive cattiness of some men), it would seem the criticism here is really leveled at motherhood. How dare Britney be a mother, the critics intone: she destroyed her career.

Sadly, women still face the same kind of derision in the academy.


September 7th, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: American Analog Set: Set Free (2005)

Admittedly, my professional life sometimes startles me by the turns it takes. Who knew my studies would lead me to Washington DC, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, and then Austin, Texas? I’ve only had two official jobs, but the first semester of each is always rough: there were evenings when I couldn’t sleep, awoken by fears and worries that I was incompetent and didn’t know what I was doing. “WTF am I doing here? Why am I here? What am I doing?” No beautiful home, house, or wife (props to David Byrne), but there is some sort of something “flowing underground” that seems to carry me along.

The preface is to set-up another unexpected turn: today I signed a contract with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as a consultant and expert. I never thought in my line of work that I would be consulting (that seems to be the province of my Organization Communication colleagues), but that’s the newest thing for my professional life. “Consulting on what?” some readers may be asking. The answer: occult religious practices.

Apparently a year ago a federal law was passed to help protect the religious needs of prisoners. The law was ideologically buoyed by more evangelical Christian interests, I’m told, but of course cannot only apply to Christians. Consequently, some states are having trouble complying with the law and attempting to meet the needs of Wiccans, Pagans (Odinists), Satanists, and other non-mainline religious practitioners. If you give a cross to a Christian, then you need to give a Baphomet medallion to the Satanist, and so forth. I’ve been asked by the state to advise on these more unusual cases because more and more inmates are bringing suit. Some of the cases coming up will require me to research them (my familiarity is with the clandestine traditions, such as Gardnerian Wicca and Thelema, not so much the Nordic systems), but I know where to go and who to ask.

In any event, I’m intrigued by this new adventure and excited to do it. So far just talking with the folks that work on these cases is fascinating. They also know I’m dedicated to religious freedom; I’m not being asked to do this or that; I just give my opinion. I’ll have to ask how confidential these cases are; if I can post about them, I might try to do that. Of course, there is a potential conflict of interest so I’m just not sure . . . .

vocalic projection: a work in progress

September 6th, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Between Interval: Autumn Continent (2006)

Today I worked on two measley paragraphs. TWO. I am uncertain why it takes me so long to spit something out these days (well, that’s not true: I know why, I’m just frustrated I cannot “bracket” as well as I once could). Once I get the thing rolling out, though, the writing spirit usually takes over, maranatha style. Maybe that will happen this weekend.

Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past is an awesome book, by the way. Reading this tome makes me nervous: my next book will simply pale in comparison to its brilliance. It’s not discouraging; its just one of those books that, when you read it, gives one a sense of his or her place in the pecking order of good scholarship.

Anyhoot: here’s a draft of the introduction of the current essay in progress:

On the Uncanny Voice of Acoustic Projection

Results obtained by my collaborators affirm the existence of the phenomenon, and unless the mind is immovably fixed on some preconceived theory, we seem to be faced with the inescapable conclusion that the voice-phenomenon confronts us with an autonomously existing world hitherto unknown.

–Konstantin Raudive (303)

For the Latvian psychologist Konstantin Raudive, “dead air” was not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps with the exception of local college and National Public Radio station broadcasts (respectively with their untrained “uh”-prone disk jockeys or those slow-speaking, commonly cold commentators), dead air is that unfortunate if not startling moment when a video or radio broadcast falls unexpectedly silent, rupturing the charged “flow” of broadcast with a blank screen or an audible buzz of ambient hiss (Williams 179-187). As one of the earliest pioneers of capturing “electronic voice phenomena” or “EVP,” however, Raudive registered dead air as faint and often nonsensical messages from the dead, ghostly voices discernable only with an ear finely tuned to rapid, rhythmic streams of multilingual speech.

Inspired by the ghost voices accidentally discovered in the 1950s bird-song tape recordings by the Swiss artist Friedrich Jürgenson (Banks 77), Raudive devised a series of experiments in the 1960s in which he used a microphone and magnetic tape “to record the ambient sound in an apparently empty room. The experimenter then replayed the ten-to-fifteen-minute section of the tape several times, listening very closely for voices that emerged only with intense scrutiny and concentration” (Sconce 85). Raudive eventually moved on to finding EVP with a radio tuner, and then published his findings in English as Breakthrough: Electronic Communication with the Dead May Be Possible in 1971. Apparently the book was read by academics, psychics, and paranormal investigators worldwide, thereby spawning an EVP movement that was more recently popularized in the 2005 Hollywood horror misadventure, White Noise, and its stronger 2007 sequel, White Noise 2: The Light (Bander 9; Sconce 85).

Of course, many have dismissed EVP as the aural equivalent of the Rorschach inkblot test, which operates on a “hard-wired” human tendency to find patterns in otherwise nonsensical sensory stimuli (Banks 80; Nass and Brave 2-7). In addition to our well-documented and researched cognitive tendencies, however, the vocalic attribution that underwrites this postmortem preoccupation also participates in the affective processes of projection. As a common defense mechanism, projection typically refers to a practice whereby “qualities, feelings, wishes or even ‘objects’ which the subject refuses to [recognize] or rejects in himself, are expelled from the self and located in another person or thing” (Laplanche and Pontalis 349). As Joe Banks has detailed, however, studies from Gestalt psychological perspectives identify projection as a central mechanism of listening, such that our cognitive tendencies to “read familiar shapes into clouds, or melodies into the monotonous rattle of a train” are motivated by “emotional agendas,” of which an individual may not even be conscious aware (78-79). For example, although an individual cannot help but recognize a pattern in a Rorschach inkblot, the character of what she sees is shaped by latent and overt fears and desires. Hence, projection is not simply a process whereby an individual displaces things she does not like about herself onto another (projection), for it is simultaneously a form of wish fulfillment (indentification). From a secular standpoint, then, EVP is a practice of acoustic or vocalic projection that bespeaks an unwillingness to accept mortality or, alternately, a strong desire for immortality.

A number of media theorists and historians have observed the constant and ubiquitous association between fantasies of immortality and communication technologies. John Durham Peters has argued a centuries-old belief in “soul-to-soul” communication, rooted in Plato and extended through the work of Christian theology, was literally amplified to a popular, Spiritualist craze by the technological innovations in the Nineteenth century (63-108). The “dream that electricity can mingle souls” was exacerbated by the advent of telepresence-via telegraphy and telephonics-and led to a popular movement with mediums claiming to be psychic telegraph and telephone operators to the hereafter (94). Jeffrey Sconce has shown that EVP and related spiritualist practices is also a consequence of disembodiment: the intellectual leap from voices of the living traveling across a geographical distances to the speech of dead souls traveling across the spiritual plane is a rather short one (59-91). Finally, Johnathan Sterne has demonstrated that from the advent of the wax cylender phonograph, writers interested in sound recording

repeatedly produced tracts on the possibilities for hearing voices of the deeased as some kind of guarantee or signature for the cultural and affective power of recorded sound. The chance to hear ‘the voices of the dead’ as a figure of the possibilities of sound recording appears with morbid regularity in technical descriptions, advertisements, announcements, circulars, philosophical speculations, and practical descriptions. (289)

Telepresence promised communication with deceased loved ones; sound recording, however, promised a new form of archival immortality-one that escaped the deadness of script to dwell in the interior presence of recorded speech.

Although fantasies about voices from the dead are ubiquitous in the history of modern communicative technologies, few scholars have explored why human speech is foregrounded and celebrated as the primary object of communication with the dead as well as the most cherished means of preserving them.[i] In the spirit of Walter Ong’s work, in essay I argue that modern communicative technologies have “stepped up the oral and aural” in pursuit of Ong’s now famous thesis: “Voice, muted by script and print, has come newly alive,” even in after death.ii Of course, Ong is most known for arguing that the transition from an oral culture to a print culture effected profound epistemological changes. Perhaps contrary to the assumptions of some readers, however, in the 1960s and 70s he argued consistently that new visual technologies only increased the significance of voice and speech in Western culture. “Recordings and tapes have given sound a new quality, recuperability,” said Ong, and, interestingly enough, at the very same time period that Raudive was recording and scrutinizing dead air.

What is it about the human voice that gives it such a special, ontotheological status for Ong and Raudive? What is the relationship between this privilege and sound recording? Drawing on the work of Jacques Derrida, Mladen Dolar, Steven Conner, and others, in this essay I examine EVP and its demonic counterpart, backwards speech, in order to suggest that speech as such is uncanny, often provoking a deeply ambivalent, characteristically religious response of fear and hope from auditors. This response, in turn, is catalyzed and intensified by the practice sound recording, goaded by an archival impulse. Hearing voices in a recording of noise-from dead air, to the gurgles of one’s coffee pot, to the sounds of a record album played in reverse-is merely an exaggerated form of vocalic projection that I argue is becoming increasingly common in our image- and screen-saturated environment: from the “black-box” recordings of downed aircraft, to the taped emergency phone-calls of Nine-eleven victims, to the saved voice-mail messages of a deceased loved one, vocalic projection has become a primary means by which we memorialize-and avoid-the dead.


[i] Stearne’s history of sound reproduction is a notable exception. Although he does not grant ontological privilege to any one of the human senses (e.g., the assumption that visual studies has trumped sound studies, and so on), Stearne does underscore the fantasy of “idealized hearing (and by extension, speech)” that underwrites discourse about the possibilities of new communicative technologies (15). From Plato onward, hearing and speech are understood as “manifesting a kind of pure interiority,” while seeing and vision concerns the outside and exterior. Consequently, the dead are often heard before-or if-they are seen.

[ii] Ong, Presence, 88.