Audio Research: A Theme Song

listen to your present time tapes and you will begin to see who you are and what you are doing here mix yesterday in with today and hear tomorrow your future rising out of old recordings you are a programmed tape recorder set to record and play back

—William S. Burroughs1

our summer

on the ground

like last night another

time

in fragments

—Larry Eigner2

Associated with the countercultural movements of the 1950s, and galvanized in Donald M. Allen’s 1960s anthology The New American Poetry, the body of writing that has come to be associated with the title of that book has been misleadingly cast as committed, above all, to the thematization of spontaneity and the mimetic depiction of everyday life. But New American poetry was, in large part, a temporal project—though one that marshaled research and fieldwork from anthropology, history, and what we might now call media studies to substantiate and extend its claims. These involved, in their most provocative instants, the construction of a nonmonumental temporality like the fragmented time proposed by Larry Eigner or the remixed time recommended by William S. Burroughs with the aid of recording technology. Such new temporalities would contest administered versions of national time—with its major events, shared crises, and underlying narratives of progress. This normative time was, not surprisingly, the time of newspapers, magazines, television, and radio. It was, in short, administered media time, a time that, as Burroughs put it, programmed American subjects.

Narrowcast is about the search for alternate temporalities that underlay New American poets’ engagement with tape recording and radio. In framing a set of cassette tapes, LPs, and reel-to-reel recordings of poets within the postwar mediascape, the history of poetics, the New Left, and state surveillance, the book is about the social life of tape and radio in the 1960s. But Narrowcast is also about critical and historical method. Through case studies of recordings by and of Allen Ginsberg, Larry Eigner, Charles Olson, Amiri Baraka, Glenn Gould, and R. Murray Schafer, this book reflects on the possibilities of audiotape as critical and historical evidence, the nature of context building in historical thinking, and the status and location of theoretical authority. At the literary critical or literary historical level, the argument is that tape recording within poetry should be understood neither (as poets themselves have sometimes proposed) as an efficient tool for generating textuality without the encumbrance of a typewriter, nor (as media theorists have often asserted) as a way of separating audio effects from the bodies in which they originate, nor again (as writers associated with recent experimental poetry have proposed) as a means of undoing the would-be foundational status of print by producing experiential singularities in performance.3 Rather, in turning to the site-specific, often nonintentional and even nonhuman dimensions of tape recording, I frame a series of poet-generated audio works by the ways in which they engage with dominant American media—radio above all—paying particular attention to how these recordings contest radio’s time and space: spatially its networks of news and advertising, its omnipresence and consequent suggestion of public relevance, common sense, and universality; temporally, its constitutive patterns of attention, its parceling of temporal units into both program lengths and into larger daily divisions (especially that between work and leisure), its construction of what counts (and demands a response) as a public event, and thus what drops below event-status into the condition of supposedly unremarkable ongoingness—a category, in fact, central to postwar poetics. But to mobilize this ongoingness as a real time of living and thinking, poets tended to use recording to insist on the specificity of a real space of enunciation—an environment that not only situated the speaker in a distinct location but also tended to interweave the speaker’s sounds (including those nonintentional ones made by his body) with those of that environment.4

“Narrowcasting,” then, is the term I use to designate this seemingly over-specific audio operation that, staged within the ostensibly boundless domains of recording and broadcasting, nonetheless insists almost perversely on grounding the speaker in a discrete space, often one that ambiguously merges body and environment. That the term “narrowcast” is, in everyday use, associated with niche marketing and “special interests” points to the normative evaluations I hope to question in my own recoding. Sketching the social and temporal dimensions of regimes of broadcast radio (from FDR’s fireside chats to the emergence of FM radio in the 1960s) and to a lesser degree film (from the Luce corporation’s the March of Time series, to spy thrillers from the 1970s), I take these poets’ audio works not merely as offering critiques of normative national time but also as cultivating rich and various alternate temporalities whose implications I unpack in some detail. Yet some of the most compelling aspects of these poet-driven audio projects were not entirely embraced (or even, arguably, understood) by their makers and thus arrive to us in the present with something of an artifactual character, accounting for which, in turn, produces a few complications for the case studies that follow.

This book is organized by four connected senses of narrowcasting: the first, most obviously, is spatial and has to do with a conscious turn away from the would-be universal address of most media to the cultivation of a microclimate or countermedia space (a van, a porch, a kitchen table) in which the speaker’s body in its sonic relation to its surrounding surfaces contests the nonsite of the media broadcasting studio. Here, narrowcasting involves the thematizing of an intimate, corporeal space that might ground media abstractions.

Second, hand in hand with this grounding operation is the temporal sense of narrowcasting that follows directly in these poets’ works: the attempt to unplug from the national time of organized hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, and centuries and their attendant attention patterns and reacquaint oneself with an immediate ongoingness not subject to the temporal parceling achieved by dominant media. Here the goal is not simply the familiar countercultural claim toward presence but the establishment of modes of duration that challenge the de facto temporal understanding and related production cycles effected by commercial and state media. This temporal sense of narrowcasting is not normally part of the word’s semantic landscape. But I hope that, given what we will see and hear of the intimate ties between space and time in these poets’ countermedia poetics, pursuing it as a corollary of spatial narrowcasting will ultimately make sense. It is in these two meanings of narrowcasting, spatial and temporal, that the poets I study perform research into the space and time of recording and broadcast media: its relation to bodies and sites, on the one hand; and to regimes of attention, social organization, control, on the other.

In the first chapter, on Ginsberg, narrowcasting is primarily spatial, and to the degree that it is temporal, time is in service of space; in the second chapter, on Eigner, the main concern is temporality, and the spatial narrowcasting that does happen (and here it is quite important) can be understood as supporting the poet’s engagements with time. In the Olson and Baraka case studies, both models are in play. While the book’s argument as a whole is more about temporal than spatial narrowcasting, the two modes must—I argue—be studied together because they inform and underlie one another. Bodies in Ginsberg, for example, must unplug from national time to claim the deinstrumentalized, nonviolent, erotic space proposed in his poetics; similarly, the finally temporal model of narrowcasting in Eigner emerges through close and persistent attention to a spatially limited frame—Eigner’s porch and household, his street and neighborhood.

The third sense of narrowcasting transcends the threshold of intentionality and has to do with what I call an artifactual narrowcasting: by this I mean a tendency on the part of audiotape to embed within itself a series of abyssal gaps, noises, and registrations of contingent sound that challenge the medium’s storage and retrieval protocols. What is narrow here is the literal tape its users would like to hear through to “voices” and “events” that would exist, as it were, on the other side, but that instead returns attention to its opaque, noisy sonic surface. But rather than understand this sonic noise merely as a failure or distraction, I will be listening, in what follows, for the ways this contingent bleed from the surrounding situation embeds revealing encrustations of period information onto the audio work.

Finally, within this umbrella of meanings is a methodological sense of narrowcasting whereby, in my own practices of reading and contextualization, I have sought to parallel my objects’ adamant refusal to be subsumed by the dominant frames and hermeneutic modes of their moment. In response, I have tried to draw out how their own conceptual and theoretical models of corporeal space and ongoing temporality differed from those according to which the country was being run in the 1960s; moreover, I have also tried to avoid subsuming (even their resistance or radicality) within the ascendant theoretical models of my own moment. The suggestion here is that, in opening up method as well to a mode of narrowcasting, poets’ tapes could themselves be understood as generators of theoretical propositions and not merely as passive cultural examples awaiting the conferral of authority typically granted by the discourses of philosophy, political theory, sociology, and so on.

Underlying this medial reframing of New American poetics is a proposition that poetry at a larger scale can be usefully understood as a mode of audio research—even if the sound studies frame that partly makes this possible only emerges in the 1970s and thus later than some of my case studies. But while sound studies, whose early years I consider in Chapter 4, may have lent terms and a degree of conceptual unity to a diverse array of practices that had previously been considered poetic or musical or technological, the site it came to inhabit, disciplinarily, was already one in which there was a great deal of overlap among these practices.

Notes

1. William S. Burroughs, “The Invisible Generation,” in The Ticket That Exploded (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 213. While Burroughs himself did not appear in the anthology, his Beat cohort did—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky.

2. Larry Eigner, The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, vol. 2, 19581966, ed. Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), 357; subsequent citations of Eigner’s poem are to this edition and cited parenthetically as EP. This poem is from November 1959.

3. I consider Allen Ginsberg’s view of the tape recorder as a means for registering thought without typing in the first part of Chapter 1; for the media theorists, this “ability to make contact from a distance” is a feature of recorded music stressed, for instance, by Douglas Kahn (who attributes it to John Cage) in the very first sentence of his introduction to his edited collection: Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead, eds., Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 1. Similarly, N. Katherine Hayles emphasizes the “evolving subjectivity [that] emerges from the instabilities produced when voices are taken out of bodies and bodies find themselves out of voices.” “Voices out of Bodies, Bodies out of Voices: Audiotape and the Production of Subjectivity,” in Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies, ed. Adalaide Morris (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 75. For the avant-gardists, see my account of Charles Bernstein later in the introduction.

4. To those of us whose ears have been trained on public radio, with its practice of spatially situating the field reporter within a representative audioscape, the first part of this proposal may seem unremarkable—for in fact it is a dominant characteristic of contemporary radio to begin each field report with an evocation of the singular (and preferably exotic) sounds that frame each region of the globe considered capable of producing news. But this was not always so: in the 1950s and 1960s a far higher proportion of broadcast radio was produced in, and thematized the audio effects of, the nonspace of the studio. More important, in as much as they stress their sonic representativeness, the consumption-ready scene setters of the NPR field report are finally quite different from the odd environmental ambiences I study here.