Sara Pheasant

Bit by a Dead Bee


You little box, held to me when escaping
So that your valves should not break,
Carried from house to ship from ship to train,
So that my enemies might go on talking to me
Near my bed, to my pain
The last thing at night, the first thing in the morning,
Of their victories and of my cares,
Promise me not to go silent all of a sudden.

– Bertolt Brecht, “Radio Poem”

When I moved to New York the fall before last, I moved into a room already occupied by a hive of bees. They were actually wasps. But I kept telling myself and everyone who expressed concern for about the infestation that they were bees. Bees sounded more agreeable. I was seeking a hive and here one was, already formed in miniature inside my own home.

The “bees” and I kept our distance at first. They hung out over by the window, and I stuck to my makeshift mattress on the floor. I’d watch them migrate up and down my windowsill, their sharp black profiles wiggling around the frame. It got colder out and the bees slowed down, became mean. Maybe they felt their mortality signaled by the winter chill and were lashing out in last-gasp desperation. The season turned with a sense of fear in the air. I watched them spark upwards, buzzing in angry resistance against stagnating wings, before dropping one by one, like metal slugs, to the floor.

“Was you ever bit by a dead bee?” Eddie, the haplessly drunk sidekick to Humphrey Bogart’s gruff Captain Harry in To Have and Have Not, famously asks everyone he meets. Often twice, in a rum-induced haze. Only Harry and Lauren Bacall, in her first starring role as the sultry American pickpocket Slim, crack Eddie’s cryptic code. Where the uptight French official and the boorish American tourist brush Eddie off as a babbling rummy, Slim turns the question around on Eddie, acknowledging him to ask, “Were you?”

Eddie rewards Slim with his seal of approval, deeming her “all right.” He offers her the wisdom of his experience—“You know, you got to be careful of dead bees if you're goin' around barefooted, 'cause if you step on them they can sting you just as bad as if they was alive. ‘Specially if they was kind of mad when they got killed. I bet I been bit a hundred times that way.” To which Slim replies, “Why don’t you bite them back?” Poor Eddie ruefully replies, “but I ain’t got no stinger.”

I would have been wise to take Eddie’s advice about wandering around barefoot in a minefield of dead bees, because soon I found myself getting bit. Near-dying wasps lodged themselves in my shoes and nestled in the cracks of my sheets. It got colder. More bees died. I mourned their slow diffusion. Whether born of winter’s changing light or of sympathy pangs, a bout of insomnia seized my morning hours, jarring me awake at 5 am like I’d been stung. Occasionally there was a real bee at fault. Most of the time, however, I found myself inexplicably alert before I even realized I wasn’t sleeping anymore. There’s no falling back asleep, and at this muted still-dark hour the only thing to do is sip some weak coffee and turn on the radio.

On January 22 of this year, protesters gathering in Ukraine’s Maidan (Independence Square) were met with the first use of deadly force in a protest movement that would rapidly escalate into months of brutal clashes verging on civil war. I listened to the BBC radio correspondents’ first-hand accounts at obscenely early hours, seized once again by a spell of pre-dawn sleeplessness. Two protesters had been hit by bullets generally assumed to have been fired by police. A third had fallen to his death. The deadly violence occurred about a week after Yanukovych’s government had instituted draconian restrictions against those occupying Maidan—three to six years in prison for blocking entry to a government or residential building, repressive criminalization of scarves and camo, restrictions on Internet access, and a ban on any discussion of Ukraine’s Berkut, the secret police enlisted to whisk protesters away for torture, whose brutality ignited outrage throughout the international media. The introduction of these measures on what came to be known as “Black Thursday” threw kerosene on the blaze of government opposition. Both the riots and my insomnia were raging.

Up hours before the pale winter sun with my finger poised over the radio dial, I listened as, on January 23rd, protesters in various cities across Western Ukraine barricaded themselves inside government buildings. Crowds in Lviv chanting “Bandit!” forced the governor’s resignation. On January 25th, a member of the Ukrainian military announced even he was becoming disillusioned with Yanukovych’s heavy-handed rule. January 28th, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned and many of the repressive laws were repealed. Yet Yanukovych’s attempts to appease protesters with offers of amnesty did little to diminish the crowds amassed in the square. On January 29th, Ukraine’s former president Leonid Kravchuk proclaimed the country on the brink of civil war. On January 30, protest leader Dmytro Bulatov, was discovered in a ditch outside Kiev eight days after his abduction, bearing signs of torture and missing an ear. Wounds on his hands indicated that his captors had crucified him. Meanwhile, Syria’s peace talks were failing miserably and Western journalists hovered around Sochi covering the Winter Olympics, on vigilant alert for #SochiProblems. At one point, I heard a BBC correspondent relate that Berkut forces were deliberately aiming their rubber bullets at protesters’ eyes and heads, blinding the country’s opposition in a sinisterly literal gesture of Orwellian censorship.

Insomnia is a state of constant vigilance. It’s both timeless and contemporary—a symptom of 24/7 capitalism as well as its ideal, temporally frozen state. While listening to the radio one pre-dawn morning I heard a BBC reporter, amidst the protests breaking out in Venezuela, report that demonstrators were re-tweeting images taken by Egyptian protesters at Tahrir Square. Donning a new caption like a felt mustache, these disguised images circulated among photos of the Venezuelan protests without distinction. Radically divergent social and political situations in each site of turmoil collapsed into a pixelated cloud, hovering under the vague label of “Spring.” In this seamless flow of overexposed images, you come to suspect they’re just bright lights you’re looking at, night after night. Always lit, the trace is gone, its context burns out. You become a moth possessed in nocturnal watching. You are electrified, restless. Blinded, but unable to look away. Because, what else is there to look at now, or towards?

Turning on the radio at this hour is like inviting a visitation into the interminable expanse of a temporal desert. Radios are enigmatic little boxes. They command a surprising, almost animistic authority. Nikola Tesla, progenitor of the eponymous Tesla coil that transformed burgeoning radio technology, went on to discover that invisible electromagnetic waves radiate through the entire earth. Where Marconi was sending Hertzian radio waves through space, Tesla found the ground a far more efficient conductor of electricity, coursing around the surface of the Earth to connect the globe in one “single-wire” current. His failed attempt to develop his electromagnetic theory into a “world wireless system” pre-empted broadcast radio. In old age and poor mental health, he continued his experiments in Earth’s electromagnetic properties, even trying to prove the Earth a planetary transmitter from which he could beam Mars. If his speculative project had succeeded, humans and aliens could have translated their speech over a shared frequency. Broadcast transmission is a pair of loaded words—radio projects directive urgency into the most private, secluded spaces of people’s lives. A trans-mission.

Radio is and has always been territorial. A conduit between foreign and domestic, public and private, it connects distant spaces while delineating their bounds. Prior to radio, telegraphs—“writing at a distance”—was the primary, not particularly efficient, means of long-distance exchange. Its earliest forms, smoke signals or Morse code refracted through bursts of light, were limited to the range of sight. More advanced optical technologies, such as the network of signaling towers constructed in Napoleonic France, demanded such elaborate infrastructure that only megalomaniac emperors were able to impose their use. If not kept within the range of vision, the speed of communication depended on the speed at which a message could be physically transmitted across the ground. And carrier pigeons could only fly so fast. While the invention of the electric telegraph was an enormous boon to railway networks, it offered little help to sailors on the open sea. Their ships were over the horizon—out of sight and off the grid. For naval operations intensified by industrial and colonial expansion, this was a problem.

Turn-of-the-century experiments with electromagnetic induction bore fruit in the form of wireless radio technology, capable of transmitting messages instantly through invisible electromagnetic waves. In 1897, Italian-born inventor Gugliemlo Marconi radioed the first message to cross water, a rhetorical instigation transmitted to a small island antennae: “ARE YOU READY.” Yes, we are. Radio technology exploded in an arms race of innovation. Fellow inventors sprang up with competing devices and Marconi attempted to hold his early edge by engineering radio devices that communicated only with others of Marconi make. By 1905, international treaties mandated that all ships be equipped with radio and standardized S.O.S. as the universal distress call. Whether connecting maritime commercial and military operations with ports on land, transmitting intimate whispers from lovers to beloveds, or bringing the odd community of radio experimenters into contact with distant cohorts, radio was henceforth indispensable.

The technology’s next frontier was the projection of the human voice through space. Sonic radio was inaugurated when husband and wife Lee de Forest and Nora Stanton Blatch turned the Eiffel Tower into a giant antenna. Their short musical program was heard as far as 500 miles away. Enthralled by the potentials of transmitting the human voice, inventors and enthusiasts began building up radio’s nascent infrastructure. Charles David “Doc” Herrold, son of a California farmer, established one of the first stations with regular programing, coining “broadcast” in reference to the agricultural term for spreading seeds shallowly in large numbers across land. Around the same time, Pittsburg-based Frank Conrad began transmitting regular broadcasts from his garage. Recognizing that, in the absence of widely available receiver devices, his radio programs fell only on the ears of specialized hobbyists, Conrad started marketing cheap radios at a local department store.

While innovations in radio technology proliferated through amateur experimentation, both consolidated in and contesting market control, the airwave anarchy started to irritate governmental powers. A chain of national and international bills began assigning frequencies and issuing licenses, catalyzing regulatory bodies leading to what is now the FCC. Born from techies in a cornfield, radio fast developed into a mass media industry that marketed itself as a public service to national democratic community. Radio’s balanced programming schedule ensured that a citizen’s daily rhythms fell in line with those of fellow citizens around the country, and the medium became a soundtrack for everyday life that structured the modern worker’s day. News in the morning, on the way to work, children’s entertainment in the afternoon, family-friendly radio dramas for evening leisure. The president could even be one’s personal houseguest, popping in like Roosevelt for occasional “fireside chats.” Listening to the radio became an act of democratic intimacy, a means of dialing into a nation of rational and informed listeners converging on the airwaves.

However, opposing every instance of governmental regulation and commercial monopoly stands a ragtag bunch of amateur enthusiasts. Their story is radio’s counter-history, breaking through the authoritative image of the news anchor or specialist military technician with bursts of static, revealing the airwaves as contested territory. The broadcasts of these “hams”—as dishonorably dubbed in reference to the “ham”-fisted indelicacy of an unskilled telegraph typist, or a showy, over-acting performer—were increasingly restricted during the 1920s, pushed off frequencies considered long enough to transmit sound. With their broadcasts booted to the netherworlds of the airwaves, the hams set to experimenting. Meanwhile, Marconi and other capitalists were failing to discover an efficient means of transmitting sound waves over the Atlantic. Marconi’s best idea was a fabulously expensive bridge of radio towers installed at intervals across the ocean—a proposal that was unsurprisingly stalled. The hams, however, realized that shorter wavelengths were actually able to travel longer distances, and by 1923 became the first to use these discarded frequencies for two-way transatlantic broadcasts. The hams’ discovery was, however, quickly adapted from its grassroots origins. Commercialized by Marconi and others, shortwave radio went on to enable systems such as the Imperial Wireless Chain connecting the British Empire to its colonies around the world. Sounding like something between Star Wars and a Verizon ad, the Imperial Wireless Chain bespeaks radio as dynamic, contested, and contestable technology—a nexus of big business, colonialism, and national democracy, accompanied by all their discontents.

Imbuing a listener’s private space with the voice of a distant other, radio’s potency as a conduit of live presence is evinced in historic proportions by Orson Welles’s 1938 radio play, “War of the Worlds.” Infamously dubbed “the Panic Broadcast,” Welles’s play infamously incited mass hysteria across the United States. Announcing the Martian invasion of a small New Jersey town in dramatic imitation of broadcast news, it was taken as truth by swaths of listeners across the country. Entire towns in rural New Jersey fled for the hills. Commentators asserted that a terrified American public believed Welles’s fraudulent broadcast because of the period’s climate of pervasive anxiety—a climate no doubt exacerbated by Herbert Morrison’s famous live broadcast of the Hindenberg disaster, in which the trauma forming in the news anchor’s memory is as visceral as his minute-by-minute narration of the blimp’s catastrophic crash; and the 1938 transmission of Hitler spitting snarled fascist vitriol in a speech threatening Czechoslovakia with invasion.

The actual magnitude of Welles’s panic has come under question in recent years, as at least one article has pointed out that the scandal blew up in newspapers, only to fade quickly away—possibly evincing a bout of media rivalry rather than real public panic. Regardless, the incident attests to the power transmitting live experience across distance, in actuality as much as the public imaginary. These things no doubt amplified latent public paranoia, but the public itself was tuning in, fingers poised on the dial. A nation under the strain of inter-war trauma, waiting attentively by their radios for something to happen, proved entirely ready to accept the extraordinary when it did. The act of listening to the radio itself is a sign of affliction—like donning a tinfoil hat to ward off the extraterrestrial rays of alien contact. But for these paranoiacs, wearing aluminum might just be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are already tuned in. So, when a radio play makes a panic-stricken American public flee for the hills, believing in the imminent invasion of red men from Mars, the event signifies not the paranoid nature of the technology but the paranoid tenor of public affect; and radio’s native ability to electrify mass publics with a shared, affective experience.

While Welles’s unintentional, cosmic joke on a gullible American public is a testament to the authoritative power of a single voice emanating from radio’s tiny box, it also bespeaks the particular qualities of radio sought out in pursuit of the medium’s subversive potential. In Weimar-era Germany, Walter Benjamin spent a feverish three years writing radio plays, churning out a total of 84 enigmatic allegories of deception, forgery, disaster. During this time, the philosopher’s relationship to radio was ambivalent and contradictory. At times, he denounced his scripts as the purely commercial enterprise of a cash-strapped intellectual. This more pessimistic bent was echoed in Adorno’s rejection of the radio as an irredeemable crutch for mass entertainment. On other occasions, however, he conspired with close confidant Bertolt Brecht to produce radio plays that disrupted the rhythms of social order through techniques of epic theater, considering the medium a radical pedagogical tool for training a mass public in contesting capitalist and nationalist control over a society’s means of mediating its own relations. The internal tension of Benjamin’s writings on and for the radio is expressed in the double valence of the German word, unterhaltung, alternatively connoting “entertainment” and “conversation.” Radio’s effects oscillate between the distracting sedative of mass media and the experience of intimate communion between distant others—a means of making contact. Like the hams interfering in military and commercial operations out of the sheer pleasure of hearing their own chatter, a listening public that were to take up the radio’s technical means of mediating relations might shift the prevailing configurations of power and privilege. As Brecht said of the device, radio “is one way where it could be two.”

Live in Ukraine, we interrupt this broadcast to bring you breaking news. The BBC and its media cohorts each asserted authoritative purchase on the unfolding events. However, the whole tangled cacophony made clear that what little lucid analysis did surface might dissolve the next day in the flux of action. The paranoia of the media itself was palpable—Cold War rhetoric served straight from the microwave, valorizing the emancipatory potential of protests fraught with complex and problematic politics. Even if it had only ever cohered in name, the sounds of Ukraine’s splintering national public revealed its ideal as an image, plausible as such only when its internal differences were mediated through representations increasingly at odds with those represented. When the image of one national revolution can be transposed seamlessly to the next with the flick of a new hashtag, it reveals the democratic ideal as a community mediated by its own representation. And within this globalized image, social and political complexities inimical to democratic order become so mediated as to disappear. In the course of such seamless visual circulation, insomnia ensues as a state anterior to dreaming. Insomniacs are paranoid and vigilant, hooked to their screens and watching for revolution. But the revolution will not be televised. Faced with the impossibility of gaining purchase on the shifting tensions on the Maidan, the radio correspondent’s voicestory was just that of anyone else caught up in the experience. Her voice sounded halting and brittle.

One common piece of advice for preventing insomnia is to avoid electronic devices for at least an hour before bed. The anemic glare of their screens allegedly leads to a 22% drop in melatonin levels, and burns your retina. There’s an app for that, which I just downloaded. It synchs the brightness of your computer display to the rhythms of the sun. Now I’m typing this bathed in the soothingly dimmed glow of a crepuscular screen. But even when calibrated to the neon hue of an LA sunset, the screen has my eyes glued. So I’m beginning to think that it’s not the brightness of the images illuminating my twilight hours that inhibits my circadian rhythms, but the anesthetizing sameness of their spectacle.

While insomnia structures the temporality of the Twitter economy, five hour energy breaks between itinerant naps, it is also a useless disposition, a state in which the body can’t do much more than be, sleep-deprived and languid. The regulation of alarm clocks and the working week dissolve into a flow of the same. When one hour is basically as good as the next, 5 AM as monotonously awake as 5 PM, one’s boundaries begin to slip a bit with the things around them. The coffee cup I’m holding is about the same size and weight as my hand, both seeming equally foreign to me, or possibly the same. The self scatters in a geological stratification. Slices can be alternatively excavated, instrumentalized. Where insomnia loops in a closed-circuit of blind looking, radio slips in one’s private space like a conduit. The current is that of affect—desirous, even if anxious and fraught—coursing in a moment, between one small voice and another.

This morning I woke up at 5 again. I can’t keep my thoughts in order exactly but I’ve come to like it somewhat hop-scotch, my mind skip-jumping over cracks and stopgaps. I think of my childhood dog who got so spaced out towards his last days he would just stand in a corner facing the wall. He’d start to howl as soon as he thought he was alone, believing his human pack had left him behind. With his Alzheimer’s, when all he could see was the seam in between the walls, this happened the instant we left the room. His howl was siren-shrill, set in a melancholy, minor key. When awake so early, his is the kind of inertia I relate to. Like my dog with his nose against the wall, I peer so intently into that blinding-white seam that its crack comes to eclipse my whole experience. It makes me want to howl too. Instead, I turn on the radio. The last thing at night, the first thing in the morning. Stung by sleeplessness, I know it will be with me, even if I fear the news that might be heard. Tuning in, I catch windows into the daily rhythms of other lives, other worlds while skimming channels between static. Often they are distant, static bursts. Occasionally, they are musical and nearby. A friend once told me about listening to New York’s WQXR while awake at 3 AM. Soft classical music demurely marked the passing hours. Injecting a rare bit of personal commentary, the DJ remarked before one particular track, “It’s the right time to listen to this song.” At that moment, to those scattered bodies listening invisible and alone at 3:03 AM in a darkened city, she was right.

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