Music: Fields of the Nephilim: Dawnrazor (1987)
While I’ve mostly been focused on writing a textbook, I’ve been tinkering on the scholarly book as well. Rosechron readers may recall the book is about “the haunting of speech,” and heavily informed by Derrida and Lacan in almost equal measure. It also takes inspiration from performance theory, especially the work of Peggy Phalen, Diana Taylor, and Ann Cvetkovich. It’s my hope, in fact, that “cultural performance” or “performance studies” might appear on the back cover.
I confess, however, Richard Schechner’s work drives me nuts. All those damn diagrams!
Anyhoo, today I tinkered on a chapter that started off as a media ecology driven analysis (lots of Walter Ong), but ended up as a performance theory piece. I thought I would offer a tease:
On Speech Recording
I buried my mother in February 2002. My sister asked me to organize and conduct the service for my mother’s funeral. . . . Several weeks later my sister sent me an audiotape of the service. I had no idea that the memorial service had been taped. Frankly, I was horrified. . . . I didn’t want to hear my voice, the auditory tracings of my lightheadedness, my disengagement as a strategy of control . . . my voice as tracing.
–Ronald E. Sheilds (379-380)
Mourning metes speech. Not all the time, of course, but usually. In this sense Sheild’s moving mystory on the gestures of grieving is witness to the archiving of speech. His horror concerns the drive toward death that recording represents: he does not wish to hear himself repressing pain or how he cordoned off affect in script. His horror is not so much about the revival of grief as it is the way in which recording amplifies the process of putting-away, of making distant, of archiving. Simply and doubly stated, the recording of speech turns up the disassociative machinations of meaning. Perhaps this is why hearing a recording of one’s own voice is frequently an unnerving experience of self-alienation, as if we are somehow auditing our own demise.
As is the case with the trace, the traumatic truth of the taped tongue is the condition of all performance, a sort-of-lie of liveness: it is meaningful, “but never for the first time. It means: for the second and nth time” as a kind of “twice-behaved behavior” (Schechner 36). Any doing is meaningful retroactively, and not in negation, but rather in relation (see Wilden, 155-195). Such a definitional gesture situates performance as an echo of trauma. Thereby, performance as “restored behavior” is simply what Freud termed Nachträglichkeit, the “afterwardness” or “belatedness” of the attribution of meaning in the wake of a shocking or traumatic event (“From a History” 7-122; also see Rickert 8-32). As a kind of fixing repetition, recording—at least analogue recording, the kind that hisses back at us—intones a time delay.
At some level, Sheilds’ horror echoes a well-known anxiety about recording among (some) performance studies practitioners. It reflects an unwillingness to forswear presence and admit a belatedness, the temporal delay central to all knowing. Recording unavoidably delivers affect to meaning/the signifier and, consequently, runs roughshod over those romantic fantasies of “tracelessness” and “liminality” that we tend to ascribe to important, performance events, like a funeral service or a spiritual awakening or a rousing aesthetic spectacle (Phalen 148-149; McKenzie 8-9). This is not to deny there are embodied experiences outside the domain of the symbolic (e.g., Massumi 1-28). It is to say, however, that as a form of inscription, making a record “succeeds in separating the source of ‘knowledge’ from the knower” in way that displaces affective relationality into what we might simply term “text” (Taylor 19). In other words, where embodied experience is concerned, words inevitably get in the way.
Because it reflects a fear of fixity, I suggest that recording anxieties are fundamentally anxieties about speech as such, and that voice recordings work to amplify those anxieties. Derrida’s well-known critique of phonocentrism identifies speech is as yet another form of inscription or recording (Derrida, Of Grammatology 18-26). Ong’s work shows us how innovations in media technology, such as that of sound recording, tend to amplify the voice’s presence effects. Both thinkers help us to discern better what it is about the human voice that gives it such a special, ontotheological status, something that the example of sound recording helps us to hear more clearly.
What is the special status of speech, and what is the relationship of that special status to sound recording? Why does this relationship impinge on how we think about performance, broadly construed? To answer these and related questions, I’ll riff between two conspicuous cultural performances of recorded speech, electronic voice phenomena (or “EVP” as it is known among enthusiasts) and backmasking. EVP is the practice of recording ambient noise to capture the voices of ghosts, and backmasking is the practice of playing sound recordings backwards in search of secret messages. Complimenting Derrida and Ong’s theories of presence with psychoanalysis, I suggest that EVP, backmasking, and related recording practices are motivated by two powerful desires: a profound, affective ambivalence toward human speech, and an appetite toward preservation or what Derrida terms “archive fever” (Archive 91-95). Together, I argue that the love/fear of speech and the archival impulse comprise the affective precondition for acoustic or “vocalic projection,” which concerns the way in which a person attributes presence and meaning to sounds. I conclude by suggesting that to perform is to cry.