Joe Moran and the Vox Populi

I’m down in London for the Institute of Contemporary British History summer conference, which this year is given over to the topic of science. Tonight, we were lucky enough to have the Ben Pimlott Memorial Lecture. Joe Moran played to a packed room on ‘Vox Populi?: The Recorded Voice and Twentieth-Century British History’. It was recorded, so I will share it when it’s made available. I found the paper exceptionally interesting, covering as it did the earliest instances of reliable voice recording, the ‘golden’ voiced winner of a mid-century competition to become the speaking clock, art installations that broadcast local dissent to municipal change, and the efforts of anthropologists and pioneer oral historians to preserve local dialects for future generations. However, I also found much to disagree with, and the conversations that I had at the reception afterwards helped me better clarify these initial instinctive objections. In the interests of record keeping and preservation, I type them up here.

Firstly, Moran opened and closed his paper by reflecting on the fact that the ‘magical’ aspect of reliable and robust voice recording, itself a peculiarly C20th and C21st phenomenon, has been lost, now that voice recording has been subsumed into daily life. As an ‘historian of the every-day’ Moran sees it as his job to chart this development of novelty as it recedes into the banal. In fairness to his paper, at no point do I remember him saying ‘the magic of voice recording has been lost’ and that ‘this is a bad thing’. The latter was merely heavily implied, or at least used as a motivating anxiety behind the paper. I dislike this. As I tried to express in my slightly too critically worded question, I think lifting the phenomenon of voice recording up like this serves only to blind us to what these changes actually constitute, and what their significances truly are. I think the motivations of those who went out to record voices – voices as an object – need to be seriously reconsidered. It is not simply the case that they are some special species of conservationist. Indeed, they might even be seen as the enemies of conservation.

Secondly, and relatedly, in my question I somewhat cynically characterised these voice recording missionaries and their projects as being more vain than presented by Moran. Here is an analogy for what I meant, one that helps put my cynicism to more constructive use. These people who head out into winds and gales, leaving behind the comforts of London to interview peripheral people who speak funny (I realise I’m being an arsehole here), people with an interest in ‘preservation’, these people are like kids returning home from school with pictures to put on the fridge. The beautiful thing about their activities – the thing we want to protect and cultivate – is the impulse to show an interest in the diversity found in the people of this country/the world. This I think is the seductive part of the dialect recording projects emphasised by Moran, the beauty of this impulse. The analogous impulse we want to protect in our children – which we do by putting their pictures on the fridge – is the impulse to describe or capture part of the world in a creative way. HOWEVER. The recordings themselves (the pictures produced by children) are fucking awful. They mean nothing and translate nothing. You might as well record honking geese. On the other hand, interviews and the recording of life stories, activities which we got to hear about earlier in the day from Sally Horrocks (who is consulting on the British Library National Life Stories oral history project) are a very different beast. Here, despite all the limitations of the medium, you are trying to capture something of the interviewees personhood. Their voice is a bonus, one that can only be mined for meaning by people who have some very special skills (or rather, have convinced themselves they have some very special skills).

I’ll stop there. It was a real treat to have something so stimulating presented to us so clearly. It’s Moran’s own fault for making his argument clear enough that I might develop such strong opinions so quickly. Night!

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