Wolfgang Ernst
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Micro-drama / techno-trauma
Between theatre as cultural form and true media theatre

If we combine sound philology and the archival contextualisation of Beckett’s oeuvre within his contemporary media culture with a radically media-archaeological reading of the one-act drama Krapp’s Last Tape, we discover a different poetics emerging from within the media-technological sphere of magnetophony. My non-historicist reading of Krapp’s Last Tape understands the Beckett drama as an operational function of the epistemic challenge posed by the manipulations of tempor(e)alities by electro-acoustics around the 1950s/1960s. Not only is the configuration of a human protagonist (Krapp) and a high-technological device (the tape recorder) a microsocial configuration in the sense of Actor–Network Theory or an ensemble in Simondon’s sense, but the close coupling of the human and the machine on the stage requires a more rigorous analysis of the cognitive, affective, even traumatic irritations induced in humans by the signal transducing machine. This chapter zooms in on the media message of Krapp’s Last Tape, and its approach is inductive in two ways: on the one hand, electro-magnetic induction is the technological condition (the arché) of possibility of the phonographic drama at stake in Krapp’s Last Tape, and on the other hand, in the sense of idiographic identifications of the real media theatre.

Introducing Samuel Beckett's media theatre

A media archaeological investigation of sound recordings, including the challenge of their preservation and restoration, takes its departure from the technical conditions. It does so with a focus on the epistemological implications of what becomes of sound and speech once they can be technically addressed as signals. Very soon in such an analysis of the analogue and digital hardware and software tools used for sound recording, a sono-technical world of its own unfolds, to which cultural discourse is rather peripheral. A technology-oriented ontology grants media as artefacts a knowledge sphere of their own, which is suspended (at least momentarily, for an epoché) from phenomenological anthropocentrism. A radical media archaeological analysis bypasses studies which read dramas that involve media like Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape as symptoms of an aesthetic discourse. Rather, its investigation is immersed in the technical artefactuality itself, which is literally brought on stage, revealing its implicit techno-cultural knowledge.

In Peter Weibel's media art installation ichmasse-masseich (1977/78), three tape recorders are positioned in front of three corresponding human figures. Each time an endless tape loop passes the inductive coils of one of the tape recorders, the sound ‘me’ (‘ich’) is articulated. While the audience intuitively relates this expression to the human figures, in fact the reverse is true: it is the magnetophonic machine which is granted the capacity to articulate an ‘ego’; the 2012 re-installation for the ZKM Karlsruhe exhibition Sound Art actually bypassed the co-presence of human figures completely (Weibel, 1977/78). The question of what media studies can contribute to a proper understanding of dramatic intentions does not simply reduce twentieth-century theatre to functions of a technical a priori; rather, it understands such dramatisations from the point of view of the machine. For the historical approach, it takes sound philology and archival research to contextualise Beckett's oeuvre in its contemporary media culture. A radically media archaeological reading of Krapp's Last Tape, Beckett's one-act drama from 1958, discovers a different micro-dramatic emergence from within the media sphere of magnetophony – its technological ‘sonicity’.

Such a non-historicist reading of Krapp's Last Tape does not circle around the rigid denominator ‘Beckett’ and does not aim at reconstructing the idiosyncratic intentions of an individual author, but understands the play as an instantiation of the technological unconscious in culture. Different from physical objects investigated by natural sciences, even the most inhuman apparatus, such as the electronics of the tape recorder, is a cultural artefact, the result of techno-logical knowledge accumulated over centuries. The implicit knowledge and ‘message’ of a new technology express themselves, even involuntarily, the moment a human author makes use of its affordances.

What unfolds from the time-based techno-cultural unconscious is a fundamental techno-drama. When Krapp, after a moment of ‘musing’ in front of the tape recorder, tears out the tape spaghetti and throws it away, this techno-traumatic excess results from either positive or negative feedback in the coupling of human memory with machine storage (Kittler, 1991). In Krapp's Last Tape, the human character experiences the technically preserved voice of his former self. Already the Edison phonograph resulted in a shock within the cultural unconscious, since the ‘tone’ (including the voice) had previously been experienced – phonocentrically – as the most ephemeral and presence-dependent form of articulation of the individual self. All of a sudden, this very uniqueness could be technically repeated.

From the medium-specific operativity and technological Eigenzeit of the tape recorder stems a techno-traumatic affect. In terms of phenomenological experience, the iterability of the human voice enabled by recording media, even beyond the death of the body from which it issued, can be described as a shock. Such dramatic temporality originates from the medium itself as its real message (in McLuhan's sense), or more precisely, from the ‘real’ of the acoustic signal as a technological message which, in human cognition, is experienced mostly subliminally. In the case of Krapp's Last Tape, Krapp's disembodied vocal memory is dislocated from the symbolic regime (the traditional diary) into the voice-recording machine itself (the tape recorder), resulting in a techno-traumatic irritation.

There is a specific temporality to the human voice when recorded on magnetic tape. Electro-technological media inscribe the voice into cultural memory by means of signals instead of symbols. Whereas the alphabetic recording of speech loses the hic et nunc of the event (Peters, 2009, 35), technical voice recording preserves the presence-generating power of signal replay. The specific aesthetics of ‘aura’, as defined by Walter Benjamin (1969, 220–3), depends on the impression of its being present from a distance. When sonic articulations are echoed from a recording medium, technological tempaurality arises. From this perspective, the essential concerns in Krapp's Last Tape are the attempt to receive authentic remembrance from technical memory and the techno-trauma caused by the disembodied voice. Although non-human, the tape recorder is the second, and equally important, actor on stage. Therefore, Krapp's Last Tape counts as genuine media theatre. In technical terms, the co-presence of a human actor and a tape recorder is a loose coupling which constitutes a comprehensive system – a key concept of cybernetics, which was the dominant episteme of the epoch in which Beckett wrote his play.

This extends to the temporal dimension as well. Once humans are coupled to a signal storage and processing media interface, they become subjects to the temporalities of the apparatus. What happens when psychic ‘latency’ becomes magnet signal recording? Not only is the pairing of a human protagonist (Krapp) and a high-technology device (the tape recorder) a microsocial configuration in the sense of Actor–Network Theory or an ensemble in Gilbert Simondon's sense, but the close coupling of human and machine on stage asks for a more rigorous analysis of the cognitive, affective, even traumatic irritations induced in humans by the signal transducing machine.

Unlike the theatrical stage, which can only reveal the phenomenological effects induced by technologies, media theatre is not simply performed by human actors (like Krapp) enhanced by media. Rather, the real micro-drama unfolds within the circuitry such as the tape recorder and algorithmic technologies: signal transduction in analogue electronic media, and signal processing in digital media. This media-theatrical concept correlates with a different method of analysis. In contrast to the hermeneutic exegesis and ekphrasis of what has already been written by Beckett in his script, which aim to unfold its different layers of meaning, media archaeography identifies what escapes the script, assuming that the tape recorder knows more than its external author.

Krapp's Last Tape insistently unfolds the clash between the symbolic regime (language, writing, archival records) and the phono-technical real. Three kinds of agency are staged: human remembrance (Krapp), the symbolic memory order (the ledger as tape inventory) and signal storage technology (the tape recorder). The media-philological attention therefore reads Krapp's Last Tape as an operational function of the epistemic challenges and opportunities posed by electro-acoustic time axis manipulations in the 1950s and 1960s, while at the same time refusing to extend the terminology of literary genres to the analysis of magnetic voice recording. Anthropocentric discourse analyses oriented to cultural performance, however, tend to metaphorise human ‘memory’ in terms of specific storage technologies, describing the dramatisations of electronic recording such as Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape simply as discursive symptoms of technical ‘affordances’. Media archaeology more radically breaks out of the hermeneutic circle in favour of an analysis of the non-discursive techno-processual event itself: ‘Media phenomenologists […] analyze how phenomena in various media appear to the human cognitive apparatus, that is, to the mind and senses’ (Jakobsen, 2010, 141). While in the latter mode any ekphrasis of the magnetic tape factor in Krapp's Last Tape, or in William Burrough's novel The Ticket that Exploded, tends to re-humanise the techno-trauma by integrating it into the symbolic order of an anthropocentric narrative, media archaeography externalises the technological challenge.

Archival research can be helpful in explaining the context of such an operation. In 1956 Beckett was asked to write a radio play for the BBC, resulting in the broadcast of All That Fall in 1957. During the production, the BBC made available to Beckett a technology that was new at that time, the tape recorder, which allowed for acoustic monitoring and sonic control by playback. In terms of author-biographical narrative, this experience with functional dramaturgy resulted in Beckett's integration of a tape recorder in the subsequent play Krapp's Last Tape (Fuegi, 1991, 356). But instead of philologically reconstructing the steps and influences on Beckett which successively resulted in the play, a media archaeological analysis starts from the factuality of the actual human-machine symbiosis as the core (of the) drama and replaces the author-centred hermeneutics with a techno-logical analysis: what is the techno-epistemology that conditioned the possibility of Beckett being dramatically seduced by the affordance of a tape recorder?

Once the focus is on the techno-phonic (and techno-logic) medium message of Krapp's Last Tape, the analysis becomes inductive in the precise sense of electromagnetic induction, which is the very technological condition of possibility (the arché) of the drama unfolding in Krapp's Last Tape. It is the question of whether Krapp's voice, once transduced into magnetic latency, is still human that prompts us to attempt to define the qualities of real media theatre.

The untimeliness of Krapp's Last Tape

It has been frequently remarked in Beckett scholarship that in 1958 the technical temporality claimed in the play was an anachronism, since the suggested forty-five years of birthday tape recording by Krapp constitute a techno-historical impossibility, predating the actual development of the AEG tape recorder by decades. Therefore, it was appropriate for Beckett to diegetically place the play sometime ‘in the future’ (Beckett, 1965, 9). Such time-shifting is in fact the essence of spool-based tape recording and replay. But a different future had already arrived in 1958. To borrow a term from R. Murray Schafer, a radical ‘schizophonic’ rupture between the human and his or her voice occurred with the emergence of synthetic voices. While Beckett was still writing his drama Krapp's Last Tape, Bell Laboratories in the USA already experimented with the vo(co)der, with artificial speech synthesis. Besides, the arché-logos of magnetic voice recording actually dates back to 1900, when Valdemar Poulsen presented his telegraphone at the Paris World's Fair.

With Oberlin Smith's circuit diagram, magnetic recording, explicitly targeted at speech dictation in the office, and the telephone answering machine even co-originated (as an electric answer) with the Edison phonograph. At that moment, another media-epistemological gap opened up: while the phonographic groove visibly and haptically still comforts the human bias to integrate the technical recording into the familiar cultural techniques of writing (Adorno, 1984), the transduction of the acoustic voice into the subliminal electro-magnetic field does not reveal itself immediately to the human sensory apparatus any more.

Magnetic storage in latency poses a challenge to the familiar cultural concepts of memory and recall, confronting them with a radically non-human eventality of storage instead. Here, all metaphorical comparisons with Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu in literary studies fail. The communication and memory technologies employed in Beckett's various works do not simply function as ‘supplements’ and ‘prostheses’ of a reduced corporeal memory (Lommel, 2006, 81), nor do they simply represent its escalation, but emerge according to an autonomous – or more precisely, auto-poietic – techno-logic. Their circuitries and active electronics do not lend themselves to anthropological metaphors any more, especially when their signal transducing potentials are media-archaeologically recognised, instead of an attempt at cultural re-familiarisation.

The magnetisable tape originated in the 1920s, following experiments with metal dust filters for cigarette paper in early twentieth-century Dresden by Fritz Pfleumer, who actually called it ‘singing paper’. Poulsen's wire-spool based telegraphone, however, had already been presented at the 1900 Paris Exposition as a telephone call recording and answering machine. Further back, in 1820 Hans Christian Ørsted did not invent but rather discovered the electromagnetic effect. This paved the way for Michael Faraday's experiments with electromagnetic induction in 1831, which ultimately led to Oberlin Smith's design of an electromagnetic recording device almost contemporary with the Edison phonograph, and Poulsen's electromagnetic telegraphone in 1898. The magnetic wire-based telephonic voice recorder was not invented for autobiographical memory but for asynchronous communication in a delayed present. The point of transition from the present to the past is undefined. With its ‘rewind’ and ‘fast forward’ buttons as the very affordance of the reel-to-reel tape recorder, the option of time-shifting is already suggested. For circus artist Katja Nick the live magnetic recording on stage, after pressing the rewind button, served as a proof of her skill at backward speech (Nick, 1997). From a reverse perspective, this implies that Katja, when speaking backwards, was in a machine state herself. In an operative sense drama is related to the machine, in a performative sense it is related to bodies. These two relationships converge in a definition of media theatre as that which not only extends human performance with its spatial and temporal constraints to non-human tempor(e)alities but actually transcends it – as has already been expressed in Hugo Münsterberg's The Photoplay (1916), which contrasts the medium-specificity of cinematography with traditional theatrical presence.

Poulsen's original description of magnetic voice recording on steel wire spools deserves a close reading, since it is here that the real media-theatrical drama unfolds, already anticipating all subsequent cultural aestheticisations. The technical description is a literary genre in itself; archaeography discovers the technical essence and transforms it into verbal expression, from electro-mechanics or electronics into techno-lógos. When magnetising a wire with a passing electromagnet in the rhythm of the microphonically transduced alternating current of human speech, what remains on the wire is a kind of magnetic wave form, providing the ephemeral speech signal with endurance – ‘eine dem Gespräch entsprechende sinusoidale Permanenz’ (Poulsen, 1900, 755). The human voice is transformed into a non-human time signal or storage signal. In reverse replay, the technical system acts as a resonifier of the alternating current as known from telephony. The human mind attributes a communicative intention to vocal articulation, which is transduced into a signal apt for the storage channel, and the other way round. In the technical diagram of communication engineering, there is nothing human in the actual channel of signal transmission (Shannon and Weaver, 1949), in the essential medium event of sending / storing and receiving / replay.

The communicative relationship between Krapp as a character present on stage and his magnetophonic voice is telephonic, indeed; almost at the same time as Beckett was writing the play, a film version of Jean Cocteau's play La voix humaine put both human and telephone on stage (Campe, 1987). The wire recorder maintains a material (reverse) identity with telephony by wire; the very same wire serves as the channel of transmission and as a medium for suspended signal storage, while with Pfleumer's ‘singing paper’ the magnetic tape roll induces the scissor practice of cut-ups known from film editing.

Repetition and différance

In classical drama, presence rests upon two logocentric claims: ‘that it represents human beings with the actual bodies of other human beings, and that it represents spoken words with words spoken by those actual human beings’, while its ‘reliance on speech rather than on ‘dead’ writing gives it an immediacy which the novel […] can never match’ (Connor, 1988, 126). In Krapp's Last Tape, the very iterative possibilities brought about by the tape recorder undermine the phonocentric claim. Different from symbolically coded notation, magnetic recording operates on the level of the signal event, which is always a time-signal and thus a ‘temporal object’ in the phenomenological sense. In fact, it is concerned with ‘the acoustic materiality of the words themselves’ (127) – not as ‘words’, but as sound which can be spectrographically captured in its elementary frequency components, which constitutes a major difference from abstract alphabetic letters. There is no fusion of the written and the spoken, but rather an unbridgeable gap between symbol and signal. The ledger that Krapp consults in order to introduce a symbolic order into the continuous loops of the spools ‘forms an interesting counterpoint to the spoken voice that he hears on tape’ (130). Resulting in what Schaffer once termed ‘schizophonia’, the tape-recorded voice, in replay, dissociates Krapp from himself. A temporeal abyss opens up in the differential iteration.

The audio-visual difference

In Beckett's drama the magnetic tape reels still maintain an indexical, analogue relation to the biophonically recorded voices of the protagonist, who rewinds them on the occasion of each birthday. While the main (human) actor gets lost in the actual loops of his audiotaped autobiographical memories, the medium-specificity of Beckett's one-act drama depends on the audio tape recorder used for his diary-like voice recording, and not – as experimented with in a recent performance – for his video image recording. In 1958, when Krapp's Last Tape was first published, the American Ampex company had just begun to produce an apparatus for television image recording. Analogue video is a technical extension of magnetic sound recording. Would Beckett's drama have been written differently in the subsequent age of video tape recording, replacing audio with video, as actually performed in a production of the Schloss Neuhardenberg Foundation, premiered on 1 June 2007? 1

A television adaption of Krapp's Last Tape employs a flashback technique for the scene with the girl in the punt, while in a London production videotape and television screens were substituted for the audiotape and the single tape-recorder (Knowlson, 1976, 64). 2 From a media archaeological point of view (which is a process-oriented ontology of the internal technological event), however, what appears discontinuous for human audio-visual sensing are simply two emanations of the same technology. Video image recording was directly derived from the acoustic tape recorder; video artist Bill Viola actually defined the electronic (video/TV) image as an iconic sensation of implicitly ‘sonic’ one-line scanning (Viola, 1990). The Picturephone, as developed by Bell Laboratories after the Second World War, enabled both vocal and face-to-face immediacy over distance (Mills, 2012, 43). When the signal comes from a videotape, it ‘tunnels’ temporal distance as well – with no communicative feedback channel though.

Tape age(s): time, temperature, entropy

Krapp's Last Tape is a drama about ageing. With the constellation of a human actor versus technological agency on the stage, the drama of ageing is incorporated in two different kinds of bodies. In the play, there is a growing asymmetry between media time (the tapes which re-play Krapp's voice, invariant to temporal progression, whenever it is subjected to the magnetic recorder) and Krapp's biological existence, which is subject to ageing, that is: thermodynamic entropy.

The vacuum tube, especially in its specification as the triode, as an essential component in the electronics of the type of tape recorder which Beckett used in Krapp's Last Tape, once liberated electromagnetic media from the mechanical constraints of the Edison phonograph such as erasure; still, they are subject to decay over time themselves. As for digital technologies, their persistence against entropic time, their ahistoricity, is due to a different form of processing: while still working with signals (recording the physically real acoustic event), they are symbolically encoded and decoded as information in the mathematical and logical sense.

The magnetic tape is both subject and object of time-shifting. On the one hand, a voice recorded on tape does not age, resulting in a kind of temporal ekstasis, subverting the occidental phonocentric tradition. On the other hand, the tape itself is subject to ageing. In Beckett's drama, the tape serves as a material metaphor for a different media-induced temporality. ‘Metaphor’ is not to be taken metaphorically here in the rhetorical sense, but very literally as ‘signal transfer’. The technical signal is in principle (en arché) invariant to circumstantial change. Once recorded on a material storage medium, sound is trusted to a technical latency, waiting to be brought into acoustic existence again by either electromechanical or electronic signal transduction.

While Beckett in his corporeal uniqueness has entropically dissolved (like some of the actors who performed Krapp) and only symbolically survives as a set of alphabetically coded texts (his oeuvre), a tape recorder surviving from the original stage event (1958) can actually be re-enacted. Recorded as signals on tape, a ‘bodiless’ voice transcends textual historicity. Such tape voices are monolithically exempted from their organic and biographical context (Becker, 1998, 171). But what if the magnetic spool itself ages? Tape ageing expresses itself physically. When restoring tape recordings, binder hydrolysis or the ‘sticky-shed syndrome’ can cause playback problems associated with certain tape brands (Weiss, 2017, 150), contrary to the promise of eternity expressed, for example, in the trademark of the ‘Permaton’ spool:

A temporary remedy for the problem is to bake the affected tape in a scientific oven at a low temperature for a few hours. Once the tape has cooled for twenty-four hours following the baking process, the tape is able to be played without shedding for about a week before it reverts back to its sticky shed condition. The treatment provides a small window of time for the tape to be safely played for digitisation. (Weiss, 2017, 150)

How to re-enact Krapp's Last Tape today

As a very literal media archaeological challenge, there ‘remains’ the preservation of original reel-to-reel tape machines from previous performances of the drama for contemporary enactment. This challenge is also familiar from the preservation of early media art, such as Peter Weibel's installation ichmasse-masseich. Its re-installation in 2012 bypassed the human figures. It still featured authentic tape recorders and a tape loop, but the ‘ich’ emanated as digitised sound from offstage, emerging from a computational space rather than the electromagnetic sphere.

In Simon Emmerson's musical composition Spirit of ’76 (1976), a reel tape machine is used to create an accelerating tape delay; the effect is achieved by letting one of the two reel-tape machines drag an empty tape spool around on the performance floor. While the sonic effect of such a delay mechanism can easily be re-enacted with software emulations such as a Max/MSP patch, the theatrical effect of the sliding spool gets lost. 3

What really happens between the human voice and magnetophonic recording: media-theatrical research

Did Beckett care about the technical details of the tape recorder, or rather limit his poetic imagination to the resulting phenomena? Neglecting the function of Krapp's bananas in the play, media archaeology focuses instead on the microphone and the scene of the voice–tape coupling. The human voice creates vibrant pressure on the microphone membrane, which converts the acoustic wave into an electric signal by varying the magnetic field of an iron core wrapped around by a wire coil. In the tape recorder, the electromagnet receiving this fluctuating voltage magnetises the metal oxide particles glued to a celluloid band of tape. From that moment, the metal particles in their polarisation keep the alternating voltages of the sound signal and can be converted back (after electronic amplification) into acoustic waves emanating from the loudspeaker, without being erased themselves (like ephemeral spoken language). In sharp contrast to the invasive phonographic recording, this does not make an imprint on a material (Blom, 2016, 160); in addition, the magnetic tape is ‘biased’ with a high-frequency signal immediately before the actual low-frequency voice recording in order to improve the signal-to-noise ratio (dynamics) – which means that there is (implicit) ‘radio’ in magnetophonic audio recording.

Once coupled to such a signal recording and reproducing machine, a human becomes subject to inhuman media time. A machine like the tape recorder

with superior technicality is […] an open machine that also assumes humans as interpreters and organizers – this is what is called a ‘technical ensemble’. Humans may […] be mediators in a machine's effort to connect and in that sense become part of the machine's operations. (Blom, 2016, 26)

This is how Ina Blom paraphrases philosopher of technology Gilbert Simondon, whose Du mode d’existence des objets techniques was published in Paris by Aubier in 1958, 4 the very year of Krapp's Last Tape. Media archaeological research, which runs parallel to historical studies in the textual record archives, needs to know the machine behaviour of the apparatus Beckett actually experimented with and used in the world premiere of the play in 1958. When Krapp is handling the apparatus, it is its very resistance which reveals its technicity in the sense of Martin Heidegger's definition of technical failure. In moments of failure, the medium changes from its ‘ready-to-hand’ status into the ‘present-at-hand’ mode (Heidegger, 1993, 69) – which is called ‘carpentry’ in object-oriented media analysis (Bogost, 2012, 85–111).

Listening to the tape recorder with media-archaeological ears

Micro-temporal media archaeology, with its conceptualisations of non-human media, memory, time and sound objects, can be paired with object-oriented ontology and speculative realism indeed. Both methods experience (and experiment with) the various temporal processes unfolding within technology, letting media themselves become active archaeologists of epistemic insights.

What do human ears hear when they listen to a recording of a voice on tape? Is it the voice or the magnetised particles of the tape and the impact on the sound by the channel of storage or transmission, which alters the signal in nonlinear ways? The development of recording and reproduction technologies has always been media-phenomenally oriented towards the human ear as destination. In terms of Shannon's communication diagram though, the technical communication between sender (transducer or encoder) and receiver (demodulator/decoder) is an internal technical coupling in between, in the Eigenwelt cut off from the human or natural environment. Different from the human ear, which only reacts to acoustics, the electronic apparatus has a sense for implicit sonicity – just as in Benjamin's world the photographic camera eye has access to an ‘optical unconscious’ (Benjamin, 1969, 237), and like Dziga Vertov's concept of the cinematographic kinoki.

The tape machine itself does not care about acoustics; it is not interested in the coupling of electrical signals to vibrating sound waves in air. It cares about what magnetic coating the polyester tape consists of, the speed of the capstan drive, Dolby and DBX filter curves, and Resistor-Capacitor time-constants – a line of thinking that subscribes to the latest developments within object-oriented philosophy. Therefore, media archaeology investigates the notion of memory and time from the point of view of the tape recorder, in an attempt to locate its machine understanding, which opens the possibility of getting closer to the actual physical operational technology itself.

The tape is covered with domains of randomly oriented magnetic fields, but when the material gets magnetised by alternating currents the domains are swung from their randomly distributed positions into analogue wave forms. While Krapp's Last Tape focuses attention on the human idiosyncrasies and failures of memory and recall, since the presence of a human actor on stage attracts the phenomenal attention of the ‘audience’, the real techno-drama of forgetting happens within the tape recorder itself, where the effacement of magnetic memory is the basis for the recording. The first agency which the revolving tape meets is the erasure head with its function to eliminate all – intended or accidental – previous recordings; unless they are intentionally preserved, in a different circuitry, for palimpsestuous dubbing. Its capacity to manipulate auditory content electronically centres around its three tape heads (erasure, recording and playback), each containing an electromagnet having the ability to convert an electrical signal into a magnetic force that can be stored on the passing magnetic tape and, conversely, convert the magnetic content of the tape into electrical current. In most devices the recording and playback heads are combined into one, allowing for immediate auditory monitoring. While Beckett stages the drama of remembrance, forgetting and repetition as a symbolic mechanism, actual forgetting and recording take place within the tape recorder itself, in its magnetisation and erasure operations. Only such a tight coupling between a human voice and a sonic technology constitutes real media theatre; the micro-dramaturgies are governed by techno-logics itself, be it analogue electronics or digital algorithms.

The media archaeological moment is the transubstantiation of the voice in its becoming signals on magnetic tape. The media-epistemic ‘event’ is the moment of transduction, where the pick-up inductively follows the phonographic groove; the focus of media-archaeological investigation is thus the tempor(e)ality of operative media. No simple translation takes place here (like in language); rather, a transubstantiation from the mechanical movement of the record player (direct impression of sound waves) into electromagnetic signal latency. Immediate (sensual) sound thereby becomes simply a function of a manifold oscillating regime (even in the ‘reading’ of the optical laserdisc). Technical transduction converts acoustic waves into electric voltage, preserving a transitive relation in its magnetic storage, while digital sampling and quantising radically disrupt the physical signal, dividing it into informational bits which are then decoded: reading again.

One passage in Krapp's Last Tape remembers: ‘We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side’ (Beckett, 1965, 20). This poetic memory of Krapp on a boat with a woman, spoken and replayed as an auditory diary entry on magnetic tape, actually reflects the acoustic wave forms and the movement of the tape on spool – the way signal recording media challenge the human perception of movement and stillness, turning it upside down, transforming continuous movement into quantifiable frequencies (ever since chronophotography).

Techno-traumatic silence

The last remark in Beckett's script declares: ‘KRAPP motionless staring before him. The tape runs on in silence’ (Beckett, 1965, 20). This is the Bergsonian durée in its purest form, against which engineers developed the auto-stop. It coincides with a techno-dramatic silence expressed by the final remark (‘End of recording’) in the protocols of cockpit conversations preserved on the magnetic recording from the black box in aeroplane disasters, where one of the two components is the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) for all kinds of semantic and non-semantic speech and noise in the cabin, the other being the flight data recorder (FDR), which registers machine ‘communication’. In the USA since 1966, the doubly protected CVR black box contains a 30-minute magnetic tape loop, which erases itself after each turn. Both FDR and CVR are additionally equipped with a submarine ultrasonic sender, which, after a possible crash, emits signals for sixty days to facilitate location (MacPherson, 1998).

It was Beckett himself who introduced a dramatic change into his media scenario. At the very end of the 1969 Berlin Schiller Werkstatt production of Krapp's Last Tape (and subsequent productions),

[i]nstead of the curtain closing on a motionless Krapp, staring in front of him with the tape running on in silence, Beckett had both the stage and the cubby-hole lights fade [...] leaving only the ‘eye’ of the tape-recorder illuminated. This change, ‘originally an accident – heaven sent’ Beckett wrote, accentuates a theme and contributes to an effect that is fundamental to this play. (Knowlson, 1976, 55) 5

While literary scholars tend not to investigate the technical details much further, a media archaeological analysis pays full attention to them. The ‘eye’ is apparently the ‘magic eye’, the oscilloscope-like indicator of the signal dynamics. Apart from the mechanical input/output and winding knobs, this vacuum tube is the only point where the inner electronics of the machine pierces the black box, interfacing the outer and the inner world of media theatre, a metonymy of the theatre curtain itself opening and closing.

Loops, analogue and/or digital: Krapp's Last Tape and the Halteproblem

While the magnetic tape is meant for memory recording, its very spool-based time figure has an inherent ‘sense of ending’. Its loop structure is characteristic of the classic reel-to-reel magnetic tape. The final director's note in Beckett's play, ‘tape runs on in silence’ (Beckett, 1965, 20), refers to an endlessness which has been answered by technology by introducing the auto-stop mechanism at the end of a tape on spool.

In parallel (and contrast) to Krapp's Last Tape, there emerged a different halting problem as a nondiscursive, computational companion to Beckett's biographical drama. Alan Turing's algorithmic finite automaton, which became the model for digital computing, is also based on the (purely theoretical) assumption of an endless storage tape used for intermediary notation (Turing, 1937). One of the metamathematical challenges behind such a machine model of algorithmic computation was the Halteproblem: to find a logical procedure which can determine, given a program and an input to the program, whether the program will eventually halt when run with that input. The mechanism of the tape recorder induces Krapp to recover his past by temporal shifts, while allowing, thanks to its button-based forward and backward options, typewriter-like operations. These two movements fuse in the Turing machine. The ‘endless’ tape loop designed by Poulsen for his wire-based voice recorder was written and read by ‘writing’ and ‘reading’ magnets (Poulsen, 1900, 758, fig. 5), which prefigured the Turing machine. While Krapp got lost in magnetic tape loops, iterative procedures and fractal recursions have become the predominant chrono-tropes for computing time. To express it in pseudocode: ‘else loop forever’ (Anonymous).

With the digital audio tape (DAT) the magnetic tape becomes a hybrid: both analogue (spooling continuously) and digital (in its time-discrete recording of acoustic impulses representing digital samples). The use of ‘audio’ cassettes for data storage is not intended for human senses but for the ears of the machine; they became prominent for early home computing culture with the Datasette for the Commodore 64 computer (Bohlmann and McMurray, 2017, 20). While Beckett reduced magnetic recording to the human voice and kept the symbolic, alphanumeric regime apart in the ‘ledger’, the Z22 electronic computer developed by Konrad Zuse's company already used the rotating magnetic drum for data storage. Since the rotation frequency was still within what is technically defined as low-frequency band, engineers could even audify such ‘algorhythms’ experimentally (Myazaki, 2012), blending techno-mathematical algorithm with musical rhythm by directly connecting the magnetic drum to a loudspeaker. Behind Beckett's manifest theatrical application of electromagnetism, a different kind of media theatre emerged in the background, epistemologically bypassing the analogue time regime of the time axis manipulation of human voice by radically non-human, time-discrete data processing. ‘In the future’, as seen from 1958, Krapp's tape recorder will already have been outdated by the digital audio recorder.

When staged in the present age of ubiquitous computing, a reel-to-reel tape recorder appears ‘antiquated’ on the stage (Becker, 1998, 162). But the computer, with its computational experimentation in ‘poetic’ text generation by cybernetic informational aesthetics, was already contemporary with Krapp's Last Tape. Is there, in media archaeological terms, a technological anachronism in Beckett's drama regarding the change from analogue to digital media theatre? In the course of this change, magnetic tape loops were replaced by the algorithmic coding of the ‘if/then’ loop. Instead of the linear ‘rewind’ and ‘fast forward’, which depend on the materiality of the spool (Krapp's repeated outcry ‘Spoool’ makes him articulate the actual message of the medium of the tape recorder), these codes have non-linear addresses – a difference comparable to the rupture that happened between classic celluloid film editing and digital video cutting on the editing software AVID.

Beckett's logocentrism? Magnetophonic voice recording versus computational speech generation

What if, instead of tape loops containing analogue voice recording as in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, the speech unfolds from within computing in discrete Markov chains? Max Bense experimented with such techno-mathematical machine articulation in his radio play Der Monolog der Terry Jo (1969). In Beckett's radio play Embers (1959), the noise of breaking waves at the sea shore figures metonymically for language itself (Becker, 1998, 124–7). In true media theatre, it matters indeed whether the material noise of the magnetic tape can be heard as its medium message, quite independently of the anthropocentric focus of attention on the theatrical voice. Bense's radio play Der Monolog der Terry Jo, a contemporary experiment with stochastic analysis in cybernetic linguistics, is based on a seashore event as well. A girl, surviving a shipwreck, is found unconsciousness on the beach; in hospital, she starts to articulate an initially senseless, but then increasingly meaningful monologue retelling the trauma. In the spirit of informational aesthetics, Bense's radio play makes a non-human, bodiless voice speak: a vocoder sonifies a computer-generated text consisting of letters with random distribution, which increasingly become structured by ordering in Markov chains, forming almost semantic patterns (von Herrmann, 2009, 59–60).

Media archaeology is not just nostalgia for the electronic hardware of ‘dead media’ like obsolete tape recorders. It has a mathematical cutting edge as well. After Beckett, in his one-act piece, had dramatised the recursivity of language related to magnetic tape memory, he produced an equivalent to Bense's Der Monolog der Terry Jo, the short (non-)story Lessness, which can be deciphered (rather than hermeneutically ‘understood’) and decoded computer-philologically with mathematical methods. In 1971 the piece was adapted into a BBC radio play with human voices, somewhat reminiscent of George Perec's radio play Die Maschine, broadcast by the German Saarländischer Rundfunk in November 1968. And indeed, computational aesthetics is present in the techno-cultural subconscious of Lessness, even if not explicitly reflected by its author. In its aleatory permutation of lexical items, the compositional procedure of Lessness can be extended almost infinitely, which invites a probabilistic analysis of the text to detect if there is still a rule behind it. In the best sense of cybernetic aesthetics, an algorithm (written in FORTRAN) has been used to statistically segment the text and isolate its units. This computation took about thirty minutes on a Univac 1106 computer, and the result confirmed that the phrases in Beckett's piece are indeed distributed randomly (Coetzee, 1973). Regardless of any semantic content, the actual media-dramatic act here becomes the running time of the analysing program itself. Such technological self-expression unfolds from behind what has mostly been interpreted, in literary criticism, as a formal experiment.


1 With Josef Bierbichler as Krapp, under the direction of B. K. Tragelehn (Schaubühne Berlin).
2 The TV adaption was featured in the BBC2 programme Thirty Minute Theatre, broadcast on 29 November 1972, with Patrick Magee as Krapp, directed by Donald McWhinnie. The theatre production was staged in the Royal Court Theatre on 16 January 1973, under the direction of Anthony Page, with Albert Finney playing the part of Krapp.
3 As analysed by composer Sebastian Berweck in his dissertation ‘It Worked Yesterday: On (Re-)performing Electroacoustic Music’, submitted to the University of Huddersfield for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in August 2012.
4 I am referring here to the second edition of Simondon's book (1989, 12–16).
5 Knowlson is quoting from a personal letter Beckett sent to him on 18 May 1972.

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