Issue 23 / 2014

Recorded or repressed? Towards the anthropology of the cassette tape

Dariusz Brzostek

I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in at the moment. I am listening to the tape hiss, waiting for the sounds, voices, music ? rhythms or melodies ? but nothing is coming. Nothing is coming but the tape hiss. I am starting to dream, trying to imagine the sounds, voices, music ? rhythms or melodies ? against the tape hiss. But it never ends. It never ends, because I am listening to a tape loop, which has no end, still coming back and so on, and so on, and so on? This hiss will accompany me until the hiss of my last breath or until the hum of the total destruction of the tape?

It is of course all about memory. Memory, sound, and cognition ? or, to be exact, the knowledge gained through the contact with the Other (even if that Other is myself from years, months or days ago). Naturally, power and its complex relations come into play. Why the cassette tape, and earlier the tape itself, which so easily became a tool ? and an instrument of cognition, as it is mentioned by the doyens of the field: Mead and Goody ? for anthropologists, did not easily establish itself as a subject of anthropological reflection, remains a mystery. Why was it not recognised as an ?item?, ?medium?, ?tool? or ?artefact?, if one were to mention just the categories associated only with anthropology. Such shift in thought would seem to be an obvious one. Listening can be the key to the memory vault, both individual and cultural one; it is connected with the transmission of knowledge and releasing emotions. And it was the tape that successfully took part in all those processes. Perhaps, however, we are reluctant to analyse the analytic tools themselves. Whoever heard of an exploratory disassembly of a scalpel or of an interrogation of a microphone? We prefer to regard the tape as a neutral space of memory, a container for memories of sort (like a casket with family heirlooms or a photo album), which does not distort, does not leave anything out and does not obliterate. But where should this path of thought lead us? Should we not form new perspectives and different viewpoints? I believe the cassette tape can be regarded fourfold: as a type of memory, as a medium, as an object and as a metaphor. Let us follow this track.

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1. The Memory

In the remarkable scene of the Steven Spielberg?s film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) Indy asks his father about the ?three devices of lethal cunning? described in the Chronicles of St. Anselm. And the father answers: ?I wrote them in my diary so I wouldn?t have to remember!? That is all? Also, in one of his many interviews the Slovenian cultural critic, Slavoj ?i?ek, said: ?Videos and DVDs have ruined movies for me. Instead of seeing the movie, I buy it, and then I have it, so why should I watch it?? Is it not easy? Too easy?

The tape, like all external data storage devices (notebooks, photographs, floppy disks), exempts us from the necessity of remembering, instead storing the information for us, and simultaneously directing our attention to other cognitive processes ? the analysis of the collected data and the interpretation of the form and content thereof ? and making them in turn: possible, easy and safe. The nature of the magnetic tape in the form of the cassette tape consists in referring to the sense of hearing by storing sounds and voices from bygone years, as well as by being incredibly mobile and allowing to hear from ?far away?? since sending a tape or bringing it on a trip turns out to be infinitely easy and presents no difficulty whatsoever. Perhaps the greatest merit of a tape as a memory type is it?s ?erasability,? which allows for erasure (denial?) of unwanted content, so that it no longer belongs to that which is remembered and audible. Though tapes might be memorable, scaring from time to time corrupted politicians and unfaithful husbands, they also shape the memory that is perfectly susceptible to manipulation, offering the possibility of erasing the embarrassing or compromising memories and replacing them with more attractive or advantageous (although not necessarily real) ones. All those traits of the tape, including it?s ?cheapness? and ?availability,? make it the ideal medium of ?popular memory[1]?? both the unofficial and private one, as they allow for recording the countless practices of everyday life (such as parties, music sessions and literary efforts or family events) functioning outside of the format frame of communal and/or national memory. To use the words of Michel de Certeau, the characteristics of the tape create unlimited possibilities for those ?memory tricks?, which allow an individual to mark their presence in the world dominated by the power discourses (public archives, university libraries, radio stations? tape collections, etc.). More often than not they become the tool of the weak and the excluded, the subordinate and the intimidated. Everyone who ever listened to illegally distributed tapes with anti-government comedy routines, auditions of disloyal radio stations, concerts of dissident artists, ?patriotic masses? or ?unofficial? history and philosophy lectures remembers this perfectly. Regarded in this way, the tape cassette turns out to be a popular memory medium ? if not a folk memory medium ? preserving all those testimonies of life and forms of expression that could not be fitted into the institutionalized public discourse.

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2. The Medium

The tape, being cheap and mobile, as a popular medium quickly became an important and widespread medium of cultural memory, especially (pop)culture memory and personal memories; furthermore it took a prominent place in the historical and (geo)political order, if one were to mention just the tape circulation of cultural texts as a resistance tactics of sorts in the countries of the former ?Eastern Bloc?, where recording and copying of radio-plays or music constituted, in fact, a secondary circulation of information. A separate matter in this context is the relation between the cassette tape and the tape recorder, perceived as a specific vehicle of constructing new situations of listening. The boombox emerges in (pop)culture as a mobile sound system ? one that can be used to build a private soundscape in public places (streets, parks, camp sites), a soundscape that can be seen as sound oppression to a third party; the portable audio cassette player also makes an appearance, making it possible to listen in a more intimate manner, separating the listener from the unwelcome civilization noise. Soon the radio becomes an inherent companion of the tape-tape recorder pair, and it is an information source subject to recording, modification and erasure, as ?recording from the radio? was for years one of the most widespread everyday practices related to the reproduction of the ?audio culture?. In this sense the tape not only conveys the experience, but also mediates between different areas of culture: the intimate and the public one, the official and the private one, the one that is subject to power and the one that contests power, the institutional one and the DIY one, the political one and the ludic one etc. Furthermore, between the various areas of culture the tape establishes a social network of unofficial circulation of information, exchange and trade; everyone who ever borrowed or lent taped concert recordings of punk bands, illegal comedy routines, or countless ?patriotic masses? participated in the network. The exchange created bonds based on trust and common experience, integrated groups, made communication possible and allowed some to make money?

As a medium, the tape becomes a specific form of expression ? and expressions, as Edward M. Brunner noted, are ?containers of other people?s experiences?. The tape is therefore not only a handy container for a magnetic tape, but also a container for someone else?s (as well as my own) memories, stories and experiences in the form of a recording. Facing ?someone else?s? sounds or voice might often times be traumatising. However, those who listen to their own voice go through trauma much more often. Due to its former connotations of psychics and spiritists, the medium leads us gradually into the domain of the Freudian ?uncanny? (das Unheimliche), in which that which is recorded, the sound or voice, may suddenly transform in to an abject ? i.e. that which is ?disturbingly vile?, although comes from us ourselves ? that irritates our ego. It is our own voice from the tape that seems abject to us, ?a repulsive and (hic et nunc) undesirable object?. Many of us might have asked themselves a simple question upon hearing their own recorded voice: Why does my own voice irritate, annoy me? Why don?t I like listening to it? I believe there are at least three possible answers: 1. because I have said something silly, intimate or embarrassing (because of the content); 2. because I do not like the sound of my recorded voice (because of the form); 3.?because I cannot stand the situation in which my voice breaks away from me, suddenly and without my approval, duplicating my presence (which places me in a psychotic position). The tape therefore can be considered as a medium, inheriting thankless burden of its predecessors related to the occult and spiritism.

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3. The Object

The trait that doubtlessly defines the cultural nature of the cassette tape and determines its functionality, is its materiality. Usually marginalised or ignored as all too obvious, this materiality is highlighted only when juxtaposed with amateur, lay creative practices of everyday life, resulting in a beauty of astonishing and unexpected kind ? which has been experienced by everyone who ever encountered homemade tapes. Psychedelic colours, collage covers, raw, punk production in a DIY style. The long forgotten art of decorating and labelling cassette tapes, marking cases and protecting the recorded material against accidental erasure, the technique of glueing, untangling and smoothing out the tape, and even the skill of rewinding the tape with a pencil, which demanded great dexterity. All this constituted the tactical qualifications of almost every tape recorder user, who became a guerilla fighter against the official audio culture whether they liked it of not. That guerilla fighter was reluctant to dwell in that culture and happy to abandon it to rummage through all those sounds that could be easily recorded, modified and copied by means of the world?s simplest sound system, which the tape recorder could become in skilful hands.

The aesthetic aspects of the tape are of importance too; the tape has been from the beginning regarded as an artefact which organised and created various artistic practices: from private pressed, low-cost tapes released by the local punk, noise or industrial scene artists, and sound diaries or para literary forms (Aki Onda and Rinus Van Alebeek), to cracking the cassettes for aesthetic purposes (Dariusz Wojta?, Sultan Hagavik), in which case the materiality of the storage device provided the horizon of the imagination of the destroyer of the sound matter. In this case the tape is revealed to be a fetish, now enjoying its ?second life?, at the core of which lies cultural recycling and the zombification of the medium. The most important seems to be the comeback of the labels that promote the tape as a tactical medium and an alternative to the official music circulation, dominated by powerful corporate groups and digital storage devices. This process became an element of hipster aesthetics and as well as ethics (constructed between analogue fetishism and digital futurism), contributing to forming new forms of (sound) identity and the related new methods of listening (to the world)[2].

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4. The Metaphor

The cassette tape meets at least one criterion of a fortunate metaphor ? i.e. that it is, as we have already noted, a container for the magnetic tape. As we recall, Lakoff and Johnson argued that ?[w]e are physical beings, bounded and set off from the rest of the world by the surface of our skins, and we experience the rest of the world as outside us. Each of us is a container, with a bounding surface and an in-out orientation. We project our own in-out orientation onto other physical objects that are bounded by surfaces. Thus we also view them as containers with an inside and outside?[3]. In consequence we tend to treat metaphorical concepts as containers (for meanings), and the containers themselves become very capacious metaphors.

It is not puzzling that the tape cassette as a metaphor produces cultural fantasies much more lasting than the tape itself. Let us list several of them ? ones that keep recurring in art, politics and various discourses of public life: preserving the voice (the fantasy of a partial, metonymic immortality), persecution with the use of recordings (?shocking tapes of truth?), memory erasure (deletion and production of memories ? a concept out of Philip K. Dick?s imagination), reproducing memories (recollection aided by recordings as a reinterpretation of the past), duplicating the presence (the undying fantasy of a doppelganger and an acousmatic disembodied voice). In this way the tape becomes a part of the contemporary discourse on cultural memory, individual identity and power relations), evoking senses both symbolic and metaphorical, such as recording, registering or preserving) (of sound history), copying (testimonies and evidence), deleting and erasing (memory), and acting frequently as ?proof? and ?witness? (?in the case of?, ?of the times?, ?of history?, etc.). And even if its cultural importance has been currently reduced to an aesthetic attribute of analogue fetishists? subculture or a retro style medium of nostalgic memories, it may very well turn out that its metaphorical capacity recurs in countless narratives about recording, copying or erasing: memory, history and identity.

Text: Dariusz Brzostek

Translation: Katarzyna Marak

Photos: Malwina Wypch?o


[1] M. Foucault, Foucault Live. Collected Interviews, 1961-1984, Semiotext[e] 1996, pp. 122-132.

[2] S. Goodman, Sonic Warfare. Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, The MIT Press 2012, p. 196.

[3] G. Lakoff, M. Johnson, Metaphors we live by, London 2003, pp. 30-31.