Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Krapp's Ghosts

By now, we should all know that the hauntological is concerned with the voice, and its inherent disembodiment. One’s voice is always uncanny, and never more so than when it is reproduced. Ghosts have always used the latest technology when communicating from beyond the grave – before the telephone became ubiquitous, séances were more likely to involve written correspondence. Proust, referring to the first time he speaks to his grandmother over the phone, writes;

‘I cried out, “Grandmother! Grandmother!,” and I wanted to kiss her; but all that I had beside me was her voice, a ghost as bodiless as the one that would perhaps come back and visit me when my grandmother was dead.’

Derrida notes the alienation, or specifically, the spectralisation of the subject as it is replicated through what he calls ‘tele-technological media’. We shouldn’t forget that photographs ‘steal the soul’, as well. The reproduction of the image or the sound of a subject are ubiquitous now, but always spectral, and these concerns we have with ‘the voice’ as an uncanny part of us serve to highlight problematic points of subjectivity, where the illusion of singularity cannot be maintained. Specifically, hauntology is, of course, the fact of being-as-ghost, being as not-present presence. Perhaps we can understand this as an effect that is generated by the friction of our material mortality against the un-dead drive.

This spectral encounter with the disembodied voice is expertly examined in Samuel Beckett’s 1958 play; ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’. The play has one character, Krapp, visiting his special place at some unspecified birthday towards the end of his life, designated as being in the future. Krapp is a splintered character, spread across numerous temporal locations, his physical presence before the audience accompanied by various recordings of his voice made at different stages of his life. He searches out these recordings from drawers full of labelled spools, he listens to them and engages in cross-temporal conversations, mocking and cursing his past self for his arrogance, his ambitions, and his hope in the power of art;

Krapp: Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that. Thank God that’s all done with anyway.

Some of the experiences described by the past Krapp are identifiable as actual events from Beckett’s life, and he uses them as vehicles to investigate the familiar tropes of memory and its uncontrollable nature. Krapp listens to himself describing his awaiting the death of his mother, and how the most vivid memory of the scene is the inconsequential black ball in the mouth of a small dog that he played with as the curtain was drawn in his mother’s death chamber. He also describes a revelatory episode upon a sea cliff, when he understood what the true direction of his art was to be. Old Krapp is disgusted by the fervour with which the past Krapp speaks here, and speeds past in search of something else, a moment of calm with a past lover, drifting upon a boat.

The hauntology of Krapp’s Last Tape is primarily a system of memory, dyschronia and nostalgia. When Krapp listens to his previous tapes we see him encountering two versions of the memory; the memory as recounted by his past self and that same memory as altered by the intervening time between the recording and the listening. Desperately engaging in a synthetic Proustian search, trying to voluntarily grasp at memory but finding it ever elusive, shifting and ghostly, dissipating in his grasp and mocking him interminably. The multiplicity of the voice, with directions that the recorded voice should be ‘strong, pompous, clearly Krapp’s at a much earlier time’ attests to the technological uncanny, as the audience sit listening along with an actor whose lips are motionless to the actor’s own disembodied voice. In amongst this out-of-joint-ness, Beckett tests the power and purpose of nostalgia. When Krapp recalls from amongst the bitterness a moment of love he is struck dumb, his ‘present’ voice is annulled;

-we drifted among the flags and stuck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem! [Pause.] I lay down beside her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.
[Pause. Krapp’s lips move. No sound.]
Past midnight. Never knew such silence.

What is happening here as Krapp is silenced by himself, the voice that cannot but go on is momentarily struck dumb. This is such a rare occurance in Beckett that it’s worth trying to understand a little better. At first it seems that the only thing that can silence Krapp, that can break his incessant speech, spread across time and across his spectralised subjectivity is an encounter with the Other, represented by the figure of Love. This is Badiou’s reading: The encounter with Love permits access to the pure multiplicity of being, if only momentarily, freeing the subject from the ‘tortuous cogito’. This would be an example of what we could call a ‘Love Event’, the Beckettian subject freed from speech for a moment. This is tempting, but I’d like to hazard another, slightly different reading; Badiou doesn’t clarify at what temporal level this event occurs, is the silence itself the fidelity to a previous event, or is it the event itself as nominated through the act of a critical nostalgia? But is the dumbfounded silence that Krapp leaves himself in at the end of the play not a similar but opposite aporetic condition to the inability to stop speaking? For that moment Krapp encounters the realisation, by passing through nostalgia, by exhausting the memory, that the voice, the incessant voice doesn’t even belong to him anyway. By this I mean that his scouring of the past leads him to the understanding that the original tortuous aporia, ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’, of course involves the stability of the ‘I’. By engaging with his own ghosts, I think that Krapp is silenced by encountering the ghostly core of his own subjectivity; He is haunted by himself.

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