A Review of Kristen Gallerneaux’s High Static, Dead Lines
July 26, 2019 § 1 Comment
By Ian Maxton
There is a sound coming from the radio. We used to have radios in our homes, now most of us do not. At sixteen, I would sit in my room late at night listening to Coast to Coast AM—a show concerned with government conspiracy, UFO sightings, and the astral plane. It was, at times, absurd, surreal, and strangely affecting. People deal with the trauma of late capitalism in all kinds of ways, and some of them funnel it into highly idiosyncratic belief systems about ancient lizard people who live inside the hollow earth. The show felt as though it came from a world just adjacent to my own, a world the radio accidentally tuned into through some combination of technology and magic. Clarke’s third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
What the show did for me, though, was attune me more acutely to the possibilities of the strange in the world. I watch the skies at night for UFOs as much as stars. I investigate strange sounds in my house in the dark. Though I have cultivated this practice carefully, I find myself a rank amateur when compared with Kristen Gallerneaux. The curator of communication and IT at The Henry Ford Museum—which means, among other things, she oversees a vast warehouse of the strange—Gallerneaux is also the author of High Static Dead Lines.
Subtitled Sonic Spectres and the Object Hereafter (though less theory-heavy than that subtitle implies), the book of essays ranges across fields—music, technology, history, archaeology. The individual essays mine secrets “locked within the tangled guts of object history,” as Gallerneaux writes. In between the essays are interludes that the jacket copy describes as “ficto-criticism.” These sections are about a girl named K. and conform significantly to what is known of the author’s own biography, blurring the line further between the real and the unreal. Throughout the book, footnotes make reference to hauntings, paranormal happenings, or folk beliefs, haunting the text.
The book is a catalogue of overheard séances, TV broadcast hijackings, haunted pianos, and fetches (a ghost of oneself that slips out of time as a portent of death). Gallerneaux considers the first laser, the Votrax, and the Moog synthesizer. This interplay of objects and phenomena is at the core of the book. As is sound. Unsurprisingly so, considering that the first séances of the spiritualist movement in the U.S. were productions of sound.
But the book does not stake its ground in any particular object philosophy, instead, following the objects where they lead to. Gallerneaux positions herself as neither skeptic nor believer in the supernatural, but, like Fox Mulder, someone who wants to believe. And what she believes in is “the voice of the object, the thing, above all else.”
These voices are spectres and Gallerneaux’s text is a hauntological one, in that—per a quote she pulls from Mark Fisher—“hauntology [is] the agency of the virtual, with the spectre understood not as anything supernatural, but as that which acts without (physically) existing.”
There is an episode of The Twilight Zone that goes like this: an old woman lives alone and starts receiving strange phone calls. The calls frighten her, but like many frightening things, they excite her, too. She investigates the source of the calls and finds they are coming from a phone line that has gone down and left the wire resting on the grave of a former lover. The physical (electric line) connects her to the metaphysical (whatever plane of existence her lover resides on). This episode presumably completed its production sometime in mid-1963. On the evening it was to air, however, it was pre-empted by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This is hauntological. It is hauntological, too, when we watch archival news footage from that day.
Haunting is the point. Gallerneaux writes that “finding ways to allow our media to haunt us is crucial to understanding it.” The resonances – the revenants – of our past still haunt us. As Gallerneaux points out, the radio was once thought to be a tool for utopian democratization. Now, it is a nearly obsolete object in the North American home. But you can go on YouTube right now and listen to Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds broadcast. You may already have.
In one of the ficto-criticisms, Gallerneaux tells the story of K., on the porch one summer evening with her grandfather during a storm. The storm rises and, just above the looming tower of the town’s glass factory, a ball of lighting forms. A huge ball that stuns everyone into silence and keeps them that way for, as the lightning dives into the earth, it fries the telephone wires of the whole town.
Phone wires, like radios, are becoming less and less needed, but now that our phones beam messages through the air, we may see an uptick in calls from the beyond. Or, more simply, Facebook may put a “memory” on your feed that includes a picture of someone who has died.
Marx famously wrote that “all that is solid melts into air”—Gallerneaux recognizes that, even after objects and people disappear, the air is filled with ghosts.
Ian Maxton is a writer and critic. His work has appeared in Permafrost, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and elsewhere. He is a contributor at Spectrum Culture, an associate editor for Passages North, and lives above the 45th parallel with his wife and their two cats.