Nobody Here

François Aubart

Viewable on YouTube, a user-generated website for video sharing, is a recording in which a sampled voice confirms “There’s nobody here”. This video does a particularly good job of pointing out the specificities of YouTube as a mode of diffusion. The comments that follow the video, produced by Daniel Lopatin, are also fitting: they note that it, a clip of “Lady in Red” by Chris de Burgh that has simply been slowed down, would make a perfect automated telephone message. Both here, and there, human presence and expression have been taken care of electronically. There isn’t a body; just a voice, in a continuous loop: the magic of the recording itself, which enables the identical repetition of an absence.

The contrast between the disappeared body and its conserved traces often emerges when one examines the techniques of recording. In a famous passage in Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes explains that just a few days after his mother’s death, he found himself browsing through several photographs of her.1 Though he tells us that he had no hope of “finding” her in the photographs (his quotation marks), he does not take long to admit that a resurrection (again, his term) is possible, even if he recognizes that he cannot hold onto it for long.2 Such conflict is borne of the confrontation between a memory and a recording. In fact, none of the photographs provides him with the being that he seeks. The only things that remain are a gesture here, or an arm movement there. This cruel observation leads him to affirm that: “To say, confronted with a certain photograph, ‘that’s almost the way she was!’ was more distressing than to say, confronted with another, ‘that’s not the way she was at all’. The almost: love’s dreadful regime, but also the dream’s disappointing status—which is why I hate dreams.”3 The impossibility of a “complete” resurrection is what is most atrocious here; the inescapable disappearance of one’s mother, the memory of whom never manages to fit with the preserved recording. Just a bit further down, after he finally “discovers” his mother in a photograph that had been taken of her inside a conservatory at the age of five, he notes that: “For once, photography gave me a sentiment as certain as remembrance”.4 A rare moment it is, when a memory coincides with a recording—painful though the process of its retrieval may be. This is because confrontation with the traces captured by a recording device in comparison with those we have remembered on our own is a frustrating process that only leaves us with a sense of incompleteness. What Barthes deplores is the impossibility of being able to hold on to the instant, and, by extension, the unavoidable passage of time that brings only death; a ceaseless march that neither the photograph nor any other technique can prevent.

It is indeed this struggle against disappearance that guides Barthes in his studies of photography. However, photography’s meetings and resurrections are not always incomplete, because “the person represented, the mother or the condemned person, is nonetheless already ‘dead’.”5 The recording that halts the passage of time introduces itself as the space of a confrontation between the past and the captured instant; the present of its consultation and the future that announces its disappearance. Such is the condition of the recording—the terrible happiness of a materialized memory. “For the photograph’s immobility is somehow the result of a perverse confusion between two concepts: the Real and the Live: by attesting that the object has been real, the photograph surreptitiously induces belief that it is alive, because of that delusion which makes us attribute to Reality an absolutely superior, somehow eternal value; but by shifting this reality to the past (“this-has-been”), the photograph suggests that it is already dead. Hence it would be better to say that Photography’s inimitable feature (its noème) is that someone has seen the referent (even if it is a matter of objects) in flesh and blood, or again in person. Photography, moreover, began, historically, as an art of the Person: of identity, of civil status, of what we might call, in all senses of the term, the body’s formality”.6

The split between a living body, subjected to the passage of time, and its recorded traces, captured for eternity: here lies the morbid sense of incompleteness from whose fettered ruins melancholia is born. The cause for unrest is the submission of the past to the regime of recording itself; the dictatorship of the machines of reproduction. Seth Price expressed similar considerations in his analysis of sampling, whose power rests in its ability to separate a voice from the body that emitted it, in order to rework it through alteration and repetition.7 He fittingly reminds us that the practice is often seen as a criminal act because the original is desecrated by the creation of its double. Such are the possible occurrences that come up every time a work is sampled, and which, according to the author, are the cultural sore points that accompany the practice. “These concerns are often understood to be copyright related, which is to say money motivated, but it is likely that they stem just as much from misgivings about the implications of instrumentalizing human expression.”8

If Roland Barthes has remarked, albeit within parentheses, upon the melancholy that photography produces (“I experience this same emotion when I listen to the recorded voices of dead singers”9), then Seth Price’s comment on the subject of voices that have been manipulated through sampling is an equally apt one: “The voice becomes a structural element under total control; it is made useful, as opposed to evocative or expressive.”10 Each of the authors in turn leads us to remark upon changes in, or rather, the evolution of recording techniques. The traces of disappeared and potentially resuscitated bodies that Barthes identifies are further manipulable by the tools analyzed by Seth Price. Photographs, like compact discs, were previously only able to be consulted, but are now able to be electronically read and used in any way that their viewers see fit.

Yet that is not the least of it—because if as Barthes struggled to find his mother amongst photos that did not resemble his memory of her, and in so doing only managed to see the inevitability of death in the recording, then machines really do not have a soul. For them, traces are just materials. Here, the captured body only evaporates that much more, and the recordings gain independence from their human referents. In the environment for which they were created, they live their own lives in captivity. Such is the post-mortem status within which the body can literally say no more.

Accentuating this transformation of the shared moment into a generic representation that completely lacks peculiarity is the fact that the singing is accompanied by the fleeting, faded images of a woman whom Chris de Burgh is trying to remember. Lacking in personality, the woman’s image is an ideal advertisement. In de Burgh’s efforts to hold such a creature close, it becomes apparent that both the instant and the memory cease to exist outside of their presence as archetypes; signs constructed in order to speak to everyone, able to be replayed infinitely. The memories that become engrained there are the exact inverse of what Barthes was looking for in his photos. They are intended to speak to everyone; no one is able to “find” their own history inside them; yet each person is left to project his or her own memories into the images, similar in fact to the dreams so detested by the semiologist.Strangely enough, in a certain way, the clip of Chris de Burgh’s “Lady in Red” seems to crystallize the transformation of its singer into a recording. Not a new fact of course, as the entire history of pop music was borne of exactly this paradox. That is, the paradox of music as a living, staged event; the shared moment between a performer and his or her audience. Yet, to assure the former of a significant profit, albums are released, allowing fans to relive the eternal instant of the music’s creation; to revel in its each and every unique and identical split second. Chris de Burgh is onstage in the video clip of “Lady in Red”, but because it was actually filmed in the studio, the constructed, non-spontaneous feel of his performance is what stands out most.

Watched on YouTube today, the clip of “Lady in Red” seems to indicate that its author is conscious of the fact that he will never again enjoy a stage presence. His recording signals his death and he is hereafter condemned to haunt the circuits of musical diffusion in a static form. Daniel Lopatin takes advantage of exactly this stasis in Nobody Here. The slowed down, near-eternity of the loop gives us the impression of dealing not with the resurrection of a Barthesian memory, but with the memory of a recording. This shift is significant. As Simon Reynolds remarked, “Part of the appeal of ‘Nobody Here’ is that listeners accustomed to thinking of Chris de Burgh’s late 1980s chart-topper as putridly sentimental find themselves moved by the desolate yearning in the tiny excerpt that Lopatin zooms in on.”11 The desolate yearning is likely the noise made by a voice that no longer has a body. Even more, it is the yelp of a sample that has been ripped from its recording.

Chris de Burgh’s voice “under total control”, and having become “useful”, is hereby exploitable by anyone who commands it. Having imposed such a slow speed on the song destroys its nature as a product, and de Burgh is now made to sing for a particular person—the creator of the looped work, in addition to those who remember the original song, now exposed to the referent in its newly released format. First composed of generalities, it is here that recordings take on a personal aspect. If they become memories, they are not the same kind of memories that Barthes speaks of, because they are built upon the use of shared generalities whose modification reinforces the impression of intimacy.

We thus witness another manner of conceiving history through YouTube and other media sharing websites. In this version of history, the placement and manipulation of documents is done in such a way that the goal is not to know whether or not we recognize something we have lived in them, but rather the opposite—how we will live with these recordings. The body is not even a memory anymore, because no one is looking for its truth or its referent. Instead, the goal is to breathe life into its traces; to breathe meaning into its forms in order to make them our own. We read into them to decide what we might be able to do with them, but not to see what they originally contained. It is by the copy that the recording is both created and circulated.

In that vein, the story that separates Barthes from his mother is no longer applicable. On YouTube, everything is instantaneous; all epochs and periods are flattened onto the surface of a computer to whose screen they can be summoned regardless of their context or perspective. Their relationship to time is free and simultaneous. Trying to go back in history or to rediscover it through its recordings is thus a futile endeavor. The finality of such an environment is not time, signaled by death, which has in any case already happened, but the the survival of the recording itself. Resuscitation happens through the consultation, re-use, and recycling that enables (re)existence by other means, by other manners of reading; new forms of power that have been taken up by users. Recordings, in contrast with bodies, are only “rediscovered” if they are manipulated. Only one risk remains in all of this, however: that of the recordings’s falling to the wayside and disappearing entirely from the habitats in which they themselves evolve.

  • 1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Trans. Richard Howard, Hill and Wang, NY 1981, 63.
  • 2. Ibid., 64.
  • 3. Ibid., 66.
  • 4. Ibid., 70.
  • 5. Kathrin Yacavone, “Barthes et Proust: La Recherche comme aventure photographique”, in “L’écrivain préféré”, Fabula LHT (Littérature, histoire, théorie), n°4, 01 March 2008.
  • 6. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Op. Cit., 79.
  • 7. Seth Price, Was ist los? 
  • 8. Ibid., 1.
  • 9. Op. Cit., 79.
  • 10. Seth Price, Was ist los?, Op. Cit., 4.
  • 11. Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, London, Faber and Faber 2011, 80.