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  • His Master’s Voice: On William Gaddis’sJR
  • Patrick J. O’Donnell

In William Gaddis’sJR, voice partakes of the “postmodern condition” where, as Jean Baudrillard says, everything is constituted by “the force which rules market value: capital must circulate; gravity and any fixed point must disappear; the chain of investments and reinvestments must never stop; value must radiate endlessly and in every direction.”1 Gaddis’s unwieldy parody of American capitalism is a 700-plus page palimpsest of vocal exchanges where the agency of transmission—telephones, televisions, tape recorders—has, in a sense, taken over the discourse, so that human commerce and conversation reflect the nearly total instrumentality of human life and the “capitalization” of identity in the late twentieth century. “Voice,” in Gaddis’s novel, has become the cipher for human exchange, and like surplus capital, inflationary and without content.

In this context, it is appropriate to recall an image produced by the advertising agencies that Gaddis lampoons in JR while striking at the wastefulness of their “product” in the piles of junk mail that the pre-adolescent JR ceaselessly sorts through on his way to the foundation of a financial empire. One of the more memorable icons of American culture is the logo of the Recording Company of America, perhaps most familiar to the generation which listened to ‘78’s which bore the image of Victor, that patient canine listening to the speaker of a Victorola phonograph. The trademark suggests that the quality of the recording is so faithful to the original that Victor thinks he is hearing “his master’s voice”—an idea so compelling that RCA protected the phrase “His Master’s Voice” by registering it as a trademark.

Images like this one, born within the publicity departments of corporations that make substantial profits from the reproduction of sound, reveal much about commonly held cultural assumptions regarding voice and its relation to the projection of identity. The faithful reproduction of voice is associated with the assertion of mastery. The “master recording,” presumably, connects us directly with the origin of an individual voice. This concept is revised and repeated in the television advertisements of a cassette tape manufacturer who employed Ella Fitzgerald to break a glass with the magnified projections of her real voice; these, recorded and played back, were used to break another glass, attesting, again, to the faithfulness of the sound recording. Yet, we easily see the contradictions inherent in the attempt to represent the mastery, originality, and integrity of voice. As Edward Said suggests, all forms of originality imply “loss, or else it would be repetition; or we can say that, insofar as it is apprehended as such, originality is the difference between primordial vacancy and temporary, sustained repetition” (133). To hear a recording of the master’s voice—to hear the voice of mastery—is to hear the same track again as a repetition that fragments the singularity of the original; indeed, following Walter Benjamin, in modern technocratic society, the more faithful the recording, the more the original is, paradoxically, re-presented or copied as it is transformed from original into simulation.2 Recorded and transcribed, the strikingly unique voice of Ella Fitzgerald is converted into a commodity that everyone can own and replay at will.

These remarks on the replication of voice (and in a technocratic society “voice” inevitably comes to us in the form of replication) suggest the conflicted position of the so-called “speaking subject” in postmodern culture and in Gaddis’s novel where the “parent” organization of a fading financial empire is the “General Roll” corporation— originally, manufacturers of piano rolls for player pianos. There are several ways in which this contradictory position might be described. Translated from corporeal to legible terms, it is, for example, a commonplace of American creative writing programs to encourage neophytes to discover a unique, personal voice, yet it is easily perceivable that this illusory voice, even if it is found, can only be transmitted through the vehicle of the reproduction of the text—a text which, in “successful” creative writing programs, can be eminently transformed into a commodity. Adorno’s commentary on the speaking subject is pertinent to the contradictions...

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