Unreal Nature

January 15, 2016

Tenuous, Infirm, Impeded

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:32 am

Beckett finds in radio an anguished intermittence of being, in which neither transmitter nor receiver can ever be at peace or in one piece.

Continuing through Beckett, Modernism and the Material Imagination by Steven Connor (2014):

… We have become so familiar with the states of being off and on and the patterns of alternation between them that we no longer grasp their strangeness or newness. I am not suggesting that, before there were switches, people had no conception of absolute or strongly counterposed either/or alternative states. In this sense, off is to on as black is to white, death is to life, absence is to presence and nonbeing is to being. But switches made such absolute transitions easy and familiar.

… There is a particular salience to the on/off switch of the radio that makes for a new understanding, a new experience of ‘offness.’ For something to be switched off is for it to be in a state of suspension or abeyance. Offness signifies a certain kind of readiness, an imminently actualisable possibility, rather than a simple negative. ‘Off’ does not mean idle or at rest: it means standing by, being able, even about, at any moment, to be turned on.

… Whereas lifting the telephone or switching on the phonograph itself initiates the sound that is to be heard, in radio, the signal to which one tunes must already be there, unheard, but ready-to-be-heard, and by others in addition to oneself.

… Listening to the radio also requires tuning. This makes the machinery of radio — especially early radios in which tuning could be a delicate and troublesome affair, subject to the vicissitudes of atmospherics and the physical condition of the apparatus itself — both more forensic and more volatile than that of other devices …

… Kim Connor … argues that Beckett develops a ‘radioactive voice,’ which, freed from the anchors of the body, ‘is procreative precisely because of its disembodiment’ and concludes that:

through the technology of sound recording and broadcasting, the matter of the voice can be separated from the matter of the body, transmuted into energy, stored, and reconverted at will back into the matter of sound. Therefore, so can the multivalent associations and significance of that voice (indeed of all sound) be separated from its context, withdrawn from the passage of time and transported across space.

But there is little sense of anything being done ‘at will’ in the radio work of Beckett. The sound world evoked by Beckett, not just in his works specifically for radio, but also in the ways in which the radio condition is propagated throughout his work, is tenuous, infirm, impeded, difficult, discontinuous. For Beckett, radio is projected as lessness, as liability and estrangement. Focusing on the distributed and distributing body of the radio apparatus, by means of which voices are abruptly terminated and painfully revived, Beckett finds in radio an anguished intermittence of being, in which neither transmitter nor receiver can ever be at peace or in one piece.

My most recent previous post from Connor’s book is here.




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