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Writing the Tape-Recorded Life

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 27, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 402-426 | 10.1353/abs.2012.0024

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This article brings together theories of autobiography and audiophony to explore how recording technologies have influenced the way we represent self. I examine the self-consciousness of the audio/autobiographer, the voice as an instrument of both language and sound, and the insights that result when the actual process of recording intercedes in autobiographical narrative.

The phonograph, in one sense, knows more than we do ourselves.

—Thomas Edison, “The Perfected Phonograph”

The magnetic tape recorder was only just working its way into mainstream consciousness in 1958 when Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape opened in London. Set in “the future,” Beckett’s play demonstrates a scenario in which a man, Krapp, has been recording himself each year on his birthday for at least the last forty years. Beckett, who had very little experience operating a tape recorder at the time, seems to have been drawn to the complex set of questions that derive from a technology that not only reproduces but also preserves the sound of one’s voice over time (Hayles 80). In the play, Krapp is sixty-nine years old. He sits at a table listening to a tape-recording of himself at age thirty-nine. From the tape we hear the thirty-nine-year-old Krapp, who has just finished listening to a recording he made ten or twelve years before, railing at the naïvety of his younger self; lamenting a missed opportunity for romantic love; and making bold resolutions to eat fewer bananas, drink less, and curb his libido. The present-day Krapp hunches over the reel-to-reel tape machine to listen, laughing bitterly at the foolishness of both of these former “selves.”

More than a prop, the recording machine in Krapp’s Last Tape provides what Katherine Hayles calls a “complex temporal layering” and a “logic of displacement and replication” allowing for the uncanny interaction between Krapp and these two manifestations of his younger self (78). Beckett’s scene shows that as soon as a voice is recorded on tape and played back, it becomes a presence both connected to and severed from the one whose body produced it in the first place. For Hayles, the dynamic that Beckett employs in Krapp’s Last Tape “authorizes two presences on stage: one a voice situated in a human body, the other a voice situated in a machine.[1] The machine-voice echoes the body-voice but also differs from it, not only because of the medium that produces it but also because of the temporality registered within it. Presence and voice are thus broken apart and put together in new ways. Presence can now mean physicality or sound, and voice can be embodied in either a machine or a body” (83). Like the written word, the recorded voice signals a temporal and spatial distance from the presence of the writer/recorder: each utterance, whether written or spoken, instantly recedes like an object in the rearview mirror of consciousness. However, unlike the written word, the recorded voice reproduces levels of meaning in its sound, its range of inflection, volume, and tone—what Roland Barthes referred to as its “grain” (“Grain” 269). More than just words, the speaking voice also makes meaning with (nonverbal) noise.2 In Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett foresaw a time when our tape-recorded utterances would accumulate and haunt us in a manner different from our written utterances. These recorded voices would communicate with us on sensory levels unattainable through print. On the page, voice had become an abstraction, but since the advent of the phonograph, magnetic tape, and digital sound production, the abstraction has found its voice once again.

In his 1998 book Speaking from Memory: A Guide to Autobiographical Acts and Practice, Harold Rosen claims that because of its ability to preserve “everyday speech,” the tape recorder has posed a challenge to “those who believe that only the written language can carry the highest order of the articulation of the socio-personal self ”: “For whereas autobiographical acts crop up spontaneously and die out in thin air, the tape recorder, it turns out, has made possible the highly conscious drawing out and preservation of life stories from people...



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