Featuring twelve original essays by leading Beckett scholars and media theorists, this book provides the first sustained examination of the relationship between Beckett and media technologies. The chapters analyse the rich variety of technical objects, semiotic arrangements, communication processes and forms of data processing that Beckett’s work so uniquely engages with, as well as those that – in historically changing configurations – determine the continuing performance, the audience reception, and the scholarly study of this work. Greatly enlarging the scope of earlier discussions, the book draws on a variety of innovative theoretical approaches, such as media archaeology, in order to discuss Beckett’s intermedial oeuvre. As such it engages with Beckett as a media artist and examine the way his engagement with media technologies continues to speak to our cultural situation.
Given the never-ending debates about the definition of the concept in media studies, it may seem peculiar that in Beckett studies the term ‘media’ has acquired a relatively stable meaning. When Linda Ben-Zvi published her insightful essay ‘Samuel Beckett's Media Plays’ in 1985, it consolidated an understanding of the term that has dominated discussions ever since. On the one hand, this understanding promises to be abundantly clear: ‘plays written for a medium other than the stage: seven for radio, five for television, and one for film’ (22). On the other hand, we should also note how a sharp contrast is drawn between these different technologies and the institution of theatre or, for that matter, literature, tacitly excluding the latter from the domain of media. At the same time, the phrasing harbours an unsettling – but for us all the more interesting – contradiction, since it implicitly defines ‘the stage’ as a medium as well. One could of course argue that these slight inconsistencies, which ripple through the pages of the essay, are well within the scope of the word's everyday meaning, were we not called upon to commit ourselves to a categorisation of Beckett's work on this very basis.
If we follow this prevalent usage typified by Ben-Zvi's essay, we subscribe to a notion of media borrowed from communication studies. It refers to those twentieth-century technologies which function as channels of mass communication carrying ‘content’ to an audience, and which gave rise to more or less clearly distinguishable art forms (film, radio play, television play). Useful as this notion was in the early reception of Beckett's work, this volume argues that the time is ripe for a reconsideration. If the volume thus aims to challenge the consensus, it does so not in order to replace the established notion (in fact, the second section is devoted in its entirety to radio, film and television), but to critically reflect on the use of the term, thus both expanding its field of application and specifying its meaning in particular contexts.
In many ways, Beckett criticism has followed the author's own desire to keep genres ‘distinct’, as he told his American editor Barney Rosset in 1957, in an attempt to avoid cross-medial transpositions (Beckett, 2014, 63–4). The same reluctance to allowing adaptations is evident in a letter that Beckett wrote to his American director Alan Schneider (14 September 1974), in which he confessed to having a ‘bee in [his] bonnet about mixing media’ (Beckett, 1998, 320). It is noteworthy that scholars have similarly focused their studies on individual media in which Beckett mainly worked: film, television, radio and – in the broader sense of the word – theatre. There have thus been numerous studies of Beckett's work within these media, especially in terms of his theatrical output. As such there have also been dedicated studies of Beckett's TV plays, such as monographs by Graley Herren (Samuel Beckett's Plays on Film and Television; 2007) or Jonathan Bignell (Beckett on Screen: The Television Plays; 2009), and a growing number of essays. Beckett's work in film and his relationship with cinema has similarly spawned a variety of approaches, including Anthony Paraskeva's Samuel Beckett and Cinema (2017). Beckett's radio plays have also increasingly become the object of scholarly attention, with books such as Samuel Beckett and BBC Radio: A Reassessment (edited by David Addyman, Matthew Feldman and Erik Tonning; 2017) revealing Beckett's work and interest in this medium. In Germany, however, several publications have focused on Beckett as a media artist more generally, as Michael Lommel's Samuel Beckett: Synästhesie als Medienspiel (2006) or the essay collection Samuel Beckett und die Medien (2008), edited by Peter Seibert, testify. And in 2011, Gaby Hartel and Michael Glasmeier collected translations of older publications and original essays in The Eye of Prey: Essays zu Samuel Becketts Film- und Fernseharbeiten. These scholarly approaches have been complemented by various testimonies and essays written by practitioners, who have given valuable insight into Beckett's media practices.
In the last decade, scholarly attention has increasingly turned to an examination of Beckett as a multimedial or intermedial artist. A pioneering study in this field is Clas Zilliacus's Beckett and Broadcasting: A Study of the Works of Samuel Beckett for and in Radio and Television, published as early as 1976 but not expanded upon for several decades. However, recent work, such as the special issue of Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui entitled ‘Beckett and Intermediality / Beckett, artiste intérmedial’ (2020), has examined the way that Beckett, despite his earlier protestations, increasingly encouraged and actively pursued an intermedial practice in the last two decades of his creative career. Contemporary criticism also focuses on the way Beckett's works have been interpreted and staged in adaptations, intermedial productions and virtual environments, as outlined for example in Nicholas Johnson and Jonathan Heron's Experimental Beckett: Contemporary Performance Practices (2020). In short, ‘the intermedial dialogue happening both within Beckett's own practice and within the creative work it has inspired’ has become a dominant topic within current research (McTighe, 2020, xx).
What these recent inquiries into intermediality indicate, among other things, is that the stability of the term ‘medium’ in Beckett studies is deceptive; and what is more, that this may be in congruence with, if not the result of, a similar dynamic in Beckett's own work. As Jonathan Bignell points out in his contribution to this volume, ‘the fact that Beckett's work seems explicitly interested in the specificities of a medium's identity might in fact be a lure that leads instead towards the volatilisation of the notion of medium itself’. We are thus invited to investigate more closely how media function in and in relation to Beckett's work, and the purpose of this volume is to rise to that challenge. The appeal to media theory, however, is not motivated by the desire to arrive at a clarification of the term that would apply across the board to Beckett's work. This is not only due to the complexity of Beckett's output, but also to the fact that the field of media studies is characterised by a high degree of internal division, a multiplicity of research traditions, thematic foci and methodologies, which we have strived to reflect in our line-up of contributors.
Indeed, even a cursory glance at a haphazard medley of prominent early theorists of media, never mind the proliferation of more recent debates, will give us a sense of how hopeless it would be to attempt a general definition of the concept. Roads (for Marshall McLuhan), waiting rooms (for Vilém Flusser) or love (for Niklas Luhmann) – these and many more far-flung entities have qualified for such a designation. While proposing a re-examination of what could be considered a reductive understanding of the term in Beckett studies, this volume is wary of a completely laissez-faire attitude, careful not to contribute to an emptying out of the concept, which has become a much-discussed fear in recent years. On the contrary, our contributors seek to bring the concept into sharper focus – in distinctly Beckettian contexts.
Our focus is on media of perception, communication, representation and data processing: those actions, operations, technical artefacts and institutions that enable interaction across distances of time and space, shaping both contents and participants. But within this broad framework, each chapter explores a unique issue from a distinctive disciplinary vantage point. What these analyses have in common is a willingness to take a step back and peek behind the surface effects of representation, to scrutinise the infrastructural foundations and material processes that undergird them. They all share the conviction that we need to transcend the fixation on the discursive aspects of culture. This commitment is in step with a larger trend within Beckett studies, exemplified by Steven Connor's affirmative restatement of Alain Badiou's plea for a shift in paradigm: ‘in urging that we follow Beckett in moving beyond The Unnamable, Badiou is also urging a move beyond the kind of language-centred post-structuralist criticism that finds in The Unnamable its most complete statement of principle’ (Connor, 2010, xxii).
The wide-ranging approaches featured in this volume converge in an emerging fascination with the following question: in what ways is Beckett's work mediated? This question has as many facets as there are reasons for its increasing urgency. To begin with, there is the famously self-reflexive Beckettian aesthetic, fundamentally concerned with the artificiality and materiality of representation. This may be well known when it comes to Beckett's dealings with language, but it is equally true of the ‘media plays’, which require persistent ‘attention to the conventions of signification in the medium, redressing its more usual tendency towards cultural ‘oblivion’ (Bignell), and ‘foreground[ing] the virtuality of what appears on the screen’ (Maude). But the contributions also prompt us to recognise that Beckett's questioning of the conditions of representation goes further than these long-noted medium-specific formal concerns. As Julian Murphet argues in Chapter 9 on Quad, for example, the TV play can be seen as ‘as an allegory of the underlying technical matrix of its production’. Beckett, therefore, deserves our media-analytical attention because he was one of those artists who ‘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’ (Murphet).
But if Beckett's works are metamedial in the sense that they thematise their own formation, continually foregrounding, interrogating and negotiating their own conditions of emergence, then one question that needs to be addressed is whether this kind of self-observation has its specific limits. One of the few widely agreed-on principles among scholars of media is the claim that media enable perception only at the expense of hiding themselves from perception. To what extent, then, can the functioning of a medium be analysed and displayed in the very same medium? Wolfgang Ernst takes up this issue, contending that the plays themselves ‘can only reveal the phenomenological effects induced by technologies’, and we need scholarly analyses ‘immersed in the technical artefactuality’ to understand them not as ‘symptoms of an aesthetic discourse’ but as ‘instantiation[s] of the technological unconscious in culture’. In what is also a spirited debate between two vigorous attempts to define media, Armin Schäfer challenges this view, describing how, through techniques of exhaustion, Beckett may have succeeded in inventing ways of ‘lay[ing] bare the dispositif that is inherent in a particular medium’.
In addition to these questions which, as it were, arise from within Beckett's work, there is also a growing understanding among scholars of the general importance of the media-historical contexts in which cultural products are created, interpreted and continue to be made available. In the case of Beckett, knowledge about these contexts is becoming more and more critical as our distance from his work grows and digital culture increasingly becomes our home. As the chapters by Ernst, Murphet, Kittler and Rapcsak indicate, reconstructing the by-now obsolete techno-historical circumstances of Beckett's literary, theatrical and televisual output may in fact be indispensable to understanding their poetics, and could provide vital insights for those interested in performing or adapting these works. Bignell, Johnson and Van Hulle tackle the problem from the opposite angle, inquiring into digitisation and the exceedingly practical, and at the same time theoretical, questions it raises for both practitioners and scholars today.
Concerning the challenges posed by growing media-historical distance, there is an interesting dialogue happening between the chapters by Ernst and Johnson, reframing the familiar debate around the ongoing conflict between strict control – whether exerted by Beckett or the Estate – and the freedom to experiment that many practitioners hanker for. According to Ernst, plays like Krapp's Last Tape ought to be treated as media art whose logic and effects are dependent on the specific technologies employed, and therefore performers should take an interest in ‘the preservation of original reel-to-reel tape machines from previous performances of the drama for contemporary enactment’, while adaptations should be guided by the media aesthetic present in the ‘techno-cultural subconscious’ of the originals. Johnson, however, encourages adaptations across different media, seeing them as a means through which ‘the experimental heritage of Beckett's own work is reinvigorated, and the work is opened to a new generation accessing Beckett through new media’.
Similarly, there is a vibrant discussion going on across many of the chapters reflecting the unique theoretical alignments and methodologies of their authors. This, however, is not to be thought of as an inconsistency of the volume but as an attempt to provide a tour d’horizon of scholarly engagement with media in Beckett and Beckett in media today, demonstrating the multiplicity of productive approaches to this complex set of issues. At the same time, the volume does not shy away from the provocative or, at times, even the polemic. The chapters could be arranged on a continuum from the close reading of Beckett's texts to a historical analysis of their technological conditions. The latter end of the spectrum is represented by Ernst and Murphet, whose chapters show what can be gained by ‘resist[ing] all the thematic lures’ (Murphet) in Beckett and adopting ‘a different method of analysis’ (Ernst), one that is diametrically opposed to hermeneutic interpretation, analysing instead what is sometimes described as the ‘technological a priori’ of cultural manifestations. As Murphet provocatively asserts, ‘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’.
While other chapters, especially those by Bignell, Johnson, Kittler, Rapcsak and Harries, endeavour to show the possibility – and perhaps even necessity – of combining a close reading of Beckett's literary, theatrical and filmic texts with an inquiry into their embeddedness in, and engagement with, historically specific technologies of mediation, these two chapters draw a sharp line between signs and signals, between literary representation and electronic media, between interpretation and data processing, and ultimately, between literary criticism and media studies – juxtapositions whose seductiveness and continuing influence doubtless owe much to the work of figures like Marshall McLuhan and, especially, Friedrich Kittler.
Kittler was the key figure in the development of what has come to be known as ‘new German media theory’, often prefixed with the phrase ‘so-called’, indicating that the label really only has descriptive value outside German-speaking academia, and that in reality we are dealing with several different schools of thought (Horn, 2007; Winthrop-Young, Iurascu and Parikka, 2013). German media theory became consolidated as an academic discipline from the mid-1980s onwards, achieving international renown in the 2000s. The types of scholarship practised under its aegis are rich and diverse. The two most prominent varieties, however, are represented in this volume by Ernst and Schäfer. While Ernst is a leading exponent of ‘media archaeology’, Schäfer is an eminent literary scholar more closely associated with the school that developed the notion of ‘cultural techniques’.
This book thus brings together a variety of specialists, familiar to those in Beckett studies, who have focused on the nexus between Beckett and media, while providing a platform for scholars working in media studies who have demonstrated a strong interest in his work. But in addition to the diversity of voices and perspectives, the volume is also designed to include in its discussion a wide range of Beckett's works, both in terms of genres and time span. The historical periods explored range from the mid-nineteenth century to our present. The chapters follow the evolution of media technologies, starting before Beckett's lifetime. As Wolf Kittler shows in the opening chapter, ‘Beckett's Watt returns, as it were, to the origins of modern signalling systems’, reimagining the moment in which there ‘emerges the first glimmer of a primordial telecommunication system’. While the novel is written from the horizon of ‘a world of universal connectivity’, its ‘long meditations on stimuli and signals […] are a search for lost time, a time in which signals were just being invented and in which the absolute solitude of an Odysseus on his raft was still possible’. The final chapter by Van Hulle, in turn, envisages future possibilities for examining Beckett's oeuvre using computational tools.
The genres considered are indicated in the part titles. These groupings, however, do not simply follow the analytical separation of genres, which, as mentioned earlier, was for a long time common in Beckett criticism. The conversation across the parts is almost as intense as that within them. Part I, as a whole, argues that Beckett's literary and theatrical work is just as relevant for media theory (and vice versa) as his radio and screen work. The chapters gathered here collectively testify that if the term ‘media play’, as we have seen, is conventionally reserved in Beckett studies for those works that Beckett wrote for the technological media of radio, film and television, it reflects a categorisation that runs the risk of committing itself to an all too rigid and unreflecting definition of ‘medium’, precluding productive perspectives on works by Beckett that belong to other genres. These chapters make a case for a hospitable attitude towards alternative approaches to questions of mediation in Beckett. To be sure, the first step in this direction is to resist the urge for a premature definition of ‘medium’, avoiding its reduction to either means of artistic production or technologies of broadcasting and cinema. In fact, media technologies are present in Beckett's work across genres and art forms. And, if we understand media as technical artefacts or operations dependent upon material actualisation, they can be staged as objects or processes in the diegetic world of literary and theatrical representations too.
Wolf Kittler (Chapter 1) offers a reading of Watt that connects the novel to Beckett's critique of Proust's memoire involontaire as a Pavlovian conditioned reflex, seeing it as an exploration of the radical alternative of total freedom. Meticulously analysing Watt's varied attempts to bring together Mr Knott's leftover food with a dog, he shows how these experiments recreate the early history of signals from optical telegraphy to railway and traffic signals up to wireless telegraphy. Along the way, Kittler probes the ethical dimensions of what it means for sentient beings to be controlled by signalling systems. Armin Schäfer (Chapter 2) investigates the nexus between the exhaustion of alternatives and the invention of unforeseen possibilities in Beckett, drawing on Gilles Deleuze's essay ‘L’Épuisé’ and insights from the history of physiology and psychiatry. This chapter reframes Beckett's much-discussed aesthetic of impoverishment in media-theoretical terms. Cautioning against their reduction to specific apparatuses, which are ‘constantly evolving and changing’, Schäfer argues for an understanding of media as ‘means to render something visible and audible that would otherwise be beyond perception’, which Beckett achieves by exhausting the possibilities of the medium, ‘stripping it down to its inherent dispositif’. In what will probably strike scholars of literature and theatre as the most unorthodox approach featured in this volume, Wolfgang Ernst (Chapter 3) demonstrates how his brand of media archaeology can enrich discussions of Beckett's work. Focusing on the tape recorder in Krapp's Last Tape, and especially on the cognitive and affective irritations produced by the electro-acoustic manipulation of time, this chapter examines the question of what constitutes genuine media theatre and what methodologies are suitable for its analysis, if textual interpretation and the traditional toolkit of the humanities in general fall short in the face of signal-processing technologies. Balazs Rapcsak (Chapter 4) discusses Beckett's lifelong search for ways of ‘switching off’ the medium, with its tendency to separate what it connects, and attaining silence. Exploring Beckett's artistic experimentation with symbolic logic, Boolean algebra, alternating currents, electric switches and incandescent light bulbs, he links these related developments to the early history of digital technology to inquire into Beckett's engagement with the connections between literary representation and electronic data processing. This chapter suggests that the lesser-known stage play Fragment de théâtre II offers a unique site to observe these issues and their intertwinement with the questions of bird speech and the divine language, testifying to Beckett's continuing quest for the other of signification. Closing Part I and at the same time providing a transition to Part II, Martin Harries (Chapter 5) makes a plea for an integrated history of media, contending that Beckett's commitment to the proscenium arch can only be understood when recognising the changed situation of theatre in an era in which the pictorial frame, which lay at the heart of the proscenium's subjectifying power, ‘had migrated to the ubiquitous media of film and television’. Through a Brechtian refunctioning of the proscenium stage, Harries argues, Beckett developed theatrical strategies to scrutinise the ideological effects of mass media.
The second section homes in on Beckett's ‘media works’ in the conventional sense, which is not to say that the readings themselves are conventional. Still concerned with the relationship between theatre and broadcast media, Pim Verhulst (Chapter 6), drawing on Anna McMullan's work, shows how Beckett's encounter with radio changed his ideas about drama in general, and embodiment in particular, in his later work for the stage. Re-examining this transformation through the notions of remediation and intermediality, Verhulst's analysis chimes nicely with Harries's critique of a media history pursued ‘as a matter of discrete technologies’, providing further support for a comparative discussion of different genres and media.
The subsequent chapters by Philipp Schweighauser and Ulrika Maude serve as a balance to Julian Murphet's more radical approach presented afterwards. Probing the affective and social dimensions of Beckett's screen works, they demonstrate the possibilities of formal or thematic interpretation, highlighting some of the many ways in which it can make these works speak to our current cultural situation. Schweighauser (Chapter 7) unpacks the significance of the fact that Beckett named the key aesthetic device in Film ‘angle of immunity’. Combining a medical-historical contextualisation of the film with Jacques Derrida's and Roberto Esposito's reflections on community, immunity and autoimmunity, he argues that ‘in Film, Beckett explores the deleterious consequences of a vision of life that the immunological revolution of his time brought into being’. Maude (Chapter 8), in turn, discusses four of Beckett's television plays (Ghost Trio, . . . but the clouds . . ., Nacht und Träume and Eh Joe), foregrounding the tension between their ‘evacuated subjectivity and abstracted form’ and their powerful affective undertones. She concludes that, while constantly interrogating the capabilities of televisual representation, these plays are able to ‘both provoke and dismantle affect’, challenging viewers to question their notions about empathy in art.
Julian Murphet (Chapter 9) makes a powerful case for the need to extend the methodological repertoire of the humanities to include the analysis of signal-processing technologies in addition to the interpretation of signs. In arguing this point, he shows that at the heart of Beckett's Quad is the technical issue of colour compatibility between monochrome and colour TV sets. In Murphet's reading, the play turns out to be ‘mimetic not of any human or subjective dimension, but of’ what Beckett called ‘TV technicalities’, the posthumanist domain of electromagnetic transmission between machines. Finally, Jonathan Bignell (Chapter 10) compares Walter Asmus's 1986 TV version of Was Wo, shot for television sets using cathode ray tubes and broadcast in 625-line video, with his reworking of the play in HD digital format in 2013, reflecting on the role of texture and the aesthetics of black in Beckett's television dramas. Complementing his analysis with a look at the screen plays Beckett made in the 1960s and 1970s, Bignell highlights the importance of changing technologies in the production and reception of these works, and shows how they probe the representational capabilities of TV as a medium, challenging the conventions associated with it.
If it is indeed true, as the chapters in their engagement with Beckett's work repeatedly demonstrate, that media of perception and knowledge production inevitably inscribe themselves into what they help to process or generate, then that applies to this volume too. It features academic prose as a medium of reflection, presenting concepts and arguments in written form, which determines its organisation, scope and limits. But we want to acknowledge and highlight the fact that there are alternative media of knowledge production, which occupy an increasingly prominent place in the study of Beckett's work too. The final part of the volume is dedicated to the discussion of these alternative forms of scholarly engagement, drawing on the experiences of two eminent practitioners.
The first chapter reports on experimental performances understood as practice-as-research, while the second chapter explores and envisions new possibilities of investigating Beckett's work that have emerged in the framework of the digital humanities. Sketching the production history of Play, Nicholas Johnson (Chapter 11) shows that, first, Beckett himself was ‘immensely flexible in his approach to this play's form’, and that, second, Play seems to inherently invite adaptations, requiring performers to inquire into the nature of their target medium. After discussing early adaptions to analogue film and radio and a second wave of digital experiments in the 1990, Johnson gives us a first-hand account of his own recent experimentation with Play in the form of a live webcast from a robotic camera (Intermedial Play, 2017), virtual reality (Virtual Play, 2017–19) and augmented reality (Augmented Play, 2018–19). Pointing out that Beckett's works have not yet been published in a critical edition, Dirk Van Hulle (Chapter 12) proposes a pioneering digital complete works edition of Beckett that would allow us to see how this ‘oeuvre effectively works as an oeuvre (rather than as a set of separate texts)’. His argument is built around the insight that editorial concepts are conditioned by the media in which they are practised; print media and digital tools alike prescribe certain ways of conceiving how an author's works relate to one another, determining the scope of discoveries interpreters can make. Incorporating material such as Beckett's drafts, notes, marginalia and proofs, and providing the tools necessary for various forms of macroanalysis, this project would open up a new realm of interpretative possibilities.
As a whole, this volume on media in Beckett and Beckett in media aims to make the term's inherent fuzziness, or its protean evasiveness, productive by inviting contributors to develop their own notions at the intersections of their disciplinary foci and their analyses of Beckett's artistic practice. Thus, instead of positing a fixed and narrowly defined media concept at the outset, the chapters analyse the rich variety of technical objects, semiotic arrangements, communication processes and forms of data processing that Beckett's work so uniquely engages with, as well as those that – in historically changing configurations – determine the continuing performance, the audience reception and the scholarly study of this work. The purpose of this bottom–up approach is to allow Beckett's work to provide incisive but unpredictable answers to our questions concerning mediation. Our hope is that in staging a dialogue between Beckett studies and media studies, the discussion presented in this volume will open up fresh perspectives in both fields.
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