Hoarder Line: Some Notes on the Difference between Hoarding and Collecting

Early in 2023, I participated in a workshop at Aberystwyth University exploring collectibles and the collection of ephemera.  I was the only participant, among academics and museum staff, to talk about my private collection of ephemera.  So as to give that fruit fly of a presentation an afterlife, I have gathered my notes for this entry in my journal, which, after all, was created for the purpose of ‘keeping up with the out-of-date.’  

The presentation was titled “Making It Matter: Ephemerabilia, Queer Identity, and the Imperative of Being Out of Touch.”

I know, titles are like jokes.  If you have to explain them, they don’t work.  But, here goes:

“Ephemerabilia,” meaning, the love of the fugitive, the fragile, and perhaps even the futile.  All of the above – which may apply to any of our lives and bodies.  All of the above – but not ‘trivial.’  Nothing is trivial in itself.  Just like nothing is memorable in itself.  Someone has to make it matter.

For that reason, the word “minor” in Maurice Rickards’ definition of ephemera is problematic, as it devalues what it defines.  To quote myself: “Trivia is knowledge we refuse the potential to matter,” whereas “Memorabilia is matter we grant the capacity to mean differently.”

The need to make something matter and mean something, something else, no matter what, is, to me, intimately bound up with queer identity, with my sense of being, thinking, feeling, and loving differently.

And that is where, to me, the compulsion of being out of touch comes in: being drawn to what has been relegated to the margins, to matter that has been disregarded and discarded as presumably nonessential or unrepresentative.

I could have put the last two words in parenthesis; because sharing my passion for the untouchable – or the “not touched much lately” – means coming out with what drives me.  Making something neglected and presumably immaterial matter and mean something anew is an act of reification.

It means saying I matter.  But the question I keep asking myself, in relation to my collection habits, is “What’s the matter with me?”

Let’s say I say “I am a collector.”  Which question should I expect to follow? Is it “What are you collecting?” How about: “Why are you collecting?” “Why do you collect what you collect?”

What I collect is stated – and illustrated – on my website.  I collect ephemera related to products of what once was popular entertainment – early-to-mid twentieth-century, mainly US American, film, theatre and radio – that are lesser-known now.  I call it “unpopular culture.”

My collection is all fairly methodically put into actual and virtual drawers. Unlike in this scenario.  

The image on the left shows my ex’s apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  I once lived there, for about fifteen years, and, for over 33 years now I have stayed at that place whenever I am in the city.

Due to the pandemic, I hadn’t been back in three years.  In the fall of 2022, my ex had a heart attack just days before I was set to arrive there.  I looked after the apartment while visiting him at the hospital.  Anyway, I was shocked when I saw the place in such disarray.  My ex has always been a hoarder.  But the place had become almost unnavigable in the intervening years.

Obviously, hoarding is not collecting.  But is it so obvious? Is the distinction perhaps too obvious?  Sure, hoarding is chaotic.  It is indiscriminate, whereas collecting is orderly and discerning.  Collections are curated. whereas the compulsion of the hoarder may strike us as an infliction, an illness that may or may not be curable.

Curating is derived from the Latin word “curare,” meaning to care.  Does it follow that the hoarder is careless? While staying in my ex’s apartment, I took it upon myself to discard of some items I deemed trash.

Given that chaos, I thought my ex would never notice.  When my ex returned to the apartment after three months of intensive care, hospital care and aftercare, he emailed me and inquired about some of the objects I had discarded.

And he was so incensed about my attempt at tidying that he pretty much ended our 33-year-old friendship.

Seriously, to give up a friendship over a pile of cheap Chinese take-away containers, most of them without matching lids? That struck me as unreasonable, disproportionate.

But the fact that my ex remembered where what is in that chaos made me rethink the relationship between hoarding and collecting.

And it made me question whether collecting is not like hoarding in its illogical, perhaps even pathological clinging to matter that may not matter to most.  Something that takes up so much time and space, it can threaten to diminish rather than enrich our experience of life.

Possessions can take possession of us.  This is not vanity.  It is not conspicuous consumption.  For gay men born into decades of intolerance and legal discrimination, it may be a stab at making our existence more concrete and at leaving a trace or trail of it behind.  I should have known better than to mess with the mess that I found.

I have had occasion – or made it one – to examine the collection of the queer Anglo-Welsh Victorian dilettante George Powell in an exhibition I staged with my curating students a few years ago.  Powell bequeathed his collection to our museum.  But you might say he was a poor curator of his collection.  He did not collect methodically.  And some of the objects in his collections are fakes or copies of dubious provenance.

Powell had no offspring, even though he married toward the end of his short life.  Stating his intention to leave his collection to our museum, he referred to it as all he possessed of bigotry and virtue, meaning, bijouterie and vertu – trinket and treasure.

Powell left the lot to what is now Aberystwyth University.  In his book collection, for instance, was a popular volume called Book of Wonderful Characters, which contains a short account of the life of Chevalier D’Eon, who lived as a crossdresser for half a century and to whom we owe the term “eonism.”

I sensed that Powell created through that bequest a diary of sorts – an invitation, by way of visual and material clues among the objects he once possessed, to go in search of him.

The “it” in “making it matter” refers less to the collection than it does to the collector. Powell did not curate his collection to take care that what might reflect poorly on his character or cause suspicion as to his tastes.  To filter anything out would mean to erase what was at the core of his being, which is why Powell initially insisted that a museum be built to house it and that the collection be kept in one place, Aberystwyth, in its entirety.

He did not want to disappear behind his collection but reappear through it.  He wanted to be become readable, to be understood.  The Powell case made me more aware of the relationship between the private act of collecting and the public act of sharing a collection, of remaining visible through one’s collection.

Powell’s desire to remain visible, become readable and be understood becomes clearer to me in the contemporary periodicals he bequeathed to our University.  Here, he did not give us the lot – the magazines, cover to cover – but he cut out which articles he wanted to preserve and bound them in leather.  There is no telling whether he read the articles.  But it is clear that he thought they mattered and should matter to others.  And they are quite eclectic, ranging from articles on animal cruelty to drunkenness and insanity.

Articles on ‘Consanguinity in Marriage’ and ‘Marriages between First Cousins in England and Their Effects,’ which were no doubt of particular interest to him because his grandmothers were sisters and his parents first cousins.

Powell appeared to have been drawing attention to his struggle to figure out who he was and why he was the way he was.

Trying to understand what motivated Powell as a collector, I made a public display in the galleries of the School of Art Museum at Aberystywyth Univeristy of my own collection of cinema, theatre and radio-related ephemera.  In my gallery texts, I asked:

‘Do we collect things simply to indulge our passion for them? If so, why make a display of that passion? Showcasing seems calculated to raise certain objects to the status of ‘collectibles’ so as to advance the collector as connoisseur.  And yet, might not the urge to exhibit our personal belongings be rather more elemental?’

What are ‘collectibles’? What is collectible? Take, for instance, two different but related types of objects in my collection. Cigarette cards of once well-known but now mostly forgotten performers, in this case radio stars.  As well as movie posters and lobby cards of films of roughly that same period.

Both feature performers from the world of popular – or now less popular – entertainment.  Both are finite.  Lobby cards were generally produced in sets of eight.  Cigarette cards in sets of up to fifty.

The main difference is that cigarette cards were designed to be collected.  They were meant to be habit-forming, to encourage addiction.

Lobby cards on the other hand were not designed as collectibles.  In fact, as the fine print states, collecting them was prohibited by the studios whose property they remained.

By now, the industry that cigarette cards once served has become detached from them.  They no longer advertise and encourage addictive products, which makes them candidates for my belated affection, and which makes it possible for me to make them matter differently.

There are other intimate reasons why I mostly collect the likenesses of one particular actress: Claudette Colbert.

I became intrigued by the French-born US American actress watching a movie on television with my grandmother when I was 8 or 9.  I didn’t start collecting until decades later.  Nor did I know then that Colbert was rumoured to be queer.

My collection is also a catalogue of the love: more than 90% of my collection has been gifted to me by gay men, and almost all of which by my husband.  Original film posters are now almost out of my league as a collector.

I do not collect objects because of their monetary value, of which, due to the fact that the items were given to me, I often have no knowledge.  I have always been attracted to what is of little value to others.

A queer friend told me once that, as a child, he used to pick the crayon no other kid would pick up – the least popular colour.  Embracing neglected objects to me is related to the feeling of having been unwanted and misunderstood as a child.

Exhibiting my collection, I realized just how intimate collecting is.  I was very self-conscious about opening my drawers to display those objects – paper dolls, mass-produced pictures of performers few people today still relate to.  When I tried to exhibit the cigarette cards, I also realized they were too small to be impactful or readable for display.

So I created a slideshow of them.  There are objects in my collection that matter more once they are dematerialized.  I scan many books and scripts so that I need no longer handle the physical artifact.  It preserves the object.  But it also makes the object less meaningful if what matters is the visual or written information it conveys.  Not that I dispose of ephemera in my collection once I have scanned them.

The most ephemeral items in my collection are literally untouchable.  They are digitized sound recordings.  The cigarette cards of radio performers are, like scripts and contemporary books on radio, not the real thing.  They are a means to materialise the immaterial culture they commemorate: the world of sound broadcasting.

My (Im)memorabilia exhibition contained a listening station and featured a soundtrack of clips on a loop.  They are from my collection of audio recordings, now widely available online.  The files contain recordings of radio broadcasts from the 1930s to 1950s, most of them plays, almost all of which were part of episodes of series or chapters of serials.

The vast majority of plays were also broadcast only a single time.  Despite the recordings that gradually materialized from the vaults, they were as ephemeral as soundwaves.  That they survive at all is owing to their commercial value.

The recordings are evidence for the sponsor that the programme they funded actually existed and could be inspected – or audited.  As cultural products they were not valued.  They still are not valued much.  They certainly never received the scrutiny or status accorded to motion pictures or television programmes.

I organize the folders alphabetically by each series title.

And each subfolder contains recordings of broadcasts from those series.  Some subfolders contain close to one thousand recordings per series.  Cataloguing these immaterial objects, which I have written about at some length in my study Immaterial Culture and on my blog broadcastellan, involves adding and correcting information about talents involved in a broadcast play; verifying air dates by referencing old newspapers and magazines; checking for sound quality and recording speed; and replacing files with newer, cleaner, more authentic recordings.

It is not possible to listen to all of those recordings in full.  There are now over 30,000 of them.  It is almost impossible to keep track of them.

Unlike my ex, I have forgotten about many of the items in my collection. But like my ex, I would be very upset if only a single item went missing. Most of these recordings are readily available on the internet, copyright being a murky issue.  In my writing, I have argued for their cultural significance, their artistic merit.  But I have not been successful in making a career out of my caring.  I am wary of intellectualising my desire, and I am suspicious of such attempt by academics.

The difference between hoarding and collecting lies in the adding of value.  Hoarding is an act of accumulation.  Collecting is an act of accretion, of value added.

The ‘imperative’ in my title is the imperative of the matter – what drives us, what makes us who we are.  The ‘it’ in “Making it Matter” refers both to the ephemeron and the life of its collector who deems it worth preserving.  That my efforts have been futile only seems to fuel a desire that has been termed “The Queer Art of Failure.”

“A Radio Tragedy”; or, Making a Song and Dance about Past Novel Experiences

The issue of Argosy in which “A Radio Tragedy” appeared.

Flicking at random, as is my wont when unwinding, through digital copies of decades-old magazines, I came across a poem so trifling as to catch my attention.  To be sure, the lightweight verse in question is titled “A Radio Tragedy,” which makes it stand out for a reader who is also a writer on the subject.

Penned by one John McColl, an occasional contributor of lines, rhyming or otherwise, to 1920s magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, “A Radio Tragedy” appeared in the 28 November 1925 issue of Argosy All-Story Weekly, a US American periodical then in its fifth decade.  

Unlike print publishing, broadcasting was still a new phenomenon at the time.  As I put it in Immaterial Culture, radio in those pre-network days was yet transitioning from “a ham-and-DXer playground to the bread and butter of virtual bill- boarders, from the site of an amateur cult to a scene of consumer culture involving, by 1930, over six hundred stations and sixty million listeners.”

Continue reading ““A Radio Tragedy”; or, Making a Song and Dance about Past Novel Experiences”

ASMR Jungle: Rambling Notes on NYC Composed Out of Earshot

Chalk drawing on the pavement at Union Square. Not that I need an invitation.

Inhale.  Exhale.  Inhale.  Exhale.  I must try that some time without using a brown paper bag.  Just kidding – but only just.  It’s been a breathless few weeks.  Now that I am coming up for air, I’d like to say, if it were not such a hackneyed phrase, that I have returned from my long and long-delayed New York trip with a suitcase full of memories.  Not that I care to be reminded about my luggage, given that, owing to an absent-mindedness brought on by physical exhaustion and an acute state of all-over-the-placeness, my carry-on case continued its journey by rail without me.

Argh.  Among other things, the valise gone astray contained a rare copy of Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig (1943), a curiosity of a mystery about which, had I not, through my negligence, forfeited the opportunity of its perusal, I would have liked to say considerably more here, especially given that its story is set in Wales, whereto its English author, H. C. Bailey (1878–1961) retired at the end of his career.

My copy of the novel, before it got lost in transit.

While in New York, I did a bit of research at the New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Division on lost recordings of Bailey’s “Mr. Fortune” stories, nineteen of which were adapted for US radio in the mid-1930s and are extant as scripts.  More about that, and the pig, some other time, the lost-and-found department of Transport for Wales permitting.  Never mind flying.  Pigs might travel by rail.

Pardon the rustling of mental notes; but as recounted here previously, fortune did not exactly smile on me during my stay in New York, entirely overshadowed as it was, at least initially, by my former partner’s heart attack and my bout of Covid, which barred me from the ICU and turned my legs to lead as I dragged myself from one testing site to another.

Rasp.  Not that my sojourns in the metropolis are ever an unalloyed joy, tinged as they invariably are with a sense of loss and estrangement.  Each year, the city I knew most closely when I lived there from 1990 to 2004, is becoming less familiar, less recognizable, and generally less worth revisiting, especially since what was particular and once characteristic is gradually being replaced by the generic and corporate.

The pandemic has speeded up this process, with many of the remaining one-of-a-kind sites going under in a sump of sameness.  A few years ago, when I researched the career of the English printmaker Stanley Anderson for a catalogue raisonné and a series of exhibitions, I was struck by the sense of dislocation some of his etchings communicate.  A kindred spirit, I am alive to Anderson’s visual commentaries on a world that was vanishing – or was made to disappear – before his very eyes.

Edward Hopper, The Lonely House (1920)

I was reminded of Anderson’s alternative views of 1920s London – of construction sites and demolitions – when I came across the etching The Lonely House (1920) in the exhibition Edward Hopper’s New York at the Whitney.  New York City, as the show’s curators put it with platitudinous generality, “underwent tremendous development” during Hopper’s lifetime; and instead of focussing his attention on landmarks that are more likely to stay in place than the architecturally commonplace – an assumption proven false decades later by the pulverization of the World Trade Center, an act of religious fanaticism bringing home that iconoclasm on any scale demands the iconic – Hopper “turned his attention” to “unsung utilitarian structures” and was “drawn to the collisions of the new and old” that “captured the paradoxes of the changing city.”

I am likewise eschewing the presumably picture-worthy sites in Asphalt Expressionism, my upcoming exhibition of large format, printed iPhone photographs of New York City sidewalks that, in a tourist’s pursuit of views or selfie backdrops, tend literally to fall by the wayside despite being in plain sight.

However, it is not visuals alone that vanish or material culture only that is subject to erasure.  Sounds, too, face neglect and extinction.  Unless they are voices or musical compositions, aural environments are largely unheard of in most records of our experiences, public or private.  Sounds may survive as a backing track to our home videos, but rarely do they become the main event, the real thing of our conscious engagement with sensed reality.

Continue reading “ASMR Jungle: Rambling Notes on NYC Composed Out of Earshot”

“Bloody strange but not, I have decided, queer”: Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966), the Theater, and the Sexual Offences Act 1967

A scene from Grace and Frankie

“Theater Is Not for Fags,” the sign reads.  It was brandished, among other such boards, in a rather unconvincing crowd scene in “The Other Vibrator,” the possibly well-intentioned but insipid eleventh episode of Grace and Frankie’s third season, with which I eventually caught up only a few days ago.  The morning after, I finished reading Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966).  And the way that my wayward mind works, I put it down with that slogan in mind.

Retitled Death at the Dolphin, Marsh’s mystery novel was published in Britain in 1967, half a century before the Grace and Frankie episode first aired.  That means it came before the public just as the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalized consensual – and private – homosexual acts among adult males in England and Wales.  This being Gay Pride month, I am perhaps especially alert to anxieties surrounding gender and queer identity.  At any rate, I detected an unease – or a playful response to public misgivings, actual or perceived –about homosexuality in Marsh’s narrative, which features a single gay character, and a minor one at that, while most of the other players – actors and creatives all – are carefully coupled in more or less, and mostly less, cosy heterosexual bonds.  

Could it be, I wondered, that Marsh, herself a theater director, was sharing the sentiment that public playhouses – in swinging London, to boot – are not a platform for gay men?

Continue reading ““Bloody strange but not, I have decided, queer”: Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966), the Theater, and the Sexual Offences Act 1967”

History Listens: “The Fall of [No Other] City”

Page from the published script of Archibald MacLeish’s “The Fall of the City” (1937)

As the world awaits news from Ukraine and its people awake daily to the sounds of shelling, many of us, having survived the pandemic that at once isolated and united us, become alive anew to our connectedness to world events and to the urgency, the necessity, of connecting dots in plain sight, and of listening out for tell-tale signs, be it the rumble of tanks or the roar of tyrants.  We should have seen this one coming, we might suspect; but such hindsight provides no relief in the face of local destruction and global upheaval.  

I am reminded of the events that came to be known as 9/11 – an attack that did not, as some claimed and many felt, hit us ‘out of the blue’ on that bright September morning – and of feeling both helpless and useless in the wake of the terror that would shape history.  I was teaching writing in the Bronx, and I was researching radio drama of the 1930s.  None of that seemed to matter at a moment when digging in and digging up – literally and figuratively – was felt to be needed to uncover lives lost and recover the history that had gotten us to that point.  I kept on teaching writing, and I kept on researching radio – and I strove to find the usefulness and relevance of both.  That is, I did not carry on “regardless.”  

Instead of retreating into the past of broadcasts decades old, I tried to retrieve messages pertinent to the present.  And while we might think that messages are merely repeated rather than being heeded, we may also find that we did receive them and that we are capable of learning from history even as a world leader insists on repeating it.  

Take, for instance, Archibald MacLeish’s “The Fall of the City.”  First produced and broadcast in the US on 11 April 1937 – with a cast including Orson Welles and Burgess Meredith, and a score by Bernard Herrmann – it was a response to the rise of a dictator who, unchecked and unresisted, conquers a city despite warning voices from the past – the ancient and the dead.  In MacLeish’s allegory, the ‘conquerer’ is not a person: it is fear.  It is fatalism.  It is the surrender of freedom to fascism.

In “The Fall of the City,” a radio announcer (played by Welles in the 1937 production) serves as our eyes, an observer by proxy reporting from the scene of an unnamed city.  MacLeish’s plays – from “Air Raid” to “The Trojan Horse” – are never simply plays for the medium of radio but also plays about that medium – about tuning in from a distance, about mediation and reception, and about misinformation and deception.  The listeners are implicated, their role in the event of listening reflected upon in the shared act of telling stories and hearing histories in the making.

“The sun is yellow with smoke,” the announcer informs the audience, “the town’s burning….  The war’s at the broken bridge.”  It is impossible to listen to those lines now without seeing the cities under siege in Ukraine; and yet, “The Fall of the City” – which was broadcast just two weeks prior to the arial bombing of Guernica in April 1937 but written some months earlier, in 1936 – not about the reality of any particular invasion but about the real threat posed by evasiveness.  It caution against giving in to ideas and being enslaved by ideologies, for which it was criticised during the Second World War: “In these last years,” Randall Jarrell, himself a poet, wrote in 1943:

many millions of these people, over the entire world, have died fighting their oppressors.  Say to them that they invented their oppressors, wished to believe in them, wished to be free of their freedom; that they lie there.

Jarrell wrote this in the aftermath of air raids, and the war of ideas were not uppermost on his mind.

I do not know whether I am writing at a moment that future records might document to be days or weeks before the start of a Third World War.  I know I am writing it in wartime.  Unlike in the scenario envisioned by MacLeish, the world is not only watching the atrocities perpetrated by Russians in the towns and cities of Ukraine; it is responding, both to aid Ukrainian civilians (my sister in Germany has welcomed Ukrainian refugees into her home) and to avoid an escalation of military conflict.  Unlike the abstract “citizens” of MacLeish’s play, men and women are resisting.  Cities do not fall.  They are attacked.  They are defended. They are fought over.  And it is citizens – civilians – that are doing the fighting.

How different this fight is from the defeat as MacLeish conceived it.  “The city is doomed,” the Voices of Citizens in his play declare,

The age is his! It’s his century!

Our institutions are obsolete.

He marches a mile while we sit in a meeting.

Opinions and talk!

Deliberative walks beneath the ivy and the creepers!

His doubt comes after the deed or never.

He knows what he wants for his want’s what he he knows.

He’s gone before they say he’s going.

He’s come before you’ve barred your house.

He’s one man: we are but thousands!

Who can defend us from one man?

Bury your arms! Break your standards!

Give him the town while the town stands!

We know the price of such surrender.  Putin might have believed that his invasion would meet with little or no resistance, and that the global community, understood as a community, is powerless in the face of his aggression.  Putin’s methods date from the past; his mind, however made up it may be, was made up last century.  It is no match for what humanity can achieve if we – and that includes the people of Russia – put our minds and methods to it.  Right now, his thinking and his tanks, his misfiring strategies and his unwillingness to listen, are being answered by the rallying cries of the present that will help us secure a future.

”Uneasy Threshold”: Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) and the Demise of the Gothic

Just what is ‘gothic’? And how useful is the term when loosely applied to products of visual culture, be it paintings, graphic novels, movies or the posters advertising them? Aside from denoting a literary genre and a style of architecture, in which usages I recommend setting it aside by making the ‘g’ upper case, the term ‘gothic,’ understood as a mode, can be demonstrated to take many shapes, transcend styles, media, cultures and periods.  It can also be demonstrated not make sense at all as a grab bag for too many contradictory and spurious notions many academics, to this day, would not want to be caught undead espousing.  Those are the views I take on and the potentialities I test out with students of my module Gothic Imagination at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University.

As the gothic cannot thrive being crammed into a series of seminars, let alone been exsanguinated or talked to death in academic lectures, I created an extracurricular festival of film screenings to explore the boundaries of the visual gothic beyond genre and style.  The fourth film in the chronologically arranged series, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943), demonstrates that the gothic struggles to thrive as well when its sublime powers are expended in a game of wartime chess.

The fourth entry in a series of Universal B-movies that began in 1939, prior to the end of US isolationism, as feature films, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is a formulaic whodunit in which the gothic is an accessory to crime fiction, and in which suspects, some more usual than others, are lined up like cardboard grotesques for deployment in a mock-Gothic extravaganza executed on a budget.

Now, as a lover of whodunits and epigrams, I do not object to formula or economics.  I can appreciate budget-regard even when I long for that rara avis.  For the gothic, however, a cocktail consisting in measures equal or otherwise of solvable mystery and final-solution mastery is a cup of hemlock. Granted, the attempt to serve it and make it palatable to the public creates a tension of intentions that may well give motion picture executives and censors nightmares.

I discuss such messaging mixers in the context of radio plays in a chapter of Immaterial Culture I titled “‘Until I know the thing I want to know’: Puzzles and Propaganda,” in which Holmes and Watson also feature.

After all, at the same time the pair set the world aright in twentieth-century wartime scenarios, Holmes and Watson continued to solve crime in the gaslit alleyways of late-Victorian and Edwardian London, or suitably caliginous settings elsewhere in the British Isles, in pastiches in which Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were heard on the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio program that aired in the US at the same time:

As Sherlock Holmes director Glenhall Taylor recalled, the series was one of several sponsored programs whose “services were requested by the War Department.”  The charms of an imagined past were to yield to visible demonstrations of the responsibilities broadcasters and audiences shared in the shaping of the future.  To promote the sale of defense bonds during the War Loan Drives, Bruce and co-star Basil Rathbone appeared in “special theatrical performances,” live broadcasts to which “admission was gained solely through the purchase of bonds.”  (Heuser, Immaterial Culture 189)

To be sure, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is less overtly propagandist than the previous three entries in Universal’s film series, all of which are anti-fascist spy thrillers.  Adapted, albeit freely, from a story by their creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the case they took on subsequently recalled the titular detective and his faithful sidekick from Washington, DC, and released them back into their fog-shrouded habitat in and for which they had been conceived.

And yet, whatever the setting, in motion pictures Holmes and Watson continued to face adversaries that were recognisably anti-democratic – stand-ins for the leaders of the Axis.  The villain of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, diagnosed as egomaniacal by Holmes, is no exception. 

Much of the action of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death takes place in an ancestral pile that has been temporarily converted into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers.  Those inmates may have their idiosyncrasies, as all flat characters do, but, to serve their purpose in a piece of propaganda, they cannot truly be plotting murder, unless there are exposed as phoneys, in which case the reassurances of wartime service honored and government assistance rendered would be called into question.  

The unequivocal messages the Sherlock Holmes films were expected to spread in wartime did not allow for such murky developments.  A post-war noir thriller might sink its teeth into corruption; but the Sherlock Holmes series did not exhibit such fangs.

Variety thought this entry ‘obvious stuff.’ Less obvious to me, reading Variety, was
how much Ella Fitzgerald contributed to the success of the film at the box office.

Nor could the recovering soldiers be shown to be so mentally unstable as to kill without motive; according to the convention of whodunits, even serial killers like Christie’s Mr. ABC follow a certain logic that can be ascertained.  The heiress of Musgrave Manor may be momentarily distraught, the butler may be exposed as an unstable drunkard – but the soldiers, whatever horrors and shocks they endured on the battlefield, can only be moderately muddled.

Most of the recovering servicemen – in their fear of unwrapped parcels or their fancy for knitting – are called upon to provide comic relief, bathos being a key strategy of the domesticated gothic. In the Sherlock Holmes series, that is a part generally allotted to Dr. Watson, a role he performs even in this particular installment, in which his expertise as a man of medicine is put to use for the war effort. Inspector Lestrade serves a similar purpose, which is probably what made the ridiculing of military personnel seem less objectionable to sponsors, as it made them look fairly inconsequential to the crime caper unfolding. Aligning those men with Watson and Lestrade assists in eliminating them from the start as potential suspects.

While missing legal documents and cryptic messages are certifiably Gothic tropes, the gothic atmosphere in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is fairly grafted on the proceedings with the aid of visuals. There are genre Gothic trimmings aplenty in – secret passages, a bolt of lightning striking a hollow suit of armor, and pet raven assuming the role of harbinger of death – but there is no real sense of menace as, guided by the infallibly capable hands of Sherlock Holmes, we negotiate with relative ease the potentially treacherous territory of a mansion as makeshift asylum and contested castle.

The climax, which tries to cast doubt as to Holmes’s perspicacity, plays out in a dimly lit cellar. It is here that the gothic could potentially take hold if the plot had not preemptively diffused the dangerous situation hinted at in the film’s title. The trap for the killer below has already been laid above-ground on the newly polished surface of a giant chessboard, in a display of strategy choreographed by Holmes himself. By the time the game moves underground, it is no longer afoot; rather, it is fairly limping along.

Gothic and propaganda can mix; genre Gothic fiction often served political purposes. Gothic and whodunit are less readily reconciled. Although John Dickson Carr tried hard to make that happen, often in an antiquarian sort of way, the Victorian Sensation novelists and the had-I-but-known school of crime writers come closer to achieving that.  But the handling of all three of those form or raisons d’être for writing – Gothic, whodunit and propaganda – by the jugglers employed here, at least, is not a formula designed to make the most of mystery and suspense. As I concluded in my discussion of the “identity crisis” of the wartime radio thriller, “propagandist work was complicated by the challenge of puzzling and prompting the audience, of distracting and instructing at once.”

Sherlock Holmes faces death, all right, but the demise he encounters is that of the gothic spirit.

“There [still] ain’t no sense to nothin’”: A Wayward Text Comes Home

“Home at last,” I could almost hear myself sigh as, out of the narrow slit in our front door, I yanked the packet arriving today.  Bearing my name, as few pieces of mail of any consequence or sustenance do nowadays, it contained the volume Audionarratology: Lessons from Radio Drama, to which I had been invited a few years ago to contribute a chapter.  The book was published in July 2021 by Ohio State University, a press renowned for its contribution to the evolving discourse on narratology.  

The titular neologism suggests that an engagement with aural storytelling is proposed as one way of broadening a field that has enriched the interpretation not only of literature but also of visual culture.  Whether such aural storytelling should be subsumed under the rubric ‘radio drama’ is something I debated in my study Immaterial Culture, for which I settled on the term ‘radio play,’ as, I argued, the fictions written for radio production and transmission are hybrids whose potentialities remained underexplored and whose contribution to the arts underappreciated in part due to the alignment of such plays with works for stage and screen.  Nor am I sure that, by adding the prefix, “audionarratology” will be regarded as a subgroup of narratology – which would defeat the purpose of broadening said field.

To the question what “Lessons” may be learned from plays for radio, or from our playing with them, the quotation that serves as title of my essay provides a serviceable response: “There ain’t no sense to nothin.”  The line is uttered by one of the characters in I Love a Mystery, the thriller serial I discuss – and it is expressive of the bewilderment I felt when first I entered the world created in the 1930s and 1940s by the US American playwright-producer Carlton E. Morse.  My cumbersome subtitle is meant to suggest how I responded to the task of making sense not only of the play but also of the field in which I was asked to position it: “Serial Storytelling, Radio-Consciousness and the Gothic of Audition.”

By labelling ‘gothic’ not simply the play but my experience of it, I aim to bring to academic discourse my feeling of unease, a sense of misgivings about explaining away what drew me in to begin with, the lack of vocabulary with which adequately to describe my experience of listening, the anxiety of having to theorise within the uncertain boundaries of a discourse that I sought to broaden instead of delimiting.

Throughout my experience with radio plays of the so-called golden age, I felt that, playing recording or streaming play, I had to audition belatedly for a position of listener but that I could never hear the plays as they were intended to be taken in – serially, via radio – during those days before the supremacy of television, the medium that shaped my childhood.

In the essay, I try to communicate what it feels like not knowing – not knowing the solution to a mystery, not quite knowing my place vis-à-vis the culture in which the play was produced or the research culture in which thriller programs such as I Love a Mystery are subjected to some theory and much neglect.  Instead of analysing a play, I ended up examining myself as a queer, English-as-second-language listener estranged from radio and alien to the everyday of my grandparent’s generation – never mind that my German grandfather fought on the Axis side while the US home front stayed tuned to news from the frontlines as much as it tuned in to thrillers and comedies that were hardly considered worthy of being paraded as the so-called forefront of modernism.  So, a measure of guilt enters into the mix of emotions with which I struggle to approach or sell such cultural products academically.

The resulting chapter is proposed as a muddle, not as a model – although its self-consciousness may be an encouragement to some who are struggling to straddle the line between their searching, uncertain selves and the construct of a scholarly identity.  Its failings and idiosyncrasies are no strategic efforts to fit in by playing the misfit or refitting the scene – they are proposed as candid reflection of my mystification.  

They also bespeak the fact that the essay, unfinished or not fully realised though it may seem, was a quarter century in the making.  It started out by twisting the dial of my stereo receiver and happening on Max Schmid’s ear-opening program The Golden Age of Radio on WBAI, New York, agonising whether to turn my newly discovered hobby into the subject of academic study, enrolling in Richter course “The Rise of the Gothic” at CUNY, and by responding to the essay brief by exploring gothic radio plays and radio adaptations of Gothic literature.

Once I had decided to abandon my Victorian studies in favor of old-time radio, the essay was revised to become a chapter of my PhD study Etherized Victorians.  It was revisited but removed from Immaterial Culture as an outlier – the only longer reading of a play not based on a published script – during the process of negotiating the space allotted by the publisher.  It had a lingering if non-too-visible presence on my online journal broadcastellan as an experiment in interactive blogging, and it now appears in a volume devoted to a subject of which I had no concept when I started out all those years ago.

The draft, too, has gone through a long process of negotiation — of editing, cutting and rewriting – at some point of which the frankness of declaring myself to be among the “outsiders” of the discourse did not make the editors’ cut.

So, home the essay has come; but the home has changed, as has its dweller, a student of literature who transmogrified into an art historian with a sideline of aurality, and who now has to contend with tinnitus and hearing loss when listening out for clues to non-visual mysteries and, ever self-conscious, waits for his cue to account for the latest of his botches, or, worse still, to be met with silence.  Estrangement, uncertainty, and the misery of having to account for the state of being mesmerised by mysteries unsolved – such is the gothic of audition.

The Avant-Garde and Our Disregard: Network Radio as a Modernist Misfit

My copy of Tuning in to the Neo-Avant-Garde: Experimental Radio Plays in the Postwar Period arrived in the mail today.  Chapter 3 bears the somewhat cumbersome title “A Forefront in the Aftermath? Recorded Sound and the State of Audio Play on Post-‘Golden Age’ US Network Radio.”  My contribution to the volume, it is a sequel of sorts to Immaterial Culture, in which I sought to engage with radio plays written and produced in the United States between 1929 and 1954 – before sitting in front of the television became a national pastime in the US. The chapter looks at plays written and produced in the wake of that so-called ‘golden age of radio.’

In status and quality of production but not initially in quantity, radio plays in the United States decreased rapidly in the 1950s.  The ‘Aftermath’ referred to in my title meant an adjustment to the political developments and economic realities of post-Second World War society.  It reflects at once victory and defeat, opportunity and opportunism: the redefinition of the Pursuit of Happiness in terms of consumer culture, the concrete threat of anti-Communism, and the effect both had on the production, distribution and the experience of aural art.

In my writing, as in my teaching, I tend to be concerned primarily with definitions and the questioning of terminology. What is ‘radio’ about radio plays, for instance? And what, if anything, makes them ‘avant-garde’ rather than merely ‘experimental’?  

Addressing the conflation of – or the disregard for – production and broadcasting in discussions of radio plays qua texts, “A Forefront in the Aftermath?” considers the questions whether a radio play not ‘heard over the radio’ is still a radio play and whether aural play can meaningfully be termed ‘avant-garde’ without regard to the conditions under which it is produced and the system in which it becomes enmeshed.  

When, in 2018, I was invited to submit a proposal for the conference Tuning in to the Neo-Avant-garde, I set out by mulling over the term ‘neo-avant-garde’ to determine whether I could make a meaningful contribution to the discussion.  As someone who has devoted a doctoral study, an obscure book, and several hundred blog posts to mid-twentieth century US radio culture, I harbored doubts about the aptness of the label ‘neo-avant-garde’ in the context of my endeavor to keep up with texts presumably well past their sell-by date: plays created for and broadcast on US American network radio priorto 1954 – the year that the TV dinner came on the market to drive home that radio was no longer fresh, the year that retired radio satirist Fred Allen, reflecting on his career in broadcasting, declared that radio had been ‘abandoned like the bones at a barbecue.’  “A Forefront in the Aftermath” examines the leftovers – and it has a bone to pick with those who glean selectively.

Examining recordings of US network radio broadcasts dating from, roughly, the first decade after the end of the Second World War, alongside commercial records and tape recording exchanges, my essay seeks to demonstrate how experimental ‘radio play’ – as distinguished from the broader term ‘audio play’ – was defined and circumscribed by the system of network broadcasting.  The creative possibilities of recorded sound, in particular, where never fully explored.

It is no coincidence that, just as New York City was becoming the centre of the Western art world – and sound recording was gaining recognition as art – radio ceased to be regarded as a medium for artistic experimentation, which it had been, to some extent, in the 1930s and early 1940s.  Experimentation, once in the service of left-wing, anti-fascist causes, had no utility for broadcasters when such an agenda no longer served to unify the US American public against foreign powers, as wartime propaganda had done.

In recent years, modernist scholars have tried to claim the output of the popular medium for modernism.  Calling the guarded play of popular culture ‘avant-garde’  – after decades of disregard – is part of that misguided and rather disingenuous effort.  The fact that US network radio does not fit modernist narratives suggests that constructs such as modernism are not fit for the purpose of catching up with the unclassifiable products of the past.

Ekphrasis My Eye; or, An Ear for Tulips

How many times have I said to myself, “Wake up and hear the tulips”? Literally, never.  But the improbability of following such a directive has crossed my mind, especially during the pandemic that has kept us from venturing out into the world and fully to engage all of our senses.  Seeing images of flowers is hardly the same thing as experiencing spring.  

The limitations of vicarious living online have made themselves felt.  I, for one, am not feeling it anymore, this ersatz world of keeping in touch without touching, of being nosey without the chance of a whiff, of getting a taste of what it’s like out there without getting as much as a morsel of it inside me.

That said, here I am online, flicking through digitized magazines and newspapers of yesteryear, a forest of ancient pulp springing back to life for a belated flowering.  Searching for nothing in particular, I came across this headline in an edition of Radio Dial dating from 20 May 1937: “Ted Husing to Describe Tulip Festival.”  Is there anything less phonogenic than an oversized still life of flowers?

More incongruous than the idea of devoting a sound-only broadcast to such a spectacle is the choice of Ted Husing as the guy to try out his ekphrastic skills on it. Was not Husing a celebrated sportscaster, typecast as such in movies like To Please a Lady (1950), as I mentioned here a long while back?  It must have been challenging for him to get animated when tasked with the assignment of making Liliaceae sound lively through verbal acrobatics.  I’m guessing.  I never heard the broadcast.

‘Actually,’ sports were only one aspect of his career in radio. Husing remarked in retrospect that he ‘logged far more broadcasting time on music and special events.’  He claimed to have been responsible for the discovery or promotion of entertainers including Rudy Vallee, Guy Lombardo, Bing Crosby, and Desi Arnaz.  

Husing had a nose for radio’s no-show business, all right.  In fact, he had it broken for that very purpose, as he explained it in his first autobiography, Ten Years Before the Mike (1935):

Some of the acoustics experts and sinus engineers decided my voice would have a bit more resonance if my antrums were widened. Or is it antra? Anyhow, since the technical people had spent years perfecting microphones especially for my vocal vibrations, I couldn’t see how I could hold back on my antrums, personal as they are to me. So I went to the sawbones, took a couple of shots of coke, and had ’em broken out.

Having gone through such lengths, you might as well travel to Holland to tell folks at home what tulips look like.  In fact, Husing only went as far as Holland, Michigan, where the festival in question was held annually.  And it wasn’t all about the tulips, either, as tiptoers were given a run for their money by the ‘Klompen Dance,’ an orchestrated clacking of thousands of wooden shoes on the pavement.  The article also threatened folk songs.  Not much demand for subtle word-painting there.

Antrum, tantrum.  However he felt that day, Husing was lucky to have had assignments like this, to have spent years translating observed sights into spoken words.  Lucky, because he ended up losing his eyesight after a brain tumor operation.  I imagine that spending much of his life on the air, creating a world made of sound helped him to shape a life for himself that was focused on the vision he only partially recovered.

Sure, radio is a sound-only medium; but it encourages the translative act of hearing that opens us up to the senses that we might lose sight of if we rely too much on our eyes. No need to cue those Klompen Dancers to drive the point home.

‘…how difficult it is to talk about what one [regrets]’: Barthes, Botching and Backward Listening

The script of my 1998 presentation

In 1998, as an international PhD student, I enrolled in a Queer Theory class taught by Wayne Koestenbaum at the CUNY Graduate Center. At the time, I was making the for me difficult decision to abandon the Victorian subject of my Master’s thesis (Thomas Carlyle as a translator of Goethe) and embark instead on something almost entirely different (‘almost’ because this subject, too, involved translative acts): a study of radio plays prior to the invention of the “TV Dinner.”

That study eventually, belatedly, turned into a largely unread book. I just never managed to make a career out of my love for the subject of radio, and, being unable to communicate my love, and to get some love in return, came to feel disheartened about loving the wrong thing or loving wrongly or being wrong about loving it — getting it all wrong by not making the right kind of botch of it that can translate into an academically viable “Queer Art of Failure.”

“[O]nce again I realize how difficult it is to talk about what one loves,” Barthes write in “The Romantic Song.” “What is there to say about what one loves except: I love it, and to keep on saying it?” Academically, is it any easier to talk about what one dreads, what one is anxious or frustrated about? This is something I aim to explore in a paper I termed “The Gothic of Audition: Audionarratology, Transdisciplinarity and Old-Time Radio Listening as Self-Othering.” It is meant, in part, to announce two academic essays of mine on the subject of radio, which are being published in 2021.

Preparing for my talk, I was reminded of my former self giving a seminar presentation as part of that “Queer Theory” class at CUNY. Back then, I was testing the treacherous territory of listening (more treacherous now that I suffer from hearing loss and tinnitus) by reading Barthes writing about it and the inability of getting it right. Here is that presentation.

“When ‘it goes without saying’: Barthes as Lecturer and Lover”

Hearing is a physiological phenomenon; listening is a psychological act,” Barthes, stiffening once again into a lecturer’s posture, begins “Listening,” the first of seven discrete essays forced into the thematic stays of “Music’s Body.”  I, not all ears, resist “Listening” since it speaks without heeding me, since it fortifies the very boundaries between speaker (lecturer) and listener (reader) it dismisses as “the old modes of listening: those of the believer, the disciple, and the patient.”

While concluding that “freedom of listening is as necessary as freedom of speech,” that “a free listening is essentially a listening which circulates, which permutates, which disaggregates, by its mobility, the fixed network of the roles of speech,” Barthes is not quite willing here to mingle his voice in the “interplay of desire” in which my “listening speaks” of us.  For as soon as I — hoping to find, beyond pose and podium, beyond the reverberations of “power and desire” immured and perpetuated by Barthes’s argument, another more congenial (or conjugal) voice whispering itself into my presence, wishing itself to be engendered in my mouth — begin listening instead “for the alien,” the “irregular noise which will disturb . . . the security of the house” (to me, the Barthesian aula), for “the secret” the “speaking subject does not say,” I find my responses anticipated, circumscribed, and myself well-nigh divested of all ludic impulses.  It shuts me up so, Barthes’s “little theater.”  

As listener, as speaking listener, Barthes claims the artistic freedom of which I found myself bereft.  In “Musica Practica,” for example, he declares that “to read this Beethoven is to perform, to operate his music, to lure it (as it lends itself) into an unknown praxis.”  Our wanderings, reader, are Barthes’s truly unknown praxis; and at times it seems that he must account for us in theory to keep alive the echo of his voice, an echo even my receptive mouth cannot swallow.  And while “Listening” is finally unveiled as a “collaboration” (between two Rolands, Barthes and Havas), it is a connubial effort, a lovemaking from which I as listener appear to have been excluded.  There are other moments, however — the ones that I am loving.

How glorious are those moments (quite generously bestowed) when Barthes steps from the dais into our everyday, when his voice fumbles, his vocables falter, when he shares with us that language, “when it must interpret music,” manages but “badly, very badly, it seems,” as he laments in “The Grain of the Voice”; when the controlled prose of the lecturer deliquesces in the passionate effusions of a lover, as it does in “The Romantic Song,” “Loving Schumann,” and “Rasch.”  It is here that Barthes sings “à tue-tête,” “to kill everything bad.”

In “The Romantic Song,” Barthes claims the Lieder of Schubert and Schumann — “unisexual,” “amorous,” beyond the traditional family of voices (the voices of family?) — for those who, like the Lied itself, are no “respecters of sexes or of social roles,” are “marginal without being eccentric,” and celebrates instead the “song of the natural body,” the “music which has meaning only if I can always sing it, in myself, with my body” and “for myself.”  

The reverberations here have moved inward, from the austere, public auditorium to the tremulous, private body, and I–humming Schubert’s “Nacht und Träume” or Schumann’s Dichterliebe–can follow Barthes in this trans-social state of “solitary intimacy,” listening only to the “amorous and imprisoned soul that speaks to itself” (“Loving Schumann”).

Are we lovers then, Barthes and I? Has our duel over territory turned into a duet honoring a third? Is Barthes’s lectura transformed into our lectus? Not quite; rather, Barthes and I, solitary, are rubbing our skins loving.  “Intimacy,” as Barthes suggests, “is always a little egoistic”: “the Schumannian pianist—c’est moi”/The Schubertian Sänger—das bin ich!” To dance about Schumann, must we, the men (and women) of “Lettres Dansantes” erect a theater to position our listeners? To sing of Schubert, need we construct a theoretical apparatus to secure a space for the speaker?

Few essays illustrate more vividly than “The Grain of the Voice” the Barthesian doubling of lecturer and lover.  It is a queer essay that struggles with theory, that desires to evaluate song “outside of the law” of both culture and anti-culture, by “develop[ing] beyond the subject all the value which is hidden behind ‘I like’ or ‘I don’t like.’” There is no accounting for loving — and any theory, for the “grain” or against it, is such an accounting (I love it because . . . ).  It is precisely when the lecturer realizes that his “difficulty [writing about the Lied ] is all the greater in that today the romantic song is no longer the object of any great argument,” that the lover can emerge, bewegtaufgeregtinnig, to say, fantasierend: “I love it, and to keep on saying it.”

“Music, like signifying, derives from no metalanguage” but “from a lover’s discourse,” Barthes offers in “Music, Voice, Language.”  Finding the lover’s voice in Barthes’s lectures is a listening hallucinated: Now I too “believe I am really hearing what I would like to hear as a promise of pleasure.”