Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Invisible Voices: Archiving Sound as Sight in Marcel Beyer's Karnau Tapes

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Invisible Voices: Archiving Sound as Sight in Marcel Beyer's Karnau Tapes

Article excerpt

Marcel Beyer's novel The Karnau Tapes begins with a voice breaking the morning silence and a parade of deaf-mutes at a Nazi rally. The narrative perspective is that of Hermann Karnau, a sound engineer charged with bringing the speeches and cries of this assembly even to the deafest ears in the back rows. Karnau, from the novel's opening pages to its final sentence, is obsessed with sound and driven by a desire to record and chart every possible human utterance in an archive that he secretly assembles throughout the course of the book. The novel traces his relationship with Joseph Goebbels's children, for whom he becomes a kind of caretaker during certain periods of World War II, and in whose deaths he is ultimately complicit. Central to the climax of the novel is Karnau's decision to record the voices of these children, although initially he thought them too precious to be documented in such a way. Early on, he asks, "Is my map of vocal nuances subject to any limitations? Is there anything I would not record? Yes, the voices of these children while still defenceless, as they are now, because they believe themselves to be alone and unobserved" (47). (1)

Yet Karnau's intended omission is, in the end, overruled by his scientific drive towards totality and omniscience. In an act he long represses, he records the final words of the children. Listening to the tapes decades later, however, he somehow fails to recognize himself as the children's likely murderer. Karnau, the dubious protagonist who narrates the better half of the novel, longs to fill his acoustic "atlas" by witnessing and providing testimony to every cry, no matter how damaging, that can be produced by the human vocal apparatus. Scholarship on The Karnau Tapes has paid much attention to the startling shift from the predominance of the visual to the emergence of the acoustic within the archivist drive that forms the core of the narrator's enterprise and moral ambivalence. (2) I will argue, however, that Karnau's consistent attempts to subjugate sound to visual constructs ultimately compromise its essential auditory qualities and render problematic the distinction between sound and sight.

The initial shift from sight to sound is manifestly problematized, both provocatively and evocatively, within Beyer's text. Yet any technological or paradigmatic shift as strong as the sensory modulation presented in The Karnau Tapes has inherent political and ethical ramifications. Driven by his encyclopedic urge, Karnau willingly records the plaintive moans and screams of dying soldiers and the guttural cries of tortured victims. Whereas the narrator's inclination is to assign sovereignty to the corporeal status of the voice as earnest and immediate--the type of valorization convincingly dismissed by Derrida in La voix et le phenomene--his attempted archivization of sound is ultimately no less adherent to the linguistic, symbolic order it appears to reject. Beyer thereby undermines and subverts Karnau's own problematic reliance on what Ulrich Schonherr identifies as ephemeral experiences that the narrator believes "lie beyond the linguistic order and its meanings and refer to the body" (332).

In his article on The Karnau Tapes, Schonherr argues that Derrida's critique of the Western metaphysical tradition errs insofar as it still submits the voice to logical ordering. In a sense, as Schonherr intimates, this is exactly what Karnau does: he attempts to subordinate the voice to mnemonic constructs that cannot support it and instead deprive it of its transitory character. In what follows, I therefore demonstrate that Karnau's mnemonic enterprise attempts to subject these purportedly immediate elements to precisely the same type of linguistic-semiotic constructs that he initially desires to supersede. This attempted subjugation is manifested chiefly through a thoroughly problematic representation of the acoustic by visual means.

Schonherr's seminal article makes a significant and insightful contribution to the discussion of this gap between experience and mnemonic representation, but unfortunately does so partially on the basis of an assumption that the work in question is fictionally meant to correspond to notes written by the narrator. …

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