Theory Beyond the Codes
Joe Milutis is one of those rare breeds of media scholars — someone who has the “vertical” depth of historical scholarship as well as the “lateral” breadth to see connections across disparate fields, events, and contexts. In fact, it’s inaccurate of me to tag Joe as an academic, since he has been equally active as a writer, performer, visual artist, and sound artist as well. His book Ether (published in 2006 by the University of Minnesota Press) is a wonderful hybrid of media history and religious studies, a sort of history of an idea that has persisted to our own era of media that is ubiquitous and pervasive. For many, evocations of the ether bring to mind the strange and intriguing concepts from the history of science, from electromagnetism to mesmerism. But as Milutis shows, ether — itself a strange non-object — is an equally important concept in the history of religion, influencing theosophists as much as yogic philosophy, as well as in modern culture, from the fantastical, speculative fiction of Edgar Allen Poe to the many evocations of spiritualism in the films of Federico Fellini. As Milutis notes, “[w]hat is clear about ether is that it is a mediating substance between technology, science, and spiritualism, and the historical relations between these three terms determine its perfume.” This manner of working across disciplines has been a long-standing interest for Milutis.
I first met Milutis at a strange conference called “Postmodern Piracy and Transgendered Subjects,” convened by Doug Rice in 1999 and held at Kent State University. At the time his writing was appearing in the magazine Artbyte, and already he was exploring the intersections between media, mysticism, and science fiction. Over the years he and I have had an ongoing conversation about our shared interests, ranging from Japanese noise music to supernatural horror. Recently I had a chance to talk to him about his previous and current projects.
Eugene Thacker (for CTheory): Your book Ether does a wonderful job of creating a unique genealogy of media. It cuts across both cultural contexts and historical periods, tracing this concept of “ether” from Mesmerism and Renaissance alchemy, to Spiritualism and the radio, to the emergence of network culture. One of the main conceptual dichotomies in Ether is that of the material and the immaterial. Ether is at once omni-present and yet diffuse, amorphous, intangible. Is this a constant in all of the variations of the concept? Is there a key moment or moments in which ether becomes “technologized”? What changes when we move from a mystical notion of ether to a technical one? Many of your examples — early radio being a primary one — seem to suggest that the spiritual and the technical go hand-in-hand…
Joe Milutis: As I point out in the book, it’s technologized from the beginning. It is a product of the way our devices, including language, parse out the natural world. That’s not necessarily a bad way to look at it. In a sense, it implies pure positivity, a kind of difference engine, to speak in Deleuzean terms, where certain manifestations are more territorialized than others, some allowing for more access and creativity, others more authoritarian.
So the problem of misrecognition becomes a theme. The radio seems to promise a materialization of mystical, creative, anti-authoritarian energies. And it enables them to a certain extent. Radio, when it was first introduced, reenergized the etheric imagination after the ether had been debunked scientifically in the Michelson-Morley experiments. But then radio gets tied to the military machine, the money machine. Time slots become regimented, who can talk on radio becomes professionalized, etc. etc. The Apollo launches in the 1960s had a similar dynamic — they seemed to get people to really think about what it would mean to evolve one’s consciousness. It instigated new forms of action and thought. But of course, it was a huge industrial enterprise, and as Norman Mailer pointed out, the kabbalistic flames of a NASA rocket might very well be demonic.
Henri Bergson, who has a substantial, if not entirely sketched out, place in this book, and who will have a more central role in my next, is important to think about regarding the ways in which spiritual ideas get aligned or misaligned with new technology. You know, Bergsonian ideals have been in the boardroom for a long time, especially when it comes to the selling of consumer technology. But usually, the only thing that is focused on is the more action-oriented, vitalist aspect of Bergson, and only if sanctioned by the device. I think when you add Deleuze to Bergson, he becomes less of a corporate huggy-bear; the Deleuzean reinterpretation brings out the powers of the virtual, which is not the digital, but rather something like the ether in its most radical, deterritorialized form.
We seem to want vitalist instantaneity for all the wrong reasons; similarly, we have very backward notions — no pun intended — about the powers of memory. Instant checking! Check your account online! Why are Word programs slower now than they were in 1997? The whole system is now engineered so that you can effortlessly activate a tremendous (yet, of course, limited and thus, not virtual) corpus of the past, yet someone who has an attachment to an old technology is considered overly precious; and then, of course, how you use that corpus has been subjected to the legalistic whims of a few corporations. Or think about online reading. Some supporters of Kindle are arrogant about the idea that people have a lifetime of emotions and sensations related to paper, related to the book as something that, if you wanted to, you could pick out of the trash and read. Do you know how many books I have found for sale on the street that then became the core of my research interests because they were lovable and they were mine and they entered into my life in a specific and powerful and aleatory way? That’s how memory works, and it is the irrational aspect that is impossible to argue for, but it is what makes us creative.
CTheory: In Ether you are also attentive to the cross-cultural instances of the ether concept — for example, the influence of Hindu and Buddhist concepts in Theosophy (e.g. Leadbeater, Steiner). To what extent is “ether” a Western concept determined within modernity, and to what extent is it a cross-cultural phenomenon?
Joe Milutis: I initially received ungenerous comments suggesting that ether, as presented in the book, was capital-W “Western,” that I wasn’t attentive to these cross-cultural instances, even though, for example, I had also been writing about how these ideas filtered into Afrofuturism and circulated around Islamic thought. It seems there is something that strikes people about the “ether” as perhaps located squarely in the realm of white, technologically privileged culture, but I don’t really buy it since the ether has always been such an outsider concept. It did, for a brief window of time, provide the basis for a global scientific elite, but it rapidly fell into desuetude afterwards, and was left for anyone to take up. You could say, then, that it started as a cross-cultural, even sometimes heretical idea, was co-opted by a western elite, and then became the basis for two-hundred years of various mystical cargo cults, unpredictable and far-flung.
CTheory: You also pay attention not only to the immateriality of ether, but to its materialization and privatization. Would you see this as an early stage of post-Fordist capitalism, in which information becomes commodified and also produced as a service? Is “ether” an early form of what Negri and Lazzarato call “immaterial labor”? I find the juxtaposition of Fludd’s diagrams and the FCC charts very evocative…
Joe Milutis: I wrote an essay, “Superflux of Sky,” that discusses the multiple paradoxes of immaterial economies with respect to ways in which they have come to be visualized. However, one thing to remember is that perhaps one major philosophical high point in the ether’s evolution comes as a response to Tayloristic principles, as time-work studies directly generate mystical fourth dimensional theories, as well as the birth of the cinema at the end of the 19th century. At that time, the apparent “lessening” of our mystical commons through industrial systematizing of time and space created a kind of intellectual panic, and ether theories effloresced as a coping mechanism, while the birth of film allied with them in various interesting ways. By the time “immaterial economies” become more standard, ether as a supplemental, irrational time-space that explains a floating economics neither seems far-fetched nor difficult to conceive.
CTheory: Ether is also a drug. Are drugs media? Have you tried it? Can I buy some off you?
Joe Milutis: I’m a little bit of a sissy when it comes to these things, so I’m not really the one to ask. But you know, I think that a well-considered hit of smack is healthier for you than a joyless hummus platter. Personally, I really just keep to the boozes (I’m a big fan of homemade infusions), but even then, I am much happier when I eat little, drink little, and can actively seek out energy, sunlight . . . that said, I’ve become very suspicious of Zen and yoga discourses throughout all the years of practicing them, so I’m not going to lay that on you. Just do it. Or don’t do it. And don’t get attached to your practice! Otherwise, it just becomes another bad Christianity, or martini infusion.
But drugs, well there’s that famous story about Ram Dass’s Guru taking LSD and he was totally unfazed. Jordan Belson became so embarrassed by the clichés of drug culture that he got rid of what were really great, grungy psychedelic soundtracks to his films, and he also changed the name of his film LSD to something more innocuous. Drug culture has a huge impact on 60s etherealism, and it was really shocking to me the way in which whatever experience of this scene some had caused them to discount it entirely. Camille Paglia said something very interesting, that you had so much advanced knowledge about consciousness and creativity in this historical moment, but relatively none of it could be communicated to future generations because of the drugs. And whatever did get through, I would add, tended to be disavowed by much of the next generation of artists and scholars for a variety of reasons, some understandable, others lamentable, that I won’t go into here.
CTheory: Recently at The Public School New York you presented some of your current work, which focuses on Hamlet. Tell me about how this came about. Is this related to your media projects? Why Hamlet, why now?
Joe Milutis: If by “now,” you mean, sometime in this century, then even then it wouldn’t be completely accurate, since I’ve been working on this piece for over ten years. Some pieces just stay on the backburner until there is an audience. Since it is a piece about Shakespeare, and I’m not a Shakespeare scholar per se, there was no reason to force it. So every summer for a long time I’ve had it on my to-do list, but it wasn’t until I started a relation with the internet journal Triple Canopy that I found a good venue. I’m very audience conscious, and I’m not interested in the genre of “academic publishing,” so that requires me to be a little bit more inventive, but also very idealistic about bringing these ideas to a wider audience.
I didn’t actually read Hamlet until I was thirty, which is an appropriate age since I think Hamlet was about thirty during the fictional tragedy set in Elsinore. You tend to read those kinds of things when you are younger, but Shakespeare was just something I waited to read. However, I had been reading things like language poetry and poststructuralist theory since I was a teenager, and was interested in language-media experiments like Michael Snow’s So Is This. By the time I came to Hamlet, it was glaringly obvious to me that Shakespeare was doing the same thing with deixis — especially with the word “this” — that you see in Snow’s film, and in the work, for example, of Ron Silliman. I just kept tracing meta-uses of “this” for years as a minor hobby. And what became interesting for me in this piece — especially because a lot of my work has been dealing with artistic forms of data mining — is that if I started today, with the electronic tools at hand, on the same project, I wouldn’t get at the answer faster; “this” is ultimately unsearchable electronically, since it is so ubiquitous. This project then, becomes a metacommentary on concordances, and I even inserted a book concordance to the word “this” in the work of Silliman as part of the multimedia content. (This concordance has become my favorite part of that project, not only because it works very well as a POD book — extending the multimedia experience back into the physical world — but also because the afterword allowed for a dense and complex prose style that I felt had been lost in the translation of my original writing to a screen experience.) “The Quiddities” follows my essay “R, Adieu” as an instance of analyzing “literary minutiae,” and I imagine doing more essays in a similar vein.
CTheory: At the University of Washington you’re also teaching a seminar on genre horror. Is there a particular concept of horror that you have in mind? It seems that there are many thinkers out there that have always been sidelined, but who might be relevant for thinking about horror and media — Chardin, Steiner, and Bergson.
Joe Milutis: I’m also a little squeamish with proper horror, so “supernatural” is the operative term for this class. The supernatural is the genre of the “un”: the unspeakable, the uncanny, the unnatural, unwholesome, unholy, unnamed and unnamable. As such, it has a lot of connections to the virtual. I’m interested in uncanny phenomena like the double. You know, my grandmother was a twin, and my grandfather had a brother who wasn’t a twin but who looked exactly like him. My grandfather and his brother lived across the street from each other for as long as I can remember, but they maintained such completely separate lives, that I never really met his double. There was something terribly Sicilian about that set-up. My aunt who I am very fond of was considered not worth caring for when she was born, since the doctor thought she would die as a result of sharing the womb with my grandmother. Well, whatever psychic competition that engendered, my aunt is the one still living, in her 90s, and this fact is still an important identifying feature for her. For a long time I felt like I had to deal with similar issues or rather issues of apparent similarity, and felt my childhood was particularly influenced by the uncanny and the psychic rivalries of doubles; I think this is not uncommon when you have an extended family all living within walking distance. Not to mention, my childhood coincided with a minor cultural boom concerning interest in paranormal phenomena; I grew up watching shows like In Search Of . . ., and I was not only tested for, but trained in ESP while in grade school. Memory as it relates to the supernatural, then, has become an important theme for me and this class, obviously because of my Bergsonian interests, but also my own memory, is tenacious and unforgiving, quite Sicilian in fact. But luckily I’m redeemed by a more fanciful, forward-looking relation to consciousness owing to my early schooling as a telepath. So I’m part Sicilian, part precog.
Not to elide the Italian-American experience with its bête noire, but if you are interested in my approach to horror, it is a very expanded one, and you know, the Godfather II is a great monster movie, with powerful supernatural dimensions as well. In the sequel, Michael is dealing with all these virtualities — not only the pressure of the past, which was always his burden, but also the ways in which he must deal with various forms of information that threaten to overtake him. It’s much more intellectual than Godfather I; and that little cottage on Lake Tahoe, which is at once home, CPU, and bunker is pure Universal horror. It’s really subtle set design, but if you watch it enough, all the tacky woodsy details of the cottage are totally horror-show, especially those window panes. There’s even a cast-iron cobweb gate, which puts it over the top, but thankfully we only see that in one shot.
My grandmother never liked the Godfather films, for the obvious reason that Italian-Americans have had to spend a long time shaking those associations, but she did love The Silence of the Lambs. I don’t think I would have seen it if she hadn’t raved about it, and the Italian side of the family has very good taste in movies, probably because many of the sisters at one time or another used to play piano for the silent theaters. So unless I get similar types of recommendations, I won’t see many modern horror films, at least not alone. I just don’t dig torture/slasher films. Or the teen stalker, psycho-in-the-woods thing: so boring. Someone, an experimental film maker at that, once took me out to see one of those I Know What You Did Last Summer films, and the only thing I came away with was that it was an elaborate, ultimately Puritanical, framing device for Jennifer Love Hewitt’s breasts. If that’s your goal, at least take notes from The Entity. Unless it’s formally Argento-esque (I did show Phenomena this quarter), or has some of the good humor to it, like the old Universal horror films, I’m not interested. Or if it uses horror to explore some interesting eroticism, then I’m interested. For example, I have a creative project based on Jean Rollin’s Night of the Hunted. He’s a true auteur of erotic fantasy horror; the sexuality in these films — and Rollin straight-out uses porn stars, and makes porn as well — is Reichian, non-Puritanical, and lyrically intense.
I think, in the end though, the real horror I’m compelled by is economic horror. Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux . . . Faulkner’s Wild Palms. I think you could even put the Magnificent Ambersons and Citizen Kane in this category. I’m an admirer of Houellebecq precisely to the extent he is able to convey economically-determined desolation, appropriate to the era (most of his critics seem to think that literature is written within a moral and historical vacuum, and a lot of it currently tends to be); it is no fluke that he is a fan of Lovecraft, even though his books betray no superficial affiliation to typical genre horror.
CTheory: Are you focusing on the supernatural in certain media (e.g. film vs. comics, etc.)? And I have to ask — your favorite story or film?
Joe Milutis: I’m not a big one for having “favorites” or “bests.” I am constitutionally averse to rating things in that way. But given that part of asserting such is to put things in view that normally wouldn’t be recognized, I would say that Cleveland Moffett’s “The Mysterious Card” and its sequel “The Mysterious Card Unveiled” together is a great, relatively unknown curiosity that I came upon while participating in Gaslight, an early listserv about nineteenth-century popular fiction. I won’t spoil the story for you, but what is remarkable, given my interest in how a creative use of the interval — temporal or memory effects — engenders the supernatural, is what happens in the gap between the story and its sequel, published about a half-a-year apart. The first story brings us to the depths of an unknowable degradation, and leaves us there. The second returns with such a different optics — literally and figuratively, since emerging photography asserts its presence — that it almost seems like the author has created an entirely new cosmology to explain the previously inexplicable events. And the audience for this story literally had to dwell in its uncertain interval for at least eight months, something entirely more radical than what you get with “tune in next time.” You see a similar creative use of interval, both formally and thematically, in “The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen, an author I’ve been reading recently as well, who had a big impact on Lovecraft.
Something like Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” is always good too, especially for teaching this material. One thing I realized about teaching “The Sandman” this time was that in order for the story to have power, you have to identify with Nathanael’s “lacerated soul.” Not a completely groundbreaking realization, except that Hoffmann’s asking you also to identify, as a consequence of your identification with Nathanael, with literature itself; this is the real source of the story’s uncanny power. It’s an ultimatum: either you accept the terrors implicit in literary creation and consumption or you accept Klara’s more bland, mechanical idealism. I found students did not want to allow themselves to fully experience the uncanny double-binds of the story, which in the end implicate the story itself, making one a non-innocent reader. They seemed more apt to pathologize Nathanael, or write off the author, and side with Klara, even though it seems Klara’s “quiet, domestic happiness” that she ends up with is undoubtedly ironic. And we had just read the “The Yellow Wallpaper” — the narrator of which is in a situation quite similar to Nathanael’s — so it was interesting to see how Klara still emerged as the hero, even though she acts very much like the dismissive husband in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
But you know, Freud thought Klara was a hero in that story too, which is ultimately why I don’t trust Freud’s account of it. I think that a Bergsonian reading would be much more fruitful, especially since Klara seems to embody the brand of Kantian idealism that Bergson critiques, something that usually goes unnoted as such because it is a mode of thought that has historically won, and hence comes to us as good sense. Bringing in Bergson would also bring into relief the question of the literary, something that Freud himself, in the “Uncanny,” admits he’s not quite equipped to deal with. And the virtual is the literary’s uncanny double.
CTheory: Another writer much neglected is Charles Fort, who was already thinking about media and the supernatural in the 1920s and 30s. In fact, Fort seems to stand somewhere between the fiction of supernatural horror like Lovecraft, and the supernatural philosophers like Steiner or Chardin…
Joe Milutis: Lovecraft’s “Call of the Cthulhu,” as well as its immediate predecessor, Machen’s “The Great God Pan” are about data management. I love that Cthulhu has as its ratiocinative center a “clipping agency” — something that I don’t think exists anymore, or exists only in highly rarefied modes, because of the web. It comes as no surprise that these weird stories have as their core, an engine of information technology, or even just the impulse to make meaning out of information gone awry, since it has always been recognized that the supernatural is also a type of allegory of information — no more so than in Bram Stoker’s Dracula of course. We can talk about Dickens’ “The Signal Man” also, and things like The Hunchback of Notre Dame which, at least in the 1939 film version, has at its core, a debate about the merits of the Gutenberg press. We could go on and on with examples both obvious — dealing with the “uncanny” impact of any new technology — and implicit: that all supernatural literature spectacularly stages the absences that communication both exacerbates and attempts to repress.
But there’s something a little different going on in Lovecraft and Machen that I think might be directly related to what Charles Fort was doing with his “data of the damned.” Fort seems to have been his own voracious clipping agency, yet at the same time he was compiling all these news stories about blood falling from the sky, vampire cattle mutilation, and girls spontaneously combusting on beds, he was reflecting on the ultimate absurdity of the human mind to make sense of this data. I’m going out on a limb here, because I haven’t read it in a couple years, but I think Dracula is ultimately positivistic about the ways all the modes of communication that comprise its text allow us to see the vampire in a way that each individual character can not. Whereas, what you start to get with the Lovecrafts and the Forts is this clear sense that data-overload itself is a kind of monstrosity.
CTheory: This brings us back to media, and in particular to that strange field called media studies. Media studies has been going through a lot of changes recently — not only are there a host of new degree programs and textbooks dedicated to media studies, but the field itself seems to continually diversify, both drawing in other disciplines, as well as focusing on new sub-fields (e.g. video game studies, urbanism, mobile & wireless, etc.). So, a general question — where do you see media studies going? Where should it be going?
Joe Milutis: I guess, first off, don’t ask me to be oracular! This is not Delphi. But of course, the “oracular mode” is the problem, isn’t it. Everyone’s a visionary. You are constantly dealing with people coming to the table saying, it’s all going to change, and it really is tiring and tiresome. My personal discipline, which may or may not jibe with how things are going to look on the horizon, in the university or elsewhere, is to create a space for the broadest possible inquiry and creativity. But again, I’m just a guy trying to make his way in the world, with a very idiosyncratic set of things to offer it. While I might enjoy the authority that comes from making pronouncements, I know that, having worked at a variety of institutions on just getting some basic infrastructure in place, that this ground level work is very difficult: how do you create these kind of spaces if just getting faculty administrative access to their computers is seen as some kind of revolution? A further frustration is that attitudes towards the future have become absolutist, they feed off desperation in the academy, and they lack subtlety. Perhaps the hyper-diversification you speak of is part of the problem. I’m all for a scholar doing mobile phone media research, for example, but they have to convince me that they know a lot more than that, and are not just enchanting people with concepts that will be embarrassingly quaint in ten years. There is no such thing as “mobile media studies,” just as there is no such thing as the “Department of John Keats.”
The separation of media studies and production from other forms of university research, the tyranny of the new, as well as bad forms of economic rationality seem to be the biggest obstacles to the future of media studies and the university in general. I think what Al Filreis et al. are doing at the University of Pennsylvania with media is more interesting and sustainable than what tends to go on in new media programs proper. But that’s perhaps because I’m literary-minded and find there’s an anti-literary mentality in many media programs. But I have an anti-literary strain, too, at least in the way one thinks of the literary as a kind of sanctified preserve, which is why I’ve been writing on the concept of “virtual literature” as the literature of the unpublished, the fragment, the illiterate. In some ways, it has been a way for me to get back to some vital core of what it means to be creative, especially since I’m linking these ideas of data junk and the unliterary back to Henri Bergson’s original concept of the virtual, not to data gloves or online avatars. I somehow think that Henri Bergson will save the world. That’s my big pronouncement if you want one.
CTheory: Media studies have always had a contentious relationship to history. There are, of course, traditional histories of media — names, dates, inventions, etc. — but beyond this there is often a sense that the field is polarized between, on the one hand, a sometimes-obsessive focus on the contemporary and new, and, on the other hand, a disciplinary obligation to dig back into history. Would it be fair to say that your own work seems to chart a path in between these poles? What are some ways of avoiding both extremes of the forgetting of the past and the forgetting of the present?
Joe Milutis: Let’s stick with Bergson and the virtual on this notion of history. It’s really very simple. If I’m on a bus, and everything is going OK, I caught it on time, the sun is flickering by, so I know that once I get off the bus there will be no adversity in getting to my destination. I have the leisure to read, to think, and to effectively remove myself from the situation of my actual presence in the bus. In fact, if I want, I can see the bus better, choosing to move from my reflections, to the faces of the other passengers, to the people on the street moving by, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, like a passage of music. It is all very nice. Now, same bus: I’m late, it’s raining. The bus will take the same amount of time to get to my destination. However, now I can’t read. I’m on the edge of my seat scrolling through multiple mental scenarios of what’s going to happen as soon as I get off the bus: how I will manage the small window I have to get to my destination without total failure, what are the most effective scenarios (quickly dwindling) and how, in the face of failure, will I reassess the value of the idea I had of “getting there on time.”
Travel in space is the same as moving through intellectual data; and this is not a metaphor, it is literally one and the same. You need to know when to kick in the scenario-creating-mind, which is important! It’s not just a rainy day drag! Conversely, you need to know when to dream and relax the mind, so that virtual images come in. Are you completely caught up in the labyrinths of self-referentiality or buried by a responsibility to the past? Or is your work drained of depth since you’ve molded your intellectual output on the buzz du jour? For me, I don’t want my intellectual life dominated by the “constant revolutionizing of production,” although I find that it can be exciting to tap a particularly energetic flow, since I don’t feel satisfied by my research until it finds a way outside of itself. Do I have more place in my heart for the untimely rather than the timely? Situationally, I’d have to say yes because that’s the position in which I have been more squarely placed. The academic is untimely. That is the strength of this particular endeavor, don’t mess with it. However, with my own personal attitude, I’m not quite sure from day to day. I wouldn’t be able to synthesize as much history and data as I do without a really strong sense of timely action. Bergson creates a common sense path between these two positions, hermit and huckster, if you will.
CTheory: Much of your own work as a theorist and practitioner centers on sound and performance, two areas that are often sidelined in media studies discussions (e.g. in media studies or new media textbooks). Why do you think there is so much emphasis on the image and not on sound in media studies?
Joe Milutis: One thing that comes to mind is practical and has to do with the physical limitations of teaching certain disciplines. Look at Art History lecturers: they can really be charming, unflustered ciceroni. Click: the silent image comes up. Click, another. They can point and discuss and go into the depth of this silent, still image. They can spend as much or as little time as they like, and they have the added benefit that the history has been codified in such a way that students parrot back their mastery of forms, styles, schools in an easily assessable manner. Everybody’s more or less on board. There are good stories to tell. Film studies works the same, with the sound off. Now imagine lecturing, let’s say, about the sound-image relations in a film. You know how hard it is to talk about sound and point things out in the soundtrack as the sound is going? And of course, it goes. For it to be activated, it is there, and then it is gone (viola, the virtual in its purest form). I’ve developed strategies, but it’s still not easy, especially because some of the more interesting things to talk about are just not obvious to the untrained ear, and may even be undetectable — not only because of the multiple layers and temporalities of sound production, but also because there may be no historical data on how that sound was produced (so, for example, I encourage students to listen archeologically — knowing what is possible at the time a film was produced, are we hearing production sound, playback, a dubbed track? Is this dual system? Is there a click track? Etc.). And, while Hollywood sound has a pretty good history to tell, there are a lot of forms of sound production that just don’t have a really easily identifiable center.
For example, I’ve taught a lot of sound production classes with a heavy emphasis on documentary forms, but how do you teach sound documentary as an “area of study,” with a history and a literature? Well, the most interesting material on the documentary is written on film. And there is no good reason to rewrite those insights that were made in film studies for an audio context, which may be why there is little to no useful literature on sound documentary. Is then this notion of having a theoretical and conceptual armature outmoded? I would say “no,” but with reservations, and an openness to other forms of learning, without expressing ressentiment towards the intellectual output of media theory. Can you get this armature just by listening to and discussing various important exemplars of the form, while engaging in hands-on production: somewhat. But the fact is that it is precisely this lack of disciplinary armature and openness that leaves sound vulnerable, easily misrecognized (“so, you mean you teach music?”), and ultimately marginalized as a course of study.
The fact is, though, that I don’t really like being known as “the sound guy,” and the position I’m in now allows me to teach within and draw from the multiple fields in which I have expertise, especially the literary. My training is completely in experimental, interdisciplinary departments (I was in Modern Culture and Media at Brown at a time when its many sub-degrees were transforming so rapidly that I didn’t know what my degree was called by the time I graduated; my graduate studies were in the Modern Studies program in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, also a node of much convergence and transformation in its time). Consequently, I’ve learned to respond contingently and constructively not only to different teaching environments, but also to how my own research interests mutate and evolve. I knew from an early age that I would be in a unique position to speak to both the rich histories of the past, as well as newer forms. I saw how influential someone like McLuhan could be if he was, for example, quoting Shakespeare, or for that matter Joyce, while at the same time positing new forms of creating and being, and I realized that without trying, I had found myself in a similar position. I thought at first my advantage would be to convince the old-guard of the new ways, but now that has flip-flopped. The new needs olding. It’s sad to me that many even very smart new media proponents thrive only if they are in a room with either completely like-minded people or people cowed by the future, and who are put on the defensive when someone who knows a lot about new media speaks up for some of the old ways or even merely tries to engage them critically and intellectually. There are many heart breaking realizations when you stand at so many proliferating cross-roads, but the notion that because of some self-satisfying notions of progress, certain paths into the future will definitively cut off older bailiwicks seems to me the saddest.