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Analog nostalgia and the thought-free aesthetics of collectibility

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Wednesday, Aug 24, 2005

Record companies reaped a windfall when they managed to convince people they needed to purchase all the music they owned all over again when CD technology made moribund the patently superior but more inconvenient analog sound of LPs. Of course, convenience is the supreme utility in American society, attaching itself to any commodity and usurping whatever original function that commodity might have had. We used to want records because we wanted good sound, now we want music only to demonstrate that it is at our command. That is what convenience boils down to: an expression of our illusory mastery of the world, a reassurance that since things are getting more facile and more quickly responsive, that they are then inherently getting better. Convenience buoys the myth of progress even as quality of life for most people regresses. Analog nostalgia has this going for it; it is a repudiation of convenience. But it is at this stage of the game an expression of anti-convenience more than anything else, a proof of the leisure time and storage space you can devote to an expensive hobby, like keeping polo ponies or Victorolas.


Anyway, there is justice in the fact the very digital technology that the music industry introduced to sucker its customers into buying a shoddy version (smaller, poorly mastered, tinny-soundng, etc.) of records they already had has now enabled those same exploited consumers to pirate music effortlessly, with hardly a thought to the criminality of what they are doing. The digital nature of music makes it routinely and eminently copiable—the technology encourages you to mistake the copy for the “real thing.” It undermines the notion that there is a “real thing” to begin with. And by making music a shoddier-sounding product, the industry enabled customers to treat it like its worthless, to believe that it is unreasonable to be expected to pay for it. Some people must be delighted to see how this exploitive industry through its own rapaciousness sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Maybe the reports of the death of the dialectic in post-industrial global capitalism have been greatly exaggerated.


By making music digital, and synthetic, the record companies unwittingly further dispatched music’s aura, in the sense that Benjamin explained in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as the value of a work’s authenticity. (See this TNR article for a similar take on this.) The aura, as I experienced it, was a matter of access. It’s hard to remember how hard it was to hear the albums we take for granted in the age of reissues. It’s hard to remember what it was like combing used album bins looking for a copy of Forever Changes—now everybody has it, but when I was in high school, I knew one guy who had it. It was referenced in some record review I had read as though it was the greatest album there was, and so I had to pester this guy to tape it for me just so I could hear what it sounded like. The object itself, his copy of the record, was rare and precious. It had an aura. It made the music seem almost mythical, otherworldly. Now, I could hear Forever Changes immediately after a few mouse clicks. There would be no quest; the loss of quest means a certain loss of meaning for the music. But the removal of obstacles to musical access means you are not rigidly bound to listen to what you already know or what you can tape off your friends. You don’t need to be a strictly defined marget segment. You can cross all genres, all periods; you can be into as much as you’re curious about. And it won’t even cost you a dime, if you don’t want it to.


But people must be willing to take advantage of the freedoms the record industry enabled. It never ceases to amaze me how many people show scruples about Internet piracy, people who seem to believe that because it is an entire industry rather than an individual fucking them over, they should just continue to take it instead of fighting back. Certainly, some fear our increasingly invasive government will track them down—a crime against corporations is a crime against the state, after all—but some people just feel its wrong, and I’m not sure if I should admire them for maintaining a personal ethical code in a reflexively hypocritical culture, or despise them for holding back the revolution.


Beyond ethics, I think those who refuse to pirate music are clinging to the value of the musical artifact. They are nostalgic for the aura, the kind of value that once adhered to unique objects, a value we only sense traces of in modern society in the guise of family heirlooms and museum-kept works of art. Possessing something with an aura, with a patina becomes more attractive, not less attractive, as all of culture becomes more readily reprodicible. Benjamin thought that “the masses” would celebrate the refutation of the aura, arguing that the object was now free to mean something new to each and every beholder/listener. “In permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.” Benjamin suggested the aura deadened art, made all art about its aura and not its more mercurial content, which could shift with whatever context an audience brought to it. But it may be that photographic, and then digital, reproduction enhanced the aura, made it more powerful, and deadened works saddled with it even more. Their meaning is reduced essentially to their value at an art auction.


So some works become about nothing but their own unique status as objects, while all other things, so freely deployed in any way imaginable by anyone who uses them, lose their ability to have any collective, transpersonal meaning at all. In both cases, the discourse that we presume to be enabled by great art is obviated. There is no meaningful public debate about aesthetics. All “the good” is either purely subjective or a matter of collectibility.


Sadly, many people appear to be comforted by this; these twin principles constitute an aesthetics that they can understand completely, without study. If these principles reign supreme, these people believe that then cultural capital, the knowledge required to have a public discussion over art’s function, no longer has value. No one need ever cower again at the judgement of people who have actually studied art history. (Those effete snobs.) And most importantly, it protects the meaning of life—how many understand it, anyway, and have invested themselves in—as the accumulation of valuable objects rather than the performance of meaningful social activities. The expensive, precious object reassures us that things can have a value in and of themselves that transcends us—that diamonds are indeed forever—that we can possess and thereby exceed and enlarge ourselves. And the cheap, endless reprodcible item—the pop song—reassures us that we, as individuals making our own private, purely personal meaning of things, are rightly and safely at the center of our respective universes.

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