family orality

Family relationships are oral. It’s seems pretty obvious. But maybe it really isn’t.  I think family photographs may be the best way to present the issue. Photographs, such as the one reproduced here, mean hardly anything to anyone who isn’t either a family member or close enough to really remember the people or the situation, without having to rely on text or images or sound files. And by “close enough” I mean exactly close enough to speak to one another — without a telephone probably (maybe a telephone does work — I’m not sure about that). Maybe many of us sustain many oral relationships, e.g. probably most friendships, some collegial relationships.  But family seems like a sort of benchmark, a reference point for the way any one of us positions ourselves with respect to orality. Or, to go a bit further, it might be a way to “diagnose” where we are between primary and secondary versions of orality, to use the terms coined by Walter Ong.

Let’s say we’re between thinking a photograph means “this has been” and a later understanding of a photograph as “this is possible”. In the first case, the photograph is pegged to a specific past point in time and so has a role in any number of potential cause-and-effect relationships. It could figure a moment in some kind of tale about how some contemporary neurosis came to be, for example. It could constitute forensic evidence or prop up sagging confidence. But I might honestly say that if I didn’t actually remember, with my own, organic memory, the image would have no intrinsic meaning whatsoever.  If I want a particular meaning, and I want it to have bearing on these people, this event, I’ll have to invent it. I the viewer, I the photographer, and I the critic thinking about this are all integrated as different nexus points, or functions, in the apparatus. If this image is to have any specific, particular meaning, we have to project it. We have to flesh it out with a time and place, some characters, some story. I think we can even say that this meaning must be forged in words. Otherwise, “meaning” will revert to a default algorithm-generated family story, a  set of rather sappy conventions that have no use for exceptions and oddities or even careful observation, and that represent family as a smooth, flat, readily-digestible “memory”.  

Was it ever “natural,” “normal,” to treat photographs as historical evidence? Only in a determinedly historical framework. Otherwise, photography belongs to a secondary orality.


Notes on Musical Notation: the Scratch Orchestra at 50

In connection with its current exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, The British Library organized a modest commemoratory event called The Scratch Orchestra at 50.  The Orchestra was a group at its most active briefly around 1969-1972, largely under the direction of Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981).  It performed experimental music.  In historical accounts, it is usually grouped with Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Morton Feldman.  The evening began with an orientational presentation – names and dates and ideas and quite a bit about scores, which were in some sense at the heart of the matter, the link with the exhibition (the Library has a number of the Scratch Orchestra’s scores in its collection). Cardew was resisting many aspects of traditional classical music, not least of which was the adherence to the conventional system of musical notation, with staves and clefs and measures.  

After the opening talk, three former members of the Orchestra chatted on stage, two of them “founding” members and one an art student with no direct connection to music who liked to sing and joined out of curiosity.  Max Reinhardt (Radio 3, Late Junction) acted as moderator and host.  There was a curious tension in the group – a little between the two founding members, and a little with people in the audience, some of whom had also been participants.  The matter of Cardew’s death – in a hit-and-run car accident – came up: the driver has never been identified, and rumour has it that he may have been murdered for his political activism – he was a committed Communist.  There was a difference voices with respect to whether Cardew’s musical innovation had been motivated by disappointment with his own reception comparatively convention contexts; there was absolute unity regarding his talent and skill as a musician.  

A number of people emphasized that the “scores” of the Scratch Orchestra represented records of, rather than instructions for a performance – that the performance came first, and the score later.  As if  to stay in keeping with the general determination to leave many things indeterminate, at least one other person argued that any score/record could also be understood as a stimulus to perform the piece again. 

The Rhythm of Writing

His [Flusser’s] writing method evolved in the era of the portable manual typewriter, and he never changed it thereafter, despite the explosion of information technology through which he was to live and about which he was to philosophize…He rejected electric and electronic-typewriters because he objected to the noises they made…Flusser defended his preference for manual over automatic machines by claiming that the silence between keystrokes coupled with the physical act of returning the carriage left to right, left to right, punctuated his thoughts at the correct intervals for composition.  

Pawley, Martin (1999) “Introduction,” 7-16 in Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things, London: Reaktion 1999, 13-14. 

It seems he “played” on the typewriter as, say, a jazz musician might, someone for whom the technology makes such a slight demand on consciousness that the player’s own changing awareness can actually register in the medium (Such things are said of, for example, Louis Armstrong — that you could hear him thinking). Quite possibly he understood the gesture as a move in a game, the game of a particular language in which he could act himself out (?), knowing he could, and probably would, abandon that particular game [read: language] at some point and move [translate] to another. The spaces in between, he often said, were spaces of freedom. 

The Gesture of Listening to Music

Donenico Ghirlandaio, The Annunciation

A gesture, as Flusser defines it, is “a movement of the body or of a tool attached with the body, for which there is no satisfactory causal explanation.”  It seems a quiet, unassuming definition.  But it becomes the foundation of a comprehensive theory of human communication, with specific gestures for speaking, writing, photographing, and many more.  Listening to music differs from the others in not being active, but rather passive.  He argues that this is exactly what distinguishes it from other – expressive – gestures.

In Renaissance painting, Mary holds herself, leaning toward the sound of the Word, suggests what he wants to say about music. Music, he says – and he speculates that the Word in this case may have been a song — doesn’t demand a specific, identifiable gesture, but rather asks any listener to adapt his body to take in the sound.  The gesture will look different, that is, depending on who is listening and what kind of music is being heard.  The absence of any other expressive movement is what singles this specific gesture out, in other words.  It implies that people who “use” music as the background to other things they are doing, e.g. driving or cleaning or – impossible for me, but many do – writing and record-keeping —  are not actually listening at all.   

It implies that real listening quite a difficult thing to do. I feel fairly sure it’s quite a rarity, for that reason. Flusser’s description underscores the intentional dimension of the gesture, as well as its submissive posture. Listening becomes a kind of intentional submission — not a bad definition of prayer.


Krapp’s Last Tape

Philip Robinson played Krapp in a production of Krapp’s Last Tape, last night in Ashburton, Devon, in a friend’s living room.  It was”right”.  Everyone — 20 of us — could really see and hear, notice the ticking clock at otherwise silent moments, empathise with the technological frustrations, and the technological authority.   As Philip later put it, we were “complicit”.  

The tape recorder pins the script to a particular moment in the 1950s — 1958 was the date of the first performance.  But it’s set in the future, probably the 1970s. The record a person may keep of her past is, by tradition, written; to hear one’s own voice is something completely different.  Does the voice have stronger presence, more authority, more presence?  It lets us, the audience in…

The Piano Lesson

Matisse’s Piano Lesson, 1916 (Museum of Modern Art, New York).  It depicts the painting Woman on a High Stool (Germaine Raynal), 1914, also at MoMA, and a number of other works.  Matisse’s son Pierre, the student , was actually sixteen at the time of the painting, but this, like much of Matisse’s work, looks back, not to a “slice of time”, a single moment, but to something about a space and an instrument and at least two people and possibly quite a lot of time, to relationships that are personal, but not just personal. It is silent. And perhaps the silence of what Flusser calls a traditional image, imposed by the painter on the materials, is heightened if the cause of the painting — a cause in the painter’s mind — does involve sound.

A Plague of Piano Lessons

Friedrich Kittler’s books construct a firmly material foundation below the idea of discourse as Michel Foucault framed it: the conventions and boundaries of what can be said at any given time. These are the shifts, he says, that constitute historical change.  Taking over Foucault’s broad timeframe (one such shift about 1800, another about 1900), Kittler examines the impact of Grammophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford: Stanford University Press) on 19th-century European discourse. In his account the typewriter’s impact on social relationships, Kittler quotes from a book by two economists writing in 1895:  

…it may come as a surprise to find a practical use for what has become a veritable plague across the country, namely, piano lessons for young girls: the resultant dexterity is very useful for the operation of  the typewriter.  Rapid typing on it can be achieved only through the dexterous use of all fingers. If this profession is not yet as lucrative in Germany as it is in America, it is due to the infiltration of elements who perform the job of typist mechanically, without any additional skills.

Julius Mayer and Josef Silbermann, Die Frau im Handel und Gewerbe, Der Existenzkampf der Frau im modernen Leben.  Seine Ziele und Aussichten [Women in Business and Industry. Women’s Struggle for Existence in Modern Life. Her Goals and Prospects] 7, Berlin, 1895, 264.