The Fundamental Paradox of Recording

I had a chance to catch two films this weekend that I’d highly recommend, Jim Jarmusch’s latest, Broken Flowers, and Hans Weingartner’s The Edukators. I’ll write reviews later (hopefully tonight). But for now, I just wanted to bookmark some connections I’m making for my media horror essay/project. I’ve been reading Tom Gunning’s “Re-Newing Old Technologies,” in which he discusses the ways in which “old” media technologies sometimes regain their uncanny properties, which is basically the phenomenon I’m trying to unpack in my article on contemporary “media horror” films.

Anyway, he briefly mentions Theodor Adorno’s essay, “The Curves of the Needle,” noting Adorno’s recognition that the phonograph “derived from a tradition of inscription rather simulacrum” (53), a distinction that seems relevant to the depiction of some “old media” technologies in the horror films I discuss, particulalry the use of analog recorders in White Noise.

Also worth noting here: Joseph Tate’s citation of Zizek’s discussion of Radiohead in On Belief:

In “The Curves of the Needle,” a short essay on the gramophone from 1928, Adorno notes the fundamental paradox of recording: the more the machine makes its presence known (through obtrusive noises, its clumsiness and interruptions), the stronger the experience of the actual presence of the singer–or, to put it the other way round, the more perfect the recording, the more faithfully the machine reproduces a human voice, the more humanity is removed, the stronger the effect that we are dealing with something “inauthentic” (44).


  1. Chris Martin Said,

    August 7, 2005 @ 10:20 pm

    I think Adorno has it backwards. At the time he was writing, of course, the sound quality of even the best recordings was pretty poor by today’s standards. But nowadays when I try to listen to historical recordings (pre-1950), I’m more aware of their inauthentic nature because of their poor quality. Adorno’s observation may have been valid from about the birth of recording to the invention of Dolby, though.

  2. Chuck Said,

    August 7, 2005 @ 10:34 pm

    Interesting observation, Chris. I tend to agree with Adorno at least to the degree that “over-produced” CDs tend to sound really fake to me, especially pop stuff, which paradoxically appears heavily produced but also tends to hide all traces of that production through the elimination of background noise, etc.

  3. Chuck Said,

    August 7, 2005 @ 10:35 pm

    I’d agree with your observation that Adorno’s argument is very much rooted in the historical moment when he wrote the essay….

  4. Chris Martin Said,

    August 8, 2005 @ 12:21 am

    I was thinking more along the lines of classical and jazz. But it’s interesting that underproduction in the early 20th century and overproduction in the early 21st have something in common.

  5. Chuck Said,

    August 8, 2005 @ 1:10 am

    I realized after writing that comment that we might be thinking about different kinds of music. I realize that Adorno is writing before the rock music industry kicked into gear, but even some of the big band stuff seems “more auratic” when I hear the popping of the needle, etc.

  6. Allan Hughes Said,

    March 21, 2006 @ 7:55 am

    Adorno’s theory reminds me of what is relevant and ‘realistic’ about so-called lo-fi recording. Think of Ween, Sebadoh and Beck’s early recordings, all made on 4-track home recording equipment. It is definitely within the audio artifacts and fidelity that a listener is given a sense beyond the performance or the song and where those signs are apparent they are read as authentic, truthful and realistic in spite of their technological shortcomings. Not surprising then that of the groups mentioned above, their early home recorded works are generally considered definitive and superior beyond subsequent studio efforts.

  7. Chuck Said,

    March 21, 2006 @ 9:48 am

    Allan, the artists you mention illustrate Adorno’s point quite well. I’m probably most familiar with Beck’s early stuff (which I’ll agree is superior), but I think it applies to Sebadoh and Ween as well. I think there’s a similar logic with lo-fi video (and maybe 16mm or 8mm film) recording as well, come to think of it.

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