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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.1 (2002) 16-21

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Live From Cyberspace:
or, I was sitting at my computer this guy appeared he thought I was a bot

Philip Auslander

The entry for the word "live" in the Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition) reads: "Of a performance, heard or watched at the time of its occurrence, as distinguished from one recorded on film, tape, etc." This is a definition that reflects the necessity of defining the concept in terms of its opposite. The earliest examples of the use of the word "live" in reference to performance cited in the OED come from the mid-1930s (1934, to be exact). The need to define the term "live" in relation to an opposing concept partly explains the surprisingly late date of this initial usage: performances could be perceived as "live" only when there was a way of recording them. But, since methods of recording sound had existed since the 1890s, 1934 is substantially after the advent of recording technologies. If this word history is complete (and I assume that if the word "live" had been applied to performances in, say, the Middle Ages, the editors of the OED would have found the references!), it would seem that the advent of recording technologies was not enough in itself to bring about the formulation of the concept of liveness. Here, I will address the question of why that took so long to happen, then go on to examine the implications for liveness of the much more recent emergence of a particular digital technology.

The answer to the question of why the appearance of recording technologies was not enough to bring the concept of liveness into being has to do, I think, with the fact that with the first recording technology, sound recording, the distinction between live performances and recordings remained experientially unproblematic. If you put a record on your gramophone and listened to it, you knew exactly what you were doing and there was no possibility of mistaking the activity of listening to a record for that of attending a live performance. As Jacques Attali points out in Noise: The Political Economy of Music, the earliest forms of sound recording, such as Edison's cylinder, were intended to serve as secondary adjuncts to live performance by preserving it. 1 As recording technology brought the live into being, it also respected and reinforced the primacy of existing modes of performance. Live and recorded performances thus coexisted clearly as discrete, complementary experiences, necessitating no particular effort to distinguish them. [End Page 16]

It is significant that the earliest use of the word "live" in relation to performance listed in the OED has to do with the distinction between live and recorded sound, but not with the gramophone. The technology necessitating this usage was radio. This first citation of the word "live" comes from the BBC Yearbook for 1934 and iterates the complaint "that recorded material was too liberally used" on the radio. Here, we can glimpse the beginnings of the historical process by which recorded performances came to replace live ones, a process I discuss extensively in my book Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. 2 But radio represented a challenge to the complementary relationship of live and recorded performances that went beyond its role in enabling recordings to replace live performances. Unlike the gramophone, radio does not allow you to see the sources of the sounds you're hearing; therefore, you can never be sure if they're live or recorded. Radio's characteristic form of sensory deprivation crucially undermined the clear-cut distinction between recorded and live sound. It would seem, then, that the concept of the live was brought into being not just when it became possible to think in those terms—that is, when recording technologies such as the gramophone were in place to serve as a ground against which the figure of the live could be perceived—but only when it became urgent to...


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