Headphones and head space

by Rob Horning

3 March 2006


On most of my subway trips, I’ll see someone who’s wearing headphones and he (almost always a he) will be air drumming or dancing in his seat or mouthing the words or, in the most extreme cases, singing loudly. When I see this guy, I usually start with a weird admiration for someone who just doesn’t care about looking like a fool—so impassioned is he by the music he loves. The person will always seem entirely unembarrassed and will sometimes have the satisfied look of someone who thinks he’s been rather impressive. The onus is on those around him to be embarassed for him, which is always a waste of emotional energy.

It seems like a consequence of public space being dissolved into a million private spaces delineated by headphones and cell phones and PDAs and so on. The gist of much technology is to eliminate shared space and make every place seem like your private personal space, where you can control the environment. The car interior is the prmary model for this, but it is migrating from that to be more generally true. We travel through public space as though we are always in our own private car, even if we’re only walking down the street with our hands-free Bluetooth earpiece in, jabbering away at 20 decibels about how we’re not up to much, you know, just walking down the street.

But though the air drummers certainly seem ensconsced in their own private bubble world, they are not altogether ignorant of those around them. They still seem to be searching for attention—but not interaction. They want spectators (as the passivity engrained by our entertainments divides the world into watchers and performers, again eliminating the idea of interaction, shared activity, public space, community action) but apparently he has no real skill to warrant that attention. So he tries to garner our attention by taking his own spectatorship to a performative level. The seat dancer acts as though he’s so convinced the music he’s listening to is cool that it gives him a free pass to do whatever he wants, or what’s more, the music is so cool that he must call everyone’s attention to him by air drumming and gesticulating so that we’ll all see that it is him with the magnificient taste and good fortune. But he seems to have forgotten one crucial point, which is that we can’t hear what he’s hearing and that he looks like some kind of crazy mime to everyone else. Is he so desperate for validation that he has to resort to this? Is he so bereft of ways to contribute to society that his only optino is to broadcast his musical taste? Is he so beaten down that he thinks his taste in pop music is the only thing he has to offer, and he must seize every moment in public space to display it?

Because so much status resides in the signaling function of conusmer product, our consumer society leaves us with a sense that our tastes in design or consumer goods or whatever is one of the most significant contributions we can make to the world around us—we can aspire to little more than being showroom dummies, since the productive work we do is viewed by ourselves and the culture at large as a compulsory hassle, something we’d love to shirk if we could. In the absence of any other socially validated work, taste and our ritual display of it must be considered as the only real meaningful social work we all perform.

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