Voice, Image, Television: Beckett?s Divided Screens

Julian Murphet

Is there a modernist moment of analogue television? Fredric Jameson’s hypothesis, that most of the “semi-autonomous cultural sequences” in the West since the first epochal break of the Cubists have been subject to the same itinerary of aesthetic dominants — realist/modernist/postmodernist (he instances American Black writing, film, and rock music) — opens up the theoretical possibility of a televisual modernism that would seem to have gone missing from the relevant cultural histories (1992: 156-7). Of course, the most obvious reason for this is the widespread sense that, in Perry Anderson’s words, colour television was the “single technological watershed of the postmodern” (Condition, 88), and thus that, having enjoyed a protracted realist period in the era of monochrome transmission (a period whose central concern was to train the new corporatist working and middle classes of post-War consumers in a new kind of audio-visual literacy, and thereby conquer them as one), television made the abrupt leap into a postmodernism from which it has never had the luxury of looking back. This forced acceleration would be one way of accounting for the especially uncanny status of the colour set in the mid-seventies, as memorialised by David Bowie’s 1976 song, “TVC15,” and in the same year by Bowie’s performance as Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth — his off-colour eyes glued to dozens of screens simultaneously.

Certainly, that uncanniness is more than understandable given the prodigious social penetration of colour throughout the 1970s.

Figure 1

Figure 1  

Leaping from a 3% to a 74% share of all television-owning households in the twelve years between 1964 and 1976 in the US, colour screens went through a reversal in which, quantity becoming quality, they rather than their monochrome predecessors were the new industry and cultural standard. NBC went “all color” in 1965 and BBC2 followed with an 80% colour transmission in 1967, but it was only with the release of affordable colour sets in the early 1970s that market saturation became possible, and black and white tubes were rendered theoretically obsolete. Theoretically, but not in fact. For the real story is one throughout the 1970s of a double marketplace, despite the rapid conversion of all broadcasters to colour signals by the early years of that decade. The following sales chart demonstrates market resilience for a format that did not strictly conform to the logic of transmission.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Alongside the jump in colour television sales (nearly doubling in the three years between 1970 and 1973), there remained a consistent number of black and white screen sales; only a 16% drop in market share took place between the years 1970 and 1977. Clearly the only reason for this was that of item price, and thus the longevity of the monochrome tube can be explained principally on the basis of social class: most of the working class not yet being able to afford colour sets.

Within another five years, of course, all that had changed, and colour was dominant at the level of reception as well as of transmission. But the long interim, between roughly 1965 and 1979, marks a curiously distended cultural moment during which the “medium” of television is not one, but two. This, I want to suggest, was the hypothetical window of opportunity for a televisual modernism whose logic would thus have been doubly determined: on the one hand, by the appearance of a new postmodern format obliged to coexist with its competitor/predecessor (for comparison, we might imagine silent film coexisting with sound film for fifteen years); and on the other by the logic of a realist monochrome television in dialectical development towards its own modernisation, above all in sanctioned, state-owned production companies increasingly open to experimental and artistic programming, in the second half of the 1960s. Any modernist television practice would thus have to have emerged from this charged force field, and have borne within itself the traces of its material conditioning. Of course, colour television being a priori postmodern, it would necessarily have been in the monochrome format that this hypothetical modernism was elaborated.

Here I want to argue that a modernist television existed, and that its greatest auteur was none other than Samuel Beckett, whose works for the medium appeared at determinate stages. In 1965-6 Eh Joe was written and produced, contemporaneously for the BBC and a German station; ten years later, upon a request from the BBC on the occasion of his upcoming seventieth birthday, Beckett suggested a trilogy of pieces for television, one of which would be a 1973 filmed version of Not I, and the other two — Ghost Trio and …but the clouds… — he would write specifically for the event, eventually aired as Shades in 1977; then two late pieces were written for Stuttgart television, Quadrat I and II in 1981, and Nacht und Träume in 1982. I want to show how methodically Beckett turned to the material and technical specificities of the medium in order to dismantle what was “automatic” and unquestioned about its reception; how he elevated these constitutive material facts into the aesthetic superstructure of the works and used them to allegorise the medium from within. But above all I want to suggest that Beckett took a very particular moment in the history of the domestic screen — the protracted overlap between monochrome and colour, the sudden coming of the postmodern dominant, the gift of an anachronistic medium that wasn’t yet dead — and used it not only to modernise what had not yet been subjected to any methodical act of formalisation in the medium, but even more profoundly to accelerate and crystallise his own progressive aesthetic abstraction from the impasse in which it had been stalled in all media until the breakthrough of Comment C’est (1960), and still obtained in his efforts for the theatrical medium (Krapp’s Last Tape [1958] notwithstanding). That is, I want to indicate how, in the very act of subjecting the black and white televisual medium to its definitive acts of aesthetic formalisation, Beckett simultaneously managed to unblock certain formal requirements for the aesthetic transcendence of various “representational” residua in his own work. If there is no televisual modernism without Beckett, then neither is there any “late Beckett” without the television screen to which he first submitted his imagination in 1965.

Eh Joe: the grimace of reality

That first TV production, which should be understood as a critical rejoinder to his own felt failure in the film medium in 1964’s Film, was written un-commissioned in 1965 out of some inner compulsion, and purchased simultaneously by the BBC and German station Süddeutscher Rundfunk. Eh Joe begins with a recognizably “Beckettian” silent prelude in which the sole figure of Joe mechanically explores the room in which he is bound: checks and closes door, window, cupboard, then shuffles back to bed. But it then switches to a long, unbroken, intensifying close-up of Joe’s face as he sits and a female voice recounts a long tirade of accusations against him. Interpretations of the piece tend to turn upon the psychological proposition that Voice (the voice, it insists, of a former lover) speaks somehow from “within” the mind of Joe, whose barely perceptible flinches at the charges against him we watch in excruciating detail. The actor who played Joe for the BBC production, Jack McGowran, who called his experience in the role “the most grueling 22 minutes I have ever had in my life,” explained that “It’s the nearest perfect play for television that you can come across, because the television camera photographs the mind better than anything else” (Knowlson 1997: 538). A counterintuitive claim, it is one that the critics have nonetheless followed down the well-trodden path of psychologistic realism; despite the fact that, taken from that perspective, the teleplay is lackluster and probably merits S. E. Gontarski’s dismissal of it as “the bottom of Beckett’s artistic heap” (1985: 120). Even Deleuze in his scintillating treatment of Beckett’s television work, allows Eh Joe merely “a preparatory value that serves to introduce the works for television, rather than being fully a part of them” (1997: 166-67).

Perhaps a better clue to what is at stake in this curious drama, however, can be discerned in the very categoricalness of its structural partition into two completely autonomous “objects” (to appropriate a Lacanian usage): gaze, and voice. Once the brief prelude has concluded, indeed, there is nothing but these two sundered objects for us to contemplate, apart from the minute and trembling assertion of a third, and possibly mediating presence in their midst — namely the camera, which seizes each of the opportunities afforded it by the rhythmical breaks in Voice’s harangue, to approach the gaze of Face with a well-nigh gravitational and thus inexorable force. When we reduce the drama to these three elements (as Beckett’s instructions tell us to — Face, Voice, and Camera are his three nominated characters for the long main section of Eh Joe), what we effectively have is the first work for television in which the audio signal is forcefully divorced from the visual signal at the level of form. This is a critical moment in the hypothetical modernisation of television as a medium, by an act of formalisation that has, as it were, sublated the technical and material constituents of the medium into the laws dictating the elaboration of the form. It is not merely that Voice speaks while Face ostensibly listens; it is much more that the third, wedge-character in the drama — the electronic video camera itself — actively interrupts and de-naturalises the erstwhile seamlessness of TV’s integrated “sound and vision”. There is a rigid law of inclusive disjunction that obtains between the soundtrack, which was literally pre-recorded, and the video image; this law is stated in the initial stage directions of the teleplay: “camera has nine slight moves in towards face, say four inches each time. Each move is stopped by voice resuming, never camera move and voice together” (361).

Quite simply, this law is a critical reflection upon the material fact that, in an analogue television set, the composite video signal and the audio signal were entirely distinct, though bundled together in the transmission signal. The video signal was amplitude-modulated into the appropriate frequency, and then the sound was frequency-modulated as a separate signal. The tuner extracted both signals from the radio waves that transmitted them to the antenna — one signal would be routed through the cathode tube and the electron gun, to emerge as a particle beam scanning the back of the glass screen; the other would be routed through the amplifier to emerge as sound waves through the speaker cone. The two signals were reconstituted only in psychological experience as the illusion of audio-visual fusion — what Michel Chion calls the “instantaneous perceptual triage” which guarantees that certain audio elements are “swallowed up” in the false depths of the image. (Chion 1999: 3) When Deleuze writes enthusiastically that it is “as if a radio piece and a silent film were being played simultaneously,” it is telling that he elides the difference between video and film image and never articulates why television should have been the medium of choice for the actuation of this inclusive disjunction (1997: 159, 167). But television is precisely the medium in which this disjunction is always operative, and will always have been (unlike cinema with its two distinct historical sequences, silent cinema and sound cinema, television has always spoken). Eh Joe is the first work for the television in which its audio-visual disjunction is claimed as medially constitutive, and thence raised to the level of a consistent aesthetic law.

More than that, it is clear that the formal delamination of the planes of the visible and the audible — something that, as Daniel Albright maintains, had always played a part in Beckett’s dramatic works —, the “deliberate miscoordination of speech and action … here reaches a kind of climax” (Albright 2003: 129). The uncanniest effect of Eh Joe is the suspicion this delamination breeds of a complete misalignment of the separated elements, to the point that it cannot be said with any certainty that Face “hears” what Voice says, since there neither comes a moment when Face will be heard (it remains speechless), nor one when Voice will be seen. That is, and again to adopt the conceptual apparatus of Michel Chion in The Voice in Cinema, what Eh Joe presents is the stalemate of two cinematic avatars, locked in an impossible embrace around the void of their articulation — the video figure of the mute, and the haunting vocal spectre of the acousmêtre (1999: 17-57). It is in the medium of television that this final “face-off” between the two counterparts of sound cinema’s haunted screen had to come about — since cinema invariably resolves the acousmêtre into some fold of the visual, some “ordinary mortal” on-screen body, and almost always has the mute speak the deepest secret of the scenario; and rarely if ever effects their encounter. In television, meanwhile, Beckett intuited the potentiality of a direct and antagonistic confrontation of the counterparts whose technical logic revolved around the technical bipartition of the medium’s constitutive signals. The entire drama of Eh Joe is effectively the violent showdown between the lethal conjurations of the acousmêtre, and the “squeezing” and strangulating powers of the mute Face upon the Voice. While Voice lacerates the image of Face with rich fabulations of a past burdened with guilt, and attempts to perforate its implacable surface with the puncture-wounds of language, Face issues a counterforce of “silencing” Voice, a “throttling” via “mental thuggee” of all her merciless solicitations toward auto-destruction (Beckett 1990: 363). It is as if, to overturn Deleuze’s formulation, a radio signal and a silent video signal were locked in a struggle for hegemony over the medium; for in television it is not established whether the image is disposed “at the mercy of the voice” as it has been in cinema since the late advent of sound (Chion 1999: 27).

In the event, victory finally appears to go to the now grossly, almost obscenely proximate image of Face (which takes in only the eyes, nose and portions of the brow and cheeks), since the audio signal begins to taper off into inaudibility well before the image too begins its rapid “fade” from the screen. “Voice drops to whisper, almost inaudible except words in italics” (366). Having registered this victory in what Deleuze aptly describes as a “horrible smile without a mouth” (1997: 168), “Image fades” and “Voice and image out. End.” In this end-game, as the extreme close-up of Joe’s eyes loses all specificity and focus amidst the grey, luminous lines of phosphorescent pixels, and as the material surface of language in the radio signal of television sound is worsened to the point of intermittent inaudibility, momentous transvaluations are at stake. For it is just as Voice has already predicted it would be:

Till the whisper …. You know …. When you can’t hear the words …. Just the odd one here and there …. That’s the worst …. Isn’t it, Joe? … Isn’t that what you told me …. Before we expire …. The odd word …. Straining to hear …. Why must you do that? … When you’re nearly home …. What matter then …. What we mean …. It should be the best …. Nearly home again …. Another stilled …. And it’s the worst …. Isn’t that what you said? … The whisper …. The odd word …. Straining to hear …. Brain tired squeezing …. It stops in the end …. You stop it in the end …. Imagine if you couldn’t …. Ever think of that?... If it went on…. The whisper in your head…. Me whispering at you in your head…. Things you can’t catch…. On and off…. Till you join us…. (364)

What is expected to have been “the best” (this squelching of torturing acousmetric sound, the achievement of a longed-for silence), suddenly becomes “the worst” — a passionate intensity of “straining to hear” what cannot be heard, as all but the odd word subsides to an inaudible murmur, a blur of language become lalangue, babble, pure drive. This reversal marks a genuine breakthrough in Beckett’s art, and it specifies the goal to which Beckett’s evolving method of “worsening” would henceforth aspire: this pathological labour of jouissance, making out and preserving the image amidst the noise of the medium as it falls into terminal decrepitude. Any supposed victory of Face here is inevitably Pyrrhic, since the pure, muted image is insupportable without the interminable pulsions of a speech with one foot in linguistic structure and one foot in the body itself. This is where Deleuze seems especially wrong about Beckett’s art. When he writes that “Beckett became less and less tolerant of words,” and that television allowed “Beckett to overcome the inferiority of words” (1997: 172) by opening them up to visions and sounds and “the sublime image” (170), he completely misunderstands the role of Voice here and elsewhere in maintaining the image as such by exceeding “words” with the force of a drive. It is at this point, where Face desperately realises its constitutive dependency on Voice to provide it with jouissance and thus a raison d’être, and both begin to fade, that its grin has to be read as nothing other than the fabled “grimace of the real” itself — the faltering of the imaginary structure of visual “reality” (the “fantasy through which thought sustains itself”) given the upsurge of the Real of voice as such, as a creaturely, insistent, almost inaudible rustling and burbling (Lacan 1990: 6). We are inveigled from the bourn of this grimace to “imagine” the image “going on” interminably and insensibly, independent of any screen, even that of the exhausted brain itself. It is a case of Imagination Dead Imagine: the ultimate of Beckett’s imperatives. And it is in this way, indeed, that the “image” of black and white television, circa 1966 (when Eh Joe first went to air) attained not only to its timely modernist auto-critique, but to a moment of intensive virtuality that has not yet been stilled today, despite the retirement of the medium from everyday life.

Shades: monochrome variations

Returning to the medium a decade later, it is as if Beckett were compelled to take Eh Joe as a point of departure and thence derive a combinatorial of forms to exhaust the latent potentialities within the virtual image: pure voice resolutely visualised as image (in the film of Not I); voice as wedge between two competing regimes of the image (in the monochrome of Ghost Trio); and, inverting the original scenario, voice as imaginary supplement to the Real of the image (in …but the clouds…). Writing to Con Leventhal that Ghost Trio was “All the old ghosts. Godot and Eh Joe over infinity” (Knowlson 1997: 621), Beckett clearly understood the significance of these three pieces as late modifications of an oeuvre by the force of their mediation through the “echographic” spectrality of the television set itself (Derrida and Stiegler 2002). There is an undiminished sense in which these ghostly variations, deliberately monochrome, induct the vestiges of Eh Joe and Godot and “all the old ghosts” as formal players in a mourning play, circa 1976-77, for the passing of a televisual format whose anachronism had finally caught up with itself.  For Shades is the greatest funerary suite yet composed for a medium on the verge of extinction, whose only rival is Godard’s L’Histoire du cinema.

To grasp exactly what is at stake in this process, it is necessary to attain a clearer sense of what is meant by the method of “worsening” in Beckett’s art. In his famous 1937 German letter to Axel Kaun, which he later dismissed as “German bilge,” Beckett wrote that “more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it” (Beckett 1983: 171). This image of the medium-veil dangling between the artist and what he actually wants to get at (be it the Things themselves, or Nothing after all) hounded Beckett throughout his life, and came to stand not just for what he called the “terrible materiality of the word surface,” but every technical means, every “terrible materiality of … surface” through which the artist was obliged to achieve the incommunicable. “To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it — be it something or nothing — begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today” (172). Beckett’s arresting image has been amply celebrated; but I want to stop myself short of endorsing Daniel Albright’s emphatic deduction that it was thus always Beckett’s aim “to foreground the medium, to thrust it in the spectator’s face, by showing its inadequacy, its refusal to be wrenched to any good artistic purpose” (2003: 1). This too aggressively overstates the case, and grossly underestimates the delicacy of what is at stake.

What Beckett later called “German bilge” is I think the proposition that “something or Nothing” lurked behind the veils of media. Gradually this preoccupation with ontological depth gave way to a redoubled concern for the surface of the veil itself and what it bears. We can equally call the veil a screen (a word Beckett uses in similar contexts), because in either case it is a “materiality of surface” upon which evanescent images can be made to appear: in written signs, in theatrical spaces, as radio waves, in projected photography, in electronic images, what have you. And no doubt, the impulse violently to attack this screen, to perforate it and expose the cheap dependency of all images, all beauty, upon some fragile, impermanent, degradable surface, remained steadfast throughout Beckett’s life. I want to say that Atom Egoyan’s 2006 stage production of Eh Joe takes this impulse to a logical limit by using as a prop (in the equivalent role of the television screen for a theatre audience) a large scrim stretched over the front of the stage: here the screen is so bored through by holes that it simultaneously allows views of the video-mediated close-up image of the actor, and that actor’s actual embodied presence behind the scrim on stage. Belacqua says of Beethoven in the Dream of Fair to Middling Women: “…I think of his earlier compositions where into the body of the musical statement he incorporates a punctuation of dehiscence, flottements, the coherence gone to pieces, the continuity bitched to hell because the units of continuity have abdicated their unity, they have gone multiple, they fall apart, the notes fly about, a blizzard of electrons.” (Quoted in Bersani and Dutoit 1993: 22-23) Any student of the television works will of course be stopped short by this last phrase, which precisely encapsulates the “terrible materiality” of the TV screen as an electrical storm. In any event, it will always have been a question for Beckett of “somehow finding a method by which we can represent this mocking attitude” towards the medium, through the very medium itself (Beckett 1983: 172). And the name for that method in Beckett is the name he gave it in his ultimate work: worsening. This is one hesitant step back from the endless destructive violence of hole boring. “Worsening” means deliberately degrading the “materiality of the surface” until the relationship between it and the aesthetic image it supports approaches sheer collapse. That is the quintessential gesture of Beckett’s late modernism in every medium. To worsen the screen of the image, to expose the image’s dependency upon a materiality, and to assail it — but all in the name of discovering whether or not the image might thus acquire a moment’s subtraction from all such dependency. As he put it: “an assault against words [or any medium] in the name of beauty” (173), which can only be achieved through the medium assaulted. To worsen the medium until the image it bears dwindles to a point just this side of oblivion, a star-like punctum of light, or sound, or movement that has become a hovering virtuality before disappearing once and for all.

What remains to be ‘worsened’ of the television screen in 1976 that had not been subjected to the assault of 1965? First, the acousmêtre had to be neutralised as a source of power within the 1976 scenario; having dominated the screen a decade previously, Voice would be given very different functions here. The 1973 film version of Billie Whitelaw’s extraordinary performance of Mouth in Not I (the first speaking part written by Beckett in seven years, and the first since Eh Joe’s Voice) is effectively the most extreme “de-acousmatization” in the history of any medium. As Chion remarks,

the acousmêtre has only to show itself — for the person speaking to inscribe his or her body inside the frame, in the visual field — for it to lose its power, omniscience and (obviously) ubiquity. I call this phenomenon de-acousmatization. Embodying the voice is a sort of symbolic act, dooming the acousmêtre to the fate of ordinary mortals. De-acousmatization roots the acousmêtre to a place… [specifically to the] end point of deacousmatization — the mouth from which the voice issues. (1999: 27-8)

If this is the case then, given that Mouth is the very next speaking part Beckett wrote after the acousmatic omnipotence of Voice, Not I represents the most radical loss and depletion of that omnipotence imaginable. It is not simply that we finally see the source of the voice — it is that we see nothing else, apart from a shadowy vestige of a Listener without a face. The entire spectacle of the piece consists of Mouth’s desperate desire not to coincide with itself; to force a wedge between itself and its sound; to seek in the third person some refuge from the trauma of being which its enunciation inexorably performs. Resolutely visualised, the voice cannot now spectrally stalk the screen, lingering somewhere between off and on, in and out of the frame: spotlighted, centred, inescapable, the hypervisible mouth has made the voice pathetic, desperate and so weak it can barely clear a space for its own grammatical feints. By televising a filmed version in which not even the Listener is observed, but only Mouth in an unblinking close-up that supplements at a distance Face’s mouthless face at the end of Eh Joe, Beckett and the BBC programmers solved at a stroke the potential problem of a lingering efficacy of the acousmêtre in this new television trilogy: Not I definitively conjures away the voice as a domineering power, and demotes it to a much lowlier status within the medium.

The dramatic situation of Ghost Trio, meanwhile, is deceptively straightforward, and in some senses a reprise of the Eh Joe problematic: a man sits in a room, playing snatches of Beethoven’s music to himself on a small cassette player; every once in a while, first as prodded by another acousmatic female Voice and then, later, autonomously, he ritually checks the room’s door, window and pallet for signs of an advent of “her” whom he awaits. Of course, as with Godot many years prior, she never comes, and in an explicit quotation of that play and acknowledgement of its domination of his career, Beckett concludes the teleplay by having a boy come to the door and shake his head, terminating the action. However, Voice’s fortunes appear to have taken a turn for the worse since Eh Joe and Not I. Her role here no longer seems to be to do anything but occupy the mere present, and a fractional slice of the future; certainly the past is beyond her powers of recapture. Moreover, as the play progresses through its three phases (Pre-action, Action, and Re-action), her presence dwindles, as if to clinch the realisation that she is at best a spectral mode of anticipation, based on observed repetition — an establishment, if you like, of Genette’s “iterative” temporal mood — but cannot survive the passage into a past tense or the immediacy of something new, an Event as such (like the coming of the boy, or the Figure’s looking at his reflection in a mirror, of both of which she is perfectly uninformed). But, more to the point, the status of Voice is clarified by her opening words, which read (again tonelessly, monotonously, and following a slow fade up of the scene’s visual image) thus:

Good evening. Mine is a faint voice, Kindly tune accordingly. [Pause.] Good evening. Mine is a faint voice. Kindly tune accordingly. [Pause.] It will not be raised, nor lowered, whatever happens. Look. [Long pause.] (408)

Here is a radio voice displaced from its native habitat, and forced to wander acousmetrically the evacuated space of a bleak televisual image, in which the human figure (hunched on a chair to the far right) is not yet even recognisable. Her request to “tune accordingly” has everything to do with an implicit recognition that the mechanics of her transmission via television are identical to a radio situation, and also with the fact that, tuned to whatever level appropriate to the previously broadcast program, the volume settings may need to be adjusted, now, to the unrelentingly quiet signal here emitted. The repetition of the opening phrases thus establishes a “test pattern” for audio adjustment, a kind of subjectless migration of the Voice to the very technical margins of the medium for which the blunt imperative mood of everything she will say from this point forward (either to the camera, in Pre-action, or to the Figure, during Action) cannot really compensate. Voice has moved, that is to say, away from any illusory synchronisation with the “psychological” contents of the Figure (even when she says “He will now think he hears her”), and back towards the blankly instrumental functions of technical prompter — to the camera, to the actor, and above all to the television audience itself.

It is from this situation exactly that we are then to understand the next decisive moment in her opening address:

The light: faint, omnipresent. No visible source. As if all luminous. Faintly luminous. No shadow. [Pause.] No shadow. Colour: none. All grey. Shades of grey. [Pause.] The colour grey if you wish, shades of the colour grey. [Pause.] Forgive my stating the obvious. [Pause.] (408)

What is this but a description of the ineluctable modality of visibility set by the television screen itself? With no evident “source” of illumination beyond itself, television itself would seem to crystallise the “faintly luminous” condition of light as it is everywhere in late Beckett, since, as Daniel Albright observes, here in the cathode ray “all light proceeds from the electron gun behind the image, not from any source exterior to the image” (136). But as Voice proceeds to read off the perfectly “obvious” condition of everything the screen already, immediately, manifests as an image, and thus draws dangerously close to a limit of tautology, something very interesting happens. After all, nothing could be less “obvious” in 1976 than that the colour on the screen should be “grey”; that indeed there is only grey, various “shades of the colour grey,” since as we have already stated, the BBC was transmitting entirely colour programmes on both its channels by this time. The question thus arises: if in her opening words, Voice had drawn attention to her status as a homeless radio signal inside every television set, what has this deceptively “obvious” statement about greyscale actually said about the condition of signal reception in Great Britain? Clearly, we are to envisage two “audiences” (indeed, they are listening, and intently at this point!) reacting in entirely different ways to these lines. On the one hand, the owners of colour sets will be obliged to desist from retuning the colour control and “accordingly” accept the devolutionary turn back to greyscale that this production has made. On the other hand, the possessors of monochrome sets will have to do something very different — if the typical condition of monochrome television viewers in an era of colour broadcasting is to imagine a colour scheme for the greyscale image, here Voice is reassuring them that they are missing nothing. There is nothing to imagine because, for once, grey is the unconditional truth of the image as such. Voice has thus, under the sign of the “obvious,” opened up a divided and antagonistic terrain at the level of reception, between roughly evenly distributed “audiences” who will have reacted in utterly different ways to her casual and apologetic statement of self-evidence.

Of course, this division is above all else a class division in 1976, and the signal formal achievement of Ghost Trio is precisely this reconfiguration of Voice as a finely tuned registering apparatus for the tremors of a raging contemporary political antagonism embedded within the ostensibly “classless” frequencies of public broadcast television. It is an antagonism that is then redeployed or reformatted within the teleplay in a “horizontal” visual direction.  A zone of autonomy within the gridded space of the “familiar chamber” (408) is opened up by Figure, who manages in the Voice-less Re-action sequence to motivate some unprecedented “point of view” shots: out the door, out the window, onto the pallet, and above all into the mirror. It is an achievement that is to be correlated exactly with the assumption of the responsibility over the soundtrack by the resurgent yet broken strains of Beethoven’s Largo from the Fifth Piano Trio (The Ghost, in D major), whose audibility from the tiny amplifier of Figure’s cassette begins now to flood the entire space and alter the mood and atmosphere accordingly. Beckett’s remarkable achievement here is to have disabled the lingering disciplinary powers of Voice, and discovered untold capacities in the disjunctive relationship between image and sound on television to gesture towards a Utopian screen space of disarticulated musical sequences and “point of view” shots, where the politically divided television audience can make out through the relentlessly grey textures of the image an overtone of temporal redemption. That redemption is also to be felt in the final visual turn to the Face as such, liberated from the bent posture of waiting, and lifted into a momentary smile whose exact condition of possibility is nothing other than the acoustic structure of the final bars of The Ghost.

All of which prepares the 1976 trilogy for its final instalment, about which it is only possible to say here that in it, the structure of Eh Joe is inverted, and Voice (now male and melancholy) is that which strains longingly after the precious rarity of the Image as such — again a Face, but this time female and tantalisingly intermittent. Whereas Voice had once invaded and subjugated the close-up, now “M’s” voice is that which must rehearse the exhaustive and repetitive ritual whereby the close-up Image becomes possible at all; and whereas Voice was once the spectral acousmatic place of the Real within the television, now it is “W’s” Image (“Close-up of woman’s face reduced as far as possible to eyes and mouth,” 417) whose evanescence and “worsened” condition will become the site of an encounter with the Real, while Voice murmurously supplements its holographic intensity with the words from Yeats’s poem that W can be seen to mouth: “…but the clouds…” (421). If I now state that the ritual in question, the exhaustive labour recounted by M whereby W can be conjured, consists in his body’s interminable tracing and retracing of a horizontal line across an illuminated space, from left to right, then a flying return to the top of the space, and then back again to a horizontal scan from right to left, then by this point I trust that it will not be too much of a stretch to account for this very precisely as an allegory of the constitution of the televisual image as such. That is, what …but the clouds… most remarkably achieves for the deacousmatised screen it inherits from the previous works of the sequence, is nothing other than the most literal evocation in the medium’s history of the televisual image as not an image at all, but the illusory effect of an electron beam’s mechanical, horizontal scanning of the phosphorescent pixels on the back of the glass screen: “on electronic displays … images are presented in the form of a constant and repetitive process of scanning” (Rodowick 2007: 136) And as Rodowick points out, this is not an image in the sense that a film or photographic image is.

Rather than producing a whole spatial field, in NTSC interlaced scanning, for example, an electron beam traces first the odd lines of a 525-line display, and then the even lines. The different parts of the display correspond to different phases in time such that there is never a moment when the entire image is spatially or temporally present to us. We perceive an “image” because the sequential phosphors (600 pixels per line) continue to glow in overlapping durations and because the scanning process is so rapid (one-fifteenth of a second for a field; one-thirtieth of a second for a frame). (2007: 137)

Thus, when M tell us that “nine hundred and ninety-nine” times out of a thousand (421), his horizontal scanning operation achieves nothing in the way of an image, what he is telling us is that it takes 1000 scans of a screen’s 525 lines to achieve something the eye can recognise as an image (at roughly 0.13 of a second). M’s scanning ritual requires this degree of exhaustive application simply to score on the retina the degree of composition that will suffice for the mind to declare it as “one”—just as it only takes three words to conjure up and sustain Yeats’s poem in the memory machine of an archive that is today measured in bits and bytes.

I conclude by suggesting that, far from this being a case of “foreground[ing] the medium, … thrust[ing] it in the spectator’s face, by showing its inadequacy, its refusal to be wrenched to any good artistic purpose” (Albright 2003: 1), this haunting allegory of the extraordinary electronic effort it takes simply to evoke a split-second’s worth of TV image instead makes good on the overarching project of worsening. It is precisely by retarding, arresting, breaking down the false immediacies of the medium that Beckett momentarily manages to emancipate the Image from its imprisonment in the coils of cliché; the gentleness of what is at stake here, the tender care for the Image as such, does not come at the cost of an exposure of its medium’s “inadequacy,” but through an aching avowal of its material and therefore mortal properties. To worsen is not to disparage a medium, but to love it to death, in the name of the Image it alone can bear.


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