Hunting the haunting: a new book stalks the eerieness
of sound technology.
High Static, Dead Lines: Sonic Spectres and the Object Hereafter, by Kristen Gallerneaux, Strange Attractor Press, 295 pages, $21.95
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High Static, Dead Lines, a new book delving into the uncanny resonances of sound and technology, begins with an eerie tale. When the author Kristen Gallerneaux—an artist and a curator at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan—was eight, she lived with her mother in rural Ontario in a house that was believed to be haunted. Soon after moving in, she mysteriously contracted a simultaneous case of the measles and chicken pox. The home was still filled with the moldering belongings of the deceased previous owners. Silverware would seem to rattle by itself; the phone would ring at night for hours, but there was never anyone at the other end of the line.
She found a turntable in the parlor, and a flexidisc record sandwiched between the pages of an old magazine. She put on the record, mistakenly playing it at the wrong speed—a 45rpm disc, slowly oozing out at 33rpm. “It seemed,” she writes, “as though a passé archetype born out of a horror film was unleashed.” The sound emanating from the device was like a nightmare come to life.
Gallerneaux’s childhood experiences in the strange house helped lay the foundation for High Static, Dead Lines, which travels into subject matter often considered far outside the fringes. Dramatic narratives of paranormal activity, poltergeists, and séances exist side by side with technical explications of the history of radio, magnetic tape, and the Moog synthesizer. “Finding ways to allow our media to haunt us is crucial to understanding it,” she writes early on in the book. She isn’t the first to point out media’s ability to spook us, to be sure—she quotes the theorist Friedrich Kittler (“Media always already provide the appearance of spectres”) and cites many others in extensive footnotes.
The term “hauntology,” originally coined by Derrida in 1993 and revived and extended in recent years, also comes to mind. The late theorist Mark Fisher used hauntology to discuss music, capitalism, and dashed hopes of the future. “The concept of hauntology gained its second (un)life in the middle of the last decade,” wrote Fisher in a 2012 Film Quarterly article. “Critics were prompted to reach for the term again by a confluence of musical artists—Philip Jeck, Burial, the Ghost Box label, the Caretaker. Their work sounded ‘ghostly,’ certainly, but the spectrality was not a mere question of atmospherics. What defined this ‘hauntological’ confluence more than anything else was its confrontation with a cultural impasse: the failure of the future . . . What haunts the digital cul-de-sacs of the twenty-first century is not so much the past as all the lost futures that the twentieth century taught us to anticipate.”
Gallerneaux has a formal background in both media history and folklore—the latter being key to her perspective. Her book, which she describes as verging more into the “poetics of wild folklore than rational academese,” collages personal recollections, historical accounts, vignettes, and technical essays for a fractured but unique take. Her approach differs markedly from Fisher’s, and at one point she appears to take direct aim at his formulations, arguing that there’s “a danger in forcing any and all ‘serious writing’ about spectralities to solely act out within the confines of the polished epistemologies of hauntology, psychoanalytic theory, or theories of capitalism.”
It’s debatable how polished the epistemology of hauntology really is—Fisher’s life was tragically cut short before he had the chance to further his ideas. But Gallerneaux’s book is energized by its nonlinearity, jumping around among topics as varied as Muzak, ghost stories, Max Headroom, and Thomas Edison. Even the more straightforwardly written histories in it center on lesser-known devices, such as the vintage Votrax Type ’N Talk text-to-speech synthesizer. It’s easy to see why the critic Dave Tompkins, author of How to Wreck a Nice Beach, a brilliantly weird history of the vocoder, is a fan of her work. (He pens the foreword to High Static, Dead Lines and interviews Gallerneaux at the end.)
In one striking chapter, Gallerneaux discusses plans for an ingestible radio, developed in the 1950s. “What if you could eat a radio station?” she writes. “A battery, transistor, condenser, coil, oscillator, and diaphragm—all crammed into the space of a capsule about an inch long and a half-inch in diameter. These components make up the ‘world’s smallest FM radio broadcast station’. . . designed to sail through the thunderstorm of the stomach, and crawl through 10-odd meters of bio-sludge in the human intestine.” In another chapter, she writes about the “Windsor Hum,” the mysterious low-level sound that has tormented residents of the town of Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, since 2011. “A deep-time bass rattle,” she writes. “A quivering in the gut. The creak of double-glazed windows with an angry bee caught between two planes. Night terrors. Not everyone can ‘hear’ the Hum, but the vibroacoustic effects of infrasound—sound that exists below the range of human hearing—can cause suffering, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and migraines . . . Rational finger-pointing toward local heavy industry was counterbalanced with viral conspiracies: trending UFO reports, ionospheric interventions by HAARP (an ionospheric government research program), and flyovers by experimental military aircraft.”
Gallerneaux probes so many subjects that it’s sometimes difficult to follow the numerous head-spinning narratives. Some chapters are only three or four pages long, dropping some intriguing observations (on technologies developed at Bell Labs, on ideas surrounding “paranormal music”) and then quickly receding from view. And the focus is mainly on North American history and anecdotes of the past two hundred years, when a more international perspective and deeper timeline would have been beneficial. But perhaps an expansion of topics would have made the project too sprawling. Despite its unevenness, or perhaps because of it, High Static, Dead Lines is one of the most imaginative books to contend with sound in recent memory. Its labyrinthine explorations creatively mirror the strange and often baffling phenomena they describe.
Geeta Dayal is an arts critic and journalist, specializing in writing on twentieth-century music, culture, and technology. She has written extensively for frieze and many other publications, including The Guardian, Wired, The Wire, Bookforum, Slate, the Boston Globe, and Rolling Stone. She is the author of Another Green World, a book on Brian Eno (Bloomsbury, 2009), and is currently at work on a new book on music.