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Radio: Essays in Bad Reception

by John Mowitt
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2011
248 pp. Trade, $65.00; paper, $26.95
ISBN: 9780520270497; ISBN: 9780520270503.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


Studies of radio, a technology for the broadcast distribution of voice and other aural content wirelessly across distance, have historically focused on the medium, or the history of that medium. Radio: Essays in Bad Reception, by John Mowitt, breaks this tradition and looks at radio as the effect dissemination of voice and other sounds across radio networks has had on modern conceptions of community and the transnational, historical dimensions of broadcast culture. This new approach moves radio beyond a mass medium of seduction and manipulation, common themes in current media studies programs, and broadens its examination into areas such as cultural studies, communication, and history of technology.

As a founding technology for the twentieth century, radio has drawn the attention of theoretical and philosophical writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Lacan, Frantz Fanon, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, and Raymond Williams. All have used radio as the focus for their ideas and/or reflections regarding how and why radio has come to matter, particularly politically, to phenomenology, existentialism, Hegelian Marxism, anticolonialism, psychoanalysis, and cultural studies. Mowitt examines this central role of radio in the history of critical theory through the lens of the relationship between philosophy and radio, the first such endeavor, seeking to position radio as a cultural technology and an apparatus with a social and political history. In short, he sets out to study scholarly interest in "the object of radio studies" (3).

Each of the book's six chapters are essays or "thought experiments" in which Mowitt attempts "to trace how the problem that is radio arises within and between various philosophical and theoretical projects" and examines how thinking about radio "produces effects that not only scramble intellectual alliances but also the sociohistorically given contours of intellectual life" (16).

Chapter 1, "Facing the Radio," articulates an array of contacts, both in agreement and not, in the areas of philosophy, politics, phenomenology, physiognomy, and psychoanalysis.

Chapter 2, "On the Air," examines the interplay between using radio as a means of philosophical / political communication and as a provocation to philosophical / political thought. Specifically, Mowitt examines the problem posed by radio for Marxist philosophy as seen through the confrontation between George Lukács and Jean-Paul Sartre and the collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin.

Chapter 3, "Stations of Exception," uses Frantz Fanon's essay, "Here Is the Voice of Algeria," to examine the role radio has played in decolonization movements in Africa and elsewhere. Here Mowitt argues that we must think about the status of voice in political confrontations, especially when discussing communications.

Chapter 4, "Phoning in Analysis," examines three sites of encounter between radio and psychoanalysis: Erich Fromm's role in the Princeton Radio Research Project, two radio lectures by Jacques Lacan, and statements made by Féliz Guattair regarding free popular radio stations, particularly the Bologna-based Radio Alice. The result is "a twisted set of queries about the conditions, the channels, of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic teaching" (17).

Chapter 5, "Birmingham Calling," examines, again, Marxism and philosophy as part of the role radio played in the founding of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham (England). Again, the power of radio is questioned with regard to its abilities to transform organizational structures of humanistic knowledge.

The final chapter, Chapter 6, "We Are the Word," examines the Modern Language Association's foray into radio, "What's the Word?," prompted by attacks on the organization by culture wars conservatives. Mowitt tracks the relation of radio to education by the philosophical and political problems discussed in previous chapters.

Throughout, Mowitt does not attempt to replace the earlier thinking, theories, or intellectual practices about radio with later, more current conceptions. Instead, he seeks nuances of language and definition that allow the continual examination of how the earlier remains active in the later. The various rhetorical and expository shifts in his writing as he switches fields of discourse, audience, and register are intentionally mimetic of tuning a radio, seeking better reception beyond the noise of feedback and static. This "bad reception" says Mowitt, results from being either too much inside, studying radio as an object, or too much outside, studying radio as a technology. The proper placement, he argues, is in the middle where it is apparent that radio is calling out for more. But what? Mowitt's text is a response, "trimmed to the shape of the letter(s) of that call" (21).

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