Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 6, No. 1, 1992
Radio - Sound
Edited by Niall Lucy

Sound and speed in convocation: an analysis of The Listening Room programs on Paul Virilio

Rebecca Coyle

A two-part radio feature called Taken By Speed was broadcast on Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Radio's The Listening Room program in August 1989. It was produced by Virginia Madsen and explored some of the work and most significant contentions of French urbanist/writer Paul Virilio. In style, the Taken By Speed feature offers a fresh dimension to the arguments made in the works, Pure War (1983), Speed and Politics (1986), and The Aesthetics of Disappearance. In addition, it experiments with notions of postmodernism and with Virilio's concerns with speed and technology.

Before proceeding further, it is worth noting those arguments about whether or not it is possible to deconstruct media output such as radio programs as texts. Given the direction most radio has taken since the advent of television, that is, radio as time-keeper and domestic/workspace regulator, it is hardly surprising that individual radio programs are mostly considered merely parts of an endless flow of aural stimulation (Potts 27-9 and Schafer 19). Furthermore, the content of all broadcast material is related to the transitory nature of audio output (or screen images). These are usually heard or viewed in the same context only once. By contrast, the ability to read and re-read the printed word means that it is still accepted as the ultimate authoritative voice.

A further factor working against textual analysis of audio material lies in the difficulty with representing sound on the page. Textual analysis invariably involves illustrating points with examples. Yet if sound cannot be readily adapted to the page, then an analysis without examples is, at best, vague. Added to this is the more general problem of lack of awareness of sound and its position of lesser importance when compared with visual images and the printed word. Philip Tagg in "Music in Mass Media Studies" argues that, 'Our conceptual evaluation of the importance of non-verbal sound (including music) is totally out of line with the actual importance such sound is accorded through the real sonic practices of our culture' (107). There are several reasons for this, many of which Tagg outlines in his article, but a key one resides in the structure of the (English) language. Non-phonetic spellings in use today cannot cater for even nonstandard pronunciations, much less for the broad spectrum of non-verbal sounds. Radio makers, acoustic artists and soundtrack editors working with library sound effects experience this problem when trying to match sound to description. George Bernard Shaw in Pygmalion, with his representation from a particular class perspective of Eliza's speech and exclamations, touched on this.

Additionally, to deconstruct each sound with extraordinary spellings and detailed descriptions cannot represent the holistic experience of the combined sound and, indeed, the intellectual content of an aural work. As Tim Wilson points out in "Acoustic Architecture", 'the sound of a radio program is its content' . Furthermore, the human voice transmitted through what was once called "the ether" in some senses acquires a power beyond the disembodied voice. The potency of radio in the Twenties was seen to derive from the actual transmission of human voice. John Potts in Radio in Australia notes the connexions between commercial stations and Sir Ernest Fisk, a spiritualist, or A.E.Bennett, a Theosophist. 'Radio,' Potts says, 'enabled the human voice, God-like, to move in mysterious ways' (102). Any attempt to dissect and scrutinise radio is thus seen to deprive it of its particular aura. Perhaps one effective example of an attempt to represent complex sound on the page is in Max Atkinson's Our Masters' Voices. In this study, he discusses the use by Martin Luther King of particular speech patterns and milking audience participation and applause in his speeches (105-11). Similarly, Virilio's speaking style retains elements of a public speaking address form that harks back to this religious tradition. Take, for example, the close of Speed and Politics, a section scattered with emphatic points and phrases made in italics and concluding with a rousing summation: 'The violence of speed has become both the location and the law, the world's destiny and its destination' (151).

Such factors, rather than militating against a textual analysis of Taken By Speed, instead serve to emphasise the benefits of such an exercise. Much of the program deals with language and speech by figures of authority or "experts", by actors in a dramatic capacity, by the program presenter and by excerpts of archive news and current affairs footage. In addition, the complex textures used by the radio maker reflect, on one level, the nature of Paul Virilio's writing and the complexity of his thought processes represented there. Techniques used in the writing, such as the introduction of a concept which is expanded upon, explored from several different angles and interwoven into other concepts, leitmotivs appearing and reappearing, are also ploys used by the program-maker. As Virilio himself writes, 'I don't claim to define the situation. I try to reveal tendencies...' (Pure War 157).

As radio, Taken By Speed is markedly distinct from other output on the Australian airwaves, including most other programming by the ABC. Taken By Speed reflects the practice of encouraging experimentation in style, format and content that is the norm for The Listening Room. This program was first broadcast in January 1988 and has international recognition for its items by experimental musicians, storytellers, sound artists and radio drama producers around the world. The Listening Room (LRM) provides innovative material required on the ABC by the terms of its Charter. Yet, by virtue of the program's challenge to radio mores, it attracts criticism from conservative members within the institution. It is a program exploring ideas rather than recording and analysing events and information. It also attempts to perform those ideas rather than merely essaying them.

LRM producers have experimented with established radio practices related to structure, presentation, use of interview material, density, manipulation of sound and other radio program elements. The program 'assumes nothing is unchallengeable in production techniques or radio styles. It requires a new way of listening to radio and hence a new concept of the medium' (Coyle 24-25) . As a feature produced for The Listening Room, Taken By Speed is thus worthy of textual analysis. In addition, in its adherence to and development of LRM practices, Taken By Speed is an appropriate vehicle for an exploration of Virilio's ideas on speed and technology.

Taken by France

Taken By Speed was originally broadcast as part of a series by LRM called Crossings (in Space and Time). The feature's content obviously fitted into such a series, as Virilio's ideas revolve around time and space in terms of war, speed and technology. But perhaps LRM was also interested to broadcast a feature dealing with a theorist connected with the currently fashionable group of French postmodernists. Australian audiences, at one level, seem particularly attracted to French philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois Lyotard. This can be seen, for example, in the esteem they attract from the Australian journal Art and Text.

Concerns common to Baudrillard and Virilio centre around perceptions of an inevitable apocalypse and the symptoms of decay in present society. Paul Virilio has not attracted the same attention as his writing deals less directly with aesthetics (but see "Paul Virilio"). Sylvere Lotringer, editor of the New York-based publishing house, Semiotext(e), which has published and popularised much of the work of Baudrillard and Virilio, emphasises the distinct nature of Virilio's work in Taken By Speed. Playing an important part in the program as an interviewer, he describes Virilio's difference in Taken By Speed Part I (Part 7) by describing Baudrillard as a metaphysician, whereas Virilio is 'obsessed with politics, obsessed with war . ..' In addition, in contrast to Baudrillard's wider popularisation, Virilio's ideas have, to date, largely been taken up by a limited circle of academics and those in and around an inner city art/cultural clique. This contrasts with his more frequent presence and broader media profile on European television. At this point, it is worth noting that analyses of postmodernism and French writer/theorists' works by Australian cultural studies academics were published and discussed in conferences well before such recognition in other Anglophone centres. The esteem for French postmodern writers felt by many Australians is expressed in the respectful awe heard in the voices of Taken By Speed producer Virginia Madsen and translator/radio artist Kaye Mortley.

Part of the reason for certain Australians' interest/obsession with European culture is to do with our oft-mentioned "cultural cringe" that we suffer as a "new" white culture. This contributes to the Australian drive to develop so-called "high" cultural activities that will be respected internationally, such as opera, ballet and fine art. Programming on the ABC's Radio National and FM networks constantly reminds us of the Reithian inheritance from the British Broadcasting Corporation, striving to educate, inform and enlighten the "listeners-in". Such education is automatically associated with the most conservative musics, drama, literature and representation of taste. In this way, apart from LRM and irregularly broadcast features on other programs, ABC Radio keeps sound exploration and examination of popular culture to a basic level, to a limit ironically as primary as A-B-C, as defined in the Charter. In addition, the cultural initiatives undertaken by public radio stations (and also, it should be noted, the ABC's 2JJ and JJJ stations) historically and currently, represent a challenge to the status quo and an attempt to create truly "independent" and "Australian" programming styles and broadcasting policies. Furthermore, for all that LRM contests accepted techniques of radio, and dares to broadcast sound art, the program still fits in with a certain ABC approach to audience, an assumption that one is talking to one's peers. Ultimately there is still an aura of gentility and a respectful air-space allowed for LRM's presentation of sound art, and this is perhaps most clearly represented in the measured tones of the program's presenter, Andrew McLellan.

Richard White, in his Inventing Australia, located Australian artists in the 1890s who, along with their rejection of British cultural establishment and Victorian era respectability, became decidedly francophile to the point where John Feltham changed his name to Jules Francois and George Lewis to Georges Louis (96-101). Today, a particular group of Australians enthusiastically devour European writing and values, and the art/theory periodicals and book distributor, Manic Exposeur, is a very successful business based, at least in part, on this wish to be 'closer to Europe'. It is therefore ironic that those factors Virilio discusses in his work - technology and speed - are precisely those that assist in bringing Australia closer to other cultural capitals, to create the Global Village or, perhaps more accurately, the Global Metropolis. To emphasise this aspect, Taken By Speed was originally broadcast as part of the Crossings series on LRM, and Part I is followed by Futurescan, a feature by Mary Ann Hamilton and Peter Giles that explores the wealth of communication systems crisscrossing the vast tracts of the Australian continent, from School of the Air radios to facsimile machines, in a desperate attempt to link communities and build a national identity.

Taken by Virilio

Paul Virilio is described in various ways in Taken By Speed: urbanist, town planner and architect, philosopher of speed, speed specialist, war specialist and strategist. This fits with his notion of the interconnectedness between people's roles, a quality linked to technology. Lotringer in Part I describes Virilio as a techno-humanist working in a 'delirium of interpretation but with a purpose.... If there may be some excess in his vision, this excess is productive of some sort of vision of possible alternatives or reappropriation of technology. This is what is most needed, even though no-one is doing it besides him at this point.' Madsen, in an interview with the author, relates her interest in Virilio to the commitment and energy he conveys and his persistent 'message'. Virilio, she says, 'reintroduces into the postmodern debate a kind of ethical urgency which I think was missing for a long time.'

In this way, while Virilio describes himself as an urban planner, he at times consciously takes on the role of a prophetic or even messianic figure. In Part 1, for instance, he refers to St. Paul as his namesake. Just as St. Paul says that 'the world is passing away', so, Virilio argues, the city, the presence of humans, politics and human values are disappearing. Just as Jesus was pre-figured and is still modelled as a charismatic 'fisher of men', so also Virilio strives to prevent men creating their own destruction:

Pure war no longer needs men, and that's why it's pure. It doesn't need the human war-machine, mobilized human forces ... I am against military intelligence, I am not against men of war ... my opposition to war is an opposition to the essence of war in technology, in society, in the philosophy of technology, etc ... not to men. (Pure War 171 and 178)

Virilio acknowledges that observers are often threatened by his interest in technology through war: 'war is generally considered a negative phenomenon, and technology a positive one. So to say that the positive phenomenon of technology came in large part from the arsenal and war economy is already hard for people to accept. They are forced to reject me. Thus I'm either grouped in with a mystifying, mystical logic - defrocked priest - or with a military logic - defrocked officer' (Pure War ~4). Nevertheless, it is this very technology that allows Virilio to 'preach' to a global congregation unified by an electronic 'church'. Speed and Politics demonstrates Virilio's in-depth knowledge of the operations of warmakers and the machinery of war. He was founding member of CIRPES, the Interdisciplinary Centre of Research on Peace and Strategic Studies and in 1975 wrote his book on Bunker archaeology.

In addition, Virilio refers to his Christian beliefs in relation to questions of immortality and denunciation of so-called Holy Wars (Pure War 50 and 133-34). In an ironic comment on such spiritual references, Taken By Speed uses sounds of a male choir in subtle refrains. Virilio's major point in relation to these beliefs and research is one of profound pacifism, and a pacifism more akin to the Mormons (who pay no taxes into the defence budget) than to the conscientious objectors of the major wars of this century: 'Pacifists today oppose the tendency toward war, in other words the war for preparation for war. Not a hypothetical war which could begin in France, China or elsewhere, but war as scientific and technological preparation' (Pure War 139).

Taken by speed space

Virilio contends that the city, politics, culture, human presences and values are disappearing due to the speed of life today. Lotringer's interpretation of Virilio's argument is that 'progress is bringing us to self-disappearance' (Part 1) . This acceleration of activity and decision-making and consumption of images and impressions is brought about by information, telecommunications and media technologies. While technology ostensibly provides a fuller life for us, yet it is also being used to build the global war machine. Weapons of war today are based on developing the speed of attack. Rather than opposing merely the build up of arms, Virilio attempts to alter our perceptions of speed: 'Politics is disappearing,' he says, 'because time is disappearing. We need time to make decisions. Technology is beginning to use such high speeds that it is going faster than the capacities of human beings to make decisions along with them' (Part I).

This is where Virilio claims to differ from Baudrillard, who argues that trans-politics, or the adoption of key issues by political systems in countries around the world, is a positive tendency. For Virilio, it is 'the beginning of the end[;] ...non-development is at the very centre of trans-politics' because it means the breakdown of political strategies for the common good (Pure War 93-94). Rather, globalisation of politics gears issues to a game of cat and mouse between international powers. Trans-politics 'is the contamination of traditional political thought by military thought ... It's not postpolitics, it's not the end of politics, it is its contamination. It's completely negative. Trans-politics means no more politics at all' (Pure War). Virilio rejects the Marxism made familiar to him by his father's involvement with the PCF (Partie Communiste Francaise) and its idolisation of Stalin. Instead he looks to popularly discredited schools and those who explored speed: Filippo Marinetti and the Italian Futurists with their 'political vision of speed' and Marshall McLuhan with his notion of how communications were changing the speed of information exchange.

The Futurists in the early part of this century are seen to have 'replaced the goddess Reason by "the new religion of speed", the emanation of the expanding cosmos of the industrial city. In works and actions, the Futurist artist was to accelerate the course of history by promoting society's integration of the new aesthetic and political values inherent in urban, technological civilization' (Lista 5). Later, in the Sixties, McLuhan wrote that, 'At no period in human culture have men understood the psychic mechanisms involved in invention and technology. Today it is the instant speed of electric information that, for the first time, permits easy recognition of the patterns and the formal contours of change and development. The entire world, past and present, now reveals itself to us like a growing plant in an enormously accelerated movie. Electric speed is synonymous with light and with the understanding of causes' (375).

Although the acceleration of information exchange has been brought about by technological innovations in information gathering and data recording media, Virilio argues against technology as the producer of speed. Certainly, it is widely acknowledged that those technologies seen to be useful to the military are rapidly developed with significant financial support for research and development. Peter Lewis and Corinne Pearlman analyse the way that the Navy, in particular, was integral to the development of early radio broadcasting technology in their Media and Power: From Marconi to Murdoch: 'The speed of the battle had now overtaken the ability to communicate. Ships' deployment and effectiveness were limited to the extent to which visible signals could be passed between them and between the fleet and the shore' (25). Today, civilians can only be involved in war as consumers of media messages about it. The tabloid coverage of the Falklands war was an interesting example of this and has been well documented. However, as Robert Harris concludes:

The instinctive secrecy of the military and the Civil Service; the prostitution and hysteria of sections of the press; the lies, the misinformation, the manipulation of public opinion by the authorities; the political intimidation of broadcasters; the ready connivance of the media at their own distortion ... all these occur as much in normal peace time in Britain as in war. (151)

But Virilio contends that, 'Today the military knows all about civilians, but civilians know nothing about the military' (Pure War 108). This is an theme developed in Virilio's writings on the aesthetics of disappearance. In Pure War, for instance, he states that, 'From now on power is in disappearance: under the sea with nuclear submarines, in the air with U-2's, spy-planes, or still higher with satellites and the space shuttle ...' (148). These notions were forcefully represented with the use of guided missiles, instrument-guided aircraft and other technologically advanced equipment used in the Gulf War. On the level of cultural awareness and grassroots political power, a similar sort of disappearance occurs through mystifying language. Radio producer, Amanda Stewart's Atomic Language program broadcast on ABC Radio in 1985 claimed that, 'A specialised language for speaking about nuclear weapons has developed over the past forty years.

There are new names and terms, preferred grammatical constructions but, most of all, there is a revival of the old. A series of particular myths, metaphors and cliches continue to invite The Bomb into our "common sense"'. Despite claims that the Cold War is over, such language still flourishes, as we've recently heard in media coverage of the Gulf crisis.

The Italian Autonomists active in the Sixties and Seventies worked against this sort of mass manipulation with acts designed to encourage 'mobility, nomadic work and social fluidity which in tum prepare the ground for renewed political struggles' (Lotringer and Marazzi 10). Some of their most potent acts involved establishing and maintaining alternative media systems, particularly the free radios, that would keep those workers involved in struggles on the streets and in the factories informed of Movement activities. Radio Alice, based in Bologna, was one of the most well-known free radios (Malina and Collective A/Traverso). But, despite its achievements, Virilio argues that free radios 'have the equipment but don't know what to do with it once on air' (Pure War 78). Whereas the writings of both the Futurists and McLuhan reflected an awe of technology as a means of enhancing speed, Virilio sees that our lack of understanding of the real implications of technology is damaging: 'no more illusions about technology. We do not control what we produce. Knowing how to do it doesn't mean we know what we produce' (Pure War 63). Virilio argues that, 'The problem is not to use technology but to realise that one is used by it' (Part I).

Media like television and cinema represent, to Virilio, the ways that technology can be used without regard to what is being produced. His analyses of these media are linked to his notions of speed and his concept of 'picnolepsy' (a derivative of the Greek word 'picnos' meaning frequent) signifying 'little breaks', the montage of fragments common to our time. In contrast to Einstein's notion of space-time, Virilio offers his theory of 'space-speed', pointing out that the ultimate space of speed is that of light - the speed of light. Currently, light rules our computers, media information technology and weaponry and gives them an immateriality, linked in people's minds to unreality.

Most of Virilio's theories on the media relate to visual images: 'From now on everything passes through the image. The image had priority over the thing, the object, and sometimes even the physically-present being... Therefore the image is invasive and ubiquitous. Its role is not to be in the domain of art, the military domain or the technical domain, it is to be everywhere, to be reality. The new generation of the real' ("Virilio" 7). However, Potts has related Virilio's notion of picnolepsy to radio programming, arguing that units of (commercial) radio, such as news and ads, are 'stitched together into a flow which is in effect a continual interruption of one short item by another' (37). Madsen argues that her style of radio making and The Listening Room program on ABC Radio breaks away from this mould and starts with questions rather than answers: 'We don't put words into people's mouths. We try to actively involve the listener, to encourage them to interact with us. Radio makes direct contact from ear to brain' (Coyle 25).

Radio speed

All radio is about time and speed to some extent in that we hear radio in time and once an item has passed by us, it cannot then be retrieved. Radio programming is regulated by time and thus provides a timing device for listeners. In addition, for those who listen to radio while driving in their car or commuting, radio may be strongly linked to speed and speed-space in a physical manifestation of this time relationship. Insofar as radio is produced to deadlines, its production is also about time. Speed and time are integrally connected. Radio producers are subject to the same pressures of time as other media journalists. These include whether a story is considered current, that is, still relevant in the light of present factors, opinion and interest; whether the story can be produced and aired before a competing broadcaster; whether the item can be produced to deadline (to speed). Deadlines, in the case of ABC Radio producers, are imposed by the amount of studio access that can be allotted to a program, by the technician time available and by the designated duration for the item. While the impositions on producers of LRM differ from those on, for instance, news journalists, these factors nevertheless informed and structured Taken By Speed.

In addition, Taken By Speed uses a particularly dense style of radio making that in some ways mimics Virilio's own writing style but also, in itself, represents speed. Short grabs of recorded interview are followed by an announced title, or by an excerpt of the travellers' narrative, readings or sound effects. Taken By Speed is a complex mesh of strands and thematic material and includes a wealth of material. These comprise the interview excerpts by Virilio in French and the English translations by Kaye Mortley from Paris; the slightly distanced-sounding comments by Sylvere Lotringer in New York; Madsen's own directions, questions and organisational commentary from the Sydney studio; program signposting and announced titles by various voices; excerpts of the narrative of the travellers and the exploring children; readings about travel, speed, etc; archive actuality from news reports and interview material; sound effects and location recordings of footsteps, breathing, traffic, trains, planes and racing cars; actuality from space rocket intercom systems, computer and other advanced technology hard and software; snippets of music, and many other subtle and tiny inserts of audio material.

While the sounds combine to provide stimulating aural triggers, each also seems to have a function related to the ideas and content of Virilio's writing. The diversity of sounds also reflect the broad range of concepts covered in the work. The monitor blips and keyboard sounds easily stand for technology; there are plenty of military sound effects to represent war; the racing cars add to the overall impression of speed; the hum of traffic occasionally running behind other content stands for the city and Virilio's notion of metropolises being taken over by technology; and the museum of accidents is characterised by crashes and news reports. In addition, the unintended yet undeniably present hiss and crackle of the satellite linkline to New York and Paris seems to stand for the brittleness of transpolitical transactions and the activity of electric bodies, a sound that may well inspire technophobia. Rudolf Arnheim has written of sound experiences in 'The Imagery of the Ear': 'We learn about the objects in the world around us through our senses. The senses, however, do not give us the objects themselves, but only let us feel the effects of a few of their properties' (21).

Madsen's sounds are often used to reinforce, replace, complement or absorb much of the adjacent language. As such, there is nothing unusual or new about this use of sounds. Andrew Crissell in Understanding Radio points out that it is the connexion of sounds with voice material that provides a meaningful dimension to the sounds and, indeed, brings nuances of the language to life: 'however carefully selected and 'realistic' the sounds may be, the listener may still be unclear as to what aspect of reality they are meant to convey' (50). Nevertheless, Madsen subverts this standard radio-maker's technique by using a many-layered approach to sound and by not attempting to locate the sounds in a realistic context. Instead, the wash of sounds is used to convey an impression of speed, technology, war and accident. In Part 1, for instance, a diary excerpt about a train journey is located within a bed of rhythmic rattling train sounds and is followed by references to 'dromoscopy - the scope of speed'. This is not an attempt at realist radio drama or documentary; Madsen does not obscure her editorial role in the interpretation of the content, nor in manipulating the listener's emotions with sound. The sound of wind, for instance, is used to aurally 'chill' us before and during the message from Virilio asking why we have 'invented techno-sciences which eliminate man', before the countdown is repeated and the program continues.

While such analysis may be useful and interesting as an academic exercise, the dense content of Taken By Speed leads one to question how much of this is accessible to the listener, given that so many layers of sound are mostly only heard once at the initial broadcast. Thus, the program could be labelled mere background sound, or radio to listen to while doing something else (albeit for a cultural elite). But this in itself has another dimension In some ways, the program's style could be visually equated with Andy Warhol's decoration of the BMW M1 "supercar" presented at the Art Cars exhibit at the Powerhouse Museum in 1989. The images on the car's paintwork are blurred, the bold blocks of colour are undefined shapes that merge into each other. This decoration is meant to represent our vision of the landscape and cityscape as we pass through it at high speed.

To a certain extent, this is the effect deliberately attempted in LRM programs. Producer Robyn Ravlich has said that team members 'try to be ... tantalising, to draw people into something they think they're not interested in. People drift with us. We don't ask people to critically listen but to experience it. We're concerned with the sensuousness of the medium. Given that it can be a pleasure to listen, we try to think more about the pleasure than constructing critical essays' (Coyle 24). In relation to Taken By Speed, Madsen argues that, 'the idea is not that people listen to the whole thing and come to a conclusion, or follow it through like a traditional documentary. My programs are designed so that [the listener] can move in and out.' She assists this use of Taken By Speed by using a non-linear structure. While elements of story-telling are used in the works, they do not proceed directly through an exposition, development and resolution format. Madsen says that 'the creative process is to do with interrupting the flow, not allowing it to be automatic.' This is not unique to Madsen's work but is a feature of much of LRM output. Programs are developed in stages and major points and stresses are assisted by the use of repetition, recapitulation and audio signposts.

Stresses and pauses

Taken By Speed uses various techniques to reinforce points, allow pauses and offer breathing spaces in a heavily talk-oriented feature. Virilio's rapid speech was slowed down by the English translations. Kaye Mortley's speech style in her translations and her vocal quality provide a contrasting rhythm and texture. Her voice is soft, breathy and sinuously female compared with the urgent pace of Virilio's speech. She has a pensive reflective style that is different to Virilio's somewhat impatient tones, and highlighted when she has difficulty with an occasional French word or phrase. The inclusion of the translations was important to Madsen who believes that mostly only a token effort is made to include original non-English words in radio, as if the listener will become impatient with foreign languages and switch off, literally or metaphorically. This attitude commonly results in the original language interview being faded down under the English translation or the translation being used by itself. In contrast Madsen's deliberate incorporation of Virilio's French represents her interest in 'the dynamics between languages, between mediums.'

Talk has always been a significant aspect of radio but the use of foreign language material has often caused discomfort in those who are designated to be broadcasting's minders. In Australia, an early experiment in access radio, station 3ZZ established in Melbourne in 1974, was short-lived. Now foreign language broadcasting is restricted to the often middle-of-the-road Special Broadcasting Service radio stations and to public radio stations whose broadcasting effectiveness is hampered by limited funding and resources. In Britain in the Eighties, unlicensed broadcasters flourished in major urban centres (as well as on ships transmitting from offshore) and, significantly, it was those stations broadcasting in languages other than English that were most frequently 'busted' by Department of Trade and Industry officials who, not being able to understand what was being said automatically assumed that the content must be subversive or an incitement to disruptive activity.

The importance of language on radio has been written about by the Autonomists who were connected with Radio Alice in Bologna. The Collective A/Traverso record the time after March 1977 when they were accused of broadcasting obscene language and remark that, 'Language when it is freed from the sublimations which reduce it to the code and makes desire and the body speak, is obscene' (130). (The definition of the word 'obscene' here can be taken literally rather than colloquially to mean 'indecent, esp. grossly or repulsively so; lewd' (Sykes 753)). The Collective continues with a definition of two forms of radio:

Radio for the participants or radio for the uncanny? In the first case the language is univocal: the announcer's, who announces that the event has happened. They talk about something which means something else and can therefore never be captured because it is over.... In this sense, attempts at imitation are pathetically ridiculous: dialects and accents are not tolerated. In the second case something continues to flee from language. This is manifest in outbursts of laughter, words in suspension, the word which cannot be found and which refuses to change into another one, stammering, silence. (131)

In Taken By Speed, added to the voices of Virilio, Mortley, steerage by Madsen and the excerpts of analysis and questions put to Virilio by Sylvere Lotringer in New York, are the slower interchanges between the travellers. These are recordings made by two children and their use is significant on various levels. While actors could have been used for these segments, the untrained voices of children provide an 'authentic' quality. This can be heard in, for example, very subtle nuances indicating that a script is being read and, after a vocal countdown and take off sounds made like children do in make believe storytelling, a tiny giggle. Despite their childlike performances, the children nevertheless have a significant role in conveying essential pointers in the radio text and a foil for simplistic readings of the concepts. Their narrative function as travellers points to Virilio's concerns with our continuous movement: 'When we know that every day there are over one hundred thousand people in the air, we can consider it a foreshadowing of future society: no longer a society of sedentarization, but one of passage ...' (Pure War 43).

Madsen's use of the children as travellers/explorers was inspired by Jules Verne, writing at the onset of what we now consider the Machine Age. His writing represents attitudes about technology that prevailed before our current concern with dematerialisation (despite the existence of radio, now taken for granted although itself one of the developments of that Machine Age). Madsen incorporates the awe of technology common in the early part of the century into the children's voices, for example, as they explore the Museum of Accidents in Taken By Speed Part II (Part I7). In the manner of pilgrimages once taken to view religious relics, the children make their discoveries in the Museum of Accidents. As such, they are explorers but also storytellers. They chance upon a designation of the Museum as: 'Founded 1992. As decreed by the people to have its aim to collect, categorise, define, and to display to the citizen all accidents, disasters, aberrations, mutations, melt-downs, power failures, computer shutdowns, viruses, severed limbs, artificial organs, skipped beats, slipped discs, slips of the tongue, sleights of hand, sunken continents, sunken ships, lost libraries, lost tongues, wreckages of machines, databanks, electronic wiring, accidental discoveries, redundancies, archaisms, space junk, hunks of meteors and asteroids, science fiction writers ...'.

The travellers are somewhat caricatured, as if taken from a comic-book, and naively question everything, as do children who ponder the most basic issues to do with self, growth and meaning. This ploy allows Madsen to connect the children's queries with Virilio's urgent plea for us to challenge the use of technology, to question the core of scientific research: 'We must land on the technological continent,' Virilio says, 'and stop believing it's a tool, an instrument for our use, which we can do with as we like' (Pure War 138). Yet Madsen also twists the established form represented in the children to raise complex ideas, to challenge political and individual obsessions with technology for its own sake. This technique reflects Madsen's interest in the Situationists and their attempts to raise questions and present new ways of seeing, just as Virilio suggests that '... technology is a riddle, so let's work on the riddle and stop working only on technology' (Pure War 63). Madsen plays on this reference to riddles by presenting the Oedipal metaphor for movement through life: 'What animal walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the morning?' (Part II)

Besides her unusual applications of language in the conventional forms of talk and drama, Madsen uses repetition of particular sounds or voices or phrases to provide an appropriate tempo and to reinforce points of significance. Footsteps in the Museum are followed by the children calling 'Over here, we're over here ...' providing almost literal signposts in an ironic play on the radio-maker's technique. Significant phrases or words such as 'dromoscopy - the scope of speed' are taken from Virilio's writing or from the interview excerpts and repeated by different voices. Madsen also breaks up the talk with sound running underneath and colliding with and complementing the words. Sound effects, for example of monitor blips, recur throughout the programs. But these are rarely heard in isolation from other sounds. There is a constant presence of machines and movement and these sounds serve to pile metaphor upon metaphor, image upon image. Madsen says that this technique is deliberate: 'I wanted to establish the words with the sounds, to stitch concepts in with the sounds. To me, the ideas are important and I wanted to give a sense of urgency with the use of all these sounds.' These assist in telling the story as much as do the archive excerpts, travellers and interview excerpts.

In addition to Madsen's use of sounds is the aural ambience of each voice used in a particular context to give it substance and meaning. The distancing of Lotringer's voice adds to his rather detached tone to give him the role of observer and analyst of the proceedings (the radio program production) and Virilio's writing, in the same way that he serves to formalise and categorise Virilio's thoughts in Pure War. A more deliberate location of voices in aural space is heard in the hollowness of the children's voices as they explore the Museum. Madsen manipulated this sound quality by recording the children in a particular studio and by researching the ambience she wanted on visits to numerous museums. Other audio location sound was gathered in a cathedral in Spain. This particular audio nuance could not have been created with sound manipulation equipment, as Madsen explains: 'I've used the church sounds from Spain ... because they have this resonance, the sound of stone. They echo in the chamber. You've already got a delay happening but it's in the architectural space.' In addition to these aural uses of particular spaces are numerous manipulations made through audio equipment to the voices and sounds, so that Taken By Speed is part technological "tricks" and part authentic aurality.

Insofar as Madsen uses a constant supply of sounds and movement in her radio textures, the Taken By Speed feature reflects Virilio's written text, labelled postmodern in style. His writing itself seems to echo his interpretation of current life: 'We're in the age of micro-narratives, the art of the fragment' (Pure War 35). He is aware of the effect of this writing style and, in Pure War, states that: 'I don't believe in explanations. I believe in suggestion, in the obvious quality of the implicit' (38). Madsen's radiomaking style, using fractured texts and many different voices, questions whether this could exemplify a form of postmodern radio. She argues that her use of old forms with new content, for example the cartoon-like characters of the travellers in a pastiched style, may be seen to duplicate a technique adopted in postmodern art. Yet while some of the sounds normally cut from radio texts are left in, the features still appear seamlessly edited rather than abruptly fractured. Insofar as radio-makers have been using all the aural arts featured in Taken By Speed - interviews, sounds, actuality, archive material and so on - it is not the actual sounds that might make it postmodern but the way the sounds are used.

In any case, in order to discuss a notion of postmodern radio, we must first have a model of 'modem' radio. This does not seem to have been presented (unless, in a sense, in the form of the utterances of Kurt Schwitters and others) as all sounds, regardless of their combination or manipulation, seem ultimately to reduce to acoustic phenomena. Perhaps the form of sound closest to a notion of postmodern aural art is in the digital, the reduction of physical vibrations to a binary code. Nevertheless, radio output fully utilising the difference between analogue and digital is not always evident to the listener. Martin Harrison attempts a description of the effect of digital production in "Sound Writing. Towards an acoustic poetry":

Sounds seem to locate themselves as star-points within the given acoustic dimensions of a sound-world. It is as if the words, or bits of them, flash on and off. Or as if like birds, they swoop and swerve around the ears. Like someone walking into a room full of holograms, the position of the listener/reader is material: it is physicalised to an extreme degree" (7).

However, just as Virilio's writing has an ethical edge over other postmodern philosophical musings, so Madsen's radio-making has a message to convey: 'There is a tension between the superficiality of postmodernity and the urgency of Virilio's address, his pushing forward to an end', and this in turn relates to another facet of the aural strategy used in Taken By Speed. The listener's awareness of the distance of Virilio and Mortley from Madsen in Sydney and Lotringer in New York is emphasised through references made to the satellite link-up technology being used. The connexion of the studios and calls across the "ether" are all heard in the finished program. These reminders of the technology involved in making the program are reinforced and ironically played upon in the satellite breakdown occurring in the last section of Part 1.

The accident and interruptions are discussed as key points in Virilio's arguments (Pure War 33-34) and they are exploited in many senses in Taken By Speed. Virilio himself occasionally uses linguistic interruptions to his own flow, saying, for example, 'I almost said ...' and so on, as if he is also occasionally a victim of speed like those he warns against. He talks of 'the violence of speed' referring to 'when speed goes beyond us' (Part 11) and links this to subliminal effects used to portray images occurring too fast for our consciousness to register their existence. Virilio warns that: 'There is a struggle.. .between metabolic speed, the speed of the living, and technological speed, the speed of death which already exists in cars, telephones, the media, missiles (Pure War 140-41). As Lotringer explains, all technology linked to speed has elements of the accident in it: 'We only embrace the exhilarating effect of a technology like speeding in a car. But we don't realise that technology brings a series of specific forms of accident for each innovation, that the accident itself is not outside of the innovation, but it is part of it' (Pure War 63). Ironically, a quirk in the translation of "speed" as a verb coincidentally gives its associated activity an illegal status, for example, "speeding" in a car or "speeding" on chemicals. For English speakers, then, this reinforces the moral tone of Virilio's arguments.

Such ideas about the integral relationship that technology has with accidents are reflected in recent news stories, for example, about jet aeroplanes involved in accidents because of incorrect information given by the controls. In some cases, pilots have been unable to detect real faults in the plane and rely on instruments that give wrong details and therefore crash. These points are also worked upon in the use of the Howard Hughes story in Part 11 and taken from Pure War: 'When you go too fast you are entirely stripped of yourself, you become totally alienated. There can be a dictatorship of movement.'

Part I also features a literal accident in the form of a break in the satellite link to Paris. This technical breakdown is exploited as an aesthetic tool to illustrate and 'break apart' the radio text. The accident thus takes on a contrived form as a structural tool, a metaphorical plaything and a concept for analysis. We hear the calls around the world; Madsen's voice asking 'Is everyone still there?... We have an interruption ...'. Just as Virilio claims to 'handle the breaks and the absences' (Pure War 39), in his writing and argues that we should focus on these interruptions, so the break in the broadcast is emphasised and discussed. Lotringer underscores Virilio's argument, saying that, 'The interruption is what allows us to see - when our eyes beat with our eyelashes.... Otherwise a continuum of perception would basically mean death' (Part 1). Ironically, radio as a medium operates by interruption in that the listener will find her/himself thinking about something other than what is being broadcast and often radio is consumed while listeners are involved in some other activity. Thus, the broadcast cannot be perceived in the old style of a "listening-in" but by the current formulation of "listening to". This has affected the radio medium itself in that broadcasters now feel the need to attract listeners' attention using various means.

Madsen suggests that Virilio's idea of the accident 'creates a possibility for humans to exist' because 'the accident is the point at which you stop. If we build into life stopping points, then we can see again.' Concerns over the physical breakdown of word processor operators, journalists and others working with computers, and consequent union action in the States, has meant that some computer software now provides enforced pauses for users. Similarly, in correspondence with Madsen since the broadcast of Taken By Speed, Virilio has written of those creating computer viruses as being the new avant-garde. Perhaps we can also see the growth in HIV, AIDS and ME - all resulting from deficiencies in the human immune system - as caused by 'accidents' after continued and problematic use of products of medical and manufacturing technology. For the sufferers, these human illnesses all create interruptions in previous lifestyles. Each person deals with the illness in a different way: some by severely moderating their behaviour and commitments, others by living extravagantly before they die. Madsen herself is currently suffering from ME and experiencing an enforced interruption to her life. Virilio refers to life in connexion with speed: 'being alive means to be lively, quick. Being lively means being-speed, being-quickness. Being-liveliness ' (Pure War 140-41). He also writes of death. Whereas many Christians adopt the attitude of the accidents and tragic happenings happening by and to humans as being 'God's will' and our culture generally downplays the importance of death, Virilio struggles to emphasise and thus warn us about accident, death and the consequences of war.

Conclusion: radio as convocation

A connexion maybe seen between Virilio's interest in the ultimate accident - death - and Madsen's use of what we may perceive to be the 'dead' voices on tape that are edited into Taken By Speed. Yet Madsen differentiates her radio-making from that of Gregory Whitehead who seems to dwell on the deadness of radio in the content of his broadcasts and in his radio-making philosophy. Part 11 was followed in the original broadcast on The Listening Room by Whitehead's Woundscape, which explores the changes in the city compared to wounds on the body. Whitehead writes that, 'my strengthening suspicion is that the life of radio is in fact an afterlife, that the [radio] cave is most vibrant when the air is most dead' (11). In contrast to this, Madsen reincarnates the disembodied voices and interview material fixed in time by creating a new work and placing the voices in a fantasy space of her design. Thus the material lives again in a new radio fiction. Furthermore, the voices are enlivened by her use of them dancing and moving within the enticing mix of the work. Taken By Speed uses rhythms, tones and textures that have strong connexions with music. Madsen likens the radio editing procedure to musical structuring and says that, 'The more you work with sound, the more you use it as your instrument.'

Madsen uses this instrument like Pan's flute to call the listener to the content of the program. She argues that within the transient passage of radio time, issues, ideas and sounds can stop people in their tracks to listen, in the same way that news items can call for attention. However, Madsen eschews realist radio and the standard journalist's ploy of 'getting the story out of the interviewee. I want the story to emerge but I'm also fascinated with constructing.' She sees radio as 'more like cinema and poetry than theatre.' In this way, she sees her radio productions as convocations and, as producer, herself as a medium bringing voices together: 'I see my work as being like a convocation. The voices on tape are dead in a sense but there's also a life in them that can be channelled, and that's what I'm doing with them.'

Virginia Madsen's Taken By Speed feature inspired further work on Virilio's ideas, one of which took the form of interactive theatre performances incorporating the radio interview tapes, playscripts and performance, sculpture, interactive installations, archive artefacts and sounds woven into an Open City production of Museum of Accidents. The 'Museum' was 'open' from September 26 to October 13 at The Performance Space in Sydney and from October 30 to November 91990 at The Back Space in Hobart. A public seminar called "Taken By Speed" and concerning "Accident - the hidden substance of technology" was held on October 6 that year. Speakers included representatives from the Civil Air Officers Association, Road Traffic Authority, Worksafe, the Department of Safety Science from the University of New South Wales and the Powerhouse Museum as well as Madsen herself. Virilio continues to explore his arguments around the accident in publications and on video, and the Taken By Speed feature has been broadcast on public radio stations around the States. As such, while the sounds of the initial radio broadcast may have long since faded, the ideas and concepts introduced in the work continue to resonate. It is Madsen's analysis and reinterpretation of the 'delirium of interpretation', which Lotringer claims identifies Virilio's work, that provides this resonance. On this level, it offers a justification for a feature which serves to examine the concepts but also mimic the style of Virilio's work. On another level, this perpetuating reverberation serves also to justify the textual analysis offered in this article. The resonance continues....


Thanks to Noel Sanders and Philip Hayward for comments on various drafts of this article.


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