“If the phonograph could hear itself, it would learn to recognize the difference between the voice which came from the outside and forced itself onto it and the voice which it itself is broadcasting and which is a simple echo of the first, following an already grooved way.”
It’s worth remembering that Edison’s phonograph was a device not only for the reproduction but also the recording of sound impressions. Still, while I’d agree with Guyau that “discoveries frequently start with metaphors,” there’s something lacking in the analogy he draws between the human brain and an “infinitely perfected phonograph—a conscious phonograph.” Perhaps that’s because the human brain as computer metaphor has only recently dried up.
Guyau treats a memory as an informational object. His self-conscious phonograph recognizes that the information is the same even if it’s not the original voice it hears. The informational is one of the three preservation frameworks Trevor Owens identifies in his book. The other two are the artifactual and the folkloric. The actual cylinder recording that Guyau might have listened to on his phonograph would be informationally identical to another recording of the same sonic event, just as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is still the same book whether it’s a first edition or a bargain paperback or an e-book. The words are in the same order. The spelling is the same.
But, that first edition would also have artifactual qualities. Any edition might, really. I’m sure James Whale’s copy would fetch a considerable sum at auction. Preserving a historic building—Trevor uses the example of Mount Vernon—is a more clear-cut example of the artifactual framework. Preserving a picture of Mount Vernon or a house that looks like Mount Vernon in Orlando, isn’t preserving Mount Vernon.
Finally, folkloric preservation traditions seek to document the ways that traditions and customs are passed on. This necessarily involves documenting particular instances or retellings but they are not intended as the final expression of the content of the tradition. Folkloric preservation doesn’t seek the best copy to digitize. The variability is the object.
Furthermore, the affordances of our media can condition our preservation techniques and expectations. Trevor cites the proceedings of the first National Colloquium on Oral History in 1966 where it was suggested that the “tape recorder [was] important enough to oral history to constitute almost a part of the definition [of oral history].” On the surface, that doesn’t sound terrifically controversial, but it is a choice. To my mind, that’s one major takeaway from the Dance Heritage Coalition’s Documenting Dance: A Practical Guide. Regardless of how we choose to document, we have to be aware of the limitations, i.e., dangers, of our approach. Can we reconstruct a dance from even the best HD video representation?
Guyau gives us a model of the human brain that relies on a medium (the phonograph) that would, within a generation, be surpassed. His analogy sounds impoverished today because the problem is always older than the technology and still manages to outlive it. Preservationists might not make the same mistake if they see their work as a continuation of the work of their forbears and not a task for which they are uniquely historically positioned to complete; if they believe that nothing’s preserved, it’s only being preserved.