We now apparently have the option to have our bodily remains pressed into vinyl records (http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2010-08/27/and-vinyly). This morbid, quite literal take on human-object assemblages raises all kinds of questions about materiality, embodiment, identity, affect, and sound.
The relationship between sound and death is nothing new. In The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, Jonathan Sterne links the inception of audio recording to a larger ethos of preservation. The history of sound reproduction in the 19th century, Sterne suggests, is entwined with the introduction of embalming practices and an explosion in the production of canned goods during the first two decades of the phonographs existence. He explains, "Recording was the product of a culture that had learned to can and to embalm, to preserve the bodies of the dead so that they could continue to perform a social function after life" (292). Sternes connection amplifies how the recorded voice can offer an extension of life after death.
But in this particular historical moment, why sound? MP3 and digital video technologies are readily available, so why resort to a vintage audio medium? Why vinyl?
In The Presence of the Word, Walter Ong writes, "Sound is more real or existential than other sense objects, despite the fact that it is also more evanescent. Sound itself is related to present actuality rather than to past or future. It must emanate from a source here and now discernibly active, with the result that involvement with sound is involvement with the present, with here-and-now existence and activity" (111-12).
Like images, of course, sounds can trigger associations with the past. We experience sound in a situated space and time, we can identify sounds from specific historical periods, etc. But with recorded sound, there is something about the grain of the disembodied voice that seems timeless. As Ong reminds us, "Sight reveals only surfaces. It can never get to an interior as an interior, but must always treat it as somehow an exterior" (74). When listening to a voice or music that we associate with a lost loved one, the signs of age, disease, or trauma (the surfaces that mark the past-ness of the deceased) are not visible. It is the present-ness of sound that creates an intimate experience. Vibrating sound waves literally enter, or physically impact, our bodies. In this sense, sound is a form of touch as well. Because sound is a kind of raw interiority, then, it affects people (impinges upon their bodies) more so than photographs or videos. It may be the closest we can get to corporeally interacting with the presence or essence of the person we lost.
But there is still the question of vinyl.
I think the choice of the vinyl medium has to do with its materiality. Though MP3s are material too (we can physically manipulate digital sound waves on computer screens), a digital option would not work for the particular task of melding human remains with a non-virtual tactile object. The chemical fusion of ashes with CDs or cassettes, which are becoming obsolete media in many ways, probably wouldnt work as well either. Perhaps it is the longevity and fetishization of the vinyl album that gives it a (perceived) permanence that is lacking in other audio media.
Some people believe that once a sound is sounded, it continues to reverberate forever. Maybe the fusion of body and vinyl is a way to re-corporealize and distinguish a voice from all of the ghostly traces of sounds that are still vibrating out there in the universe. Maybe its physicality--its seemingly permanent present-ness--is what makes this bizarre corporeal-sonic object a source of comfort.
Regardless of the personal reasons behind the decision to become a human-vinyl assemblage, what I find most compelling here is the blurring of the lines between organic and nonorganic material--a blurring that troubles the relationship between matter, bodies, and technologies, between interiority and exteriority. As Patricia Clough states in The Affective Turn, the communion of technology and the body "inserts the technical into felt vitality" (2). The human-vinyl assemblage is not just an extension of the human. Rather, the human is transformed and inserted into the technology. The resulting felt vitality is a manifestation of affect. In other words, the record transmits the affect of the life lost back into the present (via sound) and simultaneously produces (interior and/or exterior) affective responses in the listeners.
What may seem like a hip alternative to being bottled up in an urn incites all sorts of complicated theoretical questions (not to mention a number of rhetorical conundrums: Would you choose to do a voice message? Or create a track list and let the songs speak for themselves? Or let the record eerily pop and crackle, allowing your audience to experience your once lively body as lively noiseas audible remnants of your lived energy?). Theorizing the intersections between sound, bodies, technologies, affects, and materiality is an ongoing part of my dissertation research, and the thinking (or thinking through) Im sharing with you is still very much in process. That said, I always welcome any thoughts, feedback, or related resources, so please feel free to join the conversation.
Clough, Patricia, Ed. The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
"GE Record Player." gggone1. January 3, 2009. YouTube. September 2, 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhAAOdDH4-E
Ong, Walter J. The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967.
Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.