December 2011

Josh Zajdman


Radio: Essays in Bad Reception by John Mowitt

I was hoping that reading John Mowitt's Radio: Essays in Bad Reception would offer the literary equivalent of NPR's "driveway moments." NPR sees this as a solely auditory phenomenon, the interruption or delay of activity until one finishes listening to something so compelling, but it can also happen with books. With each page of a great book, someone misses a bus, subway stop, or appointment. The phone continues to ring or someone doesn't hear his or her name being called. Regrettably, this was not the case. Although it's titled Radio, I was only too happy to put it down and have the transmission drop as soon as the book closed In fact, that irritating use of radiospeak (transmission drop, tune in, etc) is a habit of Mowitt's that is so prevalent throughout the text, it's impossible to avoid using it. Examples of this affected talk include "I now set my dial on the rhetoric" and the more grating "This text, then, is a response trimmed to the shape of the letter(s) of that call, etc." 

The book functions as a series of essays outlining, both independently of one another and in relation to one another, radio's "two aspects," "the cultural technology of radio itself" and "an unwieldy array of cultural institutions and practices." The difference is important. It's not just dials, or satellite on the one hand or fireside chats, The Shadow, and tyrannical political addresses on the other. These dual considerations fall largely under the umbrella of Radio Studies. For Mowitt, "The object of radio studies thus involves cocking one's ear toward the socially organized zone of indistinction in which radio and its study encounter each other." Uh, what? This is the type of over-intellectualized positing you see throughout each essay. Only after beginning his reader on radio studies does Mowitt choose to admit that these types of books are "largely pedagogical devices." Unfortunately, for the reader, Mowitt seems to choose a pedantic approach, utilizing the text less as a means for seriously considering radio studies and more as a means of providing an encyclopedic spewing of theorists who mention radio, voice, or sound in their work. The usual suspects of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Benjamin) are there and the Birmingham School is well represented by Williams and Hoggart. Yet, their inclusion, though expected, is often frustrating and unsatisfying. Their work is fleetingly quoted and only barely analyzed, as if they were included merely to bolster the point without adding anything to it. Freud also runs rampant through this consideration of the radio for, as Mowitt suggests, "the appeal to psychoanalysis within radio studies is neither new or original." That's just the sort of summarizing Mowitt uses when not quoting the work of others.

To be fair, there are interesting points being made in Mowitt's work, but they are dropped (in Mowitt's now trademark self-aware fashion) almost as soon as they are mentioned.

Not to put too fine a point on it, radio did not fade quite the same way in Europe, nor, for that matter has it ever faded in the Third World. Likewise, radio studies so-called is a largely Northern (visible in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom) phenomenon.

Additionally, his consideration of Marxism and its appropriation and uses of radio is especially interesting. He refers to radio gradually moving toward a position where it was "no longer primarily the vehicle for the articulation of a progressive politics but rather the apparatus in relation to which the articulation of politics, here specifically Marxism, and philosophy is lived." This quote ends chapter two, but leaves the reader wanting as the next chapter jumps into new territory. The scattered, almost peripatetic, intellectual wanderings of the book are dizzying. Before you know it, chapter four is on the horizon.

For a minute, hope crackles along the airwaves. Mowitt writes, "The interchanges between and among radio, instruction, and politics invite, perhaps even demand, attention to psychoanalysis and the articulation between radio and psychoanalytic theory quite specifically." Unfortunately, our hopes are dashed. Mowitt lunges into "whether radio is where psychoanalytic therapy can take place, or, put differently, what the radiophonic apparatus must be if something like analysis can occur on it." This is at such odds with the political, musical and theoretical lenses Mowitt has used thus far. As a means of strengthening the argument that radio can be used for these things, Mowitt cites "the long-running television program, Frasier." That's a facile reference, and all the more confusing for it, as Frasier is broadcast via an entirely different medium.

Again changing approaches, Mowitt details the Birmingham School's relationship with radio in the book's most interesting and most successful chapter. To end the book, he turns to the muddiness of the relationship between American politics and radio broadcasting. In only six chapters, he has run the gamut and considered radio from nearly every philosophical and theoretical approach imaginable. Yet, one walks away without retaining much of anything. Only a fuzzy head full of contrasting viewpoints, contributing crackling static, and fighting for supremacy. He ends the book with more radio speak. "Over." My notation next to it read, Thank God!

Radio: Essays in Bad Reception by John Mowitt
University of California Press
ISBN: 978-0520270503
248 pages