Monday, September 16, 2013
What follows is once again an attempt to put New Materialism and OOO in conversation with Greg Ulmer's work. It may be of only slight interest to the class. For those of you interested in his work and our current project in his class, check out routine.electracy.com
Bennett writes toward the end of Vibrant Matter, "if a green materialism requires of us a more refined sensitivity to the outside-that-is-inside too, then maybe a bit of anthropomorphizing will prove valuable" (120). To anthropomorphize is to assign human characteristics to nonhuman entities (animals, objects, etc.). Bogost follows up on her claim by claiming that anthropomorphism allows us to see that any object encounter is a caricature of the object (whether animal, human, or object). Both Bogost and Bennett claim that anthropomorphism can also help us understand the agency of nonhumans -- their vital materiality, to use Benett's terms. Bennett figures her work in terms of a (meta)physics/ontology and Bogost as a "tiny ontology," which accompanies "alien phenomenology."
In class yesterday, Laurie asked us if Bennett's work and other New Materialisms resonates with Ulmer's work. On the one hand, yes, because we do need to pay attention to the forces of nonhuman entities (accidents). On the other hand, Ulmer believes that the metaphysical logic has already been created: what we need is a rhetoric. For ontology, he relies heavily on the work of Heidegger and Lacan as well as post-structuralist philosophers (who understood and further theorized the logic of electracy inherited from the Paris avant-garde) The rhetoric he seeks is an "image-rhetoric" performed in the age of "electracy" (which is analogous to the apparatus of "literacy" and "orality") through vernacular practices such as taking pictures with smart phones. The technological apparatus calls for the institutionalization of new practices that will help to cultivate an electrate identity formation, which is not the "self" formed under the literate paradigm.
Ulmer argues that the Greek grammatical "middle voice" is the mode in which we experience electracy. The middle voice refers to an action in which the subject is neither exclusively the actor or patient, but may include both. We could read this as another way to talk about "actants" in Latour's terms. But Ulmer understands the middle voice more as a reflexive function, in which the actor's actions affects the actor rather than something else (a direct object).
Objects, for Ulmer, are not totally other and do not have "perceptions" of their own in some sort of animistic sense. However, they do affect human beings; not only in the sense that they are forces in the world that make things happen in a physical world, but that the world and objects in it are given to us and already have meaning for us. They already have meaning for us because they are never simply "outside" of us, but, I think, that our agency has been distributed through the world, through what we have made and that this distribution all leads back to our embodied experience. That is, for Ulmer, we need to figure out what need/desire of our body is then externalized to the environment.
I do not think Ulmer would argue against Bennett and others that nonhuman objects have "agency" or potential in their own right. However, because Ulmer is interested in a rhetoric that could potentially burst out of a rareified academic setting, he believes that what is important for us to recognize in this world is not the agencies of objects, but our agency. For Ulmer, we have lost our sense of agency in the world. The "aesthetic attitude" advocated by Ulmer is not to get at the reality of other beings, but to recognize that our inventions all serve our embodiment. In the MIddle Ages, argues Ulmer, people knew where they fit in the macrocosm; our job is to try and reconnect our individual, affective experiences back to that macrocosm, so as to recognize our agency in the world, which would, ideally, get us to act (or at the very least, understand that our actions result in certain sacrifices on behalf of a value; Ulmer elaborates on this point extensively in Electronic Monuments).
Once again, though, we come to the question of anthropomorphism. Instead of anthropomorphism, Ulmer argues that we should recognize our own agency, desire, and limit of our embodiment in the world. We should tie ourselves to contingent being not in order to pretend to understand them outside of the human-world relation, but rather in order to understand how we connect (if only poetically, through the use of tropes) to what we see in the world.
Again, its not that humans are the sole actants in the world, but that Ulmer is less interested in developing a new metaphysics, because the metaphysics has already been invented and the practices associated with it have just begun (in comparison to orality and literacy). OOO and perhaps new materialism to a certain extent still rely on a "literate" concept of being -- trying to define being (definition is already a literate construction). Ulmer focuses on "affect" in the sense of mood, state of mind (befindlichkeit -- Heidegger). The external (or, to be more precise, the extimate, world) can help us understand our attitude toward the world and this is our "EPS" -- existential positioning system to correspond to our "GPS."
"Anthropomorphism," then, is not quite the term I'd use for Ulmer's method. Instead, the world is filled with "triggers" that set off affective states and memories in an analogous way to the various spots which we can access via smartphones. The key for Ulmer is to be able to think with the vernacular practice of image making with a smartphone; for this to happen, it must be institutionalized. His literate scholarship is not an end in itself, but always trying to point toward an electrate way of being.
WIthin his literate work (i.e. his books), Ulmer does draw on rich ancient traditions of the gods; most recently, the idea of the "avatar," not in the sense of a gaming avatar, but more as a guide that tells us our limit, such as Krishna's advice to Arjuna: "Dude, you are a warrior -- you can't not fight!" (to quickly paraphrase the advice of the Bhagavad Gita). In the Western Tradition, this function is the "guardian angel" in the Greek tradition, this is "daimon" which is our experience of limit. What we call an "accident" in the world (indeed, in my last seminar we spoke of a "metaphysics of the accident" rather than a metaphysics of substance, returning to Aristotle's famous distniction) corresponds to what the Greek's called Nemesis -- that which comes back to us when we go too far. Accidents result in death, that death becomes an indirect sacrifice for our actions.
On the one hand, we might think that Ulmer is reviving even more than the vibrant materialists or the vitalists outdated notions such as 'the gods' which are clearly not how the world really works. On the other, it is crucial to understand that Ulmer evokes these figures as analogies because he believes that, although we do not think of these gods as actual beings that advise us, their functions still persist. That is, for Ulmer, we look back to other wisdom traditions in order then to look at our world, our apparatus, our regime, in order to find how these ideas get translated into electracy.
Bogost too recommends "analogy," but, for him, analogy is used to perform alien phenomenology, so that we can recognize that any way we see/experience/describe an object is a "caricature" of it. But for Ulmer, the world (objects, scenes captured in images that may include humans, etc.) is extimate, intimately bound up with our embodiment because this is how we experience the world.
In Professor Ulmer’s class, we have been thinking about the ‘nonhuman’ world in a different way than object-oriented ontology. For Ulmer, the objects outside of us are actually not completely outside of us – instead they are “extimate,” the outside that reflects the inside. Ulmer fully endorses several different Modernist conceits of the outside as a figure for the inside (Eliot’s objective correlative, for instance). In this sense, Ulmer is certainly a ‘correlationist’ in the sense that the world primarily addresses us as human beings and that the world can never be ‘the great outdoors’ separate from us, a “nonsemiotic” world as Bogost puts it. As Caroline points out, the consideration of the world as “alien” can reinforce the distinction between us and them (or “that” in this case) that ideally the notion of humans as objects among others would tend to break down. Although seeing the world as speaking to human beings seems to embody correlationism, to argue that we somehow need to get back to the world (as if we ever left it) still seems to posit an absolute split between human experience and what things experience “for themselves.”
One might argue that thinking of things “speaking to us” is kind of like Bogost’s suggestion, following Bennett, that anthropomorphism is a way ultimately out of anthropocentrism, but I’m not sure I would agree (65). One might also think that Ulmer’s method parallels Harman’s argument that things only “allude” to the depths of things, but I think both of these tend to see “depth” in objects rather than a surface of signifiers. For Ulmer, the question is “What CAN an object say” and that possibility is always related to the particular person experiencing it. Ulmer claims that nowadays it is this particular experience that, rather than the universal abstractions of philosophy past, paradoxically, can become understood globally. Poetry’s strength is not in its concepts and abstractions, but rather the way it names something in its particularity that can express an affective experience.
Perhaps one of the best ways to get at this is the primacy in Bogost given to “lists,” following Latourist litanies, in Bogost and Harman’s thought. In a recent talk on Laruelle and Speculative Realism, Anthony Paul Smith argues that Latourist litanies are kind of like Insane Clown Posse’s song, “Miracles,” which can be seen below. Indeed, words elevated into concepts like “wonder” and “allure,” as well as Harman’s claim that if you populate your texts with concrete objects rather than abstractions than you are truly doing more for a ‘nonhuman’ turn make it seem like these thinkers want us to just go: “Hey look! Objects! Aren’t they mysterious and wonderful!”
Bogost argues that lists are the perfect “antidote” to “the obsession with Deleuzean becoming,” taking it so far as to suggest that lists “rebuff the connecting powers of being itself.” Bogost writes, “Lists are perfect tools to free us from the prison of representation precisely because they are so inexpressive. They decline traditional artifice, instead using mundaneness to offer ‘a brief intimation of everything’” (40). I do not see how lists free us from representation, for, if anything, it seems that it sticks us right back in the middle of representation but without its expressive power explored in great literature. It makes literature serve as a mode of description of worldly detail rather than, in the case of someone like Joyce, a transubstantiation of everyday life. Latour and Harman’s lists attempt to put everything on the same plane, but without any context of why we should care about these things (except as they are ‘in themselves’ as autonomous objects), they mean very little. The example Bogost gives from Moby Dick, for instance, is not the same kind of “list” as deployed by Harman and Latour. Bogost then makes the banal point that Moby Dick can be called “a natural history” as much as a novel; indeed, some of my favorite literature is literature that mixes genres and could be called “Encyclopedic,” but I’m not sure these examples support an object-oriented ontology or an alien phenomenology. These are ways to aesthetically receive and conceive the world, but it is not meant to be a representation of reality as it “really” is outside of human perception.
As Michelle pointed out, the “all things equally exist but not everything exists equally” is a way to, in some sense, smuggle hierarchy back into the ontology while one ostensibly maintains the egalitarian rhetoric of a “flat ontology.” I do not think many of us would disagree now that hierarchy is not bad ‘in itself’ because there ARE some things in certain contexts that we should pay attention to more or that are more at stake for how we exist in the world. For instance, Bogost makes a distinction between photographs and the “actual objects,” which gets at Andrew’s point about whether the “picture” is an object with its own perception/reception of world (as I briefly argued one can claim in the case of two different cameras the record the world):
“Photographic ontography is effective as art and as metaphysics. But photographs are static; they imply but they do not depict unit operations. For the latter, we must look to the artifacts that they themselves operate” (52).
I’m really not sure how to read this statement. It seems like Bogost’s privileging of games as “not static” comes out in this chapter, as he moves on to describe “the artifacts that they themselves operate” in the examples of two games. I’m also not quite sure how he reads Shore’s photographs as “an automatically encyclopedic rendition of a scene, thanks to the photographic apparatus’s ability to record actuality” (52). Bogost argues that his photographs are ontographs because “he refuses to treat any object as primary, as subject” (52). I certainly don’t look at Shore’s “Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue” and think that everything is treated absolutely equally because, first, there is always foreground and background and, second, there is always something outside the frame. The photographer chose to take this photograph of this particular scene.
I think the point stands that the “picture” is somehow inferior to the game, which may both be superior to writing ‘proper’ since literary writing, especially when in the form lists, really only serves to point toward “rebuffing the connecting powers of being itself” (40). Indeed, we often think of literature as the exact opposite: a gathering together of things to show the multitudes of connections possible and yet the inability to decide meaning. Making connections is what makes meaning and context (im)possible. Not the plenitude of meaning or polysemy (“the condensation of multitudes into dense singularities” (58)) but its dissemination, our inability to decide on a final meaning. As Derrida writes,
The generalization of the grammatical or the textual hinges on the disappearance, or rather the reinscription, of the semantic horizon, even when-- and especially when-- it comprehends difference or plurality. In diverging from polysemy, comprising both more and less than the latter,dissemination interrupts the circulation that transforms into an origin what is actually an after-effect of meaning.
This is still talking about language, but when can we ever talk about anything else? Just because you name something that we can recognize as a real object in the world does not mean that it only signifies this referent. As Andrew pointed out today, all these theorists seem to deny that they are operating in the same language (and the same ‘writing’) as others.
I began this reflection with thinking about how this method differs from Ulmer’s understanding of the function of objects in poetry and thus the way we should experience objects affectively as an embodied human being. I think the best way I can make this distinction is that for Bogost, it seems like the word is tied to its “outside” referent as an object whereas for Ulmer, the object can mean many things aside from itself as a material referent. Bogost argues that the “lists of objects” work their magic through their inexpressiveness, their lack of explication, description, or clarification. Concerning the Trader Joe’s video, Bogost writes, “List of objects without explication can do philosophical work of drawing our attention toward them with greater attentiveness” (45). But as we’ve pointed out, these objects do not exist in isolation; they already come with a certain degree of context and understanding. The explication and explanation are actually the elements that would do the philosophical work. If we list the objects, devoid of any context, we miss specific things like—what is it about the customers? What does the managerial policy say about the way it runs its business? These are not neutral, as we all seem to have agreed in class. Bogost’s description suggests that these lists provide THE experience of shopping at Trader Joe’s, but we’d clearly all experience it differently.
Here I am trying to get back to the attempted distinction between Ulmer’s project and Bogost’s. The key for Ulmer is not to flatten objects onto the same plane, but to notice how one’s reception of objects shows us something about our own state-of-mind or attitude toward the world. Every object does not have the same seductiveness and allure for us; instead, certain objects are important to us or could say something to us that would, perhaps, move us to act or at least to recognize our state of being in the world. Our embodiment and the interfaces we use in addition (body as interface just as much as camera, Iphone, Smartphone). We need to find a way to connect our embodiment with larger problems. Perhaps the goal for Ulmer is unashamedly concerned about human beings, but when did we begin to have this idea that human beings have been spoken of enough? Or that we know what a human being “is” and so we can move on to those “not-human” beings? Ulmer argues that we need to find a way to re-connect to the Macrocosm; in a different parlance, Stiegler argues that we are “dis-oriented” due to the acceleration of technological development (hyper-industrialisation). Understanding objects “in themselves” seems like a less urgent project than figuring out how we can re-orient ourselves in the midst of the rest of the matter and matters in the world.
Texts already reach outside their boundaries — they are already on the verge of breaking. Harman’s argument relies on a substance/holism of a text that just isn’t “really” there in an objective ontological sense. We can recognize an author’s “style,” yes (although, contra Harman’s assertion, Shakespeare’s “style” cannot “enable us to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic plays under his name” — debates still rage on; this also undermines (in the colloquial rather than Harman-esque sense) his claim later about the “death of the author”), but the claim that “to make a slight change in two lines of the Fool might not alter the general effect of King Lear, nor would it likely make much difference to the characterization of Regan or Kent” is really problematic. Although he thinks he is reinforcing it, Harman erases the text’s “materiality” that resists the reader. Readers can make decisions and do the work to argue that a play’s alterations (or one might even think of the various “versions”) fundamentally change the play. And yeah, I’m talking about meaning here — meaning to human readers (the horror!). Reading fundamentally contains an epistemological component that cannot be overlooked in favor of questions of a text’s ontology. Harman’s notion of a text’s “depth” that can never be reached reinscribes the notion of a text’s “truth” and it also isolates the text from all of its possible relations, which already changes its meaning and significance. Harman’s target is the “surface” readings of Derrida and Foucault — moving back into a language of “depth” is to reinscribe a hermeneutic mode of investigation that assumes a persisting unity of a text, outside its dissemination to its context as part of language. It is to revive the idea of the “Book” in its sense that Derrida gives when he talks about the Book of the World that God (or some other entity) has laid out to us to read and decipher. The simple binary of “undermining” and “overmining” does not do justice to the complexity of the issue. We can certainly “undermine” the book by saying that it is nothing but another object made up of atmospheric particles. And yet– the very form of the book has meaning for human beings — it has power and significance due to the medium’s history. We can undermine and overmine to a different degree, but literary criticism involves a human reader and a human reader’s decisions (the critic’s writing delimits the ‘context’ at least for that particular article or book). Thus, epistemological questions arise as soon as Harman says that we can change the text and show “how each text resists internal holism by attempting various modifications of these texts and seeing what happens.” We don’t have to even CHANGE the text “itself” in order for it to be modified by other texts. Indeed, the very fact that the text is composed of language already breaks the text’s boundaries as ultimately the text is a part of cultural context and an (open) system of meaning. Harman seems to have this idea that literary critics use “cultural context” to dismiss works of art — this hardly seems to be the case. My frustration with Harman is that he seems to think his ontology helps us see literature in a new way (rather than reinforcing naive assumptions about the unity/substance of a text). To show how a text “resists its internal holism” is already to assume that the text has a holistic unity unto itself; Indeed, Brooks and co. (New Critics) were constantly exploring the “tensions” within the boundaries of the texts. But literary critics have already done this without reducing a text’s particular materiality (as explored by Derrida, De Man, etc.). To be fair, he does mention that some “literary methods recommended by object-oriented criticism might already exist” so I don’t want to fault him for talking about methods already known by literary critics; what I do want to argue is that .object-oriented ontology, in its preference for a “depth” understanding over surface, is not what literary criticism should strive for, IMO
Today in class, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what whether or not the quasi-object is a "hybrid," which would help us understand quasi-objects. For his part, although he cites Serres, does not do a great job explaining the quasi-object. In We Have Never Been Modern, he writes,
I tried to emphasize that the main feature of quasi-objects was its circulation through a very loose reference to Serres' introduction of the concept in his astounding book, The Parasite. Book in hand and the internet as my further resource, I am now prepared to explain my reference with the hope that the concept may be further expanded in a meaningful way.
In the above we see a depiction of a children's parlor game, "hunt-the-slipper." Hunt-the-slipper serves as a relay for Serres for describing quasi-objects.
I found a great summary of "hunt-the-slipper" in the form of a nursery rhyme
The slipper functions here as the "quasi-object." Serres writes,
The key point about this understanding of the quasi object is, for Serres, that the object "isn't played alone" (225). If not mistaken, this is what Scott was trying to get at when he said that we cannot just describe the object "as such" "in itself." This is also, by the way, why Serres says we haven't "made" the quasi-object. "We" haven't made the quasi-object because the quasi-object makes us (even if, empirically, we made the object we call 'ball' in English). This will be explained better in a moment.
Serres argues that a ball "over there, on the ground" is nothing, stupid, no meaning, no function, and no values (225). The bodies that "play" it are "for" the ball and Serres argues that in the case of playing with balls (like basketball, for instance), "playing" amounts to "making oneself the attribute of the ball as substance" (226). While Andrew may disagree with this rather ontic and analogic way of thinking of play (restricting play to "game," as he put it to Kyle, rather than in Battaile's more radical sense), this image will help us in understanding how the quasi-object forms the "collective" for Serres and, as Serres' student, probably Latour.
Today "we" as a class made a big deal out of who the "we" was. While Latour doesn't address this problem directly, Serres does:
Ignoring for a second the Catholic rhetoric in the last sentence (we could critique the hell out of Serres and many other radical contemporary thinkers for the rhetoric they borrow from religion: Virilio immediately comes to mind), one pole of Serres discussion of the quasi-object explains how the 'I' is individuated from the 'we': by being "it," by stopping the circulation. This might fail as analogy, but lets think of language or words as quasi-objects. They circulate all over the place; indeed, the English language (and Language) in general binds human beings as a collective. But my composition I am working on right here right now is tending toward an "I," tending toward individuation even as I recognize the infinite iterability of every statement I make.
On the other hand, we have Serres explanation of how the collective is 'formed' (but NOT from already constituted individual "I's." Instead, the 'we' is formed by the speed of the circulation of the quasi-object such that it becomes a relation (a "social bond" as Latour puts it).
While I'm sure this post has at once complicated the idea of the quasi-object, I hope it also has helped in contextualizing Latour's use of Serres' concept. Serres' text has to be one of the most rich texts I have ever read because he draws such potent theoretical insights from something as simple as a French Fable (parasite as concept is drawn from a fable of La Fontaigne's).
What I like about Serres as opposed to Latour is even thought he refers to the discourses of science, it serves as an imaginative relay. Hayles has written an article explicitly critiquing Serres loose us of science, but I'm not sure this is always a flaw (although this is different from a former position I have held). Furthermore, whereas the tone of Latour is very confident in his project of "unveiling" (and yet not a kind of "unmasking" of a modern's 'false consciousness' of its condition; it is indeed interesting that he uses the very Heideggerian flavored 'unveiling' to discuss his method--but this is a side concern), Serres is less convinced that he has unveiled something and is self-reflexive in a, one might say, "postmodern" way. Before giving us the "Theory of the Quasi-Object," Serres reflects on the previous pages and asks the right questions:
"The problem with the preceding meditations is that they do not say distinctly enough whether they are a philosophy of being or of relation. Being or relating, that is the whole question. It is undoubtedly not an exclusive one. I still shall not decide whether the parasite is relational or real, whether it is an operator or a monad" (Serres 224).
Its Serres' commitment (paradoxically) to the space of indecision that sets him apart, I think, from Latour. Furthermore, it sets us apart from Serres, as we were trying to de-cide whether Haraway and/or Latour was engaged in an "epistemological" or "ontological" project: luckily we left this question open. This question (and distinction) will come back to haunt our discourse, however, when we get to Bryant and Harman, who argue that the mistake of "correlationism" comes down to adhering to Kantian epistemological model (at least epistemology is formed in the first two critiques -- thank you Scott for pointing this out). We mistake epistmological questions for ontological ones.
Being and relation, objects inside of objects, the circulation of quasi-objects: these lay out some of the key questions of object-oriented thought and, frankly, primary questions of philosophy.
On re-reading Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto," I was struck, more than when I first read it (or the second time) by her insistence that the cyborg body is "not innocent" and that the attitude of a cyborg politics/cyborg imaging/ cyborg ____ is irony:
"Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true. Irony is about humour and serious play" (Haraway 149).
But after all of our hipster malaise and detachment of who can be the most ironic, "irony" has been challenged in the name of a new sincerity, a new wonder at that world that can even seem "naive." Now, naivete is not "innocence" (or a narrative of the Fall from innocence), but it seems that Harman and the OOOers have little patience for interminable irony that forces us to hold contradictions in our heads. Could not Harman, Bryant, and co. be accused of trying to turn the world into a "problem of code" in the sense that they seek an encompassing metaphysics (even though its not a thinking of totality. Harman and Bryant both don't talk about 'the world' in general, even in the more nuanced sense of Heidegger) to describe the world?
In a footnote to an essay on Laruelle, John Mullarky criticizes Harman for what he sees as unfair criticism of Laruelle in his review of the book Philosophies of Difference:
While I think that Laruelle's style is very difficult to read and might seem to be just mystical hogwash, we could say the same of many other thinkers. Instead, its more productive to see style/syntax as a necessary part of the thought. Anyway, the specifics of Laruelle's philosophy is hardly relevant here, but I think the footnote might give us a starting point to see a possible difference between Haraway's cyborg politics (which maintains a kind of privilege of Writing in an extended sense) and OOO/OOP: "Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism. That is why cyborg politics insist on noise and advocate pollution, rejoicing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine" (Haraway 176).
In contrast, we see that OOO/OOP strives for a perfect kind of communication to the reader. Bryant's reflections on style, different than Harman's, can be found here: http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/reflections-on-style/
Last year, I participated in a course on New Materialism and OOO. I realized that all of these are on a protected site that no one can see. I don't want to lose these posts, so I am reposting. Some of them, at least at the moment, might be outdated. They may express opinions about the philosophies that I have since (and probably should revise at some point) made more nuanced. Forgive these slips.
Thursday, September 5, 2013
Imagine with me, if you will, that you walk up to a store to get that sweet deal on 12 packs of strings for 30 bucks and there's a line outside (ok, not too unexpected for a GO). While you wait in line, you are addressed by a man with flyers for lessons. You say politely but firmly, "no thanks, I'm not interested in lessons" because you don't want to carry around pamphlets all night. He says, "Oh, well, I bet you know some people who want lessons." And I thought more a minute--do I? "No sir, not really." I stand in line for a few minutes and the same dude comes up to me trying to hand me a flyer "no thank you," says I, thinking "this dude can't possibly have forgotten my firm but polite reply from 3 minutues ago. . ." But alas, this man would try and give me one of those damn flyers at least three more times while you are inside.
Did I mention that at the same time a rock band is playing in a tent in the parking lot. They are pretty solid sounding, but you can't help but laugh at a name like The Heroin. (not Heroin. Not Heroine. The Heroin.) Still, you probably would have been better off watching their set while everyone else scrambled to 'sample' a guitar or bass.
|They really do like they are having fun like this child.|
You go to one of the multiple lines that don't seem to have any particular ending, find one, wait, and check out.
But then you get curious: You wonder if they are selling F-Style mandolins (they aren't). You wonder if they have any good bass amplifiers I could try out? (Ampeg, Acoustic). You wonder what kind of Martins and Taylors they have in stock (plenty). You squeeze your way into the acoustic room where you find several people playing the acoustic guitars to a MUCH less annoying effect since most of them are playing quietly and honestly look like they may be trying out acoustic guitars for actual music making rather than girl-impressing or that guy-who-plays-the-guitar-in-every-music-shop-to-show-how-good-he-is.
Just then, you hear the announcement that there will be a raffle, which you did fill out a ticket for cuz-- you know -- why not? Maybe you'll win a guitar. But most likely, you will stand in the heat and watch others win and politely clap, knowing that if something were to happen that it would be a bonus. Hell, you didn't even know the raffle was taking place -- the strings were enough to drag your ass to the store. But of course, as with all raffle drawings, there are the two guys who are tryign to get the audience riled up asking stupid questions like "who wants a 300 dollar gift card" and then pretending to care that people aren't as enthused as these guys (who do openings for a living) would like. The raffles comes and goes. You sense the people around you are actually quite disappointed that they didn't win anything. You can almost hear their thoughts : "Why did he win. What is that little shitstain kid gonna do with an Epiphone Les Paul? Oh god, that's a horrible thought. But still -- I can already shred the shit out of that guitar and he has to still learn." Or another guy to your right who is clearly thinking: "I bet that old fart is gonna sell that guitar on ebay. He's not gonna love it like I would love it. Damn old people." Maybe you are making all this up, but it entertains you while you stand there knowing that you are probably just gonna go home with your new sets of strings which will save you (hopefully) a lot of stress of coming up stringless when you inevitably break a string while drunkenly bashing out the chords to a Lucero song on your balcony--or another such situation.
The raffle ends. You think: I should probably just go home. Do I really need to see if I can play some of the nice basses. I could do this anytime -- ANY other day. But, well, there probably won't be that many people who go back in.
You are wrong. Again.
But you head back in anyway. As you cross the threshold, this lady ever so politely asks you if you have your receipt (she is your favorite part of the night: just seems like a decent, calm human being amidst the chaos).
"yes, yes I do, ma'am."
"Ok well, I need to hold your bag while you go back inside -- but keep the receipt and I'll give it back to you when you come back out."
(Huh? you wonder)
"Oh, you know I could just put it back into my car and come back if that would be easier. . .or wait. . .no I gues--"
"Oh no, just let me hold it -- you're already here. It will be easier."
So you entere the guitar room again -- a barrage of dissonance and riffs peaking out here or there that are technically correct and sometimes sophisticated but, for the most part, without any kind of goal (like a song) or soul (like when you play a song). But in the far corner, someone is slapping the bass like a motherfucker through that Ampeg amp you desire. It's impressive. You are grateful for the relief of the low end from the chugging and screeching guitars surrounding him.
You wander again, thinking you may have missed the mandolins. You encounter your good friend Pamphlet/Flyer guy who once again tries to hand you something -- at this point you just ignore him.
It's clearly time to go. It's not like you'll be able to hear yourself if you even got to play an instrument that night. You've accomplished your goal. Now its time to go home and eat.
As you drive home, you think: Man, that place is gonna be great to go to for strings and other minor accessories. But that's it. You'll probably never buy a guitar, mandolin, bass or bass amp there (unless there's a good used instrument for a good deal). For some musicians, that's analogous to buying a dog or a cat from PetCo when there are tons of pets looking for good homes at the shelter and who will not only give them shots and spay/neuter them for you, but if you buy an older cat for instance -- just straight up give it to you.
But who knows.. .maybe a fender jazz is in my distant future.
Guitar Center Gainesville lives. And despite its corporate image, I like it better than the local store in town already. It's better than Best Buy used to be too
Why'd I write this? Because I can. And initially it was going to be a long facebook post. I figured--why not just use the blog. Apologies to any academics who may actually follow my academic posting and apologies to those who actually produce nonfiction stories worth reading. But I said it. I tried to entertain you and myself. Maybe I succeeded, maybe I didn't.
Monday, September 2, 2013
But is it really the human element?
Sound City, Grohl says, started out as trying to tell a story about a sound board: the Neve console. This sound board was located in Sound City, a shitty looking studio in CA where a lot of great records were made (Neil Young, Nirvana, Fleetwood Mac, etc.). Despite this reference to "the human element," we see that it is actually the nonhuman elements that are the condition for the possibility of catching this "human element." The board, combined with the room (which "no one designed") happened to produce an amazing drum sound. For anyone who has never recorded music, drum sound is probably one of the hardest things to capture on an album (live, mic-ed drums that is). In fact, I find that when I listen to a local band's record compared to, say, Tool's Lateralus, one of the main ways you can tell that the band is semi-professional or at the very least producing the album themselves is the drum sound. Drums on an album need to sound full, round, and, on a rock album, BIG. However, it is the technology -- the room and the board -- that is posited in the film as the reason for the good drum sound. The 'human element" is continuously linked to the capturing capacities of the technology.
Grohl and co. are careful, however, to point out that the technology is not to be relied on-- one still needs good songs and good musicians who practice. Indeed, this point emerges through the latter half of the film which discusses the debate between analog tape and digital tools. The way musicians talk about analog is that it is "no frills" directly onto tape. You "had" to practice and to do multiple takes -- you couldn't simply "fix" something. One of the musicians remarks that he heard a younger musician once say "you don't really even have to practice anymore--you can just put it into the machine and cut it up."
It's not that you cannot cut tape. You actually have to cut tape in order to bond different takes and such. However, the musicians make a good point for lifetime musicians like me: you really can't just rely on the technology whether it's a guitar, pro tools, weird effects. A good song, a good cut, a good album is not just the technology, but the way in which the technology interacts with 'the human'. In some ways, digital tools can be used to master the music (pun intended) rather than to capture the music happening in the room. There is an element of chance, an 'event' feel that happens when you record live -- on tape or digital.
Big Shoals' debut album has been recorded entirely "digitally," but we played the underlying tracks "live" in the studio. Lance had previously tried to record without a full band, and it didn't sound "right." It was good, but there was something missing. On this album, we've "captured" rather than mastered the music. It's a true collaboration between us, our instruments, Ryan our sound engineer, pro-tools, and the rooms in which we are recording. I'm not going to lie -- we've had to "punch in" a few notes when we missed it, but the overall feel of live playing still lingers in the mix because we were playing the damn thing live. We also did multiple "takes" of certain solos and parts. Lance would play several takes of a lick and there would be something in the take that set it apart from every other take -- an event captured.
Much of the music demonstrated and played in the documentary Sound City was recorded "live" in the studio. Rage Against the Machine tells how their debut album was recorded "like a concert" where they invited friends in to watch them play. They said they got over half the album done in one night. And if you've listened to this album -- there's something there, something captured.
As more and more artists -- particularly pop artists -- rely on technology in order to master their already-written and composed songs, we lose what Roland Barthes once called "the grain of the voice" (although it's not just the voice, but any note on any instrument -- perhaps its timbre). We also lose the "event" character of music. It's not that everything in an album has to be done all at once, but the collaboration is distributed across not only people, time, and space, but I imagine certain musicians divvying out their music like an assembly line. We call this music "mass produced" because it all "sounds the same." Obviously, in the western scale, there are only 12 'notes' so I am not saying that musicians are playing the same chord progressions. I mean that there is no sense of a "capturing." The voice captured is probably weak, uninspired, and a little out of tune that needs doctoring until we can no longer hear the vocal chords. Instead of working to get that note 'right', to capture a moment on tape or in bits and bytes, the note is played and then after the fact reintegrated into the song.
Am I merely being nostalgic? No. I do not long for the days of analog tape as if somehow that was always better. However, I am suggesting that there is a difference between the capturing of an event (even just one note) and being a "master and possessor" of notes and timbres. I'm suggesting that if we lose that element of chance produced through the collaboration of the human and nonhuman, then I believe we begin to colonize music -- to make it more human in the most Humanist of ways. To be a posthumanist musician actually means letting the nonhuman become actors (or actants) themselves rather than wielding them as 'tools'. This is why even though people like Brian Eno use primarily digital tools to make music, one could see him as a "posthumanist musician" because he introduces chance into his compositions -- a combination of skill and chance makes a music event.
"Pro-tools." It's in the name. It's a professional tool -- we wield it like a weapon or a diamond cutter -- carving out the excess in the name of perfection.
In Sound City, the exception to the rule of analog vs. digital is NIN -- Trent Reznor. Reznor, according to Grohl, "uses technology as an instrument, not as a crutch. He doesn't need it." Technology as an instrument rather than a tool. "Instrument" not in the sense of "instrumental" but instrument in the sense of a musical instrument. A musical instrument is not a tool that a musician uses. A musical instrument is a collaboration between the human and nonhuman. Things happen when you play a musical instrument that you might not have expected. I'm not simply talking about "jamming" here, but I mean the way we play an instrument. In the moment of putting your fingers to strings or keys, even if it's a song you've played a million times before, maybe you hit a chord harder than usual or do a little run that comes out of nowhere. It's not "magic" but its a collaboration between the environment, the instrument, and you. It's a subtle difference but its the difference that makes a difference between a musician and someone playing music. "Musicians" know that each performance is a unique event in which they become musicians by participating in every performance as one actant among many.
I'm far from the first academic to think theoretically about musical environments. Thomas Rickert's book Ambient Rhetoric shows how Brian Eno is a potent illustration of what he means by 'ambient rhetoric'. Rickert writes,
"In this process, not only do the boundaries between music and environment blur and blend, but the locus of creation is dispersed ti include the environment, which thus grants an active role to the technological apparatus as an element within the whole material surroundings" (Rickert 110).
This is definitely in part what I am trying to get with my reflections on Sound City. However, in Sound City, as opposed to the example of Eno, the other really determinate actants are not only nonhuman instruments, technologies, and spaces, but other musicians. When you play (and record) with other musicians, songs emerge in their performance/recording.
In another article by Thomas Rickert and Michael Salvo, "The distrubted Gesampkunsterwerk: Sound, worlding, and new media culture," the authors discuss "Garageband" --the mac's pre-installed music software. I have used garageband myself when I owned a mac and I do find it to be a powerful tool for making one's own music. Rickert and Salvo argue that Garageband helps enable what they call "worlding."
"Worlding, then, carries this double sense: It is the aesthetic realm that a visual musical work invites us to both enter and immerse ourselves, and it is the constellation of production pathways and inputs--people, communities, technologies, and networks--that are simultaneously evoked with each aesthetic world." (Rickert and Salvo 313).
The authors point out that in addition to recording traditional instruments, the program comes with preloaded beats and sounds etc. for people to (re)mix. Thus, Garageband makes everyone a (potential) composer. Garageband itself, much like the "digital tools" that Grohl refers to when speaking of Reznor, becomes an instrument: "software is no longer limited to combining or transforming pre-existing content; rather, it produces content itself no differently than a musical instrument" (Rickert and Salvo 315).
In the future, Rickert and Salvo speculate that the interface of these digital tools will become more affectively pleasing like a musical instrument. They argue that this will mean that "sound" will become more important in composing. "Sound" is different than 'music' in some ways, but inseparable from music as well. We just spent quite a lot of time talking about "drum sound" and how important it is to capture that feel.
One question is whether or not these digital tools allow one to make new sounds, or simply remix premade, poorly composed 'stock' sounds. We already hear a kind of levelling of sound happening in the production of recent pop music. Perhaps Rickert and Salvo are right that it is through these DIY tools that new sounds will be produced -- new soundworlds for songs to exist within.
But also, we do need to ask whether or not the sound, the song, the soundworld, the environment is poorly or well composed. Rickert and Salvo, although they use the example of some of the greatest musicians of the second half of the 20th century (Hendrix, Yes, The Flaming Lips), are more interested in the potential for garageband and other tools to allow nonmusicians to make music--or at least to make sound. These sounds and songs will also enter into the digital network where musicians can receive feedback (such as reverbnation or bandcamp -- Byron Hawk has spoken of music networks in his article "Curating Ecologies, Circulating Musics: From the Public Sphere to Sphere Politics in Dobrin's edited collection Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media.).
These points are apart from a concern that underlies this entire post and myself as a musician: good music. Now, everyone says that music taste is "subjective," but I think that even within the recent theoretical millieu of academia, we have abandoned such separations of 'subject/object'. Of course I want people to make their own music (after all, it's what i'm doing) but I just hope that democratization and public "prosumerism" does not mean levelling.
And again, I don't think it does. While there's going to be a lot of shit produced, a lot more great music can now be accessed easily through Spotify, Pandora, Bandcamp, ReverbNation, etc.
The trick now is to figure out how to get people to realize they have access to great music. It's usually even free! Yet when I ask my students, for example, what they listen to, the majority of it is not local or semi-local or stuff they found via Pandora but anything that happens to play on the radio or at the club.
I'm starting to sound cranky -- and I am.
Maybe this whole post is simply an elaborate academic ruse to privilege a certain type of music making over others. Maybe this entire time my real target is all the heartless (*sigh* such a cliche, outdated metaphor) pop music and corporate rock that leaves nothing to chance and simply leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe all that shit about Miley Cyrus's 'twerking' scandal with no one saying anything about the fact that she didn't sing well (and Thicke was even worse) just got to me--particularly after watching such a labor of love as Grohl's documentary, Sound City. Maybe I'm tired of people taking shitty songs and turning them into hits through spending an enormous amount of time on their production. I'm not trying to be a pretentious dick. I'm far from advocating that an older technology is far superior and more true to authentic music making. Nor am I trying to say that all popular music is bad. Shit, who knows, maybe I am saying that despite myself. Regardless, there's some DIY music that's bad too.
See. This is what I'm talking about. I can't extricate my involvement in music from any academic reflection. This is not what I'd call a 'sober' analysis of the issue. But hey, it's just my blog.
I'll end with this:
"The human element" turns out to be the element of surprise at one's own collaboration and participation in a musical event composed of other musicians, technology, instruments, and dingy rooms that just happen to make drums sound fucking badass.