Radio: Essays in Bad Reception

Radio: Essays in Bad Reception

by John Mowitt

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Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In a wide-ranging, cross-cultural, and transhistorical assessment, John Mowitt examines radio’s central place in the history of twentieth-century critical theory. A communication apparatus that was a founding technology of twentieth-century mass culture, radio drew the attention of theoretical and philosophical writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Lacan, and Frantz Fanon, who used it as a means to disseminate their ideas. For others, such as Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, and Raymond Williams, radio served as an object of urgent reflection. Mowitt considers how the radio came to matter, especially politically, to phenomenology, existentialism, Hegelian Marxism, anticolonialism, psychoanalysis, and cultural studies. The first systematic examination of the relationship between philosophy and radio, this provocative work also offers a fresh perspective on the role this technology plays today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520270503
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/07/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

John Mowitt is Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. His previous books include Re-takes: Postcoloniality and Foreign Film Language and Percussion: Drumming, Beating, and Striking.

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Essays in Bad Reception

By John Mowitt


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95007-8


Facing the Radio

A distinction useful for my purposes is drawn in scene 11 of Wilder and Brackett's Sunset Blvd. In it Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, and Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, are discussing her script, Salomé. The dialogue is as follows:

Norma: I've written it myself. It's taken me years. It's going to be a very important picture.

Joe: It looks like enough for six important pictures.

Norma: It's the story of Salomé. I think I'll have de Mille direct it.

Joe: De Mille!? Uh-huh.

Norma: We made a lot of pictures together.

Joe: And you'll play Salomé?

Norma: Who else?

Joe: I'm only asking. I didn't know you were planning a comeback.

Norma: I hate that word! It's return! A return to all those who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen.

Joe: Fair enough.

Comeback versus return. On the face of it, what's the difference? For Norma the difference is clear: a return is a response, in effect, an acknowledgment of a debt owed to those who have otherwise not forgiven her for the withdrawal of her presence, her desertion of the field of the visual. A comeback, by contrast, involves no such acknowledgment. It appears to be utterly narcissistic, utterly scripted. Whether tenable in the long run or not, what strikes me as useful about this distinction is that it cues us to a subtlety that calls out for attention when we are thinking about the contemporary theoretical status of the voice. How, in other words, should we think about the resurgence of scholarly interest in the topic? Or, put differently, what do those involved in this resurgence think they are doing? Is this the voice's comeback or its return? Or is it something else altogether? Moreover, is the difference here yet another way to approach the problem of residualism?

This may seem like an odd place to begin, especially to begin what is conceived as an examination of the relation between philosophy and radio, so allow me to explain. Certainly one way to think about what I have called the "resurgence" of interest in the voice is to grasp it as part of a response to the waning of poststructuralism, or, more precisely, to the attenuation of the critique of "phonocentrism." Although many have jumped onto the bandwagon of this critique, it was put in play with exemplary rigor by the late Jacques Derrida. In its emergent formulations this critique sought to draw out the consequences of the collaboration between Saussurean linguistics and Husserlean phenomenology. Specifically, Derrida found in Husserl's fuzzy and ultimately untenable distinction between expression and indication the same ambivalence to be found in Saussure's risky reduction of the signifier to an acoustic image (literally, image acoustique), that is, an entity devoid of all physicality yet capable of yoking together something seen and something heard. Recognizing this allowed Derrida, through the distinctly French pun on the heteronymic word entendre (that is, "to hear" and "to understand"), to tease out the centuries-old open secret of the essential link between the voice and meaning. The fact that this insight derives from a heteronym, a word whose written or spoken signifier produces two apparently different signifieds, is interesting but does not merit further elaboration here.

In the opening section of Of Grammatology Derrida fastened phonocentrism not only to logocentrism but also to ethnocentrism, arguing that logocentrism is "nothing but the most original and powerful ethnocentrism" (3). Once in place and taken up by those interpellated by the grammatological project, the voice became untouchable. To engage the voice, perhaps even to pronounce it, was understood to consign one to an ethnocentrism that, in the sixties, was under siege in every corner of the decolonizing globe, most conspicuously, perhaps, in Vietnam. Indeed, an entire, carefully cultivated rhetoric of the voice as the very embodiment of revolutionary agency was suddenly and fundamentally challenged. It was as though Derrida had discovered, a decade before Foucault, the "repressive hypothesis," not in the vow, but in the voice itself.

I am not, of course, saying anything terribly fresh, so let me get to the point. What remained, as Don Ihde and others sensed, foreclosed in the critique of phonocentrism was precisely the matter of sound. For it is one thing to show how hearing and understanding collude or collide but quite another to say that the voice is nothing but the sounds heard in the event of understanding. Saussure himself struggled with the matter when, in the chapter on "linguistic value" of the Course in General Linguistics, he pondered over how the sound units of the phoneme, that is, the acoustic molecules of the signifier, were initially separated from the chaotic flux of sound without, at any point, presupposing the arbitrary conventions made possible through this very separation. Even if we grant him the principled disciplinary procedure of simply setting certain things outside the purview of linguistics, one cannot fail to recognize the sonic dross left in the wake of this procedure and his lack of theoretical interest in it. What is the relation between this remainder and phonocentrism? Can sound gain access to meaning only through the mediation of the voice, not primarily as the faculty of human speech, but as the philosopheme of the understanding that is at bottom a hearing? Is a meaningless listening possible?

These questions are but samples. One could certainly proliferate others (indeed, the whole notion of "secondary orality" might immediately come to mind). However, if such questions herald what I have called a resurgence of interest in the voice, then what this clarifies is that this resurgence takes place, not just anywhere, but specifically in the wake of the critique of phonocentrism. That is, instead of being an anxious denial of this critique, the resurgence is an immanent requestioning of the voice, by which I mean that it retrieves and reanimates questions that the critique of phonocentrism could not, on its own terms, answer. Obviously, one of those questions is the question of sound itself, precisely the sound escaping the call and response that Saussure located at the heart of the sign.

I turn now to the distinction between comeback and return teased out of Wilder and Brackett's Sunset Blvd. My aim is to flesh out this distinction in two ways: first, I will deploy it as a rationale for pondering the implications of two figures in what I have called the resurgence of scholarly attention to the voice, Mladen Dolar and Giorgio Agamben; and second, I will import this distinction into the concept of resurgence in order to evaluate it both theoretically and politically. Is it, as I have suggested, an avatar of one residualism or another? And the residualism of what? The voice? The radio? Their theoretical superimposition?

Doubtless the most sustained recent reflection on the voice, in English, is to be found in Dolar's A Voice and Nothing More (2006). This is a very rich, very compact book that seeks to change the way we think about everyone from Derrida and Lacan to Kafka—and change in a rather specific way. As Slavoj Zizek puts it in his introduction to the series in which the book appeared: "After reading a book in this series ["Short Circuits"], the reader should not simply have learned something new: the point is, rather, to make him or her aware of another—disturbing—side of something he or she knew all the time" (viii). Because Zizek also blurbs Dolar's book, insisting that, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, its author is "not an idiot," one can safely assume that this book is one through which we will encounter something disturbing about ourselves that we knew all along. The obvious question is: What?

For my purposes the most immediately relevant aspect of the text is its discussion of Saussure, Derrida, and Lacan. Here Dolar seeks to tease out the radicality of the voice by clarifying its status as an object, invoking the series of objets a enumerated by Lacan in Seminar 11 from 1964: the gaze, the voice, the breast, and the turd. Structurally, these are all objects that tear a hole in our wholeness, meaning that they mark a limit of and in our identities. We cannot, as it were, leave home without them. Dolar's discussion is as rich as it is intricate. Although it resists easy summary, this is how it concludes.

So, if for Derrida, the essence of the voice lies in its auto-affection and self-transparency, as opposed to the trace, the rest, the alterity, and so on, for Lacan this is where the problem starts. The deconstructive turn tends to deprive the voice of its ineradicable ambiguity by reducing it to the ground of (self-) presence, while the Lacanian account tries to disentangle from its core the object as an interior obstacle to (self-) presence. This object embodies the very impossibility of attaining auto-affection; it introduces a scission, a rupture in the middle of full presence, and refers it back to a void—but a void that is not simply a lack, and empty space; it is a void in which the voice comes to resonate. (Voice 42)

Stated semantically, the choice is clear: the voice as object or the voice as ground. If I may risk repeating Dolar's own strategy of attributing to his interlocutor values the latter is known to have repudiated, less clear is the "real" difference between these voices. One senses the difficulty instantly when Dolar pulls his punch, saying, "The deconstructive turn tends to deprive the voice of its ineradicable ambiguity," as if conceding in advance that the more blunt and theoretically decisive formulation, "The deconstructive turn deprives" (that is, as a matter of principle, that is, as a matter of credo) "the voice of its ineradicable ambiguity," is both unfair and untrue. Despite my having raised the issue of the truth about deconstruction, the issue here is not quite as petty as all that. Instead, what calls for attention is not only that in Dolar's hands the voice as object, all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, is unambiguously set opposite the voice as ground, but also that its ineradicable ambiguity cannot easily be disambiguated from precisely what Derrida means by the trace. To say, as Dolar does, that the object is an "interior obstacle to (self-) presence" is not thereby repeating the structure of the trace, except for the careless invocation of an "interior" that neither he nor Derrida believes in. In effect, Dolar gives us a voice, even the voice, that is the trace, simply now rebaptized as "voice." Armed with this voice, he then goes about separating himself from a position he is obliged to caricature, as if conceding that the whole exercise is, at bottom, a performative articulation of the structure of the objet a. In effect, the voice as ground tears a hole in the voice as object so that the latter can get on with the pressing business of demonstrating that the voice resonates in the void left by this tear.

One is reminded here of chapter 25 in Tristes Tropiques, "A Writing Lesson," except that what is at stake here is not finally about the right word and how to spell it properly. The intellectual historical question of precedence is not without interest—who came up with the logic of post-dialectical difference, if it makes any sense to say this, "first"—but a responsible, that is, thorough, treatment of the prolonged confrontation between philosophy and psychoanalysis will take us out of signal range.

I will settle for a few observations. First, regardless of whether one agrees with Dolar's reading of Derrida, what is beyond serious doubt is that the former's approach to the voice, his reinvestment in it, is marked profoundly by the perceived impact of the critique of phonocentrism. In this sense my characterization of the resurgence of interest in the voice is at least partly justified—about which more in a moment. Second, and this is closer to the gist of the matter, Dolar's discussion, while it certainly succeeds in disambiguating the voice and presence as the phenomenological condition of meaning, avoids wrestling with precisely the acoustic character of the void within which the voice as object is said to resonate. How are we to think the resonance of the void? Is it to be ceded to the concerns of psycho-acoustics? In short, sound again drops out. Perhaps the clearest symptom of this is in Dolar's effortless gliding from voice to music, a gliding rendered in an arresting formulation late in the text: "What Freud and Kafka have in common ... is their claim that they are both completely unmusical—which made them particularly susceptible to the dimension of the voice" (Voice 208). While on the face of it this would appear to oppose music to voice, my point is that Dolar appears here to assume that the relation between music and voice is so intimate as to be organized by the law of inverse proportion. The less you think you know about music, the more you clearly don't know you know about the voice, and vice versa.

Needless to say, the work of one thinker—however much he is not, as Zizek insists, "an idiot"—does not a resurgence make. Consider, then, in addition to the ample bibliography that appears at the end of A Voice, Giorgio Agamben's trilogy, Homo Sacer, The Open, and The State of Exception, all of which appeared between 1995 and 2005. Rewarding though it might be, I have no intention of working carefully through each of these delicately argued texts. Instead, I want to scan immediately to the discussion of Aristotle that sets the stage for Homo Sacer and, by extension, for the trilogy as a whole.

Precisely because Agamben is concerned in Homo Sacer, as he says in chapter 3, to articulate a theory of politics "freed from the aporias of sovereignty," he establishes and crosses the threshold of his text by putting in play the distinction that will ground the theory of politics that must be overcome. This is the distinction between the Greek terms zoe (life in general, singular) and bios (particular, or distinctive forms of life in the plural). Almost immediately Agamben will move to clarify that zoe encompasses the form of living that he, following Benjamin, calls vita nuda, the form of living that must be excluded from lives ordered by activity that is properly political. If this distinction is read too quickly, one fails to see that it not only triggers a subsequent one between voice and language but in so doing triggers the second volume of the trilogy. How so? What is crucial to the distinction is what is gathered on either side of it. Under zoe in its undifferentiated singularity are gathered "(animals, men and gods)" (Homo 1). Under bios are gathered the myriad different life forms. In other words, what might be said to require the political exclusion of zoe is the fact that under its auspices the animal and the human are not yet differentiated. Differentiating them will require the very distinction triggered by the first.

This is how Agamben presents the matter. He derives it from The Politics, where Aristotle writes:

Among living beings, only man has language. The voice is the sign of pain and pleasure, and this is why it belongs to other living beings (since their nature has developed to the point of having sensations of pain and pleasure and signifying the two). But language is for manifesting the fitting and the unfitting and the just and the unjust. To have the sensation of the good and the bad and of the just and the unjust is what is proper to men as opposed to other living beings, and the community of these things makes dwelling and the city. (1253a, 10–18)

In setting up this citation, Agamben makes it clear that he sees and appreciates the important link forged in Aristotle between the voice and zoe. Indeed, Dolar himself is drawn to this very discussion, confirming—if only obliquely—the common ground of their respective projects. The link at issue is that between zoe and the animal, or, to put the matter more carefully, the exclusion from the properly political—that is, the politics sustaining the aporias of sovereignty—the exclusion of the being who has a voice but not language, that is, the animal.


Excerpted from Radio by John Mowitt. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|Introduction: The Object of Radio Studies

1. Facing the Radio
2. On the Air
3. Stations of Exception
4. Phoning Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In Analysis
5. Birmingham Calling
6. “We Are the Word”?

Works Cited

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