The Body Electric-Disembodied Voices: An Argument for Reading (and Radio)!

Thomas Page McBee
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I love the meditations on science done by the folks at Radiolab about as much, if not more, as I love the magical, everyday brand of storytelling of This American Life (if you are not a listener of both, I highly suggest you download every episode possible as soon as you're done reading). Recently, as I completed my nightly bus trip home across the Bay Bridge, I listened to an episode of Radiolab where the hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Kulwrich, discuss the comparitive powers of radio and television with the This American Life host, Ira Glass. I was struck  by something Glass said (and I might have the details of this a little wrong, but bear with me--I couldn't find the podcast again) about the difficulty of transitioning his radio program into the Showtime television series of the same name. They played a clip of a radio segment in which a man speaks of his relationship with his ill mother and Glass noted that it would be hard to sit with that same man in a dingy hospital that the a viewer could actually see--in all its smallness and sad familiarity-- to communicate the universality of one small person's epic story. And I think he's right.

There's something powerful about the disembodied voice. Every reader knows the way a book can lull you into the rhythm--the world, in fact--of another human being. Something about the separation, and yet the incredible intimacy, of words in your bed with you as you read yourself to sleep/ or words with your evening soup/ or words in your headphones as you cross a bridge and see a whole city fade behind you; there's something about the portability, the truth that is found there.

And I think part of it is the possibilities inherent in language. Visually, we are not--on a whole--as literate in the symbols that manifest in our films and our television shows and our advertising. Or, we are--but we are more concerned usually with the ways these mediums portray various unconscious cultural affinities or commentaries or problems than with the transcendent voice of an author--another being--shining through to us. But language! Language allows us to access our own stories simultaneously, to find our own associations, to conjure up our own images. We build a world together. We co-create.

When Radiolab did an amazing series called "Afterlife" awhile ago, I felt--as I do with a good book--both a part of the constructed meaning laid out in the piece before me and the freedom to be separate from it. "Afterlife" concerned questions of death and included interviews with, among others: a survivor of suicide who changed his mind the moment after jumping off a bridge and David Eaglemen, who wrote an amazing book entitled Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives that reimagines possibilities of the afterlife in brilliant little vignettes. In both instances, I felt tremendous connection and compassion for the inteviewees. Their voices and the stories behind them reached me whole, unfiltered by the editorial judgements my eyes might have made of them--or them of me. I imagined them as creatures, like myself, who are complicated and alive. They became waves of sound and vitality in my ear.

And that's my argument: sometimes, we are so concerned with bodies and what they mean that we forget that the connective tissue of our species is evident in our shared emotionality. What is true is that beside our curiousity is also our capacity to understand; that we have the potential to express our bafflement and wonder and outrage and love of these individual, entwined lives that we lead--and the possibility to hear those expressions. To paraphrase Whitman, we contain multitudes and--I think--we also reflect them, endlessly, back. We only need to be willing to listen, to read, to meet each other--outside of geography and unbound by who we think we are.

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

Interesting. I was going to

Interesting. I was going to add that I have the same emotional experience with This American Life as I do with PBS TV shows like American Experience. But I amend that to say that I have the same emotional experience with really old episodes of shows like American Experience from the 70's and early 80's. I think there was one about people with turrets syndrome and another about little people. I think time can also be a factor that plays a role in disembodying people. When people don't dress or have haircuts or otherwise seem like people in my contemporary world, it has a similar effect of allowing me to disassociate who I assume them to be and just listening to their stories.


I just had to write and comment that I too, found the Afterlife series so amazing. I had a stroke (brain injury) and found several things they covered so salient. I'm just glad people are working to bring amazing stories and news like this to light!
I loved reading this little brief as well, you have a way with words!

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