Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Trading tapes

Among the many things changed by digital technology is the hobby of trading bootleg recordings of the Grateful Dead. Time was when tapes were measured in generations of dubbings receding linearly to their source, and each generation’s loss of musical reality was buoyed by an increasing aura of static, the low all-frequency buzz of uncountable nightshapes. Somewhere between the soundboard original and the flanging boombox remaster was an ideal of undefined sonic color, a state of play between responsibility to the event and openness to the oceanic wash.

Digital archiving of Dead shows is clearly less romantic, though it’s way easier these days to find a clear copy of, say, “Fire on the Mountain” from set II of the May 8, 1977 concert at Cornell, and to make it available to others.

Digital reproduction is a sort of Hegelian reconstruction of the world; the specificity of acoustic sound is reborn in abstract representation that can again cause acoustic sound. Digiphiles insist that no audible information is lost in translating content into digital formats with high sampling rates—the absolute idealist can give back to you a world indistinguishable from that of the unreconstructed materialist. What we thought we heard in analog playback was just compression and distortion forced by the peculiar physical properties of the media of reproduction.

It may have been easier to be a gnostic before technologies of reproduction were mastered. A recent trip to the Maine State Museum (of which Hilary is a Friend) confirmed this. Looking at handmade rifles and woodworking tools from colonial times, one can see the rudely determinate matter of which they are composed protesting against the forms that were feebly pushed onto it. It’s not just that these objects themselves don’t know what they are, but that it seems as though the craftsmen who made them didn’t have a clear idea of what they were making. The objects’ variation is too great, their opposition to geometrical regularity too strenuous for us to believe that the objects were created from abstract representations. These things seem to approximate form, to attempt to be real, but the baseness of their physicality negates any claim to generality. Their crass causal history is visible on their bodies. These tools are so many individuals in a world of individuals knocking about, conceptually unmediated from the start, existing without the coherence or reality that abstract representation could have guaranteed. The products of earlier times are unknowable in their excess. For us, they may represent freedom.

These days, though, production is carefully monitored by experts who track the statistical deviance of actual products from mathematically determinate specifications. The weirdly shaped ones are identified and dumped. Slugs won’t work in Coke machines anymore. (We can begin to see, with Heidegger, that conceptual thought—the subsumption of particular things under general representations, and the successive approach of these latter toward the world in its supposed determinacy—is in its essence technological.) Having the look of repeatability comes to constitute the real for us. (Baudrillard: “The very definition of the real becomes: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction.”) We begin to feel that this is true not just of commodities and cultural goods, but also of human lives. (Horkheimer and Adorno: “Individuals are tolerated only as far as their wholehearted identity with the universal is beyond question.”)

All this is leading up to another quotation from Charlotte Street, which was the original inspiration for this post.
Courtesy of Glueboot:
"Analytic philosophy often spreads the atmosphere of denunciation and investigation by committee. The intellectual is called on the carpet. What do you mean when you say...? Don't you conceal something? You talk a language that is suspect. You don't talk like the rest of us, like the man on the street, but rather like a foreigner who does not belong here. We have to cut you down to size, expose your tricks, purge you. We shall teach you to say what you have in mind, to "come clear", to "put your cards on the table." Of course, we do not impose on you and your freedom of thought and speech; you may think as you like. But once you speak, you have to communicate your thoughts to us—in our language or in yours. Certainly, you may speak your own language, but it must be translatable, and it will be translated. You may speak poetry—that is all right. We love poetry. But we want to understand your poetry, and we will do so only if we can interpret your symbols, metaphors, and images in terms of ordinary language." (H. Marcuse)

Indeed. And not just analytic philosophy either.
And not just Hegel, my favored representative of the totalizing claims of conceptual power; recall that Kant pictures his critique of reason as a tribunal that will adjudicate the claims of empiricist and rationalist metaphysics. More substantively, recall his exclusion of the purely empirical from the knowable, the morally worthy, and the beautiful.

And not just philosophy. We considered above growing demands for clarity, knowability, externality, intellectual responsibility, professionalism, marketability, reproducibility, etc. in multiple spheres. (I leave it to the reader to consider whether these are so many facets of acquiescence to the power of capital.)

Let us consider the enumeration of the varieties of enforced commensurability an open-ended project (and one whose irony is not lost on me—clearly this is an expressive project undertaken in the interest of knowledge). We will contribute to this list from time to time, as we notice new forms of translation, reduction, and destruction.


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