Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Objects Collecting Subjects

Over ye Impostume way, Carl poses a small, concrete question which very quickly balloons into a mammoth, existential one. At the outset, I thought we were basically talking about storage media and instead we may as well be asking ourselves, why listen to music? Or even more broadly, why art?

Those questions are impossible to answer, so Carl does us the service of scaling it down:
...what is the impulse to keep hold of all that non-essential stuff, stuff you are not invested enough in to listen to more than once, yet alone pay for?
Which is still a damned difficult question, if only because I've no idea by what standard we're measuring - how much stuff? Is it non-essential by my own standards, or society's? What about the stuff we have paid for? To understand my trouble in establishing a workable baseline, let's take a look at some of my closest friends and their respective music-consumption habits.
  • One is an amateur noise-maker with a steadfast belief in the shamanic power of music - yet, as a digital Maoist, he listens to music primarily via YouTube. He occasionally buys vinyl records, but he doesn't own a turntable. (The son of an investment banker, he treats records much as speculators treat real estate.)
  • Another is a collector par excellence, who's plowed unfathomable amounts of time & money into every passing storage medium - yes, even MiniDisc - on the off-chance that this format will become the historical default. Consequent to his unyielding compulsion for accumulation, he possesses both an embarrassing assortment of obsolete petroleum-derived media and an unimpeachable record collection.
  • My band's drummer spends his waking life behind either the kit or the wheel. In Japan, every car still comes stocked with yer standard CD player, thus he listens almost exclusively to CDs.
  • Our singer approximates what I imagine is today's average music consumer: functionally computer-literate, he knows a couple of file-sharing sites that he infrequently downloads illicit MP3s from, but he relies by-and-large upon the iTunes store. He came of age during the CD boom, purchased hundreds of the damned things, and is thus uncomfortable with either going digital - divesting himself of physical musical objects - or fully embracing the frail, impermanent, totemic atavism of vinyl.
Of the above, I most closely resemble the collector, but with two heavy caveats: that I could never match his mania, and that I discard or neglect a far greater swath of music. If I may call myself, like him, a collector, I certainly can't call myself an archivist. I don't accumulate for posterity: sure, I love Ghostface, but I'm not going to buy The Pretty Toney Album just to complete the discography.

I'm actually quite vicious in my musical discrimination, to the point that I'm one of those so-called "music nerds" who is somehow ignorant of even the most popular music on the planet. (Lady Gaga? Still haven't heard a full song start-to-finish.) By now, I know my own tastes well enough to know when something isn't even worth investigating; or if an artist, though unimpressive at first, could become a slow-blooming favourite. Of course, over the past forty years, artists have become ever more self-aware and adept at deploying their particular potpourri of signifiers to establish themselves as more brand than band. The sole benefit of music's infection by the marketing brain parasite is that, simply by paying attention, one becomes well-versed in the signs, symbols, satorial choices, tonsorial maneuvers, promotional stratagems, and subcultural propaganda necessary to decide if something may be worth a listen.

The upshot is that the more I know about music, the less I listen to (a paradox I've addressed before). By the time I download a given album, I've pretty well decided that I'll enjoy it - all that remains is the question of how much. This could point to a key difference between me and Carl: whereas he's fairly certain he "could happily live without 80 percent of what I have downloaded over the years," I'm not so sure I could, because everything on my hard drive arrived there as the result of research & deliberation. There's only so much copper in the ground, there's only so much storage on my computer, and I've only so much time to waste upon whimsy & poor consideration.

But even then, is all my digital music essential? Because I own almost all of it on vinyl too. Granted, the acrimony of the collector's market has kept certain albums off my shelf (I'll be damned if I can afford a copy of Rid of Me) but such exceptions are relatively few. Just about every album that's ever "meant" anything to me, I have in physical format - which helps assure that these albums will continue to mean something to me.

Though this carries the stink of the Sunk Cost Fallacy, of course I don't mean my copy of Man Overboard is merely worth the hours spent crate-digging before plucking it out of a bargain bin, plus the ¥500 I paid for it. Records imbue the music they contain with import precisely because of the format's Achilles' heel: its physical fragility. Taking proper care of vinyl can be boring and expensive; handling & playing them so as not to do damage is precarious and prudish. So if I go to the trouble of putting a record on, I damn well want to listen to it, and the act of listening itself becomes center of my attention. The palaver of playing a record also insures that it's unlikely I'll overplay any given album and prostitute whatever mystique it once held.

Music is literally nothing if we don't afford it our time and attention; the ritual around playing a record is a gesture of respect to the music - the sacrifice of our time and attention.

The difficulty is that collecting always takes place in the shadow of the Big Other. At worst, this leads to the establishment-of-self-via-consumption that Carl finds troubling:
...the weight of all that accumulated culture reassures us that we are ourselves substantial, a kind of prosthesis, we must be smart, we must be committed, we must be artistic, or intellectual because the sheer range and diversity of our hard drive, as a kind of concretization of our restless seeking and searching memorializes us to ourselves.
Now, as I explained above, I've no idea how far out of step I am with the general music listening populace, but as a collector I too consider how my collection presents itself - its depth, its diversity, its material condition. But I'm not counting on my collection to buttress my reputation or enhance my cachet: I'm counting on the fact that these records are the only possible means of sharing my own aesthetic epiphanies with another person. I'm well aware of how counterproductive a distraction analog fetishism can be, but at least the lingering spectre of a record's totemic power is far more commanding of attention than an MP3 e-mail attachment or YouTube link.

More importantly, we human are subjects only to ourselves and mere objects to everyone else - noisy, unpredictable, combatative, delightful objects, but objects nonetheless. Some of us are gifted enough to translate our feelings somewhat effectively to other people by some form of vibration: physical, aural, oral, or corporeal. But most of us aren't. Most of us are bloody useless at making ourselves understood. The best hope we have is to find meaning inscribed upon some other, nonhuman object that we can pass to another human, who luckily will read the inscription with the same surprise and passion that we did.

6 comments:

JM said...

Paul Treanor thinks art should be destroyed

David W. Kasper said...

For what it's worth, I've just attempted to sell a bunch of CDs at the local 2nd hand place. They told me no CDs would get more than 20p because it's a "dead medium". I declined, lugging all my worthless shit home again.

I went home, gazing at cases and shelves of (supposedly) dead items that I spent so much time, attention and wages on. 'Crisis capital' that I could always use in the past. Pieces of obsolete junk, covered with names and faces that now draw their meaning from elsewhere. There's probably parallels with the current economic situation there (and my own 'value' on the job market), but frankly I'm depressed enough as it is.

Jeffrey said...

He came of age during the CD boom, purchased hundreds of the damned things, and is thus uncomfortable with either going digital - divesting himself of physical musical objects - or fully embracing the frail, impermanent, totemic atavism of vinyl.

Re-read that first sentence and tell me what you think it means.

If his music collection is primarily CDs, then he's most certainly gone digital.

The question you don't really address is not the storage format but the quality of the listening experience. You hint at it here, but still miss the mark.

Music is literally nothing if we don't afford it our time and attention; the ritual around playing a record is a gesture of respect to the music - the sacrifice of our time and attention.

The fact of the matter is that MP3 files and the devices they are stored on and typically played back through are still crap when compared to a CD changer, a good quality amp/receiver and big ass speakers. And when new, well cared for and played on a turntable that cost what one used to be able to buy a decent used car for, vinyl is better yet still.

Record albums and CDs don't really take up that much space, less than books, and while both deteriorate over time (we've got at least a half dozen CDs that "skip" and not because they are physically damaged), they are so much better than compressed MP3 files. So they are "stuff" worth having if you really care about music.

Seb said...

JM - Wow, what a smug, fatuous buncha bullshit that was - the kind of impractical, more-heat-than-light word-salad that no doubt won Treanor a teaching post. He gets about as close to a definition of "anti-art" as I've gotten to the papacy; he portrays the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Bhuddas as a Situationist prank instead of fundamenalists ridding themselves of heathen idolatry; and he has the gall to open with the statement, "The poor, the weak and the oppressed do not speak in defence of art." Because, y'know, stupid proles.

Kasper - Oh, I'm right there with you, brother. The interesting thing is how it's become better to be an Analog man in a digital world than a previous-generation digital man in the update-available digital world. If only because kitsch can be passed off as personality.

Jeffrey - I argue that CDs are worse than MP3s (provided you keep the bitrate above 160vbps) because they offer all the lack-of-fidelity with none of the convenience or portability. A VG+ record on a second-hand turntable through computer speakers offers a sonically richer experience than an iPod. (Even Steve Jobs would've said so!) The quality of the listening experience has much to do with "fidelity," but it has even more to do with how focused the listening is - that was the point I was trying to get across. If you're really invested in the moment, you can have your mind as blown by a third-generation dub tape on a boombox as by a mint 180g record on a thousand-dollar hi-fi.

As for these remarks...

If his music collection is primarily CDs, then he's most certainly gone digital.

Oh, har har. You know what I meant. I even said what I meant in the subjective clause, wise guy.

The question you don't really address is not the storage format but the quality of the listening experience. You hint at it here, but still miss the mark.

I hint at it? Do you realize how long-winded you're encouraging me to be if I've merely hinted at it in this post? Christ, even I don't like to listen to myself think at such length.

Jared Bidlow said...

I agree that focus is important, but are you aware of the consumer devices that allow one to connect hard drive + tv + box, and retain the saliency (and fidelity) of music-listening . Google has only recently been marketing the latter, but it's been around for much longer (see any DIY media site). Now, focus is obviously listener-dependent, but perhaps it’s important, as Beemask is quoted " to break the link in one’s brain between appreciating a record and feeling a need to own it"

Seb said...

Jared - Yes, there's certainly more than enough cables, connectors, and gizmos to create an all-in-one multiformat-friendly entertainment center upon one's desk these days. I'm just enough of a cheapskate and a luddite (I don't even own a cellphone) to have avoided purchasing any of it.

As for the question of "appreciating a record and feeling a need to own it," I think most people are too generous towards the MP3 format with regards to what "ownership" means. It still feels like people who devote hundreds of hours & dollars to accumulating a proper vinyl collection are regarded as fanatics or fetishists, yet people who gorge upon thousands of MP3s within a single year aren't considered as such, just because the MP3 is "more convenient" and/or isn't a physical format. Certainly, record collecting takes a great deal more patience & dedication than "MP3 collecting," but why is the former thought as obsessive & consumerist yet the latter isn't considered hyper-consumerist, decadent, or even vaguely retarded?