What’s the connection between a dead cat and a radio show?
In a previous post I’d talked about Clifford Geertz, and how I’d enjoyed the writings of this anthropologist. Now I’d like to mention a colleague of his from Princeton University in the 1970s, Robert Darnton.
Robert Darnton is a historian by trade, and I think it’s the mixing of the anthropologist with the historian that’s helped both academics to write some really entertaining stuff. After all, anthropology is (mostly) about people and people are interesting – and history is about stories and a tale that doesn’t grab you is, frankly, not worth telling.
Darnton is best known for his chapter “Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Séverin” (in: Darnton, R. (1984 ), The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, Penguin Books: London, pp. 75-104). His writing style is engaging from the very first sentence:
“The funniest thing that ever happened in the printing shop of Jacques Vincent, according to a worker who witnessed it, was a riotous massacre of cats” (p.75).
Journalistically, his writing is on the money: a provocative opening which uses a touch of sarcasm and hyperbole to draw the reader in. Find the book for yourself if you want to read the full chapter; I’ll not spoil Darnton’s narrative here. My point is that Darnton, by using an anthropological approach to dusty, fragmentary, archives from pre-revolutionary France of the 1730s, is able to build up a story (history) of the cultural life of Parisian workers and apprentices.
My feeling is that a similar approach can be taken when it comes to writing a cultural history of radio. Let me explain. Robert Darnton says his aim was to “put together symbolic worlds that collapsed centuries ago” (p. 261). His ‘cat massacre’ book presents re-readings of items from almost three hundred years ago, and Darnton admits that there may be a problem with the archive documents he’s selected, just as his interpretation of each one may be suspect (pp. 261-262). However, he makes a crucial point when he says,
“To get the joke in the case of something as unfunny as a ritual slaughter of cats is a first step toward ‘getting’ the culture” (p. 262).
And if anthropology is all about seeing things from a “native’s” point of view, then I’m sure this approach can be useful when thinking about the radio; particularly radio stations, programmes, and personalities from the 1920s and 30s. These very early shows weren’t recorded – even though in the case of the BBC some of the scripts survive, as well as the memos from producers and the occasional letter from a listener. But there’s no audio trace of these early programmes, no sound of these stations – in fact the British Broadcasting Corporation was ten years old before it got around to keeping anything. So, what was it like to listen to the radio in those days?
Just as a written account of a massacre of cats can provide an ‘in’ on the world of Parisian print-workers of the 1730s, so too can (I think) various written sources provide a way to understand what it was like to listen to, enjoy, and generally react to the wireless of the 1920s and 30s. And by written sources I’m not necessarily thinking of the programme scripts. It’s more than that: I think the things people have said over the past one hundred years, and are saying right now, about the radio are important. They’re as significant perhaps as the programmes themselves. Even today’s stations and shows – almost all of which are available to ‘listen again’ – are provoking reactions. And it’s those reactions I’m interested in…