Tape Hiss, Compression, and the Stubborn Materiality of Sonic Diaspora
In an article for Pitchfork, music critic Adam Ward reminisces about digital music files that sound as if they’re “being played through a payphone,” and calls the extreme compression of the low-quality MP3 “this generation’s vinyl crackle or skipping CD.” The crackles, hisses, and compression that characterize such sound files are what I term “encoded materiality.” Focusing on the encoded materiality of the digital helps us to reconfigure our approach to sonic media, understanding how the compression of early MP3s and tape hiss remind us not only of lost fidelity, but also of the richness of exchange. These warm and stubborn sonic impurities, having been encoded in our digital listening formats and thus achieving repeatability and variability, act as persistent reminders that we can think diaspora beyond melancholy and authenticity, sidestepping the questions of purity and loss that so often characterize dialogues in the field of diaspora studies.
In Mechanisms, his work on electronic textuality, Matthew Kirschenbaum proposes a “material matrix governing writing and inscription in all forms” composed of four elements: “erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability” (xiii). The defects of sonic technology that become encoded in digital files are one such type of inscription. Tape hiss and other recording accidents–such as Casey Kasem ruining your attempt to tape record the first Western song you fell in love with after leaving Hong Kong by fading the outro and butting in with his banter–achieve repetition and survival during the digital encoding process, becoming a welcome reminder of time and place. Such materiality helps us to better understand the politics of diaspora. It clues us in to how the elements of textual encoding (erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability) become embedded within diaspora’s complex logic.
To think through these complex moments of exchange, let me offer a story about my experience with tape hiss. I grew up listening to music touched by this particular sonic grain: a ground level of noise upon which my sonic experiences were built. After I received my first iPod in 2005, I connected a tape player to the input of my computer, recorded a stack of tapes, and then manually split them into MP3s—pseudo-piracy committed in earnest. A few weeks ago, I dug up these same files and put them on my phone, once again returning the buried albums to their former glory on a constant rotation playlist. I keep returning to these particular files, rather than finding the now easily available digital versions, because I admire the survivability of their materiality. The materiality of these tracks allowed me to trace the complexity of my own history—the tape hiss is just as much a part of this history as the songs themselves.
After first moving to Canada from Hong Kong, my family and I established ourselves by unswervingly performing the same routine each weekend. We would have late lunch at our favorite dim sum restaurant, drive around for a bit, and then relax at home; there wasn’t much to do in the ex-urbs of Toronto. On those drives, we listened to selections from a stack of cassette tapes in the glovebox of our old Pontiac Bonneville. Sally Yeh’s 1987 album Blessing was on constant rotation and received its fair share of wear. This was one of the tapes I recorded to my computer, destined for digitization.
Because I hit the record button a few seconds early, my MP3 of Sally Yeh’s Blessing begins with a few seconds of silence. It’s enough to trick me into thinking that the song isn’t playing. In a quiet enough spot, I can hear that it’s actually tape hiss. No matter where I am, on the road or in the shower, my mind fills in the blank with the thick ker-chunk of the cassette entering that Pontiac stereo right before that familiar tape hiss would fill the car, always giving us a few sometimes-needed, sometimes-awkward moments of silence before the music started. The sonic texture of that tape stems from its material nature as plastic and metal. The hiss itself is due to the size of the magnetized particles on the plastic. Because of these sounds, the song tells its own story. It recalls our shared sonic and material experience as I migrate it from device to device.
Before Blessing made its way into our car, it was one of the few cassette tapes that my parents carefully packed into a dozen cardboard boxes and shipped by sea to Canada in the late 1980s. This was in the midst of the countrywide protests in China that led to the events at Tiananmen Square. That insistent ker-chunk of plastic on metal that my brain inserts every time I play the MP3s keeps my experience of the music grounded in this earlier history, too. Strange that a fluffy pop song would remind me of the serious political strife taking place on the doorstep of a Hong Kong nervously awaiting its “handover.” This sonic anchor’s ability to recall to me these snippets of history, both personal, national, and transpacific has been crucial in the development of my own diasporic identity. Listening to this particular recording of Blessing helps me to keep track of my self and my history.
The act of withdrawal that many of us perform in order to interface with our sonic technologies, as Alexander Weheliye shows in his reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in Phonographies, can play a powerful role in understanding one’s own racial subjectivity. Weheliye focuses on the scene in which the titular narrator-protagonist retreats to a subterranean cave-like space to listen to Louis Armstong’s recorded, disembodied voice in complete solitude. He asserts that the narrator builds his own subjectivity through a recognition of the self by projecting that self onto Louis Armstrong’s “vocal apparatus,” that is, his voice coming through a phonograph (143). “The phonograph’s ability to disconnect the singing voice from its face, or rather to replace it with a technological visage, further heightens its materiality, which impels the protagonist to imbue Armstrong’s voice with a surplus of signification” (Weheliye 145).
More than a black and white photo or a stern historical lecture from the elders, the “heightened materiality” of the digital format, a type of “technological visage” cathects my own diasporic history most forcefully to the sonic anchor of tape hiss because it acts as a “voice without a face” in the same way as the phonographic Armstrong. But despite the privacy of the phonographic listening act in this scenario, Weheliye suggests that
the phonographic listening modality also bears the traces of sociality… since the listening subject is drawn out of him/herself by encountering the technologically mediated sounds of other subjects—we might even go so far as to suggest that the phonograph itself functions as a subject, especially in its interfacings with various humans. (165)
So it is with similar sonic technologies that can encourage the “eschewing [of] the social” such as iPhones, CDs, and, yes, cassette tapes. Like Ellison’s narrator interfacing with the mechanical apparatus that conveys Armstrong’s voice, the insistent “defects” kept on the digital file keep the mechanism of its delivery at the fore, allowing me first to understand that diasporic feeling of dis-ease—and to imagine beyond it.
What I gain from the digital yet still stubbornly material tape of Blessing is not any overt lyrical or thematic gesture to a diasporic subjectivity on the artist’s part, but rather an induction into what Giorgio Agamben calls, “the idea of an inessential commonality, a solidarity that in no way concerns an essence” (18), or perhaps a community based on “belonging itself” (84). Likewise, Weheliye’s “diasporic citizenship coarticulate[s] the national and transnational instead of playing a zero-sum game with political identification” (369). If diaspora is defined by the perpetual desire to seek an imagined originary point of true identity that inevitably leads to melancholy, as psychoanalysis maintains, tape hiss and other encoded materialities turn the gaze away from the mists of origin, validating instead the development of diasporic identity in the aftermath of emigration. Of course, loss and melancholy are legitimate psychic aspects of the diasporic experience, as persuasively demonstrated by scholars such as David Eng, Shinhee Han, Anne Anlin Cheng, but they neither define the whole experience nor are they mutually exclusive to it. It is in this way that we can think of diaspora as a community of belonging by becoming.
A consideration of the stubborn ways that materiality is encoded in the digital helps us to think of diaspora as more than psychic fait accompli—it is also a ‘coming community’ characterized by the process of belonging. Kirschenbaum’s matrix provides the right foundation for a study which considers how material inscriptions are related to our diasporic lives. The inscription that defined my diasporic becoming came from the cassette tape that travelled across the ocean in a boat for five weeks, escaped erasure, survived repeated playings, became digital, and lives on now as a hissing reminder of our history of emigration. What else may we find about our own becoming and belonging if we attune our ears to the encoded materialities of sonic diaspora?
Featured image “Decayed Cassette” by darkday @Flickr CC BY.
Chris Chien is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Southern California working variously in the areas of sound, diaspora and transpacific studies, all with a distinctly queer bent. He completed his M.A. in English Literature at Loyola Marymount University and his Honors B.A. in English Literature and Latin at the University of Toronto. Chris has presented papers on angelic gender fluidity in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and post-colonial affect in the work of Herman Melville and Amitav Ghosh at the Rocky Mountain MLA and South Atlantic MLA conferences respectively. He is currently developing a paper that examines the performativity of diaspora, masculinity, and the capitalist ethos in Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat and its adaptation as an ABC sitcom.
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Orality and Cybernetics in Battleship
His moment has come. After having scoured each vector of a ten by ten grid, the young tactician makes his move. “G-4,” he announces, possessing some intelligence of a large ship in the south-west quadrant of enemy territory. There is a moment of tension, as his dad sizes up the situation. “It’s a hit,” Dad admits, smiling, as he resignedly lifts a token from his board. The women in the family beam proudly from the kitchen. For a brief moment the social hierarchy is undermined as the house patriarch on the front of the Battleship box concedes victory to his progeny.
Sound has been integrated in different ways into the production of simulated warfare after World-War II. Simulated warfare involves, namely, the cybernetics of paper machines (as board games have been coined by Matthew Kirschenbaum), and the gradual effacement of oral mediation therein. As technologies of interactivity improve, the need for oral communication amongst the games participant’s decreases. The following is a case study of four Battleship commercials that aims to chronicle a set of shifting cultural tendencies parallel to the integration of sound-effects within the material game-form.
As Ong (1982) has noted, writing is powerful because it mediates the vastness of imagination. Once spoken words become grounded in text and inscribed on paper, they become, “locked in our visual fields forever” (p. 11). This is not as totalizing as it sounds, for as words are recirculated in oral cultures, the trace of writing yields slowly to the performative nature of ritual, oral culture. The rules of tabletop games, such as Battleship, although first established in the manual included with the game, are passed through oral ritual more often than not (Fine, 2002; Bowman, 2010). The oral maintenance of game rules is a practice which lends itself, critically, to the cultural attitudes of the group which maintains them. As is evident in the box art above, the game of Battleship is a gendered space where the rules have likely been explained (and maintained) by the household patriarch, then shared with his enthusiastic son.
There is an ideological element at play here as well. The box art for Battleship is unmistakably American. From Milton Bradley’s strong red-and-blue branding to the white trim of the son’s shirt, dad’s sweater and the soap suds in the kitchen. After all, the company owed its success to America and the war effort. A 1940s bailout saw Milton Bradley producing landing gear for fighter planes and gunstock for soldiers alongside portable game kits for soldiers seeking diversions in their down-time. The production of board games in post-World War II America owes as much to the military-industrial complex, as the production of video games does today (Dyer-Witherford and dePeuter, 2009). The relationship between the military production and simulation has been well documented by Crogan (2011), who has argued that the production of game interfaces, from the start, has been the by-product of a military desire to map real space onto the virtual in the design of ballistics. To this point, the bombastic introduction to a late-1960s commercial for Battleship (see video below) should come as no surprise. The sonic blast of a real-world battleship is calculated to lure consumers into believing that the game is an authentic simulation of maritime warfare.
The players in this commercial are actively engaged in a discussion amongst themselves. They laugh, and joke as they engage one-another in a tactical crossfire. In some cuts, the players seem particularly engrossed in the games strategy. Even though the commercial showcases two players actively engaged in oral communication, it is important to note that the players are both white males, and that the winner callously gloats as his opponent tumbles into the water. Milton Bradley’s connection to the American military is distinct here, and it plays out as a set of social relationships between the players. Reminiscent of Cold-War politics, the games action plays out as a series of tactical exchanges. Consumers are urged to practice at winning in their living-rooms, or on the go. The portable elements of Battleship are played down in an advertisement about 15 years later. Here, Battleship is situated as a centerpiece of family life.
Also integrating stock footage of real-world military battleships the narrative in this mid 1980s commercial begins with a squabble over domestic space. The actors are (at first) two boys (10 and younger), playing Battleship in the bedroom. After winning, the older boy banishes his younger brother, presumably forever, from his bedroom. Although this act could easily be imagined as selfish, in the context of the 1985 nuclear family, competition is fostered and encouraged. In a second skit, the older boy emerges again victorious at Battleship, his opponent (and father) slouches, consoled by the mother while the grandfather eagerly congratulates the young victor. Electronic Battleship is introduced here as a product as well, and the players are depicted commanding the electronic elements of the game. Feedback is given to the players sonically, as programmed game moves result in dynamic military explosions. There is still a residue of oral communication here, notably the father lamenting, “You sunk my battleship,” as the older boy lets out a strong cheer. Even though the embarrassed father is a commercial trope designed to stimulate the consumer imagination of aspiring child tacticians, it also functions as an in-joke for caring parents looking to instantiate intellectual (mathematical) competition as a centerpiece of domestic life in the age of Reagan’s Star Wars economics and family values.
Ten years later, the commercial narrative has more to do with overt warfare than family life. The competing children are spliced alongside clips of competing Navy officers performing various technical tasks on a real Battleship. As the background music takes on a tense, and somewhat militaristic tone, a command to “Man your battle stations,” is echoed as the two boys careen into their chairs. No longer is the narrative established as a civil exchange between two military masterminds, Electronic Talking Battleship uses sound to enhance the player experience of the simulation. When a hit is scored, a quick shot of the player pumping their fist and shouting is quickly replaced by stock footage of a battleship-explosion. Even wavy radio-lines are used to enhance the over-the-top comic feel of the product’s sound. A number of shots showcase the players programming their battle-stations. The commercial explicitly connects the discourse of soldier-controlled military technology, to player controlled information technology. Good players are able to program on their toes, the only conversation between players is a series of taunts and cheers. At one point, a player refers to the rules. Electronic Talking Battleship is evidence of the increasing capital of information technologies, and deterioration of orality in electronic games in the mid-1990s.
A final, 1997, commercial for Electronic Talking Battleship disposes entirely of the oral element of gameplay. The commercial begins with a child in what seems like an office conference room. After he presses a green button, a virtual matrix appears before him, and two navy officers materialize across the table from him. The viewer is to assume that one is an officer, and the other his superior. The narrative has the Navy officers desperately trying strategies against a hooting and smiling child. The Navy officers are a metaphor for the game’s computer, which can, at this point, serve as a virtual Battleship opponent. The affective work of companionship, which was once performed by one’s friends and family is now, in at least this commercial, replaced by a machine interface. The oral communication, which once governed the rule-set in a social space, has been outsourced to a machine which governs the rules, precisely, in cybernetic space
As computers begin to take a more active role in our culture, a by-product is the exchange of oral ritual for cybernetic participation. This odd shift can be read as having both positive and negative potential. One positive aspect is the estrangement of the social hierarchies which have been a necessary for the ritual infrastructure of oral communication dating back to Homeric times. While the children in the commercials (and on the original box) seem increasingly autonomous, they also begin to dialogue less with themselves, and more with the game. This, unfortunately, is the negative potential of this cybernetic shift.
Where the early advertisements of the game depicted a product which provided a potential escape from a war-ravaged world, later advertisements seek to situate the consumer in the center of the action. A common thread amongst these social, and technical shifts is the instantiation of an electronic voice and interface as keeper of the rules. And, with this shift, the military discursivity of the game-form and its accompanying electronics is inscribed, and made to seem innocent in our imagination and understanding of childhood games and play.
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and multimedia editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD student at Rutgers University.