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.