Disclaimer: this book is not specifically about Nigeria at any point; instead it has things to say about how we can think about images of radio that pop-up in the works we’ve read so far.
John Mowitt provides a sweeping examination of the philosophical, social, and political stakes inherent to the medium of radio. In each of the six essays which make up this collection (in addition to an introduction which smartly frames the discussion), Mowitt examines the underpinnings and interrelations between theory and radio itself. In the opening essay, “Facing the Radio,” for instance, Mowitt begins with an (at first) odd digression into Jacques Derrida’s seminal work Of Grammatology, tracing Derrida’s critique of phonocentrism through articulating the philosophic object of the radio “voice.” As the essay continues, Mowitt follows the logic of deconstruction through Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, the works of Slavoj Zizek, Theodor Adorno, Heidegger, and on. The remaining essays continue in a similar fashion, though obviously with different conclusions.
Mowitt’s aim is generally clear: he seeks to navigate the problems radio presents to philosophy and explore the disparate answers to the question “what is radio?”. In running the philosophical gamut, Mowitt effectively provides succinct answers through the lenses of psychoanalysis, postcolonial theory, Marxism, and the other heavy hitters of philosophical thought. Yet, again, the point is the question, and so, as he says, the aim is to submit his “writing practice to the demands of… the object of radio study,” and further that such a writing “gives frank and rather direct expression to the difficulty of tuning in, of giving sharp focus to the vexed encounter between radio and its study.” That is, Mowitt’s collection is not about radio as a technological phenomenon, or its historical progressions. Instead, it examines the ways in which radio interacts with people, politics, and cultural thought. The penultimate essay, for example, addresses the “pedagogical spread” of “radio as an apparatus by means of which a public might be informed about the conditions of its social existence” (following Brecht), and focuses its attention on higher education radio’s use as the means conveying information and communications.
In this regard, Essays in Bad Reception is a remarkable success. Understanding the philosophies behind radio helps to underscore its importance as a mechanism for social operation. Again, the fifth essay in this collection is perfect evidence for this claim. In a lengthy discussion of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham (CCCS), and Raymond Williams’ response to a pamphlet by Rachel Powell published by it, Mowitt suggests that local radio can be the voice of a people, the manner in which they communicate with each other, the political impetus for the democratic right to “verbal and auditory experience,” and, combining all of these in different ways, the means for an effective education which would simultaneously convey and enact this kind of cultural expression. As an extension, and producer, of cultural imagining, the examination of radio here becomes an elaboration on the social frameworks it participates in, particular, for Williams, its effect on “contemporary Socialism.”
Yet, for all this success, the deft philosophical meanderings are also the collection’s greatest weakness. Like many other scholarly works, this text requires a broad understanding of the theoretical positions discussed in order for it to accomplish its stated goals. Without this understanding, the book becomes unwieldy and inaccessible. Indeed, since the arguments of the theories and theorists discussed in the essays are never fully fleshed out, it wouldn’t be enough to have simply read Heidegger or Walter Benjamin, but a significant amount of reading, and a deeper comprehension of their works. Because Essays in Bad Reception deals with so many theories across multiple disciplines in different eras and places, this prerequisite to fully appreciate it is perhaps too demanding. Everyone would need to have a strong working knowledge of radio studies, on the one hand, and the philosophies of the last hundred years on the other, to really see what Mowitt is doing here. Unfortunately, few people would, and this important work will remain relegated to a more marginal position than, I think, it deserves.