Fall 2011

Tape 342

That dangerous supplement

Susan Schuppli

In December 1973, a spool of 0.5-mm magnetic tape containing an 18½-minute gap was escorted by US marshals to the Federal Scientific Corp. in Harlem for testing. Although the tape defied all technical efforts at conjuring its latent sound-ghosts, it was understood as harboring important trace evidence that might testify to Nixon’s criminality in the Watergate break-in. Fear of disturbing the remaining few magnetic particles that clung to the gap meant that after its initial testing, Tape 342, as it is officially known, was sealed and deposited in the vaults of the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). There it has lain undisturbed in cryogenic sleep for over thirty years, waiting for that moment when the kiss of technological progress will reawaken it. The archive leverages the crisis of the past, the partial erasure of Tape 342, against the projected forensics of the future, wagering that further developments in technology will restore its lost speech acts.

In 2001, NARA convened a scientific panel to evaluate whether forensic audio technology had advanced sufficiently to consider unsealing Tape 342 and submitting it to new methods of examination. Several unsuccessful “proof-of-concept exercises” were conducted using test-reels recorded on the original Nixon-era tape recorders over a period of two years. Chief Archivist John W. Carlin concluded: “I am fully satisfied that we have explored all of the avenues to attempt to recover the sound on this tape. The candidates were highly qualified and used the latest technology in their pursuit. We will continue to preserve the tape in the hopes that later generations can try again to recover this vital piece of our history.”

The discourse around Tape 342 has always turned on the rhetorical deficiency of the gap, whether named as silence or as an erasure that produced a breach in the historical record. I contend, however, that a surplus of information populates this gap. While the National Archives’ commitment to investigating the magnetic encodings of the tape and exposing its clandestine conversations is tied to its conviction in technology’s progressive futurity, the tape’s status as mute has already been extensively undone by the sheer volume of speculation around what kind of lurid data lurks within. These musings far exceed what any one man can physically say in 18½ minutes. It is an understanding of the gap as continuing to produce an excess—what Derrida has called, following Rousseau, “a dangerous supplement”—that propels my interest in submitting the 18½-minute tape-gap to yet another series of exhumations.

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