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From Beckett to Handke: Mulling Over The Last Tape

What seemed like an unlikely scenario will probably become quite commonplace. An elderly man, all alone, replays pieces of the recorded stream of his life. Revisiting moments of triumph and regret. Looking intently at the high points, trying to breathe a bit of that air once more.

(briskly). Ah! (He bends over ledger, turns the pages, finds the entry he wants, reads.) Box . . . thrree . . . spool . . . five. (he raises his head and stares front. With relish.) Spool! (pause.) Spooool! (happy smile. Pause. He bends over table, starts peering and poking at the boxes.) Box . . . thrree . . . three . . . four . . . two . . . (with surprise) nine! good God! . . . seven . . . ah! the little rascal! (He takes up the box, peers at it.) Box thrree. (He lays it on table, opens it and peers at spools inside.) Spool . . . (he peers at the ledger) . . . five . . . (he peers at spools) . . . five . . . five . . . ah! the little scoundrel! (He takes out a spool, peers at it.) Spool five. (He lays it on table, closes box three, puts it back with the others, takes up the spool.) Box three, spool five. (He bends over the machine, looks up. With relish.) Spooool! (happy smile. He bends, loads spool on machine, rubs his hands.) Ah! (He peers at ledger, reads entry at foot of page.) Mother at rest at last . . . Hm . . . The black ball . . . (He raises his head, stares blankly front. Puzzled.) Black ball? . . . (He peers again at ledger, reads.) The dark nurse . . . (He raises his head, broods, peers again at ledger, reads.) Slight improvement in bowel condition . . . Hm . . . Memorable . . . what? (He peers closer.) Equinox, memorable equinox. (He raises his head, stares blankly front. Puzzled.) Memorable equinox? . . . (Pause. He shrugs his head shoulders, peers again at ledger, reads.) Farewell to–(he turns the page)–love.

He raises his head, broods, bends over machine, switches on and assumes listening posture, i.e. leaning foreward, elbows on table, hand cupping ear towards machine, face front.

The character, of course, is Krapp, from the play by Samuel Beckett, called Krapp’s Last Tape. He’s recorded the narrative stream of his life on to spools of tape, categorized them with labels, and now they reside in stacks of boxes. Krapp sits alone at his desk, surrounded by darkness. It’s here that he performs the vaudeville routine of surveying the streams of narrative that made up his life.

The great intellectual triumph of Krapp’s magnum opus seems to pale in comparison with his one chance at happiness— that afternoon, with her, on the upper lake, in the punt, pushing out into the stream and drifting…

Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indulgence until that memorable night in March at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision, at last. This fancy is what I have cheifly to record this evening, againt the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the miracle that . . . (hesitates) . . . for the fire that set it alight. What I suddenly saw then was this, that the beleif I had been going on all my life, namely–(Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape foreward, switches on again)–great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighhouse and thw wind-gauge spinning like a propellor, clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality–(Krapp curses, switches off, winds tape foreward, switches on again)–unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire–(Krapp curses loader, switches off, winds tape foreward, switches on again)–my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.

Alone in the dark, we hunch over our devices, replaying pieces of the stream— we may come to think that that’s how it was; that the recording represents all the possibilities that were present in those moments that expired oh so long ago.

Peter Handke, in his play, Till Day You Do Part Or A Question Of Light, gives voice to the object of Krapp’s affection. Handke calls it, not so much an answer, but “an echo, rather. An echo, now distant in both place and time, now quite close to Mr. Krapp, the solitary hero of Samuel B’s play. An echo, now weak and contradictory, distorted, now loud, amplified, enlarged.” In this long monologue, we hear the story of “her.”

And, of course, her perspective gives us a new view of these crossing streams of memory:

My act now. Your act’s over, Herr Krapp, Monsieur Krapp, Mister Krapp. Acted out under a false name in a language that wasn’t yours. Well acted, of course, I give you that, with your affectation of a has-been, disillusioned clown. What was the point of dressing up in those oversized shoes?

Handke gives us a new sense of two streams mingling, and eventually parting.

Only once, back then, now in the flags—at last, no more talk of jokes. And so the two of stayed together, inseparable. Back then, in the boat, you finally let me be, let me have my share of the night, let me have my centre. Till death us do part? No, till day us do part. The day that will part us—never will it come. Never will day break in such a way within me and between us. By leaving me in my dark night, you were a good man for me, the unknown woman, just as a woman once said in a Western, ‘A good man made me his wife, and I’m proud of that.’ A good man? For me, at least. For the dark, gloom-ridden person was, perhaps is me, me, the woman here. My act now? No, in my night I never needed to act. You, you’re the master actor, world champion at broad-daylight acting. No one can compete with you in that, no one, never. But I can be your audience. ‘I can put up with being ignored,’ another woman once said to another man. Accordingly I join you in my signless night, stammer vaguely to myself and at the same time I feel the urge to sing my stammering, the refrain to the song you’re humming of the shadow creeping down our mountains, of the azure sky growing dull, of the noise ebbing from the countryside around us, of our sleep in the coming peace.

Mulling over the Last Tape, looking back from what one knows is the end of the stream— the last entry. As Beckett wrote: the end is in the beginning, and yet you go on. Sometimes we tend to think of these streams as endless, overflowing their banks, flooding us with more than we can ever take in. But there is an end to the game that we play, just as there was a moment where we first stepped into the stream.

Handke does us the service of putting another voice into the frame. And where the technology of the digital stream so often seems to resound with the voice of the masculine engineer, here we have a female voice taking and holding the stage.

‘Echo’, if I remember rightly, is also the name of a person in Greek mythology, a minor goddess or a nymph (of which it says in the dictionary: ‘a lower-ranked goddess inhabiting the underwood’) but definitely a woman, the voice of a woman.

Network as Media: Notes on Convergence

Each strand of professional media was originally segregated by virtue of the physical properties of the medium and their particular economics of production. Newspapers, radio, television— each expanded on previous media models without completely replacing its predecessors.

The economics of professional media require that the cheapest delivery channel be utilized. This is why newspapers, for instance, are printed on newsprint. When you put the Network into the equation, it immediately becomes the cheapest delivery channel for the content of every other medium.

When a medium like the newspaper directs its productive output (news reporting, etc) to the Network, instead of to the printing press— it loses many of the qualities that define and differentiate it as a unique form of media. The technical requirements and opportunities of the new media are now in play.

It’s like white light hitting a prism, once a legacy medium is redirected at the Network, it is splintered into a rainbow of colors. Radio becomes print and video—each now has all the capabilities of the others. The physical properties of the media are no longer a limitation. There’s no sense in publishing a newspaper on the Network. The Network is a multiple-media media. In the context of the Network, each individual legacy media type must raid the others to supplement their stable of talent so it can publish text, audio and video into the Network.

The economic difficulty of newspapers and other media that have treated the Network as additional delivery option is that their production methods and costs can never be reduced beyond the requirements of their home physical media. When this kind of media organization competes with an organization structured to produce for the Network first, and anything else second— they will inevitably lose. The only question is whether they’ll able to withstand the wrenching transition of their infrastructure to a Network-first media organization. You can see some of this drama played out with The Daily Beast/Newsweek and the Huffington Post’s hiring of Peter Goodman and Timothy O’Brien from the New York Times. Once a Network-based media organization has established a sufficient economic base, it begins to poach talent from legacy media.

A fairly advanced form of this media reconstitution can be found in the sports news world. Comcast Sports Bay Area covers Bay Area sports. They have a cable station where they broadcast pre- and post-game shows, and in many cases the games themselves. They have former print journalists writing analysis of teams and games for their web site and appearing as guest analysts on their television shows. These analysts also appear on local sports radio. They run regular online chat rooms, and Twitter feeds. All of the “on-air” (read on-Network) talent write a blog. They’ll run both full-dress studio television shows and shows based mostly on ad-hoc video shot with a Flip cam. While they don’t broadcast all of the local professional team live press conferences over their cable station, they do make them available in a live stream on their web site. They blend text, photography, audio and video into in-depth, almost 24-hour, coverage of a set of sports teams. One can easily see this model working for coverage of music, entertainment, politics, business, financial and technology news or green energy.

The Center Of A Multitude

One of the difficulties with the idea of user-centric identity on the Network is that it simply reverses the polarity on a binary opposition, accepting all assumptions. Internet identity is system-centric, or rather it is systems-centric— well, let’s reverse that and move the power over identity from the systems to the user. Of course, the user has no computing infrastructure with which to manage and exercise this new power over her identity. A new set of systems, which we will not call systems, will be created to allow the user to wield this new-found authority.

However, it’s the reductionism of the word “centric” that may be at the root of the problem. The word “identity” implies a singular subject. Much of the user-centric identity vision is the use and re-use of a single identity in multiple contexts. An identity that can remain mostly hidden, with only the bits sticking out that are required for any particular transaction. Of course, this also creates a single point of failure. An identity that fails, or is intentionally corrupted, removes one from the Network. But in the end, it may simply turn out that the user isn’t “centric” at all.

It’s perhaps in the American experiment that the fluidity of the individual reaches a new historical state. What I might be, is undetermined. What I am, is a multitude. Poets might understand this by reading Walt Whitman. Scientists might understand it by considering the metaphor of quantum superposition. We are simultaneously and contradictorily many different selves. These are not masks, or personas, we put on one after another— the new mask a clean replacement of the previous one. The multitude is created because each mask remains when the next one is assumed. One can easily become lost while looking for a single center.

Song of Myself

Walt Whitman
Stanza 51

The past and present wilt–I have fill’d them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.
Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?
Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?

The Thing That The Copy Misses

The Network is, we are told, a landscape operating under an economy of abundance. Only the digital traverses the pathways of the Network, and the digital is infinitely copyable without any prior authorization. Kevin Kelly has called the Network a big copy machine. The copy of the digital thing is note for note, bit for bit. It’s a perfect copy. Except for the location of the bits and the timestamp, there’s no discernable difference between this copy and that one. The Network fills itself with some number of copies commensurate with the sum total of human desire for that thing.

One imagines that if you follow the path of timestamps back far enough, you’d find the earliest copy. The copy that is the origin of all subsequent copies. We might call this the master copy, and attribute some sense of originality to it. Yet, it has no practical difference from any of the copies that follow. Imperfect copies are unplayable, and are eventually deleted.

The economy of abundance is based on a modulation of the model of industrial production. The assembly line in a factory produces thousands upon thousands of new widgets with improved features at a lower cost. Everyone can now afford a widget. Once the floppy and compact disk became obsolete, the multiplication of digital product approached zero cost. The production of the next copy, within the context of the Network’s infrastructure, requires no skilled labor and hardly any capital. (This difference is at the heart of the economic turmoil in journalism and other print media. Newsprint is no longer the cheapest target medium for news writing.)

In the midst of this sea of abundant copies I began to wonder what escaped the capture of the copy. It was while reading an article by Alex Ross in The New Yorker on the composer Georg Friederich Haas that some of the missing pieces began to fall in to place. The article, called Darkness Audible, describes a performance of Haas’s music:

A September performance of Haas’s “In iij Noct.? by the JACK Quartet—a youthful group that routinely fills halls for performances of Haas’ Third String Quartet—took place in a blacked-out theatre. The effect was akin to bats using echolocation to navigate a lightless cave, sending out “invitations,? whereby the players sitting at opposite ends of the room signalled one another that they were ready to proceed from one passage to the next.

As in a number of contemporary musical compositions, the duration of some of Haas’s music is variable. The score contains a set of instructions, a recipe, but not a tick-by-tick requirement for their unfolding. In a footnote to his article on Haas, Ross relates a discussion with violinist, Ari Striesfelf, about performing the work:

We’ve played the piece seven times, with three more performances scheduled in January, at New Music New College in Sarasota, Florida. The first time we played it was in March, 2008, in Chicago, at a venue called the Renaissance Society, a contemporary art gallery at the University of Chicago. Nobody that I know of has had an adverse reaction to the piece or to the darkness. Most people are completely enthralled by the experience and don’t even realize that an hour or more has passed. Haas states that the performance needs to be at least thirty-five minutes but that it can be much longer. He was rather surprised that our performance went on for as long as it did! But the length was never something we discussed. It was merely the time we needed to fully realize his musical material.

The music coupled with the darkness has this incredible ability to make you completely lose track of time. We don’t even realize how much time has gone by. Our longest performance was eighty minutes, in Pasadena, and when we had finished I felt we had only begun to realize the possibilities embedded within the musical parameters. Every performance seems to invite new ideas and possibilities. In the performance you heard of ours back in September there were some moments that I couldn’t believe what we had accomplished. Moments where we were passing material around the ensemble in such a fluid fashion you would think we had planned it out, but it was totally improvised in the moment. The more we perform the piece, the more in tune with each other’s minds we become.

When we return to the question: what’s the thing that’s missing from the copy, we find that in the music of Georg Friederich Haas, almost everything is missing. The performance, by design, cannot be copied in the sense that the Network understands a copy. Its variation is part of its essence. A note for note recording misses the point.

So, while the Network can abundantly fill up with copies of a snapshot of a particular performance of Haas’s work, it misses the work entirely. The work, in its fullness, unfolds in front of an audience and disappears into memory just as quickly as each note sounds. Imagine in this day and age, a work that slips through the net of the digital. A new instance of the work requires a new performance by an ensemble of highly skilled artists. Without this assembly of artists, the work remains silent.

Tomorrow I’ll be attending a performance of Charpentier’s Midnight Mass by Magnificat Baroque in an old church in San Francisco. While variation isn’t built in to the structure of the piece, all performance exists to showcase variation. How will this piece sound, in this old church with these particular musicians on a Sunday afternoon? Even if I were to record the concert from my seat and release it to the Network, those bits would barely scratch the surface of the experience.

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