The Taxonomical Drive and Girl Talk

Citing Nina Power’s book, One Dimensional Woman, Jodi Dean posts about the “taxonomical drive”:

[Power] introduces the idea in the context of contemporary pornography: on the internet, one can find whatever one wants, although almost as soon as one finds it, one doesn’t really want it anymore. Rather, one wants to see what else is out there. The item itself no longer scintillates. The drive to find other images, to keep moving and looking and marking, takes it place. After you’ve seen five or six busty amputee tops, you’ve seen them all–or have you? maybe there are different types? let’s look for them! Desire switches into drive, now a drive to taxonimize and classify (blond, with shoes; shaved, no gun; etc…).

I’ve written a lot over the years about this concept, mainly with regard to music, where amassing more songs and managing the metadata and organizing the music library all begin to cannibalize the pleasure of the music itself. Or rather, these data-driven pleasures mediate our experience of music in a different way from what we knew before mp3s. The music becomes more like information, requiring less of a sensual surrender. Girl Talk seems emblematic of music created to suit this new aesthetic; classifying the samples becomes inseparable from the pleasures of listening to it.

You could draw the conclusion that Girl Talk, despite being “free” to all and seeming emblematic of the potential of a cultural commons over and against intellectual property, also serves to naturalize cultural labor (assigning and classifying semiotic meanings) as the chief pleasure, acclimating us to our doom of being data processors for the media companies that ultimately control the repositories of our lives, which we are turning into data banks with their help. Girl Talk thus functions the same way Power argues that online porn does; in Dean’s words, Power “links taxonomical drive with contemporary porn’s endeavor to bore us all to death and turn sex into work.” Girl Talk models how listening should be immaterial labor. That’s not necessarily bad, if one regards that sort of work as its own reward. The fear is that cultural-processing work cuts us off from some other way of experiencing life, pleasure, that is beyond the fixation of being useful. It traps us in the “mirror of production,” to borrow from Baudrillard.

I find that this foregrounded data component makes it impossible for me to hear music as music; it doesn’t engage what feels to me like a deeper part of my brain that responds more directly to sound seemingly stripped of semiosis. But the subjectively deeper experience I am imagining may be an illusion, an ideological chimera conjured by my investment in classifying the “real” in a specific way, privileging a certain nostalgic access to “the way things were” as a kind of protective revenge against youth, and against my becoming moribund. I want to be able to believe that I really hear the music and grant myself permission to condescendingly pity those whose entire listening life has been lived in the digital age. Fetishizing vinyl reflects this as well — record players are magical time machines transporting us back to the era of “real” listening, where the patina of crackles and surface noise and skips all serve to certify the authenticity of our response to what we hear. Not a clean data stream, real analog sound, embossed on a material substrate that bears the traces of decay, the marks of time — so much more like our own mortal flesh and therefore more true.

But this is all mystification of course. Music never comes to us purified of signification and thus closer to some unmediated truth; it is always mediated by some degree of contextual information that prepares us, puts us in a certain state of receptivity that will then allows us to flatter ourselves with our responsiveness. “Ooh, the Brahms, it washes over me so!” There’s no way of listening to music that would allow it to reveal what our true inner response would be, no way it can test our spontaneous appreciation, however much we might want to leverage it as proof of our intrinsic noble sensibility. We can’t prove good taste at the level of the sensual, the level of the music itself; it is always an argument conducted on the level of signs, the level of ideology.

The fantasies about authentic listening and real experience are not just reflections of the will-to-distinction; they are also counter-fantasies to the dominant consumerist dream of achieving the complete archive, of having the most direct access to every possible option, of even being able to at once hold all those possibilities, if not in our heads, then in some other tangible way. We oscillate between seeking the uncollectible, ineffable and thus “real” experience that can’t be repeated or precisely commodified, that seems to elude reification; and seeking to collect everything, to taxonomize so as to seem to have a handle on every possible future we could choose for ourselves — assuming the future is (as consumerist ideology tells us) merely a matter of what we choose to consume. Dean argues that

In a just-in-time culture, a culture of preemption, where connectedness has taken the place of planning, the archive serves as a kind of fortress of planning, a backup plan, a reserve army of the not yet desired but could be. We store up for the future, presuming we can access these stores rather than just add to them.

But that future never comes; the future is always now, and the storing up is the mode of consumption, not a kind of savings, not a deferral. The archive eases the fear of commitment, of having to choose and thereby forgo other pleasures. We collect the options on possible experiences, possible possessions, and as with financial derivatives, the notional total of these grows exponentially, far beyond the limits imposed by real attention scarcity, allowing us the illusion of transcending the constraints of time. That is what it means, I think, to consume the archive, to take pleasure in the metadata, in the metaexperience, in the theoretical possibility of future enjoyment — this allows us to compress many experiences and goods into a smaller space in time. Of course, that means capitalism can overcome yet another barrier to endless consumer-demand growth and more profit can be squeezed out of ever-shorter circulation cycles, which now have become quantum.