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Dead Air

2018 marked the five-year anniversary of author Doris Lessing’s death. This fact made it all the more surprising when, sat in my kitchen this summer, I heard her chatting away on the radio to her official biographer Patrick French. Yet Lessing was not alive as this interview took place, and French was speaking to nobody more than a disembodied voice from an archive reel. Lessing was answering questions which she had never been asked during her lifetime, playback technology offering a solution for the problem of lost time and enabled a conversation that never was. But as solutions go this seems to raise more questions than it offers an answer to: is it ethical to ventriloquise the dead using their own voice?

The interview was one of the series Unforgettable, which aired its second season on BBC Radio 4 in August 2018. Each episode features a ‘conversation’ between the living and the dead. Using advanced recording and playback technology, series producer Adam Fowler enables guests on the show to interview someone recently deceased. Questions are then met with quick-responses selected from archive recordings of that person’s own voice.

The listener at home is in a privileged position of blindness. Unable to see an empty seat, there is no indication that of the two voices conducting this posthumous interview one might have been foraged from recordings made over fifteen years ago; the trapped sound of a speaker who is no longer present. The result is a wholly convincing, albeit eerie conversation. It manipulates the medium of radio to create what would elsewhere be impossible. For fifteen short minutes the listener is privy to a temporary resurrection of the late Doris Lessing.

Over the course of these short, séance-like sessions, the lives and thoughts of the recently deceased are brought back into discussion. Lessing’s archive recordings are of understandable interest for her biographer, but the pairings on the show are often of a more intimate nature, the guests being some of the people who knew the interviewees the best during their lifetime: daughters speaking to their mothers, sons to their fathers, or brothers to brothers. There is an interesting conflict between the private interview and the public arena in which they are enacted and from which their content has been drawn. The ‘conversations’ which take place on the show are often imbued with emotion and an edge of nervous energy, anticipating answers to the questions left unanswered by death.

What can be expected from the answers to these questions is complicated, it relies on the belief that in retrospective investigation we can discover something new in something that has been there all along but that we may have missed. The words reverberate with the intonation and the accent of the interviewee but their responses are taken from the replies to different, now long forgotten questions. The re-contextualisation of old statements is essential to the construction of these ‘conversations’. They are built upon an edifice of willing fiction, re-using old bricks to make a new building. There is an abundance of interesting ideas which can be gleaned from these exchanges, re-evaluating the past in light of new progress. This occurs are the point where fiction, fact, past and present start to merge and the listening experience is cathartic, at times, uncanny, and often unsettling.

The conversation between Samantha Roddick and her late mother, Anita Roddick, is a powerful dialogue between two generations which touches on their approaches to business, ethics and family. Fowler explains to Samantha at the start: ‘We’ve got this little box of tricks. It’s got conversational clips colour-coded under different headings’. It’s hard to avoid cringing at the thought of a dissected Anita Roddick, her constituent parts categorised and compartmentalised into a little magic box from which we can conjure her wisdom at will. Despite this, it is difficult not to be immersed. There is something captivating about the fluidity of the conversation and a human desire for narrative that allows the listener to suspend their belief and incredulity.

The conversation spans a multitude of topics, and expands beyond familial nostalgia. As CEO of The Body Shop, Anita Roddick set out to redefine ethical practices in business, to change the very nature of the workplace and promote moral production. As her voice is brought back from the dusty shelves of the archive it has lost none of its zeal and moral energy which stimulated her in life. Her message has been perfectly preserved, down to the inflection of her voice and her pauses for breath. It is as though the essence of Anita has been captured in these recordings; words which were said a decade ago seem just as alive today. This mixing of humanity and technology is what makes the programme so disturbing yet digestible. The reassuring tone of Anita’s voice helps the listener forget about the disembodied state in which it emerges from the machinery.

Speaking of her ideas for the future we hear her say of her children’s generation that: ‘They’re going to come forward with a moral code, with a passion, a zest for the moment, they’re going to be the planetary sitters and they’re going to be the ones that have to keep the bloody planet alive.’ Samantha responds by adopting her mother’s words: ‘I’m gonna marry what you say, I think that the young, the nineteen year olds are amazing and fearless and vocal so I’m putting all of my weight behind them.’ Anita’s energy for ethical innovation has transcended her physical existence. When we hear her say she’d ‘like to be remembered for just trying to change the ways things are in business’, we are excited by the prospect of keeping her voice in conversation today.

While important to maintain a dialogue with ideas of the past, there are certain problems that arise when one end of a conversation is selected from a machine. Humour, for example, has a slightly hollow undertone. It is often in the lighter moments of the conversation that we are more easily aware that the two speakers are not running in parallel. On the topic of her extensive travelling we hear:

Anita Roddick: I could almost close my eyes and go on forever and think I could cut the cords to the family as long as I knew they were all right.

Samantha Roddick: (laughing) And as long as you could phone us up every day…

Anita Roddick: Guilty. Guilty, totally and utterly guilty.

Anita’s response is framed to sound like a guilty mother chiding herself for an inability to separate herself from her children. We detect a mismatch between the tone of the words and the purpose they are being used for, having an intonation too serious to match the comedy of the moment. The framework of the conversation cracks as we are reminded that Anita cannot hear, nor respond, to what Samantha is saying. No amount of editing can smooth over the disjunction between words and meaning, which relies so heavily on tone to define. The joke not only falls flat and ends up being more unnerving than entertaining, but also reminds us that everything that we have heard has been taken, to some extent, out of context.

The problem of altering reality takes on a more ironic nuance during the conversation between Doris Lessing and her biographer. Patrick French asks Lessing for her motivation behind appointing an authorised biographer to write her life story after her death, to which she responds: Well because you see a couple of books had been written about me which were so inaccurate, they don’t really care about facts at all which is very hard to accept you know.’ French replies earnestly: ‘I think I do care about facts’. Throughout the interview, he demonstrates a great knowledge of Lessing’s life and care to detail it. That being said, this exchange is not based in fact but is rather a constructed narrative, enlightening perhaps, but not to be taken, documented, or accepted as an authentic conversation. No doubt French won’t see it as such, but perhaps some people will. It begs the question of whether there is anything stopping somebody from repurposing old conversations to build a new narrative, perhaps harmless at times but with the potential for sinister consequences.

The law is relatively straightforward. According to the European Courts of Human Rights, once you’re dead, you lose your rights over your data. Slander is no longer applicable if its victim is deceased. There are still laws to protect living relatives and confidential data but most of our personal data is up for grabs. On the BBC website there is a note which refers to their policy on data protection. The definition of ‘”Personal data” is any information that relates to a living individual’ (my emphasis) which allows them to be identified from that data, including recordings. The dead are hence almost defenceless against defamation. Could that be a good thing? When the Jimmy Savile scandal broke out in 2016 many people were shocked at the silence that had surrounded his crimes. One of the reasons for this silence was the fear that speaking out against him would result in a case suing for slander or defamation of character. Savile was rich and powerful, keep his critics at bay in his lifetime. Once dead, however, the game changed.

In his 2016 documentary Savile, Louis Theroux revisits archive footage from his 2010 documentary When Louis Met Jimmy. The new developments give a sinister spin to the words we hear Savile say. Clues Theroux missed at the time now seem hauntingly obvious. It is important to revisit these images to make the associations that were missed during his lifetime and understand them in a different context. The freedom of interrogation enables justice to be executed and it arises not out of a lack of concern for those who have died but through the prioritisation of those still living. Much like Unforgettable, Theroux is re-examining the past, attempting to see what slipped by at the time but also in the process doing something creative: he is bringing that very image of Savile into the conversation about him. Despite his practical impunity through death, his digital image has been tarnished by his crimes. The past can never be rectified, but it can be re-evaluated.

The society we live in is no longer limited to our physical presence on Earth. Rare is the person without a digital counterpart. There are asymmetries between our corporeal self and the ‘self’ that exists on the computer, the most interesting of which is perhaps immortality: our data does not decompose like we do. Yet the interviews of Unforgettable are so ‘lifelike’ because the archive recordings seem to retain the essence of the interviewee, as though through their words they live a little longer, temporarily resurrected.

Is this the future of immortality? The first episode, which appeared in 2016, is a conversation between David Temple and his late brother-in-law Derek Jarman. The discussion turns for a moment to Jarman’s mortality in light of his HIV-positive diagnosis. Temple asks how Jarman prepared for death, to which he responds: ‘Well I don’t think of myself as terminally ill, I think it would be fatal to actually believe in that because there is always someone who slips through the net. Its rather difficult to work out who that might be with the HIV infection but I’m certain that’s happening. If in fact I do happen to find myself on my deathbed, I’m going to make certain, if its of any use to anyone that I’m giving an interview’. Jarman, by all accounts, did not manage to slip through the net but somehow, 22 years after his death, we are still hearing his voice crackling through the radio, listening to the fulfilment of his promised interview. There is something unsettling about hearing Jarman refer to himself in the present tense. Jarman’s name is not only still being said, but his own voice is still being heard in response to it.

The ability to draw upon his voice and words, and to envisage an entirely fictional conversation with him, hints at a possibility which with the advent of new AI enterprises may not be so inconceivable as we think. There is already one company, HUMAI, which has tentatively expressed the objective of human immortality through digitalisation by combing cryonics and databases to draw together resources and preserve us in digital form. It is still at an inchoate stage, but the conflation of physical and virtual realities is something with which we all have to grapple. Hearing the Unforgettable conversations, it is difficult to distinguish between a person and their digital footprint; they are simultaneously present yet undeniably absent. Beyond the superficial impressiveness of the series, there is emptiness behind the interviewee’s words, plucked from a virtual ether without a physical counterpart.

If we are not trying to seek immortality through technology, it could conversely be a means of making peace with the mortality of others. Unforgettable can offer a cathartic revisiting of loved one, or even a chance to make peace with the past, such as in the case of Tony Garnett and Mary Whitehouse. As avid opponents of censorship on television during the 70s, radio critic Gillian Reynolds wrote of their conversation that: ‘They used to go for each other like rampaging tigers. Garnett on Unforgettable was measured and patient, understandably.’ Tony Garnett says to the late Mary Whitehouse that, whilst they were on opposite sides of the argument, ‘I always respected you, partly because I understood you’. These are words which signify closure. Neither or them won their battle outright and in looking into the past with a nostalgia tinged softness Garnett can make the peace with Whitehouse that they never quite achieved in life. Whilst Garnett can bury the hatchet over an argument that has ceased to be and assuage potential feelings of guilt or regret, it seems an easy way out given that Whitehouse is no longer able to hear these apologies and she cannot reciprocate, nor benefit from, such a show of closure.

The Garnett-Whitehouse conversation is a powerful example of the catharsis of creating new narratives which can override the past. Garnett was able to make peace with a powerful opponent, accepting that their arguments are now a historical artefact. There is a problem, however, with our tendency as a society to prioritise stories over the truth. Given the abundance of fake news stories and of false campaigning, the potency of fictitious narratives to persuade us in a certain direction is not without its dangers. Unforgettable offers us an insight into the past but we must not fall into the trap of thinking that it is real. Mary Whitehouse was never able to share in the peace that her own words were reworked to create for Garnett.

The podcasts offer a strange, unnerving listening experience, forged from a strange collision of capturing human essence and replacing human will with the push of a button. In many ways they foreshadow the impending arrival of AI and the transferal of humanity into a new digitalised existence. What makes them worth a listen, is that, alongside their innovative and experimental techniques of production, what they offer is the time-old advice of people who have lived a great deal during a short lifetime. The message which I took away from each conversation was not pessimistic, but purposeful. The interviewees are people who achieved great things during their lives and looking back over them offers a holistic vision of what is possible in a short space of time. At the end of Doris Lessing’s interview, French asks her if there is anything she would have liked to have done if she had had the chance. Her response encapsulates a great creative and ambitious spirit:

‘I would like to have been, I know this sounds absolutely ridiculous, a hang-glider, like these marvellous people you see soaring about the skies, I would like to have walked across the world, I would like to have gone to the antarctic as part of the original expeditions. I would like to have done all that kind of thing. Bit late now.’

It may be too late for Lessing and there is regret permeating these words when we hear them retrospectively. There is, however, also a sense of vitality; a motivation which seems to tell the listener at home that it isn’t too late for you. Hearing the voices of the dead, perhaps regretting their unfulfilled hopes, reminds us that there is still time for us to take up hang-gliding, but we had better not leave it too late.

Art by Abigail Hodges.

ISOBEL KENT reads French at St. John's. She has been known to wake herself up by laughing out loud at her own dreams.


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