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.
Radio Essays in Bad Reception
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
About the Book
"It is Radio’s capacity to encourage the reader to attend to these kinds of issues that makes it such a pleasure to listen with Mowitt."—Parallax“Intelligent, poignant, and engaging, Radio offers readings of a remediated form of radio—Mowitt’s subject matter is not really radio as a medium or the history of that medium, but rather the impact the wireless dissemination of voice across radio networks had on modern conceptions of community. This presupposes a view of radio that goes beyond narrow historical facticity and also avoids the sometimes narrowly sociological readings offered by media studies in the US. A welcome addition to the field of radio studies.”
— Sven Spieker, author of The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy
“John Mowitt's Radio: Essays in Bad Reception is an innovative study of transnational, historical dimensions of broadcast culture. Broad and deep in encompassing a century of cultural theory, the book contributes to a new understanding of radio by treating it in an original and stimulating manner for a wider audience of scholars and students in cultural studies, media studies, communication, and the history of technology. Mowitt tunes into the polyphonous lineage of radio transmissions, and the programs received go far beyond commonplaces of a mass medium of seduction and manipulation.”
—Peter Krapp, author of Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Object of Radio Studies
1. Facing the Radio
2. On the Air
3. Stations of Exception
4. Phoning In Analysis
5. Birmingham Calling
6. “We Are the Word”?