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  • “How you call to me, call to me”: Hardy’s Self-remembering Syntax
  • A. J. Nickerson (bio)

“The phonograph, in one sense, knows more than we do ourselves. For it will retain a perfect mechanical memory of many things which we may forget, even though we have said them.”1

What should we make of Thomas Edison’s claim that “the phonograph . . . knows more”? Edison is hesitant, carefully delimiting his assertion to “one sense,” and cautiously non-committal, applying to an unarticulated consensus about what we ourselves know and so preserving the primacy of human knowledge. And yet his claim is bold: the phonograph will surpass humanity in its characteristic activity of knowing. The reality and tragedy of this is felt in the belated second clause of the second sentence—“even though we have said them.” The perfected “mechanical memory” overrules any authorial right to knowledge, intruding upon this most intimate relation of human identity, the self-reflexive knowing that constitutes the sense of self. This is what is at stake when Edison claims the “phonograph . . . knows more.” But he is careful to hedge his assertion round with qualifications to prevent this conclusion. It is hard to talk about what it means to “know”—we can only talk about it in “one sense” or the other—and it is particularly hard when knowledge is distanced from the human mind, retained within a “mechanical memory.”

It is this difficult distancing of knowledge from human consciousness and its inscription as material text that is the distinctive form nineteenth-century phonographic experiments give to epistemological questions. From Alexander Melville Bell’s Visible Speech, which graphically depicted sound in the human mouth, to Isaac Pitman’s phonographic shorthand, in which the “very sound of every word is made VISIBLE,” to Edison’s wax cylinders traced with the voices of Tennyson and Browning, these attempts to inscribe sound—to make voice occur outside of the body—were shadowed by questions about [End Page 1] knowing occurring outside the mind.2 For as fugitive, temporal, embodied utterances were given permanent, reproducible, graphic form as phonographic writing or recordings, so knowledge, expressed and witnessed to by words, seemed to become unmoored from human consciousness.

Phonographic inscription not only dislocates voice from the speaking body; it also transforms it. Words become grammalogues or needle-etchings, sound becomes visual notation. And this new material existence requires a new way of listening—a listening that begins with reading a text—interpreting grammalogues or running a needle across the cylinder. The transformation that accompanies dislocation similarly reformulates ideas about what knowledge is and how it might be known. Edison’s claim is that the phonograph “knows”—it does not merely possess “knowledge” but actively “knows,” cognition fully transposed from the human mind to the phonograph’s “mechanical memory.” But what does it mean for the phonograph “to know”? Can it still mean awareness of sensory impression, or perception of truth, or recognition of pattern, or acquaintance with a thing, or insight into oneself, or self-reflexive consciousness? Given the transformation that occurs in phonographic inscription, even the basic elements of human knowledge—consciousness, temporal sequencing, self-reflexivity, and so on—are open to transformation as phonographic technologies replicate and surpass our patterns of knowing.

Hardy’s well-known poem “The Voice” (1912) reverberates with the sound of these questions:

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me, Saying that now you are not as you were When you had changed from the one who was all to me, But as at first, when our day was fair.

(ll. 1–4)3

The disembodied voice (“Woman much missed”), the call that summons presence (“how you call to me, call to me / Saying”), the alteration of form when it becomes memory (“that now you are not as you were”), when it becomes inscribed as text—these questions can be heard here, echoing on the edges of the poem’s soundscape. But when I say that this poem reverberates with these questions, I mean precisely that: the form registers their presence and re-expresses it as internalised pattern, as vibration, instead of re-sounding them as verbal content. Phonography...


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