Julian Murphet
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Understanding Quad

The electronic interlaced raster scan that composes a televisual ‘image’ was relayed to the cathode ray beam via an analogue signal from the broadcast video source. That signal amounted to a set of instructions, telling the beam how to behave as it was pulled in a line, magnetically, across the back of the phosphor-treated CRT screen. These instructions worked, irrespective of the imaginary ‘content’ of the image temporarily formed thanks to phosphor persistence, moiré induction and retinal retention. They worked through an electronic arrangement of post-human speed and the inbuilt conservatism of the psychological apparatus; as McLuhan puts it, ‘The TV image offers some three million dots per second to the receiver. From these he accepts only a few dozen each instant, from which to make an image.’ Beckett’s Quad is still the most extraordinary work of art composed for the televisual medium, and the only major work for the ‘small screen’ written in an act of imaginative sympathy with the raster scan itself. This chapter looks deeper into the implications of Beckett’s intuitions with regard to the analogue electronic arts as arts of time set to the measure of inhuman speeds and rhythms.

‘Kindly tune accordingly’

(Beckett, Ghost Trio)

The twentieth-century humanities, where they tended toward theoretical sophistication, fell squarely under the influence of a certain theory (or theories) of the sign: the arbitrary relationship between the signifier and the signified, maintained via differentials spread throughout the linguistic structure. The irony built into this Saussurean linguistic turn – which only affected the social sciences and arts after 1950 – is that, at the very time the hypothesis was being hatched in the 1920s, the dominion of the sign over human affairs was already effectively over: ‘since the beginning of the century, when the electronic tube was developed by von Lieben in Germany and De Forest in California, it has been possible to amplify and transmit signals’ (Kittler, 1999, 2). With telegraphy and telephony established as routine point-to-point interactive media, radio spreading its immaterial web over entire continents, and television completing its long gestation, the sign had not exactly disappeared as the privileged vessel of communication so much as it had been radically repackaged and reformulated. For signs do not travel well or with the kind of celerity that was now essential to the effective running of international joint-stock companies, national governments or colonial administrations. To traverse the now enormous distances that capitalism had erected between the vital nodes of a new regime of accumulation – imperialism, monopoly capitalism – the sign was an insufficient and well-nigh redundant tool.

In its place – or, better, in its time – was put that new all-purpose semiotic instrument of the signal, which David Trotter has defined as ‘a sign equipped for distance’ (2020, 6). However, signals in the age of electromagnetic propagation are not exactly signs; rather, they are elaborate technical instructions, from one machine to another, whose purpose it is to convey a sign (a spoken or written word, an image, a moody chord) across space at speeds the human sensorium cannot even detect. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that a sign is not conveyed so much as it is broken down into a certain amount of ‘information’ (variations in electric currents or electromagnetic waves) that can be moved at near-light speeds along wires or through the air, to where a receiver equipped to interpret that information can then reconstitute it as something analogous to the original sign – a tinny ‘voice’ in a telephone earpiece, a printed message on a telegram, or a fuzzy tone in your radio speaker. It is determinately not the same sign that meets the ear or eye at the far end of this circuit, which entered it only moments before: it is a mechanical simulacrum of that originating sign (the handwritten script, the vocal presence, the acoustic vibrations of a strummed guitar), newly available for human consumption where the limitations of sense perception would once have rendered its reception impossible. The signal is what makes that spatio-temporal extension of the sign possible, but it is also what transforms it, from the inside out, into something else.

Not long ago, the only way to hear Beethoven's Eroica symphony was to purchase a ticket and participate in the curious ritual of a concert performance: ‘row upon row of people in formal clothing, seated without stirring within their armchairs, each seemingly without contact with his neighbours, yet at the same time strangely divorced from any immediate visual spectacle, the eyes occasionally closed as in powerful concentration’, and so on (Jameson, 1971, 12). If by the 1920s it began to be possible to hear this same performance in the comfort and anonymity of one's parlour – in the full knowledge that in parlours all across the country millions of other individuals were sharing, mediatedly, in the identical experience – then that is only because it was not the same at all; and the difference was radio, or, the complex signals that relayed the broken-down auditory ‘content’ of the concert performance from the studio to the broadcast tower to the network relay station to the domestic receiver. In such a momentous reconfiguration of the symphonic sign, in all its heteroclite complexity, it could safely be asked – as Adorno did –

Does a symphony played on the air remain a symphony? Are the changes it undergoes by wireless transmission merely slight and negligible modifications or do those changes affect the very essence of the music? Are not the stations in such a case bringing the masses in contact with something totally different from what it is supposed to be, and thus exercising an influence quite different from the one intended?

(Adorno, 2009, 135)

The medium is always the message: signals may masquerade their insensible machine-languages as so many passable ‘signs’ to human end-users, but those users are now hooked up to an apparatus whose code is inaccessible, whose speeds are imponderable, and whose social function is opaque to them. The result is that, where once the listener in a concert hall confronted music as a negotiated act of often confounding social symbolism, she now confronts it as an equivalent radio phenomenon, or a commodity. Signals, decomposing and recomposing signs in the medium of electromagnetic pulses, reinvent them in their image, without ever emerging into consciousness as such.

This is as true for humanistic critical comprehension as it is for unselfconscious cultural consumption. To the extent that the humanities were incubated under the nurturing regime of the sign (whose analytic method is hermeneutic or interpretive), they remain frankly incapable of cognising the signal (whose analytic method is functionalist), preferring that it should remain – just as it desires – out of sight and out of mind. If signals universalised cultural forms in the previous century, disseminating the kingdom of the sign far beyond its traditional boundaries (the walls of the museum, of the library, of the theatre or auditorium), and in the act made cultural criticism a central discourse of twentieth-century reflective utterance, then all of that was arguably a ruse of reason, allowing the regime of signals and signal processing to extend its dominion without check and without any serious critical attention. To this day, the number of cultural critics who can read a television signal or a radio signal, let alone a digital video signal, is so small as to be negligible; and it would be perfectly accurate to state that not humanists but engineers are the true bearers of cultural understanding today, as they have been for the last 100 years. ‘Engineers […] had been planning media links all along. Since everything from sound to light is a wave or a frequency in a quantifiable, non-human time, signal processing is independent of any one single medium’ (Kittler, 1999, 170–1); and independent, a fortiori, of signs and our obsession with their interpretation. Humanists miss the inner logic of our culture, fixated as we are on a death-mask of that last century – the nineteenth – for which the sign was still the salient operative unit.

What we most require, in that case, are artists who took signals seriously – who, by virtue of training or temperament or inclination, grasped that the truth of their work in the twentieth century lay not (or not only) in the elaborate semiology of their articulated sign-systems, but in the underlying processes that would convey those systems from A to B, in the material infrastructure of information itself, which is to say in signals and in signal processors. Fortunately, we know of at least one indisputable genius of the century of signals, who contrived work not only for the fading empire of signs (of the novel, and of the theatre, in their respective death throes), but composed directly for the newer media of signals, and undertook to conduct his aesthetic missions into enemy territory with immense perspicacity. His name was Samuel Beckett.

Table 9.1

Technical permutation schema of Beckett's works for television.

Work Year Prod. Colour Voice Music Shots / moves
Eh Joe 1965/6 BBC2 NO YES
F, separate from image, M.
NO 1
9 movements.
Ghost Trio 1975/7 BBC2 NO
‘None. All grey. Shades of grey.’
F, separate from image, M.
Beethoven's ‘Geistertrio’, played on cassette.
I: 13 + 4 moves
II: 1 + 4 moves
III: 15 + 5 moves
13 movements.
. . . but the clouds . . . 1976/7 BBC2 NO
Light grey. Dark grey. Black shadow.
M, separate in time from image, M & F.
NO 29
No movements.
Quad 1982 SDR + BBC2 I: YES
White. Yellow. Blue. Red.
‘No colour.’ White.]
4 distinct percussion parts, associated with 4 players.
No movements.
Nacht und Träume 1983 SDR NO
M, singing, humming, separate from image(s), M.
Schubert's ‘Nacht und Träume’.
[+1 superimposed]
No movements.

Table 9.1 shows some of the variables that ran throughout Beckett's work for television, over seventeen years. The tinted variables – the presence of colour, music and voice, and the number of shots and camera movements – seem to chart a logical territory specific to the medium, which it was arguably Beckett's intention to exhaust. There is a binary logic, an either/or approach on show here, as one progresses through the table. The given piece for TV will either use a voice, or not; if it does, it will be male or female; but it will always be more or less acousmetric, never belong, in time or in body, to the human figure or image that we see. The piece will either use music as an accompaniment to the image, or it will not; and if it does, it will not be simply non-diegetic – rather, it will emanate from or be motivated by, albeit cryptically, some element within the diegesis. The shots comprising each piece will either be multiple or singular; and each shot will either move, or not move.

Considering the distribution of those three variables alone – voice, music, shots – one perceives a permutational strategy at work. There is a permutation of <Voice, Music, single shot>; one of <Voice, no-Music, single shot>; one of <Voice, no-Music, multiple shot>; one of <Voice, Music, multiple shot>; and one of <no-Voice, Music, single shot>. There are other possible permutations not explored here, but if you rule out the apparently impermissible combination of no-Voice with no-Music, most of the available permutations are duly exhausted. It is clearly as if, at some stubbornly formal level, Beckett wished to subject television to its combinatory reduction as a material medium, with regard to its cinematography, its soundtrack, and its colour.

Colour is the variable I have not yet mentioned, though that is what I want to spend most of what follows discussing. There is only one, solitary YES in the colour column, and its situation amidst all those NOs suggests something truly exceptional about this work, Quadrat I, whose singularity in the canon has often been remarked, if rarely properly understood. It is, then, in the name of understanding Quadrat I & II, not as a work tethered to linguistic semiotics or a regime of the sign, but designed – indeed, engineered – for what Beckett called ‘TV technicalities’ (Beckett, 1998, 403), and specifically the technicalities of colour signal processing, that this chapter is offered. If Quad ‘flatly refuses to be complicit with the meaning-making enterprise’ (Herren, 2007, 136), and if we glimpse in it nothing like ‘Dasein's spatiality’ (Zarrinjooee and Yaghoobi, 2018, 47), then that is because it is complicit with something else altogether: the signal processing enterprise, which – despite Beckett's notable resistance (‘Television is beyond me’ [Beckett, 2016, 549], ‘I shall never write again for that medium’ [Beckett, 1998, 403]) – this work rejoins with considerable ingenuity and grace.

The option of a colour television signal had been available to Beckett since Ghost Trio (the first PAL colour transmissions were made in 1967 in the UK), which means that three out of the four TV productions that could have been mounted in colour were deliberately not – which is one reason why we read all that insistence in the teleplays on grey and black and white. Ghost Trio (like the film version of Not I) was indeed ‘printed in color, but before broadcast the decision to go with color had been dropped’ (Brater, 1985, 52); which suggests that there was felt to be some fundamental incompatibility between the work and the technical realities of colour broadcasting in the mid-1970s. A potential méconnaissance was rectified prior to transmission; the black-and-white signal rescued Ghost Trio from its unwonted subjection to the televisual tricolore. It is also the case that Nacht und Träume, not to mention Quadrat II itself, revert to greyscale and monochrome after the singular exception of Quadrat I – in a movement that I want partly to qualify under the rubric of ‘worsening’, but mostly as a function of signal compatibility. Above all, though, we must remark the extraordinary novelty, in Beckett's oeuvre, across all media, of those primary terms, ‘red’, ‘blue’ and ‘yellow’. Out of a universe of grey monochrome there suddenly erupts this vivid triangular bolt of chromo-luminescence, never to be glimpsed again.

David Cunningham has written at length on Beckett's campaign of ‘asceticism against colour’ (2005, 116), and Badiou's work on Beckett particularly remarks its prototypical greyness, its stubborn commitment to monochrome and ‘the dim’, sheltered from a world of spreading colours. Revealingly, for Badiou, this commitment to the grey-black and dim is indissociable from a corresponding fidelity to the project of ‘boring holes in language’, and specifically to a certain clearance of space, a ‘scene-setting’ for the subject oriented toward an impossible speech:

the dim – the grey-black that localises being – is ultimately nothing but an empty scene. To fill it, it is necessary to turn towards this irreducible region of existence constituted by speech – the third universal function of humanity, along with movement and immobility. But what is the being of speech, if it is not the speaking subject? It is therefore necessary that the subject literally twist towards its own utterance.

(Badiou, 2003, 54; emphasis in original)

Which is as much to say that, for Beckett, the grey is the last remaining space for a withered, vestigial humanist project: the scene of the subject's tortured assumption of that ‘universal function of humanity’ that is its inscription within the order of signs, within language and signification. The pointillist greyscale of Eh Joe, Ghost Trio, . . . but the clouds . . ., and Nacht und Träume, can all retrospectively be justified according to this criterion: that in them the subject speaks, or is spoken to, however brokenly. It is a law of Beckettian television that where the ‘grey-black localises being’ in a scene, there we shall hear the voice, male or female, speaking athwart the scanned moiré of the image-pattern, boring holes in it; and where there is colour, there shall be no voice at all, for in colour there is no residual subject to perforate or worsen. Language, in colour, is aesthetically unimaginable; as Quad cameraman Jim Lewis recalled of an on-set conversation with Beckett, ‘every word he used seemed to him to constitute a lie and […] music (in the sense of rhythm) and image were all that were left for him to create’ (qtd. in Haynes and Knowlson, 2003, 49). Quadrat II confirms through exception one's sense that Quad marks Beckett's fullest emancipation from those ‘function[s] of humanity’ that operate the regime of theatrical signs.

If Quad represents a determinate shift away from the qualified humanism of language, toward a radically posthumanist regime of the televisual signal, it is imperative to resist all the thematic lures that have entranced even the best of this play's readers. Be it Hans Hiebel's insistence that Quad concerns the ‘compulsive repetitions’ that fixate subjects in the orbit of the death drive (Hiebel, 1993, 341), Les Essif's intuition that the work engages some ‘essentially unstructured extension of the mind’ (Essif, 2001, 87), Mary Bryden's proposal of the teleplay as a peculiar instance of Cixous’ écriture feminine (Bryden, 1995, 113–20), Phyllis Carey's suggestion that Quad ‘dramatizes the rational and imaginative constructs humans have projected, which, in turn, have enslaved them’ (Carey, 1989, 146), Minako Okamuro's speculations about the work's debts to the Jungian mandala (Okamuro, 1997, 125–35), Herta Schmid's situation of the play ‘not in the outer world, but in the inner mind of the spectator’ (Schmid, 1988, 281), or even the ‘kinaesthetic’ reading of the affective intensities unleashed by Quad according to Hannah Simpson (2019, 132–48) – whatever the proposed ‘theme’ or schema, it is finally impossible to disagree that humanist interpretation seems ‘to lag behind the text [that it] is trying to interpret’ (Critchley, 1997, 141).

More satisfying are those efforts to think within the mathematical paradigm of this work, whose specific adjustment of the ‘Gray code: a cyclic ordering of the subsets of a 4-set’, has led some mathematicians to christen the resultant modification to it in Quad a ‘Beckett-Gray code’ (Cooke et al., 2016, 2; Sawada and Wong, 2007); something further developed by Conor Houghton in his highly inventive Quin – an extension of Beckett's original quadrangle into a more mathematically compelling pentangle (Houghton, 2013), and Carboni's emphasis on Quad's players as ‘subsets of an n-set arranged in a circular list, such that each one appears just once, two adjacent subsets differ by the inclusion or removal of just one element, and the only element that may be removed is the one that has been most present in the previous consecutive subsets’ (Carboni, 2007, 51). In a similar spirit, Baylee Brits claims that Quad ‘constructs a mathematized version of the unword, using numbers to exit not only the constraints of signification but also the constraints of a pre-scriptive choreography’ (Brits, 2017, 130); and Piotr Woycicki correlates the later Beckett's increasingly ‘mathematical aesthetic’ with an absolute reduction in the late plays’ ‘representational aspirations’ (Woycicki, 2012, 136).

However, what we most require is an approach to Quad that, while respecting this mathematical dimension, seeks to comprehend it as specifically applied to the medium of television itself. Doubtless, Beckett's ‘move towards the mass media is prompted by his keen awareness of their media make-up’ (Voigts-Virchow, 2001, 211), but that awareness was more than merely ‘keen’; it was intensive and mathematically precise, as befits media that channel their signifying processes through signal processors. Voigts-Virchow is thus right to insist that ‘Beckett's late TV plays address the ontology of TV images’ (211); a claim that echoes Steven Connor's assertion to the effect that, just as the TV image relies upon ‘the retinal persistence of the interrupted lines of light which shuttle back and forth across the screen’, so ‘Quad is made up from the repeated movements of the players’ (Connor, 1988, 72). And Elizabeth Klaver writes: ‘Writing across the screen, [the four players] outline for a brief moment the trace of their own progress in photons of light and replicate in the playing area the shape of the television set’ (1991, 374). While Daniel Albright aptly specifies how the ‘generation and passing away of line’, as ‘electrons trace paths boustrophedon across the inner surface of the screen’, speaks directly to Beckett's wish to ‘worsen’ and ‘unconstitute’ the new media imaginary (Albright, 2003, 137).

Yet all of these efforts, bar Voigts-Virchow's, sidestep the precise ‘TV technicality’ with which Beckett was wrestling in Quad, namely the signal processing dilemma associated with colour transmission. But Voigts-Virchow opts merely for an ‘aisthetic’ approach to Quad's colour, reducing its technical dimension to the chromatic sensations thrown off by Enzenberger's Nullmedium (Voigts-Virchow, 2001, 213). It is, rather, the suggestive path first trodden by Linda Ben-Zvi – in her McLuhanite assumption that ‘the low-density, blurred images’ of Beckett's black-and-white TV works ‘have a heightened power and involve viewers directly’ in their direct elevation of the medium to the message (Ben-Zvi 2006, 478) – that we must follow, on a different frequency, in the case of Quad.

‘As everyone knows’, writes an engineer, ‘the TV picture is formed through scanning line-by-line, field-by-field and frame-by-frame’ (Cheng, 1994, 135). But that scanning, its practical operation and the signal that informed it, went through a major transformation at the end of the 1960s. We approach here the problem of compatibility, the often-forgotten fact that television sets manufactured in the 1970s and 1980s could receive the new colour signals, but also the older black-and-white signals; and that colour TV signals had to be able to be received by older black-and-white as well as colour sets. So, every colour TV signal came packaged with its monochrome variant, and the same broadcast signal could be interpreted by both kinds of set differently:

Color-TV technology [was] faced with a difficult challenge at the time of its introduction into the consumer electronics market. While the technology was sufficiently developed, it was required that the new color broadcasting system be compatible with the old black-and-white system. That meant that the two additional color channels had to be efficiently compressed into the electromagnetic spectrum allocated for TV after the monochrome system had liberally exploited it, not anticipating color TV. The additional chromatic information had to be ‘tacked on’ to the black-white signal in a way that would not interfere with its reception in monochrome TV.

(Buchsbaum, 1987, 266)

In the days of monochrome analogue broadcasting, the spectrum of a TV signal on a standard 6 MHz channel looked like Figure 9.1.

Figure 9.1 The spectrum of a vestigial-sideband (VSB) monochrome television transmission. Source: http://what-when-how.com/display-interfaces/standards-for-analog-video-part-i-television-display-interfaces-part-1/ (accessed 23 September 2019)

There are two carrier signals, one for the video information at a frequency of 1.25 MHz, and one for the audio information at a frequency of 5.75 MHz. As with all analogue broadcast signals, however, those carrier frequencies had to be accompanied by sidebands – bands of frequencies on either side of the carrier, containing the necessary power for transmission, subject to the modulation process. The lower sideband of the video carrier was significantly truncated, to allow room for the remaining signal. The largest band of frequencies – the upper sideband, taking up almost 4.5 MHz – was reserved for the ‘luminance information’ of the video carrier. This broke down the video signal into specific values of luminance for the cathode ray beam as it scanned the lines on the back of the phosphorescent TV screen, every 64 microseconds. The frequency modulated audio subcarrier was squeezed in unceremoniously at the very upper end of the channel's bandwidth, its sidebands also highly compressed. A closer look at the luminance sideband shows a ‘picket-fence’ spectral structure, thanks to the raster scan transmission, which clusters components around multiples of the line rate, and then around multiples of the field rate.

Figure 9.2 Details of the spectral structure of a monochrome video signal. Source: http://what-when-how.com/display-interfaces/standards-for-analog-video-part-i-television-display-interfaces-part-1/ (accessed 23 September 2019)

Since the entire channel width was already occupied by this monochrome signal, the technical question was how to ‘add’ colour without losing the information necessary for a monochrome receiver to decode and operate it. The answer is typically discussed in terms of ‘tacking on’ the colour signal via a kind of ‘smuggling’ or ‘concealing within’. The health of the black-and-white TV industry, and the millions of sets already on the market, dictated that not only would the additional information required for the display of full-colour images have to be provided within the existing 6 MHz channel width, but it would have to be transmitted in such a way as not to interfere with the operation of existing black-and-white receivers (Zarach and Morris, 1979, 12). It was precisely in the ‘gaps’ left by the picket-fence spectral structure of the luminance signal that space was found to interleave chrominance information.

Figure 9.3 Through the selection of the colour subcarrier frequency and modulation method, the components of the colour information (‘chrominance’) are placed between the ‘pickets’ of the original monochrome transmission. Source: http://what-when-how.com/display-interfaces/standards-for-analog-video-part-i-television-display-interfaces-part-1/ (accessed 23 September 2019)

The subcarrier signal for chrominance was set at a frequency that was an odd multiple of one-half the line rate of the luminance signal – so the added components of colour information could be centred at frequencies between those of the luminance signal.

Another way of visualising this ingenious solution to the problem of packaging chrominance information within an already existing luminance sideband is in Figure 9.4.

Figure 9.4 Colour information in a subcarrier signal ‘concealed within’ the main picture signal. Source: https://antiqueradio.org/RCACT-100TelevisionDesign.htm (accessed 23 September 2019)

This was, in broad outline, how the problem of compatibility between monochrome and colour TV signals was solved: literally by interleaving the chroma sidebands into the 60 Hz gaps left between the frequency centres of the luminance carrier's upper sideband.

All of which begs the question of how colour information was encoded as a signal in the first place.

The solution for color coding in TV was to transform the color signals R[ed], G[reen], and B[lue] into a new set known as Y, I, and Q. Y is the luminance signal, designed to equal and be compatible with the old black-and-white signal; I and Q carry the color information and are known as chrominance signals. (Buchsbaum, 1987, 266; emphasis in original)

The process known as IQ modulation presented engineers with a very efficient way of transferring information of this sort: I representing the ‘in-phase’ component of the waveform, and Q standing for the quadrature component. In chrominance signals, which were the first to take advantage of this new kind of modulation, Q is an axis that stretches from Yellow-Green to Purple on the colour scale, while I straddles Cyan to Orange.

Figure 9.5 I-Q axes and the colour wheel. Source: https://antiqueradio.org/RCACT-100TelevisionDesign.htm#Three_Modulation_Methods (accessed 23 September 2019)

White stands at the dead centre of this circle, where the axes meet, and every other colour can be plotted around the circumference with exactitude. The angle of the chrominance signal, from 1 to 360 degrees, will determine the desired hue; while its length will decide its relative saturation – its distance from white as the negation of all colour. When this IQ signal modulation is combined with Y, the luminance signal (which determines how bright the electron beam is at any given point), we have a precise accounting of what colours appear where, at what level of saturation and brightness, on every pixel of the screen, at each refresh cycle.

The two signals, I and Q are expressed like this:

I = 0.596R – 0.275G – 0.321B

Q = 0.212R – 0.523G – 0.311B

These signal descriptions remind us that the TV transmitter and receiver could only modulate the colour signal using a tricolour system, the R-G-B triad (which is essentially Beckett's three colour ‘characters’ of red, yellow and blue); and the engineering genius that allows us to move from the I-Q pair to the R-G-B triad – that actually allows the tricolour chroma signal to be interleaved with the luma signal (or, Beckett's white player) – turns out to be a very fancy piece of higher mathematics. It is called ‘quadrature amplitude modulation’, and the subcarrier made from it is known as the ‘quadrature amplitude modulated subcarrier’. I cannot possibly do justice to the elegance of its equations, but here, for your edification, is what it looks like at the transmitting end:

where i 2 = −1, I(t) and Q(t) are the modulating signals, f 0 is the carrier frequency and Re{} is the real part.
And, in the ideal case, at the receiving end I(t) is demodulated by multiplying the transmitted signal with a cosine signal:

Using standard trigonometric identities, this can be written as:

Extraordinary ingenuity and logic had to be applied to make the colour IQ signal compatible with the monochrome Y (or luminance) signal, in order that we could receive colour images on colour sets, and black-and-white images on monochrome sets, from the same signal over the same channel. And I particularly want to remark that the name given to the technical solution to the problem of colour compatibility with monochrome sets – quadrature amplitude modulation – begins with the telling syllables: ‘quadrat’. As Baylee Brits has pointed out of the movements in Quad, ‘[i]f this is a choreography, it is a choreography that is palpably indistinguishable from the playing out of a code. The artistic appears reduced to the arch formality of mathematics’ (Brits, 2017, 127). What is more, those mathematics are specifically applied to a critical problem in the history of signal processing in the late twentieth century: the compatibility of two (actually, three, counting the audio signal) types of signal within the same channel.

Friedrich Kittler makes these pertinent observations about colour TV signals:

With 5 MHz bandwidth for luminance, only 1 MHz bandwidth for chrominance and in comparison an infinitesimally small bandwidth for the accompanying sound, the technicians […] just succeeded in compressing complete color television programs into a VHF or UHF channel. In contrast to radio signals, therefore, television signals never corresponded to analog vibrations, but rather they were extremely complex assemblages. Like a spelled-out sentence, they were composed of various different elements and they adhered to the appropriate rules of syntax; you could even say they had their own electronic punctuation marks, which naturally consisted of synchronization signals.

(Kittler, 2010, 220)

One of the things that Table 9.1 makes clear is how well Beckett understood the TV signal to be just such an ‘extremely complex assemblage’, obeying posthuman laws of syntax and grammar that the naked eye has no way of understanding. By delaminating image from sound, combining and recombining them, then decoupling them again, he showed how arbitrary and dissociated the relationship really was between the luminance of the screen and the weak FM signal for the accompanying sound (Murphet, 2009, 60–78). That he understood cameras as semi-autonomous agents in the video work was already apparent from Film, in 1964; but in the TV pieces, he showed a variable interest in that technological agency, accentuating it in some, but under-privileging it in others.

What now is clearer still is Beckett's grasp of the added, optional element of colour in television, and its ‘compatibility’ with monochrome signal information. Quad is many fascinating things, of course, but one of those things is a meditation on colour, not simply as a qualitative property, a sensation, or an affect, but as a set of variable relations governed by abstruse technical instructions; and also a kind of optional supplement to an image composed out of light by mechanically traversed horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. There is little doubt that the relationship between the text of Quad and the medium of television is more than just mimetic in this sense; it goes far deeper than that, extending to the crucial realisation that the script itself is not ‘adaptable’ in the usual sense, but amounts to a precise set of operational instructions for a TV production – it is in that sense more like a signal than a text. The quadrature amplitude modulated PAL colour bar signal, which Süddeutscher Rundfunk used to broadcast Quadrat I & II in 1981, looked like Figure 9.6 on a vector analyser screen. It is not a long way away from Beckett's own ‘quad’ colour bar signal, structured around the white spot or ‘danger zone’ where all colour dies.

Figure 9.6 Analogue QAM (quadrature amplitude modulated) measured PAL colour bar signal on a vector analyser screen. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PAL_colour_bar_signal_measured_vector_edit.svg (accessed 23 September 2019)

Figures 9.7 and 9.8 The players’ paths in Beckett's Quad. Source: Beckett (2006, 453) Note: In this monochrome representation of the players’ movement, light grey stands for yellow (A), black stands for red (B), white stands for white (C), and dark grey stands for blue (D).

What I am suggesting is that, more than anything else, Quadrat I functions as an allegory of the underlying technical matrix of its production, of the electromagnetic signals and electronic signal processing that made possible its transmission and reception as a ‘bundled’ amalgamation of chrominance and luminance information in the first place. The nature of the script – less a play text than a set of coded instructions – shows that the aesthetic burden of the work is placed squarely on the mathematically structured principles of its periodical sequencing; more than that, the obvious homologies between the movement of the players – their colour coding, horizontal, vertical and diagonal trajectories, the strict rhythmic pacing of their repetitions – and the movements of the three bundled R-B-G electron guns operating the IQ colour signal inside every colour TV set, makes clear a prodigious mimetic impulse behind the conception of this work for television – mimetic not of any human or subjective dimension, but of the very ‘TV technicalities’ of which Beckett had been so wary during his preparations for Quad. Still further, what we have seen is that Beckett's awareness of these ‘technicalities’ extended deeper into the very nature of the electromagnetic signals that conveyed this complex information from one machine to another, especially the highly ornate equations supporting the ‘quadrature amplitude modulated subcarrier’, after which Beckett might, very possibly, have named his enigmatic work.

What is most critical here is that this subcarrier, and the mathematics that made it possible, simultaneously made possible the separation and differentiation of the very signals that it compatibilised. Quadrature amplitude modulation allowed for the chrominance signal to be interleaved with the luminance signal, tessellating new IQ data with older Y information; but the underlying purpose of this tessellation was, of course, that the same signal could be decrypted in two different ways by two different kinds of receivers. A programme like Quad, broadcast in PAL colour, had its chrominance information read by colour sets, and ignored by black-and-white sets, resulting in two radically incommensurate sign systems for human end-users – both outcomes of the self-same signal. It is this ability of a single signal, thanks to ‘quad’ modulation, to yield one set of aesthetic properties here, and a very different one there, that ultimately led Beckett to conceive of his work in Quad as dialectically doubled within itself, as Quadrat I & II.

Perhaps the most revealing moment in the long, frustrating process of getting Quad on air happened when the head of production at SDR, Dr Müller-Freienfels, took Beckett home for dinner and told him how ‘impressive the piece looked in black and white’ (Knowlson, 1996, 592). Music to his ears, no doubt – this great artist who had so steadfastly avoided the affective pitfalls of ‘red, blue, yellow, green’ his entire working life, and with especial aversion over the previous decade. What this news taught him was the extraordinary fact that even here, where so much attention had been paid to the chrominance subcarrier, the image itself could always be ‘worsened’ by the simple fact of compatibility itself – the dominance of the luminance signal over the chrominance; the fact that every colour signal is concealed inside a monochrome one. Seeing was believing, and when he witnessed the evidence of the monochrome monitor, Beckett fell in quickly with the idea that SDR should broadcast two versions of Quad, one in colour, and one not. Only he took it further: demanding a new recording session the next day, using only white robes, at a much slower speed, and with all percussion removed (Knowlson, 1996, 593).

What Quadrat I & II together demonstrate is the logic of televisual compatibility exposed to an aesthetic of ‘worsening’. What we see is, first, an elaborate, energetic, ingenious, and for this artist utterly unique display of colour for its own sake, colour liberated from theme and content and genre, and given over in its pure form to the one medium, colour TV, that could truly do justice to it. Only, given the very structure of the medium in question, all that autonomous, dancing colour, is actually the result of a complex mathematical formulation – a quadrature amplitude modulated subcarrier signal – that allows it to be smuggled in the interstices of a much older monochrome signal. Quadrat II shows us that older signal, the monochrome luma carrier signal, in the troughs of whose frequency components the chrominance signal had been brilliantly interleaved – truly the dominant signal, carrying information over 5 MHz of the channel, as against the chroma signal's paltry 1 MHz. Only, now, all the fascination is gone, the hypnotic and tonal appeal of the first version gives way to exhaustion in the second. The former energy is subject to a certain entropy that lies at the heart of Beckett's aesthetic project. Which is why he appreciated this version so much more, declaring it set 10,000 years later, in a future of inevitable heat death and depletion. It is not the future of television, to be sure, which has more colours than ever, and is no longer reliant on the R-G-B electron gun, but the future of art, which in a world dominated by ubiquitous colour screens will need all the more urgently to protect itself against colour, and return, after this dangerous sortie into the lands of the enemy, into the testy negations of greyscale.

It was Perry Anderson who wrote that

if there is any single technological watershed of the postmodern, it lies with colour television. The machines pour out a torrent of images, with whose volume no art can compete. The decisive technical environment of the postmodern is constituted by this ‘Niagara of visual gabble’. The new apparatuses are perpetual emotion machines, transmitting discourses that are wall-to-wall ideology.

(Anderson, 1998, 89)

Beckett's Quad, produced just as Jameson and others were formulating their critiques of postmodernism, and on the heels of the elections of Thatcher and Reagan, is a contemporary critique offered from within the belly of the beast: a work for colour television that at once achieves an apotheosis of autonomous colour, in sync with the mechanisms and signals of the medium, and renounces it, in the same complex gesture. Beckett understands that there is no competing with colour television, only analysing and then worsening it, withdrawing from it tactically. In the deft modulation between Quadrat I and Quadrat II, the conditions are created for one final TV masterpiece, in studious monochrome, called Nacht und Träume – that astonishing meditation on care and kindness that only attains its power through the already achieved recantation of the solicitations of colour. But that is another story.

In the mature era of signal processing, what Beckett, forty-six years after writing it, called the existential ‘German bilge’ (Beckett, 2016, 578) of his famous letter to Axel Kaun assumes a far less pretentious, more pragmatic significance: ‘As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today’ (Beckett, 2009, 171–2). In Quadrat I & II, the author's most radical break with the regime of human language, we see that what ‘lurks behind’ that superannuated discourse network of the word is neither ‘something’ nor ‘nothing’, neither an absence nor a presence, but a code – a pervasive machine language whose function is to operate the luminance (and chrominance) of a differentiated array of television screens. What emerges is not a meaning, and certainly not a truth; indeed, it has nothing to do with the hermeneutic logic of the order of signs. It is, rather, the determinate effect of a set of lucid instructions that will function any time the technical conditions of analogue television transmission and reception are met. The teleplay, clearly, is not committed to the sign or composition of signs that it gives rise to. It is a complex suite of coded directions broadcast, today, into a digital night where even the memory of the cathode ray tube seems as distant and hypothetical as a blinked-out dead star. The power of the work consists for us in that radical historicity and the sudden absence of those ‘TV technicalities’ that were its infrastructural support in the real; for when there is nowhere on the face of the earth, or in the cosmos, where it can ever be played again, Quad's code assumes the melancholy gravity of a signal without a processor.

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