Wavespeech, Tapespeech, Blipspeech – Alan Clinton

In 1968, the year of the student-worker riots in Paris and one year after Jacques Derrida published his debut trio Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena, and Of Grammatology, a curious book was published. Entitled The Inaudible Becomes Audible, and written by Latvian psychologist Dr. Konstantin Raudive, the book was a meditation on the white noise accompanying the playback of electromagnetic tape. Its thesis was simple yet staggering, suggesting ‘that these might be the voices of people who are dead’ (Bander, 1973: 9). When the revised edition called Breakthrough was published in English, it created a small sensation, judging by the reviews, articles, radio programs, and television interviews devoted to it. This reception was largely mediated by Peter Bander, who wrote the preface to the English edition of Breakthrough and later published a book based upon his own experiments, Voices from the Tapes. It should be immediately obvious why the thought that the dead might try to communicate on tape was an alluring proposal. How the proposal came to be seriously considered by so many respected scientists and electronics engineers (in addition to theologians and psychologists) is perhaps a more convoluted question.

There is, naturally enough, a fairly rich history of association between technology and spirituality, perhaps because both types of discourse share in an otherworldly quality that mitigates material struggle. One of the most notorious examples of this association is the rather long-lived fad of spirit photography which, as R.B. Kershner has noted in ‘Framing Rudy and Photography’ (1999), ran from almost the inception of photographic technology to Arthur Conan Doyle’s interest in fairy photographs and beyond. Bell’s assistant Watson believed the telephone would help people speak with the dead, a proposition hardly more fantastic than Bell’s belief it would allow the deaf to hear and speak. Yet accounts of such figures tend to present them as products of a Victorian era that had not yet fully absorbed the rationalizing, even atheistic, ramifications of science and technology. Consequently, one would think that, epistemologically speaking, such spiritualizing of technology would be impossible in the late 20th-century.

Confronted with these paradoxa, one might wonder if there are any transhistorical elements that make findings like Raudive’s possible. To explore how meaningless sound is always in danger of becoming speech, one could do worse than start with the musings of Stephen Dedalus, whose high seriousness contrasts much of the major thrust of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the ‘Proteus’ section, however, Stephen has an entire chapter to himself. ‘Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearingtide, that rusty boot,’ Stephen declares, ‘Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane’ (U3.2-4).1 The movement of the passage from the indefinite seaspawn’ to the ‘rusty boot’ to an almost Saussurian rendering of color suggests how language need not always progress towards clarity; there are ‘limits of the diaphane’ (U3.2-4). The mention of ‘signatures’ may very well allude to Boehme’s notion that objects contain or embody signatures of God’s reality, that everything is worthless without this signature (Gifford, 1988: 44), but in relation to a rusty boot, it reminds one of the aporia Jacques Derrida encounters when asking of Van Gogh’s Old Shoes with Laces, ‘What is one doing when one attributes a painting or when one identifies a signatory?'(1991: 288). The ‘signature’ as an act of writing perhaps suggests the separation between word and thing more than any other communicative act. Unless one happens to be a handwriting analyst,2 the disparity between a signature and the person who signs it is incredibly vast. The image of the ‘rusty boot,’ when related to Boehme’s divine theory of vision, vividly depicts this disparity. The passage in fact suggests not so much the idea of signature pointing to signer as signature pointing back to language. Portmanteaus such as ‘snotgreen,’ ‘bluesilver,’ and ‘seaspawn’ show language overflowing its traditional boundaries in order to apprehend experience, but one returns to understanding writing as a technology when wondering why ‘seaspawn’ is one word but ‘sea wrack’ two. Visual experience may record God’s signatures, but space is also ‘what you damn well have to see’ (U9.86). Language’s damnation involves separation from the ultimate, from the ‘God’ associated with any visual sign. In Lacanian formulation, Stephen desires to convert the material register of the real into the symbolic register of signatures. On the one hand, this operation is performed all too easily, for the things Stephen names have, in his act of naming them, entered the symbolic realm. On the other hand, recognizing the arbitrary nature of the linguistic system he is using, Stephen seeks some deeper level of essence. Yet his new formulation of the real is merely a return to some allegedly more intimate symbolism, that of the individual signature. While the signature is traditionally associated with one’s utmost individuality, the word also has a musical meaning which tends to return it back to the realm of mere sound. Thus, what Stephen has enacted is an endless circulation through the registers of the symbolic, the real, and the imaginary.

Yet if, as Jacques Derrida claims in Of Grammatology, Western civilization has tended to privilege speech over writing, sounds which have not entered the symbolic register can prove especially irritating. Stephen Dedalus seems to organize his walk in order to test such limits, even closing his eyes so that he is confronted by pure sound, what he calls the ‘ineluctable modality of the audible’ (U3.13). This act immediately causes him to fear falling off a cliff after the manner of King Lear, so that mere/pure sound is associated not only with blindness, but also with a threat to one’s very being. And yet meaningless sound also marked Stephen’s very beginning: ‘One of her [a midwife’s] sisterhood lugged me squealing into life’ (U3.35). This latter reference brings up the issue of how Stephen’s well-documented misogyny may relate to his fear of sound, one foregrounded by the ocean at his feet: ‘Behold the handmaid of the moon. In sleep the wet sign calls her hour, bids her rise. . . . Oomb, allwombing tomb’ (U3.395-402). The ‘wet sign,’ in its associations with ‘womb’ rhymes, can be read as the linguistic unit that has been eclipsed by the semiotic register which Julia Kristeva (and Stephen) associate with the infant’s presymbolic speech, resulting in an impure mixture of the symbolic register and pure sound. It is also, in both the symbolic and literal context of the chapter, the ocean. The ocean’s/mother’s threat to the symbolic register culminates when Stephen attempts to write down some lines of poetry as the tide rises: ‘My ashplant will float away. I shall wait. No, they will pass on, passing, chafing against the low rocks, swirling, passing. Better get this job over quick. Listen: a fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos’ (U3.454-7). Stephen must decide whether he has enough time to finish writing before the tide sweeps away his cane, a dilemma which places the symbolic register in opposition to the nihilistic hissing of ‘wavespeech’. Bloom also confronts this dilemma on the same beach later in the day, but seems to more easily concede the ocean’s victory over the symbolic. He begins writing a message in the sand, but decides the effort is not worth it given the imminent tide: ‘Useless. Washed away. Tide comes here. Saw a pool near her foot. Bend, see my face there, dark mirror, breathe on it, stirs. All these rocks with lines and scars and letters’ (U13.1259-61). Still, even the more pragmatic Bloom cannot resist allowing scratches on the rocks to become letters–any more than Raudive and Bander could resist hearing voices in the scratchy noises of the tapes.

Thus, the frightening ocean sounds faced by Stephen are of the same order, I would argue, as the hiss that accompanies the playback of electromagnetic tape. Just as Stephen desires to turn these sounds into ‘wavespeech’ and ‘seamorse’ (U3.339), both Raudive and Bander feel a logocentric need to grant a symbolic turn to their own confrontations with soundwaves. This more general desire for meaning, one that Jacques Derrida identifies as still dominating Western discourse, overcomes the traditional scientific skepticisms concerning religion, the afterlife, and spooks. The strength of this skepticism, and the even greater lure of the symbolic, is demonstrated in Bander’s own testimony. Of his initial confrontation with the possibility of publishing Raudive’s book in English, Bander writes, ‘although I knew some of Dr. Raudive’s collaborators personally and have always respected their scientific work, the thought of dead people communicating through a tape recorder seemed really too silly to be taken seriously’ (1973: 9). Bander’s mind soon changed when, after five or six attempts at listening to a tape prepared according to Raudive’s instructions, he thought he heard the voice of his own mother, who had died three years previous to the occasion (1973: 10).

This shift in attitude is interesting for several reasons. First, the number of attempts itself is astounding. Given the presence of white noise accompanying any electromagnetic tape, one wonders if Bander was destined to hear something if only he persisted long enough. Of course, he may have given up in boredom if his companion Colin Smythe had not been urging him along, averring that there was indeed something notable on the tape. As it was, Bander was confronted with a variegated field of sound which, via the everyday powers of paranoia, eventually ‘yielded’. In Bander’s case, however, his sonorous experience was perhaps more predictable than the results of asking a child to ‘complete’ a drawing composed of meaningless squiggles. This is because, according to Lacanian theory, the mother’s presence is traditionally associated with the meaningless babble of the pre-symbolic stage. The entrance into the symbolic, furthermore, is predicated on the mother’s metaphorical death. But, as Lacan and others reiterate, this passage is neither total nor unidirectional. Rather, the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real all form overlapping portions of the subject’s experience. That two of the leading proponents of tape-speech theory are Professors Bander and Bender is a humorous example of these overlapping elements. In the case of Bander’s ‘conversion,’ the symbolic speech of his dead mother is heard precisely due to the ambiguous, asymbolic nature of the tape’s hiss.

Similarly, Stephen’s confrontation with ‘wavespeech’ occurs subsequent to meditating on his mother’s recent death and his unwritten books to be ‘named’ merely by individual letters that have been torn from the signifying chain. Ironically, these books seem to be associated with the ‘mirror stage’, the moment at which the child first recognizes itself as separate from the mother: ‘You bowed to yourself in the mirror. . . . Books you were going to write with letters for titles. Have you read his F?’ (U3.137-40). The fact that Stephen imagines the mirror stage and beyond in terms of writing great literary works suggests an agonistic sort of attachment to his mother in which entrance into the symbolic stage can only occur in heroic fashion. In Stephen’s perverse fantasy of literary greatness, these books are published only upon his death, and they lead to inane critical commentary that could be easily mistaken either for semiotic babble or a poem by Gertrude Stein: ‘When one reads these strange pages of one long gone one feels that one is at one with one who once. . .’ (U3.144-6). Consequently, Stephen’s meditations should be considered in terms of his tendency to read both the internal and the external world in self-reflexive terms, especially as they relate to his family. Stephen’s instinctive fear of a dog on the beach, for instance, becomes the occasion for a general examination of his cowardice in relation to his friend Buck Mulligan’s rescue of a drowning man, and finally moves to a guilty association with his refusal to pray with his now deceased mother: ‘Would you do what he did?. . . . I would want to. . . . I am not a strong swimmer. . . . A drowning man. His human eyes scream to me out of horror of his death. I. . . With him together down. . . . I could not save her. Waters: bitter death: lost’ (U3.320-30). Given the atheistic bent of contemporary science, one wonders to what extent Peter Bander and others involved with the so-called ‘Voice Phenomenon’ are drowning men themselves, expressing guilt over refusing to ‘pray’ with their mothers.

Since banishment of the mother to a pre-symbolic system of utterances has an extensive etymological history, it should perhaps come as no surprise to find that this etymology comes to bear in the tape experiments themselves. When Bander and others first attempted to verify Raudive’s findings separately, everyone, ‘with the exception of David Ellis, heard voices; however, only one of them, recorded on the Ferguson, was clear enough to be understood without difficulty. A voice said “Mutter” (German: “Mother”)’ (1973: 50). While the experimentors viewed this result as a humble beginning at the time, one may also call it the founding moment of the phenomenon, the first and most meta-sonorous result of the asymbolic/symbolic uncertainty surrounding the hiss of the tapes. The word ‘mutter’ pivots between English and German to suggest the pre-symbolic speech associated with the ‘Mother’ in Western culture.

Yet, as with Stephen Dedalus, these attempted conversions of sound into speech ultimately signal a discomfort with both the Mother and the meaningless sound (the Lacanian real) she is associated with. When subjectivity is defined in terms of one’s command over the symbolic register, confrontations with mere sound are always experienced in terms of death. Thus Bander and others are able to hear voices on blank tapes, but only the voices of the dead. Furthermore, if the prominence of the symbolic register is itself an attempt to command both the imaginary and the real, then it is also symptomatic that these ‘voices’ manifest themselves on the frontiers of frequencies that human ears can detect (1973: 65). One headline concerning the Voice Phenomenon read, ‘Does Rufus [a dog] hold the secret of the Voices of the Dead?’ In all cases of the Voice Phenomenon, researchers were approaching an inherently ambiguous set of data with an ideologically-loaded tape-deck.

To begin with, once the tape-sounds were ‘recognized’ as voices and named a phenomenon of ‘voice,’ the investigators entered into a tradition, as old as Socrates and Plato, of privileging speech over writing. For, whatever they heard, it was a trace in the sense of a trace being the very possibility of both oral and written communication, and yet all modern ‘concepts of trace, up to and including Derrida’s grammatological ur-writing, are based upon Edison’s simple idea’ of graphing soundwaves (Kittler, 1999: 33). By repressing the voice’s dependence upon the trace, Raudive and company grant their program a sense of wholeness associated with the human voice itself. As Roland Barthes puts it, a person’s voice ‘indicates to us their way of being, their joy or their pain, their condition; it bears an image of their body and, beyond, a whole psychology’ (1985: 254-5). In short, the voice in Western culture is a beast of burden that carries everything, or rather, in our sense of its immediacy, it is everything. There is no more urgent denial of random noise than to convert it to a human voice. In the voice, the ‘signifier would become diaphanous [and with that word, we are back to Stephen’s concerns] due to the absolute proximity to the signified’ (Derrida, 1991: 24). What should be known as a ‘mediated aurality’ becomes, in Walter Ong’s more socially accurate formulation, ‘secondary orality’ (1982: 135) when one achieves a sense of absolute presence by denying the technological materiality of the signifier.

Yet one can not so easily ‘make-invisible’ that which retains a material register more substantial than the breath itself; hence the long history of attempting to simulate this transcendent presence by yoking communications technology to some occult notion of the spirit.3 Thus Thoth, the god of writing, is a prototype of Hermes, and both are associated with all things ‘hermetic,’ that is, all things which hover between transcendent presence and occluded absence. From there, each new technology is linked (as writers like Kittler and Sconce note) in a similar manner. The oldest surviving depiction of a print shop takes the form of a danse macabre; telegraphy leads to table rapping and other connections to the beyond; photography leads to spirit photos; telephones, radio, and sound recordings lead to spirit voices. Both Edison and Marconi, in fact, predicted from the outset that radio would be the ultimate means of contacting the dead, thus leading one to believe that the relationship between spirituality and technological means of communication may be virtually immanent rather than causal. Leopold Bloom references the spectral qualities of technology at least three times in the ‘Hades’ section of Ulysses, including positing a telephone system that allows those accidentally buried alive to phone the proper authorities while simultaneously wiring up the entire graveyard: ‘Wonder does the news go about whenever a fresh one is let down. Underground communication. We learned that from them’ (U6.990-91). Bloom, however, seems more at ease with stochastic sound than the more earnest Stephen. When Bloom considers the means available for remembering the dead, he realizes the importance of an individual’s voice in a manner that anticipates the sonic hijinks of Finnegans Wake: ‘Have a gramophone in every grave or keep it in the house. After dinner on a Sunday. Put on poor old greatgrandfather. Kraahraark! Hellohellohello amawfullyglad kraark awfullygladaseeagain hellohello amawf krpthsth’ (U6.963-66). In this passage, Bloom creates nonsense words in order to realistically represent the meaningless static of a gramophone, not only suggesting the implicit circularity of hermeneutics, but also intimating that Ulysses is a circuitry, a ‘megaprogramotelephonic network’ (Derrida, 1991: 589) designed specifically to go haywire.

But if, as late as the mid 1970s, scientists are susceptible to wanton conversion of the real into the symbolic, one would do well to consider to what extent critics in the humanities are susceptible to the same sort of interpretive license. For the traditional goal of criticism is to make the object of study more and more legible, no matter how fundamentally ambiguous the ‘source’ may be. Given these parameters, it would seem that critics always operate on the same level as the proponents of the Voice Phenomenon even if not to the same degree. Terry Harpold foregrounds this problem in his essay on another ‘electronic’ text, Michael Joyce’s hypertext novel Afternoon. Yet in contrast to Stephen Dedalus and Peter Bander et al, Harpold seems to confront ambiguity by moving away from the symbolic: ‘You have only scraps of paper, the traces of departed observers, the evidence of lexias reviewed repeatedly, the familiar shapes of darkened pixels against the blank field of the screen’ (1998: 638). In this formulation, lexical elements are reduced to meaningless pixels, mere dots on the screen. Or, at the very least, Harpold acknowledges that any symbolic meaning one comes to is composed of such fundamentally (but not fundamental) meaningless units.

Harpold’s reading, then, at least momentarily, moves in a direction opposite to almost every other type of criticism. He specifically contrasts his approach with a more traditional reading by Jane Douglas, who ‘records spending three years reading and re-reading [Michael] Joyce’s text and coming to a conclusion about what happened’ (1998: 645). Thus, the type of logocentrism which Derrida attributes to Western culture as a whole persists well into the digital age. Its more radical (spiritual) manifestations continue as well. In 1988, for instance, Jules and Maggie Harsch-Fischbach reportedly began receiving messages and images on unattended computer screens (Poysden, 1999:6). How (or if) one can define a screen as ‘unattended’ in an age of automated and networked machines is a question that remains to be answered. Indeed, this has always been a major problem when attributing paranormal powers to communications technology.

James Joyce himself seems to perform a critique similar to Harpold’s, at least if Trevor William is correct in his estimation of Ulysses as a whole: ‘the text appears to fix meaning only for that meaning to be [immediately] undermined in some way’ (273). This interpretive direction, with things becoming less and less determinate, seems opposite to Bander’s and Raudive’s readings of the white noise on electromagnetic tape. It is also in keeping with the myth of Proteus Joyce uses to organize Stephen’s chapter, for Menelaus’ struggle with Proteus can be interpreted as a struggle for fixity or stability in a world of change, to grasp all of Proteus’ possible forms into a single, noon-hour image. When Stephen expresses a desire to ‘put a pin in that chap’ (U3.399), he not only wants to write his poem down, but also to pin down Proteus, whatever Proteus may be at the moment. Ironically, this desire makes the phrase itself more protean in nature. When Stephen can’t immediately find his writing tablets, he begins to voice the poem: ‘His mouth moulded issuing breath, unspeeched: ooeeehah: roar of cataractic planets, globed, blazing, roaring wayawayawayawayaway’ (U3.402-4). Stephen’s poem thus becomes a semiotic speech like that of the ocean’s roar, yet also like Bloom’s imitation of a gramophone. Likewise, Joyce’s fondness for word-play, which is as childlike as it is erudite, as sonorous as it is conceptual, is a reJoycing in the semiotic properties of language, a love fostered by Joyce’s own love of music. In this sense, language in ‘Proteus’ takes one not to a stable meaning, but to a Yeatsian, ‘echo-harbouring’ shell (Spoo, 1994: 111).

‘Proteus’, then, like all of Joyce’s mature texts, sides with production rather than consumption. The point is to form and collect echoes rather than trace them back to some originary voice. These texts are, to use Roland Barthes’ terminology, writerly rather than readerly. By deconstructing the oppositions between reading, writing, and hearing, such texts create a ‘multiple stereophony’ (Barthes, 1977: 159). Barthes’ metaphor gives a sonorous dimension to such texts, but one which is technological rather than vocal. The most compelling critical response to such writerly, echoing texts is to funnel them through an echo chamber of one’s own. In his autobiography,4 Barthes describes such a chamber, a critical repertoire that results in ‘doctrinal vibration’ via a deliberately haphazard process: ‘In this way, no doubt, words are shifted, systems communicate, modernity is tried (the way one tries all the push buttons on a radio one doesn’t know how to work)’ (1994: 74). In this last formulation, Barthes uses a desire for meaning (trying to make a radio ‘work’) as an image of the unpredictable ‘results’ generated by improvisational criticism. As long as one remains in the act of randomly pushing buttons, one is assured of never achieving a sustained mode of sound.

By investigating the sonic possibilities of electromagnetic tape, radios, diodes, synthesizers, biofeedback units, and other sound technologies, Voice Phenomenon researchers are also in effect ‘pushing the buttons’ on a radio they do not quite know how to work, making ‘echo-harbouring shells’ of their laboratories and studios. This process is akin to Barthes’ ideal mode of criticism, whose echoing effects are produced ‘through a certain number of procedures: generalised recourse to anagrammatical distortions of enunciation (“word-plays”), polysemy. . . which thwarts and deceives connotations; “irrational” (implausible) variations of person and tense; the continuous subversion between. . . the sender and the receiver of the text’ (1981: 44). Interestingly, the linguistic effects created by these distorting critical procedures characterize the very messages recorded by Voice Phenomenon researchers. Given the likely possibility that researchers are converting–via a combination of sound similarity and projection–random noise patterns into language, one would expect this sort of avant-garde appearance. Friedrich Jürgenson, the first person to study such voices systematically, set the tone for future research by commenting that the voices seemed to speak ‘in different languages, often changing to another idiom in mid-sentence. Also, longer phrases often had an improper structure or grammar and, in some cases, the syllables were either stretched or compressed in a way that made it quite hard to comprehend the messages’ (Poysden, 1999: 3). Thus what these researchers had developed were electronic means for producing texts in the spirit of Finnegans Wake. One suspects that Joyce would be amused by these researchers’ claims for spiritual authenticity and eager to explore further the literary possibilities for such devices on his own.

Stephen Dedalus, for his part, would prefer silence inasmuch as silence represents an extinguishing of the meaningless real.5 The last image of his last individual chapter is thus a completely silent view of the Rosevean: ‘Moving through the air high spars of a threemaster, her sails brailed up on the crosstrees, homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship’ (U3.503-5). The ship’s evocation of Christianity in ‘threemaster’ and ‘crosstrees’ suggests Stephen’s own allegiance to the illusory wholeness of the symbolic, and yet the silence of this holy image ultimately makes it like a haunted ship, as if it too carries a ghostly remainder Stephen associates with the past, his mother, and birth itself. ‘The strandentwining cable of all flesh’ (U3.37-8) is thus an umbilical phone cord that keeps a fresh supply of static flowing into the ear, while Terence Harpold suggests that the ultimate meaning of Afternoon may be ‘the idiotic beep of the computer that sounds every time you press the Return key’ looking for more narrative (1998: 646).

Confronting these sounds, one can either insist on their symbolic nature like the Voice Phenomenon researchers, associate them with savagery in the manner of the European colonizers of South America,6 or follow the example of John Cage and ‘give up the desire to control sound, clear [one’s] mind of music, and set out discovering means to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments’ (1961: 10). Can criticism actually do this? Can it not do this? Converting these sounds into symbols is ultimately, like Stephen’s view of birth and like the Voice Phenomenon of 1968, ‘Creation from nothing’ (U3.35), the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.


1 References to Ulysses come from the 1986 Gabler Edition published by Random House and follow the standard used by Joyce scholars, citing, after the letter ‘U,’ chapter number, a period, and then line numbers.

2 Though, the recent efforts of handwriting analysts in the mystery of the ‘anthrax letters’, characterizing the signer as someone with ‘aggressive tendencies’, provided perhaps the one moment of levity in an otherwise frightful chain of events.

3 At this point, I feel it necessary to differentiate my thesis from such recent works as Haunted Media by Jeffrey Sconce (2000) and Techgnosis by Erik Davis (1998). While both these writers tend to emphasize the uncanny, spiritual elements of communications technology, I read spiritual discourse itself as linguistic techne.

4 An autobiography which, tellingly, is written in a series of alphabetized fragments.

5 Although the Real haunts the visual arts as well, of course, despite Kittler’s tendency to assign media-forms (gramophone-film-typewriter) to the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic respectively. In Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?, for instance, James Elkins selects the monograph of Birger Carlström for consideration, a document that describes the secret political messages, actual hidden letters concerning the Panama Canal, which can allegedly be found in the brush strokes of Renoir. Of course, these ‘writings’ can be found in the marks made by Renoir, whose Impressionist style of painting presents as rich a ground for interpretation as the random noises on electromagnetic tape.

6 Werner Herzog replicates this bias in his film Burden of Dreams: ‘The trees here are in misery. . . the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain’ (Taussig, 1991:79).


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