A couple of weeks ago, I attended Movies at Bryant Park with my friend Jane, who I interviewed in another post. On the train, we had a short discussion about film, photography, memory and the spookiness of it. One of the ideas we discussed was the belief that photography steals your soul. My answers reminded Jane of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I still need to read. However, other works influence my thoughts as well, such as Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the film Dark Mirror, and the musical The Total Bent, which is partly about a singer who strives to make another record like the hit record he had at 11-years-old. I also read this “Photo Myth Study” article about the relationship between mirrors and photography and the religious beliefs behind the topic of photography “stealing souls.” These works provided a base for the thoughts I have been having about all types of recording technology. They all have their haunting elements to them. Basically there are ghosts in these machines.
What is a record? Record comes from the Latin words re- and cordis, meaning to learn by heart or to put back into the heart. In many cultures, the heart used to be considered the seat of memory. But at least the memories were within a person or small group. What happens when that memory or moments in time are externalized into physical objects that can be reproduced millions of times for many to see in almost any time and space. Writing and drawings record our mind’s thoughts and images. Then, photography and film seemed to record more accurate images of ourselves. Sound recordings recorded our voices not just the image. Do they steal our souls?
In a way they do. There is a reason why we say the word “captured” is often used with recording technology. As Jane and I discussed, a fleeting moment of time and disembodied parts of a living essence of who we are, are now captured in that singular moment. We age and we change, these records we have do not in the way we do. They are stuck and embedded in whatever material we use — in the scratches on a paper, in the grooves of a vinyl, in the wax, celluloid or magnetic strip, and the stream of numbers in a digital recording. The memory becomes an object.
Memory itself is haunting enough, but recording technology can be even more so. I have often looked at photographs of myself at five, or ten, or 15, and thought of them as strange, trying to grasp that this was me at one point in time. Listening to my own voice on a sound recording can also be sometimes disorienting. Records act like doppelgangers or like xeroxed duplicates that mimic an aspect of you even long after you are gone. Think of people you know, like family, friends and even celebrities, who have long passed, but then you forget as you listen to them on a sound recording or see them on film. It is as if they are still alive and we have to dissociate between the person and the object we have; it is surreal.
Records can either be good or bad. They can reveal things about the past that we may have never known without them. Yet, they can also be dangerous because records only have a part of the moment, not the entirety of it. It never tells you all of what happened or all of who was there. Also, as a I said before, we age and change, but they do not, and sometimes we compare our older or changed selves to a moment that has passed. I think of that when I think of people like Whitney Houston. We constantly compared her singing voice to when she was younger, but she was no longer that and we did not let her be what she was before she passed.
The belief that photographs steal the soul may imply that an intangible and impermanent essence is now in a physical objectified form and weighted down to often represent more than it actually sometimes should. Records are, in a sense, like the seashells that we collect because they look beautiful or for sentimental value, forgetting that they are the shells of dead creatures. Essentially, we are always trying to resurrect the dead and simultaneously are being haunted by the dead.
Read more about the ghostly creepiness of recording technology in “Digital Doppelgangers.”