Friday, 17 April 2009

Radio's Uncanny Origins

If Guglielmo Marconi had once considered the possibility of using his wireless telegraph as a means of contacting the dead, it would not be long before the same technology was being put to the service of mass slaughter. Already, by the dawn of the twentieth century, Marconi had demonstrated his new technology to the British and Italian navies and it was not long before it was in regular military use for the purpose of ship to shore communication and, with the invention of the thermionic valve, would prove an essential part of strategy and manoeuvres in the First World War. However, at this time, the use of wireless was still largely reserved for point to point communication and the idea that broadcasting, at that time considered a nuisance side effect of the technology, might become its principal use was largely foreign to those who used it. This was all to change in 1916, during the Irish Easter Rising.

On the 25th April, the day after Easter Monday, as the British troops called in reinforcements and declared a state of marshal law in Dublin, the Irish volunteers made the first broadcast from the post office on Sackville Street, using the same point to point technology to make a diffused message in the hope that their message, the declaration of an Irish republic, would reach the American press (Marshall McLuhan). In the same year, an employee of the Marconi Wireless Telegraphy Company of America called David Sarnoff would suggest to his bosses the possibility of radio becoming a “household utility” much as the piano had been; and so began the domestification of the radio at the very moment of the realisation of its revolutionary potential.

The formation of the British Broadcasting Company in 1922, at the suggestion of the Post Office, was largely a pragmatic attempt both to appease the commercial interests of the wireless manufacturers and to suppress the possibility of unrestrained amateur broadcasting. It was the BBC’s first Managing Director (and, later, first Director-General of the British Broadcasting Corporation), John Reith, who would articulate the philosophy of public service that would come to define the BBC’s mission (with true missionary zeal) in terms of universalism and national unification. Reith’s universalism was threefold, as Georgina Born explains,
First, universal availability: a national service meant that the entire population of the United Kingdom should be able to receive a high-quality broadcast signal. Second, there was a commitment to a form of social and cultural universality, in that the BBC undertook to produce both a regional and a national programme service. The audience was conceived both as a unity and as socially and culturally diverse. The BBC was to be an impartial arbiter, assessing the various constituencies and tastes and responding accordingly. Third, there was a universality of genre in the policy of mixed programming from the outset, BBC radio broadcast a wide range of genres each day and week, including news, talk, sports, drama, religion, light entertainment and a variety of music – both popular and classical. 
Reith’s universalism was centred around a concept of “the best of everything,” conceived as politically neutral and, ultimately, transparent, but which was to prove highly flexible given the different articulations of subsequent Director-Generals. The drawing together of the diverse strands of audiences and programming in the specific manner undertaken by the early BBC was thus responsible for a “new kind of public, commensurate with the whole of society, which it brought into being.” .

The BBC, under the “massive, totalitarian, and idiosyncratic” stewardship of John Reith came to exist in a ‘hegemonic relation’ to the British populace, “the nation [as] one man,” in Reith’s famous phrase - a spectral substitution whereby, “a certain body tries to present its particular features as the expression of something transcending its own particularity.” (Ernesto Laclau) The form of this relationship was through the metaphor of the National Family (David Morley) and the image held in the mind of BBC programme-makers of their audience was of “a family audience, seated round the fireside at home.” The radio thus became instituted, not just as a piece of furniture at the heart of the family home, but as the principal symbolic association between the domestic family and the nation state. At the heart of radio’s familiar homeliness, however, was an unsettling movement of the uncanny.

In Sigmund Freud’s (1919) essay on ‘The Uncanny’ [Das Unheimliche] he lays stress on a certain undecidability to be found in standard dictionary definitions of unheimlich’s apparent opposite, heimlich [homely]. Freud’s dictionary defines heimlich as both the “familiar and agreeable” and “what is concealed and kept out of sight.”. Freud thus sees in heimlich a meaning “which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich.”. This precisely is what is at work with regard to the position of the radio in the family home in modern Britain. By bringing the public sphere into the very heart of the private space of the home ), broadcasting created a structural indeterminacy between inside and outside, an intimacy that whispers in your ear, and the exteriority of an actuality constituted through outside broadcasts, summed up by Lacan’s concept of extimité or extimacy. The extimate object is the disembodied voice, which “functions as a strange body… a ghost-like apparition which can never be pinned to a definite visual object;” (Slavoj Zizek) The appearance of the voice, transmitted and transfigured through the ether, was perceived as a kind of uncanny intrusion from the very first radio transmissions, as Harlow describes of an early long distance transmission by R. A. Fessenden on Christmas Eve, 1906,
They listened eagerly, and to their amazement heard a human voice coming from their instruments – someone speaking! Then a woman’s voice rose in sound. It was uncanny!

Briggs, A., The History of Broadcasting in The United Kingdom Volume I: The Birth of Broadcasting, 1961, London: Oxford University Press; 

Cardiff, D. & Scannell, P., ‘Broadcasting and National Unity’, in Impacts and Influences: Essays on Media Power in the Twentieth Century, Curran, J., Smith, A. & Wingate, P. (ed.s), 1987, London: Methuen, pp.157-173;

Morales, C., ‘Radio From Beyond the Grave’, in Radiotext(e), Strauss, N. (ed.), 1993, New York: Semiotext(e), pp. 330-2;Scannell, P. & Cardiff, D., A Social History of Broadcasting – Volume One 1922-1939: Serving the Nation, 1997, Oxford: Blackwell;

Seaton, J., ‘Broadcasting History’, in Power Without Responsibility, Curran, J. & Seaton, J., 1981 [1997],London: Routledge.