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Brian Wall (University of Western Ontario)
Modernist Television: Beckett's Ghost Trio

    Most of Beckett's later drama was written for television, a medium that would seem to herald the birth of postmodernity in the heart of the modern period itself. Which can only beg the question: has there ever been any modernist television? Television seems the most recalcitrant medium in which to search for any residual oppositionality carrying over from the project of modernism--but this fact makes Beckett's own interventions in the medium all the more important and intriguing at best and conlicted at worst. However, if television is unsurprisingly ideological in its realist and postmodern modes, we should not forget that modernism itself had and has an ideological vocation of its own, in its critical stance towards mass-mediated art; and thus its relation to the culture industry via this opposition means that for Adorno "it becomes impossible to criticize the culture industry without criticizing art at the same time" (Aesthetic Theory 26). Here Adorno's desire to retain modernism's critique of reification runs headlong into the inescapable conclusion that modernism since its inception has had reification as its precondition no less than realism or postmodernism. In the context of film—and as I hope to demonstrate, of television—Martin Jay argues for a critical link between mimesis, subjectivity, modernism and the body: "However much Hollywood films are part of the ideological culture industry, the cinematic mimesis of expressive bodies suggests [for Adorno] a prelinguistic experience prior to the conscious articulations of the ego" ("Mimesis and Mimetology" 43). Adorno comes to this point because of his aim of preserving mimesis as a necessary corrective and counterpoint to rationality, but crucially, it is the body—and particularly the body in pain, or the mute body, certainly the expressive body—that serves to distinguish the critical from the merely ideological, and the centrality of the ego in this process will strongly advocate a psychoanalytic analysis of television, mimesis and subjectivity.

    Crucially, this chiasmus of the prelinguistic body and technologically mediated visuality form the matrix of Beckett's work for television. In particular, Beckett's Ghost Trio begins with and depends upon figurations of the body as expressive, pained and mute, underpinning a complementary critique of gender hierarchies. Although considerations of gender have hardly been absent from Beckett's texts—as virtually all of the later drama investigates and depends upon an articulation of feminine subjectivity—it is precisely here, in the realm of the televisual, that they come to presence. Which begs the question: Why? How? What, precisely, is inherent in television as medium that Beckett found so amenable to his explorations of gendered subjectivity? And what particularly constitutes modernist television within the structure of these presentations, representations and critiques? These are among the questions I wish to address in my paper.

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