My essay on the lessons that the tape recorder offers for the future study of literature on a global scale is just out in a special issue of SubStance on “The Postlingual Turn.” My sincere thanks to the editors of the special issue, yasser elhariry and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, for including my piece and to them and many others for helping me develop my argument about how and why “multilingual approaches to literature on a global scale . . . must go hand in hand with attention to their multiple media.” In the essay, I discuss the use of tape by a range of poets from Kamau Brathwaite to Hone Tūwhare, from Bulat Okudzhava and Vladimir Vysotsky to Liao Yiwu 廖亦武. The full essay is, unfortunately, behind a paywall, so please contact me, if you would like a copy. I reproduce the brief conclusion below.
I took as one of the epigraphs to this essay Costa and Perreault’s claim that “the tape recorder is already as necessary as the typewriter. It may soon replace it.” Read today, their claim now comes to us full of obvious historical irony. Neither the tape recorder nor the typewriter is any longer a necessary part of our everyday lives and neither seems to have much of a future, except as an object of nostalgic curiosity or of media history. Krapp’s Last Tape might be set in “a late evening in the future,” but to watch Krapp load his reels of tape on stage is to feel immersed in a technological museum piece, just as Krapp himself is immersed in his own recorded past (Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape 9). And yet, as I have suggested here, it is precisely because its meaning has shifted across time and space that the tape recorder offers lessons for the future study of literature on a global scale: it demonstrates the dynamic and mutually shaping relationship between changes in media and shifts in the boundaries of language and literature.
Between the 1950s and the 1980s, tape changed literary practice worldwide. From Ginsberg to Sexton, Antin to the bards of magnitizdat, tape was used to unsettle the boundaries of literature and disrupt the borderlines of language, presaging a larger turn away from isolated and divisible languages and towards a greater range of intonations, versions, and modes of circulation. The history of literature on tape heralds a turn not just in global literature but also in global literary studies: it anticipates the breaking down of monolithic linguistic, geographic, and media categories in our digital age; and it illustrates the need for literary scholars to attend to the flux in both media and languages and to the dynamic interplay between them. Only in this way can we begin to truly do world literature in stereo.