The following writings are explorations of some of the major concepts that have underpinned the beginnings of this research. Overall this research project takes popular music as an exteriorisation of technical and social memory that serves to reinforce what Mark Fisher refers to as Capitalist realism. The concepts that have been explored are attention to this music and the problem of complicity in the exploitative systems, which systems are necessary to create and gain access to this music. These investigations are not yet complete and what has been developed is only a step in this process and it will necessarily change with the progression of the research. Furthermore the exploration of these concepts has thrown up others that also require investigation.
One concept, that it has become evident requires exploration is catharsis. Catharsis as a term refers to a purification of emotion through art. Mostly it is used in everyday speech to mean a purification of what is often considered to be negative emotions such as fear or pain. Music seems to be particularly potent at educing this experience. Beyond the literal subject matter of any song and within the regulated changes in air pressure there seems to be a remarkable resources for the production of catharsis. There appears to be something about the manipulation of temporal experience, the interplay between anticipation and memory and the experience of sonic frequencies, grouped in ways other than non-musical sonics, that provides a unique kind of escapism. It will thus be necessary to develop a theoretical understanding how catharsis functions and to understand to some extent why it is important in our present context.
Consciousness is a term that also requires further exploration. While the premise of the this work takes some influence from the ideology critique and the notion of false consciousness as outlined by Louis Althussr this notion and perspective are highly problematic. False consciousness would imply the existence of a single true consciousness a proposition that would be impossible to prove and would have terrifying implications. That being said, the way in which our psychic apparatus has been formed is important to how we construct meaning from experience and there is an aggregate effect of theses experiences. In addition to this there can also be a weakness with ideology critique in that it can make the assumption that the behaviour and beliefs of individuals within a society is entirely determined by ideological apparatus of those in power. This would also be impossible to prove and have unhelpful implications. Rather it seems that, with this tradition as a foundation, this research must try and move beyond both of these notions in such a way that still allows us to address the serious issues they attempted to understand.
Through the course of this writing music has taken a somewhat reduced role. There are number of reasons for this, such as allowing the space for more purely theoretical explorations. However it has become clears that such a division is particularly unhelpful as the theory can become overwhelming and by not engaging sufficiently with music the discussion risks moving away from lived experience. How exactly to incorporate music into this research a meaningful way, also will require consideration. As can be seen in Husserl use of melody to explain time consciousness sonic experience is rich resource for phenomenological descriptions. There seems to be the potential for the
development of the field through a discussion of musical experience. What is more is that this phenomenological perspective could add considerably to the discussion of the political economy of (popular) music, by embrace the central importance of temporality, memory and consciousness to which this particular political economy relates. The potential methods through which incorporate music effectively still needs to be assessed for both their potential viability and usefulness. That being said there is the potential for field work in interviewing those who have created ways in which to monitor attention to popular music (last.fm/Spoitfy) or perhaps in the analysis of the music through the mechanisms provided by the new media form it currently takes (digital audio files). The sort of complex and specific analysis of the sonorous qualities of music offered by it most ubiquitous format offer the potential for generating data that can relate affective qualities of music to sound sources and economic context.
Two texts, in particular have supplied a great deal of the resources for the thought expressed in these writings. These are Capital Vol.1 by Karl Marx and the novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Marx’s approach to economics allows for an understanding of how the changes in production and consumption have social consequences by changing the way in which people think about their social position and modifying desire. His writing has inspired and directed the thought and writing of innumerate theorists of the left for the purposes cultural analysis. Wallace’s book, in brief, depicts a dystopic capitalist future where corporations subsidise years (the year of the whopper, the year of the Perdue Wonderchicken), in which lonely, addicted individuals are caught up in the hunt for a film so entertaining it leaves any viewer in a state of catatonic cathartic
bliss. The novel seems, in some respects, to move in the opposite direction to Capital, from the warped individuals, in many ways cut off from each other, to hint at an economic system that has facilitated such a culture. Both books are just over one thousand pages long, have been written with a dry dark wit and with a great deal of what is actually being communicated is hidden within the subterfuge of foot/end notes. Both books attempt to provide a complete description of social conditions under different stages of capitalist social reality. In Capital, as in life, most of your labour time is taken from you in the production of undistributed surplus value in line with a corrupt ideology of established political economy. In the near future of Infinite Jest, the experience of any time at all, is brought to you by an apparently beneficent corporation. Both texts cite the necessity of distracting entertainment to the maintenance of the system. Although in Wallace’s work entertainment may also be the seeds of its destruction.
While it is clear that basing the research in work of Marx gives access and consistency to the use critical theory and a framework for discussing systemic complexity. What Infinite Jest supplies is a way in which to view the subject of this research somewhat obliquely. In the novel, which was written as allegorical science fiction, the ideology of the society is not referred to directly rather it is seen in the periphery of the of the narrative. This approach seems to make the impact of such ideology more apparent than direct confrontation, which can often create resistance. Where as to catch glimpse or, perhaps more appropriately, hear a whisper of what could be called ideology, is to uncover its more potent spectral power.
One of the most useful parallels to draw from the novel is its use of ostensibly postmodern tropes, while still sincerely enjoying the opportunities they bring, to express a certain frustration with the condition of postmodernity. This research assumes that society is in some machination of the postmodern condition as defined by Lyotard (1984). For all the opportunities such an understanding of society offers there are frustrations. Such as the lack of certainty in any worldview or societal claim, even or especially a Marxist one, can be overwhelming. However to deny this uncertainty would be even more problematic and unhelpful, thus, like the novel, it is perhaps possible to use this position with even more scepticism to help overturn some of the lazier assumptions of post modernism that are so pervasive in the maintenance of capitalist realism.
As mentioned in the opening of this introduction, the following writings are explorations of the concept of attention and complicity. The first section, Paying with Attention, tries to reconcile the common use of the word attention with the phenomenological understandings of Merleau-Ponty and Stiegler. This discussion is then brought into the context of the culture industry as defined by Adorno and Horkheimer in order to being a discussion of attention economics and attention in economics. The second section The Terrifying immensity of Everyone Involved beings by examining the scale, complexity and violent exploitation necessary for the manufacture of the common place devices used for accessing popular music. With this established this is now connected to the catharsis this can provide and how this catharsis is complicated by the systems
that are required to facilitate gain access to it. This then read through the theoretical notions of technical mentality, technical systems and individuation (Simondon) and tertiary retention (Stiegler) as a form of life (Wittgenstein). The interaction with these systems is then read as active complicity through the notion of human capital becoming a systemic norm in the reproduction of life. The intention of the writing is to start to open up space for new phenomenological approach to the critique of the norms that constitute capitalist realism.
Paying With Attention: Attending to the culture industry and attention economies.
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” (Wallace 2009, 3-4).
Introduction to Attention.
Attention, is the act of attending to something. It is also used to refer to the capacity for carrying out such an act. To discuss this from an abstracted, singular perspective, when we attend to something we are also, potentially, inattentive to something else. If what we are inattentive to or not attending to, is, in someway, judged to be detrimental to us through our inattention this state could be called distraction. This use of the term attention, according to Ludwig Wittgenstein is the manner in which attention can be considered a ‘forms of life 1’ (1969: 89). However, such an apparently simple understanding of attention is complicated by the psychic, social and technical systems [forms of life] in which we as humans operate. Chief among these are how we perceive phenomena, our shifting positions in economic and cultural discourses and by our relationship to our environmental existence that includes new media technologies and the technical systems2 that make life today possible.
1 Wittgenstein express this notion with the remark; ‘241. “So you are saying that human
agreement decides what is true and what is false?” – It is what human beings say that is true and
false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinion but in forms of
life.’ (Wittgenstein: 89, 1969). There are two distinct interpretations that can be taken from this
phrase which have been more full explored elsewhere in this research. For now, we can take the
fiTrsetcihnnteorlopgreyt, aintiothnistorebseetahractheivs emryedaanyt icnoamvmeurynibcraotiavdesleansgeuatogereisfear mtootrheemneoann-binioglfougl iwcaly in
appendages human beings have developed to facilitate life.
A version of the quotation that opens the paper by David Foster Wallace first appeared in his novel ‘Infinite Jest’ (2007) as a sub-textual joke about a character not having the facility to appreciate the blindingly obvious nature of his own situation. He later used it, in the form shown above, to talk of ‘…the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort’ (2009: 120) in a world that will always encourage ‘…unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race”– the constant, gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (123). However as Wallace recognizes achieving this kind freedom could be seen to be ‘unimaginably hard’(135). Both of these different but related uses of the story about fish and water have relevance in this discussion of attention. It is vital both to realise and become aware of the culturally constituted milieu that exists and that the blindingly obvious can be just that: blinding. With this as a foundation I will examine what it is that attention could be considered to be in a range of uses that encompass philosophical discussion and conceptual debate to the vernacular and the forms of life that it can be said to engender.
To start from the focus of this research which is popular music, we begin the discussion with a quote from the composer John Oswald relating to the perils of attending to industrially produced popular music;
All popular Music is (as is folk music by definition) essentially, if not legally existing in the public domain. Listening to pop music isn’t a matter of choice. Asked for or not we’re bombarded by it. In its most insidious state, filtered to an incandescent bassline, it seeps through apartment walls and out of the heads of Walkpeople… Difficult to ignore and pointless to imitate: how does one not become a passive recipient? (Oswald 1985).
In Oswald’s conception, resonating with the theories of the Frankfurt School, attention to popular music can and is intended to engender passivity. However the ability to ‘pay attention’ is often discussed in terms of an unambiguous social good, something that we are commanded to do through much of our education. Leaving aside for now the economic language in this common phrase, which is already ideologically interesting, to phrase it as an ability, presupposes the opposite as a disability. However, like Oswald many thinkers have considered that to which attention is paid is of equal importance to the ability to actively attend. The work of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School in 1947, defines and critiques the Culture Industry and suggests that the outcome for the consciousness of the public to attending to industrially produced content is detrimental;
The stunting of the mass-media consumer’s powers of imagination and spontaneity does not have be traced back to any psychological mechanism; he must ascribe the loss of these attributes to the objective nature of the products themselves… They are so designed that quickness, powers of observation, and experience are needed to apprehend them at all; yet sustained thought is out of the question if the spectator is not to miss the relentless rush of facts (Adorno and Horkheimer 1997, 126-127).
While these remarks were intended as a detailed and negative description of an experience of the sound film as a relentless rush of facts, the critique can be generalised to all industrially produced, cultural content, which seeks to dazzle the senses. The critique, that absorption by such material may create a consumer consciousness enthralled to the power and social reality necessary for its creation may have validity, a point that will be developed later in the discussion. What needs to be understood first is that while conclusions can be
drawn from this about the consequence of the direction of one’s attention, these writers would perhaps understand more of the phenomena described above as only partial attention or perhaps distraction. They continue;
Even though the effort required for his response is semi- automatic, no scope is left for the imagination (Adorno and Horkheimer 1997, 127).
When evaluated in association with other writings by Adorno this remark highlights and helps to emphasise that these thinkers considered attention to refer to a conscious engagement to the good of the subject and their activity. Where as ‘the inanity of many leisure activities’ (1991, 190) provided by the culture industry, can be seen to preclude them from engaging with full attention and indeed as being anything more than expressions of the bourgeois character. For Adorno it seems that full attention can only be paid to work or other activities that are considered to be of seriousness and importance;
Making music, listening to music, reading with all my attention, these activities are part and parcel of my life; to call them all hobbies would make a mockery of them (1991, 189)
There is considerable validity in the impulse expressed here, for example to not want all none wage based labour activities to be reduced to the state of the hobby is particularly important to the Marxist cultural critique. However, what is perhaps problematic for the current debate is the failure to realise that full attention can be paid to what perhaps could be seen as unworthy pursuits. Hobbies in themselves are not understood to be distractions because they do not require ones full attention; they are understood to be distractions because they do demand ones full attention; potentially in situations where attention could
arguably be better directed. There is of course a presumption here of judgment of worth and value that itself is constructed from a cultural milieu. The implications of this in association with the variety of content produced by the culture industry culture industry will be explored in later chapters. This protected understanding of attention could perhaps be said to have its grounding in Gottfried Leibniz’s understanding of the phenomena of attention in association with the concept of apperception. Apperception when defined as a psychological phenomenon is;
…the process by which new experience is assimilated to and transformed by the residuum of past experience of an individual to form a new whole (Runes 1977, 15).
Here immanent in the act of attending is the irreversible formation of the individual subject through the experience of anticipation associated with temporality. This understanding of temporal experience has since been taken up and developed by other philosophers and theorists, as we shall see later. So much is at stake in this understanding of attention that it almost appears necessary to protect the term for what might be considered beneficial or ‘serious’ activities as it is able to transform an individual in an apparently permanent way. If anything that could be considered as trivial or non-beneficial were capable of affecting this change then the command to attention would be ethically ambiguous. However this is problematic for both the concept and the on-going discussion of attention economics, which rely on attention being able to be captured by anything perceptible, especially when properly constructed, regardless of an interpretation of worth. It is important to understand the power of directed attention and the power directing attention. Distraction is not
attention’s antonym but the consequence of its misdirection. Without this understanding it is not possible to accept that attention has also been reified and is an important component of the economy and the capitalist mode of production. This is to say that attention must be conceptualised as a neutral and ever present act that can be captured by a number of increasingly sophisticated means.
The premise on which the current research is based is that attention is ever present and responsive to the world. That attention is also something that can be captured restrained and harvested through time as an access to consciousness. It is through this idea of access to consciousness that an argument will be forged illustrating how the culture industry maintains and reinforces capitalist social reality.
Attention: The Phenomenon.
Attention is primarily considered to be a temporal phenomenon but also, it necessarily has spatial characteristics which are more ambiguous but equally important. Attention is also subjective. Without a subject there is nothing that can attend, thus it is an experience of subjectivity. That to which attention is paid is always something in the world; always in some connection to an object3. As will be demonstrated later in this work a subject can also be considered to be an object. In order to understand attention as a morally neutral and continuous phenomenon and not as an aspirational state of being, it is necessary to adopt a phenomenological approach. Edmund Husserl founded the philosophical school of phenomenology and his thought is key to the underpinning of the conception of attention in this research. However the following section will primarily address the developments to the project of phenomenology made by Bernard Stiegler and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
In order to begin this discussion, it is first necessary to describe what might be understood by, ‘attending’ and what it is that attends. Both Stiegler and Merleau- Ponty do, to some extent, embrace the notion of Dasein as defined by Martin Heidegger (1962, 32). A literal translation of Dasein, means ‘being there’, which is, for Heidegger, the condition of existence that ‘…pertains with equal primordiality both to an understanding of something like a ‘world’, and to the understanding of the Being of those entities which become accessible with the world’ (33). Thus, for Heidegger, ‘Being’ is always engaged within an associated
3 For the sake of simplicity, at this point, the discussion of attention will be kept abstract. Thus objects are always what are attended to. Subjects are objects, events consist of objects in interaction, and thoughts of subjects require objects as an origin as do ideas.
milieu or ‘being-in-the-world’ (78). Stiegler and Merleau-Ponty use this a priori assumption of the experience of existence to develop further theories of human existence. Merleau-Ponty further locates ‘Being’ as a bodied existence (Merleau- Ponty 1962, 67) and Stiegler develops the theory of the technical invention of the human (1998, 134)4. It is with this set of assumptions in mind that these philosophers understand attention.
Important to a phenomenological understanding of attention is a particular understanding of the way in which we apprehend and experience moments in the present and temporal flow. Building from the work of Edmund Husserl, Stiegler outlines the concepts protentions (anticipation of the next moment) and levels of retention;
Conscious time is woven in with what Husserl calls retentions and protentions. Primary retention is that which is formed by the vey passage of time, as the course of this time, such that, as the present which passes, it is constituted by the immediate and primordial retention (the “primary retention’) of its own passing. Becoming past, this passage of the present is then constituted as secondary retention, that is all those memorial contents (souviners) which together for the woven threads of our memory (mémoir) (Stiegler 2010a, 8-9).
In adopting a phenomenological approach it is important to understand that a moment itself is not directly experienced. Rather what has just happened is retained as primary retention. This retention then informs the protention with regard to the next moment thus informing what will be retained, and so on. This experience is filtered and becomes secondary retentions, what the discipline of
4 These notions are examined more fully elsewhere.
psychology understands as episodic memory but is also undoubtedly linked to other functions of memory. To this theory of memory and starting from Husserl’s own work5, Stiegler adds tertiary retention. He writes;
Tertiary retention is the mnemotechnical exteriorisations of secondary retention, which are in themselves engendered primary retentions (Stiegler 2010a, 9).
This can be taken to mean that the technical devices that are characteristic of human society are forms of retention, or memory. This can, seemingly, be almost any object-in-the-world, from the language and clothing, to the camera and the Internet. This additional concept is key to a contemporary understanding of attention. While it has ever been thus, and that is certainly so in Stiegler’s work (Stiegler 1998), that there have been ‘…mnemotechnical exteriorisations of secondary retention…’, which have also always had anticipatory or protentive applications, these exteriorisations do draw and capture attention and have arguably become better at doing so.
With this established it is worth looking at Stiegler’s understanding of attention. For Stiegler, the formation of Attention is the ‘…psychotechnical accumulation of retention and protentions…’ (Stiegler 2010b, 18). By understanding attention as something that is formed, it is easy to appreciate that it is ‘…a fundamental aspect of all human society…’ (17). Furthermore, from this understanding of attention, as dynamic and churning cycle of absorption, what directs this cycle is essential to the resulting form of the attention. And thus for Stiegler, ‘to form
5 The echoing itself and after images of any sort left behind by the stronger data of sensation, far
attention is to capture it’ (17). This places importance on what is capturing attention, as, from Husserl’s description, the cycle of retentions and protentions that weave the passage of time, are, for Stiegler, always forming attention.
This understanding of attention provides an important tool for a critique of the culture industry. Indeed, this seems to be key to Stiegler’s development of the theory. With this understanding, ‘…attention control via cultural and cognitive technologies… has become the heart of hyper industrialised societies’ (22). This is not entirely a new idea. It would seem that it provides a more mechanistic understanding of the sort of ‘deception’ that Adorno and Horkheimer had identified to be taking place for some time. However, by framing the issue through the phenomenon of attention Stiegler has allowed for useful developments to take place in the study of attention economics. Additionally his explanations of the attention formation mechanism as a cyclical motion of protention and retention lends itself well to Adorno and Horkheimer’s description of a self reinforcing culture industry;
The stronger the positions of the culture industry become, the more summarily it can deal with consumers’ needs, producing them, controlling them, disciplining them, and even withdrawing amusement itself… (1997, 144)6.
With this self-reinforcing industrial structure and Stiegler’s understanding of the directed absorption of protentions and retention in response to stimuli as attention. This would mean that every moment of existence adds to its
from having to ascribe necessarily to the essence of retention… (Husserl 1991: 33)
6 We might be able to consider, using Stiegler’s language, amusement as in someway an attentional form.
(de)formation, the situation seems inescapable as this (de)formation of attention (de)forms the next (de)formation. The process for Stiegler, in discussion with Gilbert Simondon, is, at least partially, constitutive of the ‘…process of individuation that is both psychic and collective – transindividuaton…’ (Stiegler, 2010b, 17)7. In a milieu, largely constituted by the attention capturing forms of the culture industry, the process of individuation is subsumed to the ideology that is productive of the industry and that sustains and ‘…reflects economic coercion’ (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1997, 167).
With such analysis of our situation we are left with an impression of a population entirely susceptible to attention direction by the culture industries. This understanding often seems to consider attention as it relates to the ‘spectacle’ (Crary 2000) and its stupefying effects. Populations of consumers are spoken of in ways that evoke Wallace’s fish ensnared on lines being dragged in one direction and the next by a power so beyond their comprehension they never had the possibility of resistance. Here the only relief would be in the acceptance of this fate. Stiegler puts forward the dire consequences of such capture as the contemporary status quo;
…adult infantlisation, systematically pursued by today’s cultural industries and resulting in the premature maturation of children and adolescents, whose psychic apparatus has purely and simply been destroyed by the psychotechnical systems of those same cultural industries – the infantalisation is being manifested in an unprecedented regression (2010b, 23).
7 This shall be discussed elsewhere.
Stiegler goes so far as to claim that it is the deformation of attention and adult infantalisation that results in a process of prolatarianisation8. In such a situation where even the ‘…most intimate reactions of human beings have been so thoroughly reified…’ (Arorno & Horkheimer, 1997, 167) and the psychic apparatus for escape have been destroyed, it would be near impossible for a fish to realise that ‘this is water’.
Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945), which pre-dates Stiegler’s Technics and Time (1998) original French publication by more than fifty years, offers a leaner and less, ensconced in consciousness, understanding of attention. His understanding allows for cracks to appear in the relationship between temporal experience, attention, consciousness and the ideology enforcing content of the culture industry and its cognitive technologies.
In Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of attention, it is distinct from, while not entirely separated from, judgment. Where as in Stiegler’s work attention is directed by the psychic assessment of phenomena for Merleau-Ponty attention is directed by perception. Perception precedes attention; a form of attention does not precede perception. Objects exist in the world as unperceived and perceived, and something allows them to change between these states. Thus, for Merleau- Ponty, attention is a searchlight that ‘…shows up objects pre-existing in the darkness…’ (Merleau-Ponty 1962, 26 ). Furthermore, far from being formed,
8 John Hutnyk observes however that Marx has already termed this phenomenon and perhaps more precisely as ‘cretinisation’ (Hutnyk, 2013: 131)
attention is ‘…a general and unconditioned power in the sense that at any moment it can be applied indifferently to any content of consciousness…’ (Merleau-Ponty 1962, 26). From this perspective we can consider attention as little more than a way into (or access to) the consciousness of dasein and from the consciousness of dasein to the world.
To continue with Merleau-Ponty’s metaphor of the torch there seems to be a useful conceptualisation of the ‘forms of life’ definitions of attention, inattention and distraction as outlined in the introduction. The torch that illuminates objects in the world in order for them to be engaged with by a subject, is similar to an unveiling for Heidegger (1982, 217). As each unveiling conceals something else so too, to direct a torch at an object casts others into darkness. In this conception there is no need to think that there is a moment without attention.
Humans when understood as dasein, are, by virtue of perception, always attending to something and this necessitates inattention elsewhere. To daydream is to be attending to the imagination whilst for example not attending to a pot about to boil over on a stove. If the intention was not to let the pot boil over then the subject, in this example, could be described as distracted by his own thoughts. Distraction is an assessment of the appropriateness of the direction of attention based on cultural and social norms. To say to someone for example, ‘you were not paying attention. You were distracted’, is therefore oxymoronic. Where as ‘you were not paying attention to me. You were distracted’ could be correct, contingent on certain factors. Attention is always attention to something and so too is inattention to something else. Of course, for
clarity, at this point we are only talking of perception and attention on one level, one torch. Perception is far more complex than this, thus there are always multiple torches illuminating at once, but all with limited, but sometimes overlapping, foci. The complexities of what this means for the experience of phenomena shall be discussed later in a discussion on attention economics. It is distinct from the illumination provided to perception by attention that judgment operates. In order to make an assessment of something in the world prior to ones judgment; perception and attention must take place. As Merleau-Ponty writes;
…to perceive in the full sense of the word (as the antithesis of imagining) is not to judge, it is to apprehend an immanent sense in the sensible before judgment begins (1962, 35).
From this position ‘…judgment is merely the optional expression’ (35), which is not necessarily a part of the attentional phenomenon. Here is a point at which a clear distinction can be explored between Merleau-Ponty’s and Stiegler’s understandings of attention. While for Merleau-Ponty attention is expressly not judgment, for Stiegler’s protention/retention cycle, attention implicitly includes judgment. It is after an assessment or judgment of a retention that a protention is formed, thus forming and directing attention. However, by keeping attention distinct from judgment Merleau-Ponty defuses some of the power that the cognitive and cultural technologies have over their consumers.
In Stiegler’s conception of judgment imbued attention that is deformed by the culture industry there is little that can be done to escape from the consciousness enforcing content therein. In paying attention to such content the consumer is
potentially made to desire it more to the exclusion of that which may be more conducive to individuation. However with Merleau-Ponty attention cannot be deformed, as it is simply a conduit between consciousness and the world, not consciousness itself. Where the capacity for judgment might be somewhat compromised by the aforementioned content, the capacity to attend to that which could engender a more positive (trans)individuation is not. It has not been deformed to incapacity. This allows us to draw the conclusion that water can always be attended to even if it is difficult to overcome distractions; these distractions are not debilitating or all encompassing. It is a matter of wilfulness.
Attention To Music
The term music, like the term art, is notoriously difficult to define, in that the common understanding of music has become more egalitarian. Music is of course art. For the purposes of this research, the broadest of useful definitions shall be used to define music. This definition, provided by John Cage, is the ‘organisation of sound’ (in Cox and Warner 2008, 26). The definition is of particular use to this research, as it is established antagonistically against the conservative definition that limits music to a rarefied elitist phenomenon of the ‘eighteenth- and nineteenth-century instruments’ (26). With Cage such impediments can be easily surpassed, in arguing that however we may choose to organise sound and the outcome can be considered to be music. It can even be organised in such a way as to become popular. Popular music, of course is a subset of whatever definition of music is put forward. Its own definition is as disputed with a myriad of options to choose from, including the overly broad to the esoteric and rarefied. The topic of this definition will be the central thread of discussion in a later chapter in order to properly engage with the characteristics and context of such music. For now, by using the definition provided by Cage we can begin to consider what it is to experience, perceive and attend to organised sound.
However, it is not enough to consider this experience as one available to disembodied ears. It is important to consider that the being that attends is always constituted of and limited by a body. As a character remarks to his child in Infinite Jest, ‘Son, you’re a body, […] those thoughts in your mind are just the sound of your head revving, and head is still just body…’ (Wallace, 2007, 159). To ignore this is to ignore so much of the experience of music and all aspects of
existence that it would very difficult to understand how music interacts with human attention. As has been alluded to in the discussion of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of attention, it is only possible to speak of attending to sensible phenomena in terms of bodied experience. This may seem to be a limitation, and indeed being in a particular physical form certainly necessitates certain limitations. However, when we are forced to consider the alternatives to such an experience we find none exist. Being as a body is all any reader of this text can know. As Merleau-Ponty argues;
Bodily experience forces us to acknowledge an imposition of meaning which is not the work of a universal constituting consciousness, a meaning which clings to certain contents. My body is that meaningful core which behaves like a general function, and which nevertheless exists, and is susceptible to disease. In it we learn to know that union of essence and existence, which we shall find again in perception generally…(1962, 147).
Embodied experience is, with all its limitations and susceptibilities, the way in which dasein experiences the world. Music exists in the world; as such it is not viable to ignore that in experiencing music a ‘bodied being’ is acted upon and interacting with the pressure of moving air before anything else. Steve Goodman attempts to establish an ontology of vibrational force (in Sterne 2012, 70). As Goodman observes;
An ontology of vibrational force delves below a philosophy of sound and the physics of acoustics towards the basic process of entities affecting other entities. Sound is merely a thin slice[…] While an ontology of vibrational force exceeds a philosophy of sound, it can assume the temporary guise of a sonic philosophy, a sonic intervention into though, deploying concepts that resonate strongest with sound/ noise/ music culture… (2012, 70)
Sound, for Goodman, is only a small part of the experiences enabled by the vibrational force. Likewise, the non-audible range of the vibrational force is also part of the sonic experience. Thus in any discussion of attending to sound it is important to consider this notion of the non-audible and its physical relationship to a subject. The consequences of this will be evaluated later, however it is worth addressing an examination of the rarefied experience of hearing. Hearing, in the first instance, can be considered a derivation of touch with specialist receptor auditory nerves. The moving air that is characteristic of the vibrational force at audible frequencies (a maximum range 20Hz to 20Khz which diminishes with use and age) makes contact with the ear-drum (tympanic membrane), initiating a process by which the sense data is converted to information that the subject can interpret. However this instance of interpretation is where the association with touch ends. The sort of information sent from the nervous system is quite different to that of touch and the experience of the stimuli also quite different. What is import to consider with the similarities to touch is that hearing is a way of experiencing a physical change in the world over time rather than the entirely abstract something that music can appear to be when considered in some discussions. This physical phenomenon is always involved in hearing music.
How the temporal qualities of organised sound are perceived is essential to the consideration of attending to music. At this point it seems useful to return to Husserl who uses the metaphor of the melody to explain his understanding of the experience of temporality. It is from this metaphor that the protentions and retentions, which underlie Stiegler’s conception of attention, are unpacked. To exemplify how this relates to conscious perception Husserl writes;
When a melody sounds for example, the individual tone does not utterly disappear with the cessation of the stimulus or the neural movement it excites. When the new tone is sounding, the preceding tone has not disappeared without leaving a trace. If it had, we would be quite incapable of noticing the relations among the successive tones[…] only because every tone-sensation, after the stimulus that produced it has disappeared, awakens from out of itself a representation that is similar [to] and furnished with a temporal determination, and only because this temporal determination continuously changes, can a melody come to be represented in which the individual tones have their definite places and their definite tempos. (Husserl and Brough 1991, 12)
Here Husserl explains the complexity of the experience of temporal phenomena. While it is clear that Husserl’s understanding of music is somewhat conservative: traditional instruments, forms and melodies, the principle he expresses is useful in a discussion of attending to organised sounds. Crucially it must be acknowledged that what Husserl is describing here is not attending to music but listening to music, as a metaphor for temporal perception. From the discussion above we are lead to the conclusion that listening happens after attention. First, through the sense with which consciousness comes into contact with the world, i.e. music is perceived or heard. After this the music can be attended to allowing the subject to finally listen to the music, which requires the sort of temporal/consciousness experiences (?) Husserl describes above. Listening is, it would seem from this and the associated debate on the subject, a particularly rarefied phenomenon describing the engagement of human subjects with auditory experience. Its character seems to have something to do with, communication, anticipation, surprise and association.
The way in which the term ‘listening’ is used in common parlance is taken to mean an act of consciously engaging with some form of sonic communication, influencing in some way the behaviour or experience of the subject. The distinction expressed in the sentence ‘you may have heard me but you weren’t listening’, illustrates the social expectation of listening as a process of conscious engagement. This is evidenced by some of the metaphoric uses of the term ‘listening’ found in Les Back’s ‘The Art of Listening’ (Back 2007). In his book Back prizes the ‘listener’s art’ (26) as essential to a sociology that is capable of ‘…refiguring the relationship between the past and the present between the near and the far’ (23). In Back’s conception, listening is intimately bound up with attention, as a way in which meaningful verbal communication can be received and understood. Back’s conception of listening is linked to it as a part of the sonic experience and thus relies a great deal on what is particular to that sensory perception in the sort of understanding it engenders. For Back, listening is both a metaphor of considered communication and a lived practice. However the metaphor of listening can be taken out of the realm of even the sonic as is done by Kate Crawford (in Stern, 2012, 79). Crawford argues that listening can be used as a metaphor with which to understand the sort of communication involved in micro-blogging. Similarly to Back’s conception, Crawfords conception of listening is ensconced with attention, she argues;
My aim here is to engage with a set of emerging modes of paying attention online, and to propose that they be considered listening. As a metaphor, listening is useful; it captures some of the characteristics of the on going processes of receptivity that mark much online engagement (Crawford in Sterne, 2012, 79).
Crawford’s use of listening is thus entirely metaphoric as it seems to essentialize the experience as a ‘process of receptivity’ whilst neglecting many of the important elements of what it is to experience aural communication. These include the sonorous qualities of the phenomenon and the ephemeral nature of the communication. In order to advance the significance of the present discussion a more complete and nuanced appreciation of the experience of listening needs to be developed.
To move the discussion of listening back from its communicative potential to music in the sense of organised sound as something more experiential, much can be gleaned from approaches to listening adopted in experimental music. With the invention of Musique Concrete, Pierre Schaeffer, inspired by the work of Husserl, hoped to engender a form of listening that was non-associative and focused entirely on the sonorous qualities of the sounds from which his music was composed. An example of this could be to hear the recording of the sound of a train as a sound and not a sound of a train or even as a representation of a train. This new form of listening embraced sound from an entirely phenomenological perspective, which Schaeffer considers to be a form of ‘…more attentive and more refined listenings’ (2008: 78). Here again we see it claimed that attention is separate from a precondition of listening. Building on from this and informed by his own critique, the soundscape composer Francisco López calls for ‘…a profound listening.’ He asserts that;
This form of listening doesn’t negate what is outside the sounds but explores and affirms all that is inside them (López, 2008, 82-83).
López recognises the complexities in the experience of listening as more than an exclusively auditory experience (outside) but also the importance of the auditory. From this position there is scope to develop an understanding of listening as a bridge between attention and consciousness and through the perception of hearing. This understanding must avoid, as much as possible, the reductions that can come about within the discipline that control the discussions of listening.
In order to develop this understanding of listening it is worth returning to Goodman’s Ontology of Vibrational Force discussed above, which argues that other perceptions take place when a bodied subject comes into contact with the vibrational force. Goodman declares that the ontology of vibrational force is concerned with ‘…the texturhythms of matter, the patterned physicality or a musical beat or pulse, sometimes imperceptible, sometimes, as cymatics shows, in some sensitive media…visible’ (2012, 72). These are the qualities that characterise the vibrational force and sonic experience as a subset of it. The particularities of this experience will be explored, according to Goodman, at the intersection of the ‘…philosophy, physics and the aesthetics of digital sound’ as, it seems apparent that the way in which we interact with the vibrational force is not respectful of disciplinary boundaries. Attending to music in particular is something that cannot simply be explained from the particularities or even prejudices of one disciplinary framework.
Music of course does not exist in a vacuum, physical or meta-physical. There is a social, cultural, economic psychic and technical context within which all and any
music exists. Music is also part of the creation of these contexts; it is not justified in existing by its relationship to them or through them. For Goodman ‘…sound comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosen up its organised or petrified body’ (2012: 70). To think sound is already more than its production or intended audience, is in the experience of bodied resonation. Goodman then points to Kodow Eshun who explains how rich the sound experience of music is;
Far from needing theory’s help, music today is already more than at any point in this century, pregnant with thought probes waiting to be activated, switched on, misused (Eshun, 1998, 3).
Attending to music, and in the case of this discussion, popular music, it is always more than that for which traditional exponents of the culture industry critique would allow. That is not to say such analysis lacks validity but more that it is always a partial reading. To chastise those in attendance at a rave on the weekend as distracted and stupefied, looking for catharsis from the misery of social reality is overly simplistic. In his essay ‘On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’ Adorno argues that;
If the standardised products, hopelessly like one another except for conspicuous bits such as hit lines, do not permit concentrated listening without becoming unbearable to listeners the latter are in any case no longer capable of concentrated listening. They cannot stand the strain of concentrated listening and surrender themselves resignedly to what befalls them, with which they can come to terms only if they do not listen to closely (Adorno, 1991, 49).
Despite the realisation that there may be validity in this assessment, the contention made here is that to subscribe entirely to the way of thinking of music
in this analysis is somewhat reactionary and, to use the tools provided by Eshun, limiting the experience of listening to music to an intellectual pursuit. What needs to be recognised is that the cathartic elements importantly contribute to and perhaps are the essence of the experience of being there. The psychic and social interaction between, in the remit of this research, humans and organised sound is multifaceted and complex. To say any particular desire with regards to this experience is especially wrong would be problematic and as such limitations seem patriarchal and counter productive. The influence of the culture industry’s mode of production on music may not be only on what is produced, or at least not what is produced in isolation, but rather how listeners, become explicitly or implicitly aware of the production process of such music, engage with it and how it relates to their experience of social reality. In the same essay Adorno supports such an assessment arguing that;
They are not bad in themselves but in their diversionary function. In the service of success they renounce the insubordinate character, which was theirs. They conspire to come to terms with everything which the isolated moment can offer to an isolated individual who long ago ceased to be one. In isolation, the charms become dulled and furnish models of the familiar (Adorno, 1991, 33).
The way in which the listener experiences this material is such that it allows no possibility for imagining a social reality where catharsis is not a daily necessity. In the renouncement of the ‘insubordinate character’ in order to pursue a capitalist understanding of success, such music can only offer relief in immediate physical sensation. Rather than offering the listener a way in which to imagine a different reality the music has been produced in such a way as to be complicit with the accepted aspirations for the maintenance of status quo. In attending to
this music the experience of the catharsis it provides is not enjoyed but required, thus the apparatus that produces the catharsis is supported and the ability to challenge the social reality, Adorono would argue, is quashed. With the phrase ‘the isolated moment’ one could suggest that Adorno is commenting on how such a relation to attending to, in this case industrially produced music, stifles the dialectic understanding of the progression of history. Limiting the individual’s experience of existence to momentary insignificant transience rather than part of a greater human historical narrative. Could this be the loss of ‘some infinite thing’ to which Wallace referred. This could be what is at stake in the industrial direction of attention in part facilitated by the popular music industry. The direction of attention in these ways help to maintain an economic system that requires a specific type of consciousness.
Attention Economics and Attention in the Economy.
In Capitalist Realism (2009) Mark Fisher describes a situation where society appears to be engulfed in the ideology of Capitalism as reality. Obviously for Fisher this extends to the classroom of public education institutions. Fisher describes an anecdote from his own experience as a teacher in which one student would, always either be wearing headphones without music playing or have the music playing while the headphones dangle from his neck. In either instance, the student reports that he cannot hear the music. It is, as Fisher interprets, for ease of access to the ‘sensation-stimulus matrix’ (24) to provide relief of the boredom produced in the directed attention of education. This notion seems to have a great deal in common with the cognitive technologies of the culture industry described by Stiegler above and Adorno’s lament of the nature of the relationship between what is considered work versus free time;
And here we come across a behavioural norm of Bourgeois character. On the one hand one should pay attention at work and not be distracted or lark about; wage labour is predicated on this assumption and its laws have been internalised. On the other hand free time must not resemble work in any way whatsoever, in order, presumably, that one can work all the more effectively afterwards (Adorno 1991, 189-190).
From the description of the student in Fisher’s writing one hesitates to describe him as a member of the Bourgeoisie, however it could be argued that this ‘behavioural norm’ seems to have spread throughout society. Attention, still seen as an attribute, has through the internalised conception of wage labour become the preserve of labour. Thus, the notion of betterment through the effort of directing attention to anything other than amusement is treated with suspicion and trepidation. Rather it is better or safer to direct unwaged attention to the
pursuit of amusement. Additionally as Adorno and Horkheimer note, ‘…the tendency is immanent in the principle of amusement itself… To be pleased means to say Yes’ (1997: 144).
While I have been critical above of some of Stiegler’s ideas pertaining to attentional deformation leading to prolatarianisation, his central thesis, like Adorno’s appears to have value to the discussion of attention and attention economics. There are forces at play that wish to direct attention for profit and in so doing help to maintain a capitalist social reality. Be that as it may, when considered with the analysis of Adorno at the end of the previous section, it does not make the content or technologies produced in the social reality nor the student’s impulse to become distracted, innately pro-capitalism or ‘evil’. Such a conclusion would be overly simplistic. However, the impulse, the content and the technologies all play a role in the valorisation of capital and the maintenance of the capitalist social reality. With this in mind the discussion now progresses to consider how attention functions as an economic system and plays a significant role in the economy of capital and the reproduction of life.
Attention is a particular problem of an era in which cultural artefacts are produced in an industrial manner, Jonathan Crary, in his work that explores attention economics in relation to the creation of the spectacle, argues;
I contend, however, that attention becomes a specifically modern problem only because of the historical obliteration of the possibility of thinking the idea of presences in perception; attention will be both a simulation of presence and a makeshift, pragmatic substitute in the fact of its impossibility (Crary 2000, 4).
That the flow and direction of attention in part controlled by powerful industrial interests is a problem specifically of modernity as it has been exacerbated by technological advancements. These technological advancements have as such allowed for the creation and development of new markets seemingly out of immateriality and ambiguous forms of unexpected labour.
On the first level it seems that it is not so much the attention that is productive of value for the content produced by the culture industry but access to the content. This operates in a similar way to the common experience of most other commodity exchange. A particular process is undertaken within an industrial system to produce a commodity. This commodity has usually been designed with a specific audience in mind for its consumption. This audience must be of a size and susceptibility to access the content so that the capital investment in this cultural content proves to be profitable. In order for the audience to access content they have to pay a price that has been determined by the tolerances of the market for each particular content form. It is in the attempt to determine a particular and sizable audience’s susceptibility that the industry has developed the practices of audience research and marketing. Here attention comes to realise its value. The content produced as an industrial commodity must be of such a nature as to draw the attention of embodied physical consumers. The mechanism by which these physically bodied consumer’s attention is drawn could be considered in the light of what Adorno and Horkheimer referred to above, in reference to film, as the relentless rush of facts, which captures and ensnares attention. As I have argued above attention can be thought of as access to consciousness. The longer the consumer’s attention is held the greater the
access the culture industry, through the material it has produces, has to that attention and potentially to form it to its own ends. It would be the contention of Stiegler that this is one of the ways in which proletarianisation takes place as the content effects consciousness because such material, aligning with Adorno and Horkheimer again, means ‘no scope is left for the imagination’ thus stunting the imagination, limiting it to accept the social reality with which it is presented. This leads to catharsis being sought from the ‘sensation-stimulation matrix’. This process is key to the function of attentions, itself both as an economy and in the economy. This is something that Jonathan Beller refers to as ‘Attentional Biopower’, (2006, 4) at work. Through mechanisms that manipulate sensory perception biologically, constituents of human consumer attention are used to valorise the capital expended by the culture industry to produce content commodities. This is traditionally monetised at the point of access to the content, however this scenario is changing as will be discussed in later chapters. Additionally, the attention of the consumer is essentially purchased by the culture industry in exchange for the catharsis it provides to consciousness captured by its ability to attend. To receive and attain catharsis one must pay with attention by paying attention. In order to continue to receive the desired catharsis the consumers must act in such a way as to prop up a system that both provides catharsis material and the need for it. It is here that the most potent form of valorisation through attention comes about through the formation of consciousness.
As has been argued throughout this section that the sort of commodity produced by the culture industry to capture attention is of a specific nature to meet a
specific need. This is a need that, while not directly physical i.e. calories or rest, is, in accordance with Karl Marx, a need of ‘…the imagination’ (Marx 1990, 126). That is not saying an imagined need but rather the need to exercise the facility of imagination. Exactly the facility that Adorno and Horkheimer claim is sacrificed in attending to culture industry content. It is in this stultification, temporary or permanent, of an imagination of a different social reality, that attention economic function is realised. As Beller argues;
Today, consumption is productive… because it is labour power itself that appropriates and valorises commodities to particular ends, which are themselves productive of images. In giving his or her attention to an object, the spectator modifies both him or herself and it, thereby producing and reproducing the ever-developing infrastructure of the status quo (2006, 117).
Beller is specifically discussing cinema, but the principle can be transferred across forms of cultural content that draw attention. It is not simply that this content is a commodity for consumption through attention, but that in attending to what industrial interests intend, consumers are productive of ‘images’ within their own psyches. These images are of, what in reality is, what are appropriate aspirations and social norms and must be maintained, as it seems there is no alternative to this status quo. This is the value of attention to valorisation; through proper, by the standards of the culture industry, direction attention supplements the valorisation of all capital through the maintenance of capitalist social reality.
Additionally, it is not simply what is explicitly expressed in the content that performs this function. Crass propaganda, such as product placement in a music
video, can always be met by cynicism and disengagement. Likewise explicit messages that seem to, in some way to challenge what could be considered accepted problems of the status quo actually serve to reinforce it, again through the manipulation of attention. Indeed one need look not further for a ‘spectacular’ example, than the performance of ‘Price Tag’ by Jessie J at the 2012 Olympic closing ceremony where from the back of Rolls Royce, with a chorus that exclaims that ‘its not about the money’ whilst selling the song. While at least on one level the intended and explicit message of the song may be about the rejection of individualistic greed characteristic of the ‘conservative revolution’ of the last thirty years, this is only a surface interpretation. Effectively, attention is drawn to those very attributes that the lyrics seem to be rejecting as necessary to the formation of reality and thus being read as being broadly acceptable rather than as positions of which to be critical. Yet again the distraction requirement and provision relationship sustains itself. Through this ability of this social reality to reinforce itself by providing escapism though it apparent antithesis, the veracity of any alternative claim that ‘this is water’ is called into question as is the claim that there is water at all. This, in Wallace’s words, amounts to ‘…an imprisonment so complete that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up’ (1999, 32). Within this system we are being told what water is all the time, by those with an interest in a particular definition becoming prevalent thus closing down other ways of coming to such realisations. However, if one can escape attempts to capture one’s attention, and thereby maintain some autonomy over its direction, then the possibility for an existing milieu remains, or the awareness of water may become apparent and be addressed. How it might prove possible to propagate such autonomy is the theme for discussion in later chapters where
ideas concerning the potential liberating power of new media technology will be explored and critiqued.
Within this chapter the phenomenon of ‘attending to’ and the ability to ‘pay attention’ has been explored from a number of different perspectives and the implications of these perspectives have been examined. With a phenomenological underpinning and a conception of how attention can be captured, directed, restrained and used as access to consciousness, the discussion has begun to address how attention can come to be used economically.
The power that attention, in and of itself has over the capacity for thought can be both, under and overstated. Adorno and Horkheimer may consider that the culture industry causes distraction, with a desire for attention to be reserved for fully committed conscious pursuits and that this is never the consideration of the culture industry. Conversely, Stiegler’s conceptualisation of attention, using Husserl’s phenomenological understanding of temporal perception, views the capacity for attention constantly being formed and deformed by that, which captures it. The content of the culture industry, such as it is, captures attention in in such a way that necessarily results in prolaterianised attention and prolatarianised consciousness. This conception makes escape, from the controls imposed by the limitations of consciousness created by the culture industry, difficult to imagine, despite Stiegler’s evocations of hope (REF).
The interpretation of attention offered by Merleau-Ponty, which conceptualises attention as a torch illuminating that which has been perceived and allowing some interaction with consciousness. However, whether or not through this
access consciousness is formed or deformed, as a result of contact or engagement with the content produced by the culture industry, is debatable. However it is the contention of this research, building from the work of the Frankfurt School, that such manipulation of consciousness is taking place and has some relation to content produced by the culture industry. The result of this seems to be reinforcement of the dominant ideology that underpins the social reality of late capitalism. This relationship is not only or always expressed explicitly but can also be found within the presuppositions that inform the experience of such content.
That having been said, attention still plays a vital role in this process, even if it is not in itself formative as it provides this access. Attention is, as suggested by Merleau-Ponty linked to but not the same as perception. Sensory perception occurs before attention can be paid to objects or events (which are relations between objects that change over time) in the world. Attention can also be paid to ones own consciousness but again this stimulation occurs before attention is paid to it. Thus, any discussion of the capture of attention by culture industry produced content is, in the first instance at a certain level of abstraction, a discussion of directing sensory perception through, what Fisher calls, the ‘sensation-stimulus matrix’. This has lead some such as Beller and Crary, to discuss attention economics in terms of the spectacle and the potential for stupefaction. Therein lies a conclusion that Stiegler has also drawn. However from a phenomenological perspective, somewhat informed by the ideas of Heidegger, this research finds importance in considering attention capture from the perspective of ‘everydayness’ (1962, 383). This is not to reject the validity of
the analysis of stupefaction and the spectacle in the construction of hegemony but rather to suggest that taken alone these are insufficient to explain the phenomenon. For a discussion of the role that popular music plays in this process, understanding it as banal, mundane and part of an everyday experience is vital. This is where as Foster Wallace puts it; the real difficulty of realising that ‘…this is water…’ can actually be found, in the everyday. Here, it is argued building on the assertions of Beller, that attention capture is able to valorise capital in a particularly effective way. The influence of having had your attention captured is present in all valorisation of capital.
At the beginning of the 21st century how, where, how much, of what variety and how readily music can be consumed has changed significantly. We are able to relate to music as a consumer product in everyday experience as never before and there are myriad consequences of this development. One of these concerns is that the way in which the technological developments enabled these changing relationships has made the industry that facilitated it untenable. Effectively the industry is forced to create content and methods that prove to be more damaging to consciousness in order to survive because it captures more attention. Linked to this and with the concern expressed in this chapter is that this change, or perhaps exacerbation, of the relationship of listener to music, transformed into consumer of culture industry content, diminish the ‘… spontaneous, essentially human element… in virtually all human relations’ that Hanns Eisler and Adorno argue ‘…music is supposed to bring out…’ (2008, 74). Through the manipulation of attention with popular music through new methods of access and consumption, it can be argued that the culture industry is not only
shaping an understanding of music but also moulding consumer ideas of what constitutes valid expression and the type of interrelations necessary for the reproduction of life. Eisler and Adorno comment on this manipulable quality of music;
This direct relationship to a collectively, intrinsic in the phenomenon itself, is probably connected with the sensations of spatial depth, inclusiveness, and absorption of individuality, which are common to all music. But this very ingredient of collectivity because of its essentially amorphous nature, leads itself to deliberate misuse for ideological purposes. (2008: 74)
There are a number of meanings that can be understood from this use of collectivity. Firstly there is the reference to the collective experience that is associated with some music and the catharsis it engenders. This is ripe for ideological misuse, as it can appear and be dangerous to be considered outside of a collective with associated norms. A second is that these norms themselves come from an understanding that such music is part of a structure of technical and social relations, all of which constituents play a part in providing the content for consumption and catharsis. Here the social reality of late capitalism is to some extent maintained through the capture of attention with content that reinforces this understanding of society and limits access through attention to other understandings and possibilities. This serves to establish a default position, which negates criticisms of the established systems and dismisses others as impossibilities. With an understanding of attention itself and the role it plays in these relations established, the discussion can now move to the look at the systems within which these relations operate.
The Terrifying Immensity of Everyone Involved.
Maybe the worst part of the cognitions involved the incredible volume of food I was going to consume over the rest of my life. Meal after meal, plus snacks. Day after day after day. Experiencing this food in toto. Just the thought of the meat alone. One megagram? Two megagram? I experienced, vividly, the image of a broad cool well-lit room piled floor to ceiling with nothing but the lightly breaded chicken fillets I was going to consume over the next sixty years. The number of fowl vivisected for a lifetime’s meat. The amount of hydrochloric acid and bilirubin and glucose and glycogen and gloconol produced and absorbed and produced in my body… (Wallace 2007, 897).
This chapter will discuss the psychological effects, through having access to popular music provided by technology, of coming into contact with the immense systemic complexity of technical and economic relations that have come to be necessary for constituting society and culture and the implicit ideological compliance and commitment this engenders. This can be thought of as the establishment of a ‘form of life’ that for those within this form would be overwhelming and difficult to challenge. In the above quote from Infinite Jest Hal Incandenza, an over pressured student, begins to have a breakdown, the course of which forces him to viscerally experience the scale of the practical necessities for the reproduction of his entire life. In this case the necessity is food. For Hal, these thoughts are both unpleasant and even paralyzing. Indeed, even if one were only to consider that food which was nutritionally necessary for a lifetime, the quantity would be staggering. Moreover to become aware of it all in an instant would be perhaps more than one could bear. Another development of this, to get a more accurate experience of the resources actually required, would be to imagine not only your own food but all that of everyone involved in
producing and transporting your food to you. This scale of nutrition would also be necessary for any commodity and for each facet of your existence. Those who provide access to recordings of popular music are of course no exception. Even at an abstracted level of nutritional necessity, (a minimum that for millions, due to global economic injustices, is not even met) in order to use an MP3 player, vast intricate, social and technical systems have been established and have to be maintained. An individual’s attempt to merely comprehend only even the necessary structures, for the reproduction of life would likely result in failure. Yet, despite this incomprehensibility, a situation exists where an individual can listen to an MP3. This format is of particular interest as it has been ‘designed for massive exchange, casual listening and massive accumulation’ (Sterne 2006, 836). With this in mind a system must therefore exist, which provides all that is necessary for phenomenon to occur. This could lead an observer to conclude that whatever system and governing principles enable such ease of access to music are wholly responsible for the experienced benefits. The dominant social system, which appears to exist simultaneously with the ability to listen to an MP3 is, consumer capitalism. This chapter will explore how immanent to the experience of popular music, through the contemporary technology, there is a debilitating affect on one’s ability to imagine other social realities as legitimate possibilities. This debilitation seems to originate from the fact that what was once spectacle has become remarkably easy access to catharsis in every-day life experience. While the vast array of technological, cultural and social systems necessary for the production of MP3s or MP3 players are not consciously experienced in conjunction with their use. The fact that the ability to construct such a device is beyond many of its users ability to comprehend, is evident.
What will be explored in this chapter is whatever systems or ways of viewing the world are capable of providing such a device could be regarded as a beneficent, neglecting the repressive elements of ideology. This chapter will seek to explore the power of this way of thinking and begin the process of providing ways with which to escape it.
To Build an IPhone to listen to Your Favourite Song.
The workings of many, even relatively mundane technical artefacts, can be beyond the comprehension of the majority of users. What it is that makes such devices mundane is not that, what it can do is unremarkable, but that it functions in the commonality of the every day. However this can only be the case if, in exchange for labour, this technology is provided to us. The sort of skills required to make these devices, even from the level of pre-existent components let alone from the level of the acquisition of materials, is of such a diverse and multi- disciplined nature that an individual cannot begin to approach it. Yet for many, these sophisticated devices have quickly adopted the role of an essential necessity in the organisation of their lives. This then, appears or is promulgated as the only possible way in which to organise every day life in this society. Additionally, the social interactions and cultural activities in which individuals can partake are both reinforced and facilitated by the technical systems that provide both the devices and this self-servingly tailored versioning of reality. However this has not always been the case. There was a time when one person could produce the most commonplace and technically sophisticated devices with which individuals structured the lives and their relation to society. Such as a mechanical watch. However this has purposely been changed, exemplified in Marx’s description of the workers need to manufacture a watch;
Formerly the individual creation of a craftsman from Nuremberg, the watch has been transformed into the social product of an immense number of specialised workers, such as mainspring makers, dial makers, spiral spring makers, jewelled makers, ruby lever makers, hand makers, case makers screw makers, gilders. Then there are numerous subdivisions, such as wheel makers (with a further division between brass and steel), pin makers,
movement makers, acheveurs de pignon (who fix wheels on axels and polish the facets), pivot makers, planteurs de finissage (who put the wheels and springs in the works), finisseurs de barillet (who cut teeth in the wheel, makes the wholes the right size, ect.), escapement makers, cylinder makers for cylinder escapements, escapement wheel makers, balance-wheel maker, makers of the raquette (the apparatus for regulating the watch), planteurs d’échappement (escapment makers proper); then repasseur de barllet (who finish the box for the spring), steel polisher, wheel polishers, scew polishers, figure painters, dail enamellers (who melt enamel on the copper), fabricants de pendants (who make the ring by which the case is hung), finisseurs de charnière (who put brass hinges on the covers), graveurs, ciseleurs, polisseurs de boîte, ect., ect., and last of all the repasseurs, who fit together the whole watch and hand it over in a going state (Marx 1990, 461-462).
This is Marx’s description of the excessive number of bespoke roles required to manufacture a watch with the required division of labour characteristic capitalist means of production in the nineteenth century. It is important to quote the complete process, as Marx describes it, to emphasise the complex and intricate labour intensity required to make a, relatively, everyday commodity, for the structuring of life in the nineteenth century. While Marx uses this example to begin an analysis of the productive efficiency and a critique of the potential alienation and cretinisation that comes about from the division of labour, it can also be read as an entry into a discussion of the technical systems within which the user of such a device exist. However to enter that discussion, first it is necessary to examine the complexity of how such a device is constructed and the impact this has on the users relation to it, which the example of the watch also provides.
Much has already been written on the effect of the discretisation of time, facilitated by devices (commodities) such as the watch (Stiegler et al. 2009, 30). Undoubtedly there is some validity to this claim to this claim; discrete labels on the experience of a day have become an important tool for power in the establishment and organisation of behavioural norms. The development of other devices has to various degrees continued this discretisation and control. Indeed the similar claims could be said of a smart phone. Of course there are numerous economic restrictions on access to such technology, but for a number of reasons these restrictions to access are becoming less onerous. An investigation of the motivations for this, magnanimous or otherwise, would be important research to conduct in itself. However for now it is enough to suggest that the constantly time aware, contactable, and entertainment accessible experience of the smart phone is becoming more common within western ‘post-industrial’ societies. As a result of this increasing commonality norms are being established that go some way to structure and reinforce the social norms that maintain consumer capitalist social structures. However it would also seem that even before we relate to the phone through the particularities of the device there is the establishment and reinforcement of such norms, immanent to the process of providing the phone to the consumer.
In the example of the watch, Marx is able to give an account and explanation of each particular component, the craft involved in its construction and the labourer responsible for its manufacture. Even if one were to talk at the level of pre-constructed components, this would be a far more difficult task with reference to a smart phone. In addition, in order to actually be able to construct
the device the assembly of each component must be considered which necessitates the assembly of sub-components, which in turn is made from processed materials. Furthermore one would also have to get into a discussion of the individual workers who developed every stage and facet of the software from the incidental lighting effect changes to the actual computation before one could consider the phone to be in a ‘going state’. Of course it can be argued in the case of software that as the work of particular individuals is copied exactly on to every device this is in fact a return to a sort of ‘neo-artisanship’ with the programmer. However it can as easily be argued that this is not the case, as such a situation actually becomes a new avenue for exploitation. The free labour of application designers has always been a vital marketing tool for the smart phone industry. What this means is, that there is unlikely to be more than a handful of people in the world with the particular skills to individually produce a smart phone from the materials alone even it they were to be provided with all the necessary parts and equipment. Yet, many of us have smart phones, we enjoy the smart phone… the system must be working.
This system however is rife with corruption and exploitation that has been substantially documented. This corruption is not only in the bourgeois concerns of exploitative phone rates but also in the entirety of the construction of such devices. In the documentary Blood in the Mobile (2010) Frank Poulsen examines the innate corruption and violence that has always been a part of the mobile phone industry’s production process. The opening of the film states the horrific statistic that in the past fifteen years of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo five million people have been killed. The United Nations has reported that
the proliferation of the conflict is linked to the mineral trade (00:43). These minerals are vital for the manufacture of mobile phones and most consumer electronics. There are of course considerable logistical difficulties for companies in tracing the legitimacy and morality of the sources of these minerals to insure the ethical nature of their products. However these difficulties are most often used for the purpose of plausible deniability motivated by the impulse to keep production costs down and consumer confidence up. That being said, such subterfuge is often unnecessary as the complex, unclear narrative of economics and power relations that results in the mobile industry and western consumers financing of the Congolese civil war are an immediate point of disengagement for some with this issue. However there are more simple examples of the horror necessary for the manufacture of such devices; the unsafe nature of the mines in which children are forced through poverty and violence, to work. As Poulsen starkly describes the situation at a mine in Bisie in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ‘…in this place people die, so we can get mobile phones’ (41:27), thus putting a banal technological solution to everyday problems, inconveniences and desires into a context complicit with murder. The connection is warranted regardless of the scepticism or eye-rolling such challenges to the normalcy of everyday western ‘middle-class’ life can raise. Poulsen successfully avoids presenting himself with a holier-than-thou tone, which can infect such investigation and allows for an audience to disconnect from the subject mater, by placing himself as culpable for these atrocities. The recognition of personal responsibility avoids the sort of the lack of self-interrogation typical of such campaigning works. ‘Kony 2012’ serves as an example of such a campaign and also adds a far more slippery anxiety that can perhaps also found in Blood in the
Mobile. This anxiety is produced by the seeming complexity of the problem, distance from the solution and its constructed alienation from everyday ‘middle- class’ western life. This produces a reaction that is simultaneously able to facilitate the liberal impulse for performing seemingly sympathetic understanding whilst effectively disengaging. Adam Curtis refers to this particular form of cognitive dissonance as an ‘Oh-Dearism’ (2010, 00:43). Adding to this is the parade of those in the industry who repeatedly declare their sympathy and powerlessness. In Poulsen’s documentary these are relatively anonymous Nokia executives but the same sort of statements come the very top of the most generally respected in the consumer technology industry. In response to the concern of a consumer about the use of conflict minerals in the iPhone 4 in 2010 Steve Jobs wrote;
Yes. We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict free materials. But honestly there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it’s a very difficult problem (Jobs in Chen, 2010).
Even, it seems, the immense power of Apple, a company influential enough to have reshaped media, particularly music, consumption and redefined what can pass for ownership of this material, is unable to keep track of the process by which its produces is hardware. If this is true, which seems somewhat unlikely, then how can a consumer imagine having sufficient influence in changing this reality. However, this claim seems to be dubious. With the power and resources that Apple has at its disposal, it is difficult to believe that they are incapable of ensuring that its products are free of conflict minerals and free of minerals mined in unnecessarily unsafe conditions. However taking such action would
negatively impact the company’s profits, investors could loose confidence and the value of the company could fall. Jobs’ comments must be read with this as an implicit caveat, which may disappoint some readers but they too may also be willing to accept this state of affairs. It seems that despite the advances in technology the newfound popularity of corporations to claim ‘social responsibility’ for the purposes of marketing, violence and exploitation are still at the heart of the capitalist system. This is of course, to many, an unremarkable statement. What is remarkable however is the way in which such violence and culpability is exposed the more agreeable the implicit caveat seems to his consumers. It is hard to, everyday, look at a device that allows you to send ‘loving text messages’ (Poulsen, 2010, 02:23), keep up with your work and listen to your favourite songs, and realise your complicity with the rape and murder of millions. It is much easier to absorb the excuses of those with whom we are complicit and who have more power and thus we begin to accept and internalise their caveats.
The response to accept such caveats are complex and difficult to precisely determine. That being said, the iPhone alone is perhaps evidence to suggest that such acceptances are, for many, a necessary psychic device for functioning within the present arrangement of society. If this is the case then such a device is a response to the founding principles of the society. As what has been described here is a capitalist society this would require it to have roots in the originary actions that establish what Marx referred9 to as ‘primitive accumulation’. This can be understood as the way in which the capitalist mode of production, which,
in Marx’s analysis, requires violence and exploitation. Marx elucidates this by suggesting that primitive accumulation appears to have ‘the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology’ (1990, 873). In this same vain,
dramatic and unexpected consequences stem from this foundation. observed;
So-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as ‘primitive’ because it forms the pre-history of capital, and of the mode of production corresponding to capital (Marx 1990, 874-875).
Thus it can be concluded that from this initial manoeuvre, of divorcing the producer from the means of production, stems the alienation, cretinisation and fetishism that are characteristic of the capitalist mode of production. With this in mind we can begin to unravel the appeal of accepting Jobs’ implicit caveat. Not only have most of us bought into these violent systems for the reproduction of everyday but also it seems that we have gone so far as to fetishise those, which require the most explicit violence. Additionally, as has been explored above, we are becoming incapable of comprehending how we are able to create and acquire these seemingly vital commodities, giving them an even greater mystique. This impression of technological sophistication and vitality is yet another fetish in itself.
It is the contention of this research that the production of popular music and the way in which we consume it can be accessed from the sonic phenomenon and social experience that is music itself. Conservative critics have often rushed to
9 In the English translation by Ben Fowkes.
cite the source of social evils in the explicit content of the music itself, without reference to the systems in which it operates. Such positions (for example those held by the ‘parental advisory’ labelling scheme’s adherents) are naïve and produce simplistic incomplete arguments. If the ideological implications and affectations of popular music were only a matter of the literal subject mater of songs or the accompanying iconography of associated media content such issues could be resolved easily, as the content should be avoided. However, as we have established so far, that the music communicates a single meaning literally, but nor is it the case that music is without meaning except for what the listener brings to it. This is not to suggest that a composer is the sole arbiter of a works meaning but rather as the improviser Edwin Prévost argues;
No sound is innocent. Every utterance, rustle and nuance is pregnant with meaning. […] To let a sound escape unnoticed before coming to know what it represents or can do is carelessness. (1995, 33)
Prévost here is, speaking directly in reference to the practice of free improvisation, where the ethics of a group are expressed and explored through sound, but the principle can be expanded. Every instance of sound generated, especially in popular music, can be traced to an action (or inaction) from human agency. All of the decisions, that the composition of a particular piece of music are contingent upon, are made by individuals situated in social structures, ideological structures and technical systems. This specific reading of a particular situation is then brought to each audible utterance of the music. This concept has been expanded by a number of writers and particularly Jacques Atalli;
…music is not innocent: unquantifiable and unproductive, a pure sign that is now for sale, it provides a rough sketch of the society under construction, a society in which the
informal is mass produced and consumed, in which difference is artificially recreated in the multiplication of semi-identical objects. (Attali 1985, 5)
Attalli’s argument is that the means of production are immanent to the music that has been produced. While this is interesting in itself, it is only of particular significance if this ‘pure sign’ is also accessible through the experience of music that is had by an audience as members of a society. Music is not a digital audio- file. Rather music seems to exist as a relationship between the audible utterances of organised sound and those who are willing and able to listen to it, in the terms described in the previous chapter. But the digital audio-file and access to it are a part of the contemporary experience of music. The devices that have been discussed above store audio files and are the ways in which many of us are able to access music. So it is possible to conclude that the experience of music has been altered by the increasingly complex technical artefacts that seem necessary for the reproduction of sound and the implicit assumption of the violence involved in their creation as a necessity10. Within the vibrating air rendered from an MP3 file, stored on an MP3 player, is a power and intelligence with which many of the listeners cannot contend. Johnathan Sterne argues that an MP3 is a ‘psychoacoustic technology that literally plays its listeners’ (2006, 825). If this is the case then arguably within the digital reproduction of every leftist protest song can be found suggestions of the contrary.
10 Perhaps this complexity is better understood as a profound abstraction. While audio recording as such has always been abstraction of a physical sonic event, in analogue formats they retained a physical relationship to the generative event. In new media formats the information is stored in a single, unique physical iteration of the event but as abstract measurement data, the expression of which depending entirely of how it is decoded, which is not, unlike analogue reproduction, fixed to a single bespoke mechanism.
Technical Mentality and Technical Systems
With this particular reading of what could be considered, with Gilbert Simondon, to be a version of ‘technical reality’ (in De Boever 2012, 13), it is necessary to develop some theoretical tools to understand how this could effect the ways in which we understand the world around us. Simondon argues that we are undergoing the process of developing a technical mentality that changes the way in which we interact with the world around us;
If one seeks the sign of the perfection of the technical mentality, one can unite in a single criterion the manifestation of cognitive schemas, affective modalities and norms of action: that of the opening. Technical reality lends itself remarkable well to being continued, completed perfected and extended. (ibid)
There are a number issues revealed here by Simondon, namely the notion of perfection. Perfection contains within it certain ideological implications as it is akin to the systems of rationalisation uncovered in the culture industry by Adorno and Horkheimer (1997, 121). This perspective has given Stiegler cause to see this situation as giving ‘…rise to a systemic stupidity that structurally prevents the reconstitution of a long term horizon’ (Stiegler 2010, 5). However, before entering into a discussion of perfection and ideology, there is need to appreciate that this is underpinned by the way in which we understand how technology effects the way we think. For an explanation of this it is perhaps useful to approach the subject from the concept of memory through work first by Husserl and later Stiegler.
As discussed in the previous section, Stiegler adds to Husserl’s description of the psychic phenomenon of memory (primary and secondary retentions) with tertiary retention, which he describes as ‘a mnemotechnical exteriorisation of secondary retentions which are themselves engendered by primary retentions’ (Stiegler 2010). This idea has considerable potential in the discussion of the development of technical mentality especially when read in the context from which Stiegler developed the concept initially in the writing of Husserl. Stiegler emphasises the following passage from Husserl’s Internal Consciousness of Time as a general example of ‘tertiary memory’ (Stiegler 1998, 246 [Stiegler’s emphasis]) ;
The intuition of the past cannot itself be a pictorialization. It is an originary consciousness […] The echoing itself and after images of any sort left behind by the stronger data of sensation, far from having to ascribe necessarily to the essence of retention… (Husserl 1991:33 [Stiegler’s emphasis])’ (ibid).
Stiegler uses a reading of this Husserl passage to arrive at his understand of tertiary retention. There is indeed considerable value in conceptualising such exteriorised retentions. However as Stiegler has already argued, these mnemotechnical exteriorisations engender new primary retentions, which we can perhaps assume would be the foundation of the formation of new secondary retentions, which are of the origin of the exteriorisations defined as tertiary retention. From this one can perhaps see circular process in development, which may have an aggregate effect in forming the experience of an individual developing what Stiegler refers to as ‘retentional circuits’ (2013, 86). This process may be called, with a term from Simondon, ‘individuation’ (in Crary and Kwinter 1992, 297) and when this takes place on the levels of the individual,
social and technical levels this process is called by Stiegler, after Simondon, ‘transindividuation’ (2013, 86). This process, with its connection to memory is helpful for the understanding what could perhaps be called a form of life after Wittgenstien (1969, 88).
While clearly Stiegler has expressed that tertiary retention engender new primary retentions this does not seem to completely clarify the impact of the psychic residue of tertiary retentions being a part of everyday experience. This could perhaps be the development of technical mentality. However the particularities of the development of this mentality is in some way determined by the way in which such exteriorisation come into existence. This is further problematized when the exteriorisation that constitute tertiary retention are produced within an industrial framework. If the exteriorisations, many of which are in the form of the extremely complex technical devices that are discussed above, are made to conform to a specific ideological framework, namely industrial production and the accumulation of capital then such a framework will help to structure our memory. Furthermore it is from our memory that many of our belief stem. Of course the situation is not quite this simple. It is not so that simply because a device is manufactured in a particular way that it unveils that version of reality to its user, rather quite the opposite seems to take place. The smart phone, for example is quite the symbol of a society that in its own meta- narrative believes it has moved beyond the dark days of industrialism, when really it has only moved geographically. This seems to be a situation where memory has become industrialised (Stiegler 2009, 97) where ‘… a politics of memory encountering the resistance of an economic imperative’ (100). For
Stiegler this is a question of the who? As in what is the identity of a being with industrialised memory? While it is of course possible to draw dire conclusions of clandestine thought control there are perhaps more mundane and more troubling control. This who could be a being that is both simultaneously dependent on the catharsis provided by these vast technical systems and entirely and wilfully complicit in there upkeep. It could perhaps not be simplistic notions of brain washing by commodities or the reluctance of an ‘oh dearism’, it could be these things at the same time, but perhaps it is a cynical understanding and acceptance that this is how the world is to be. The form of life engendered by the technical mentality of industrialised memory. Here catharsis and complicity would be revolving in a terrible loop.
The connections to catharsis
For now it is important to put to one side the often-performed argument that can be drawn against the wilful consumption of entertainment; that such commodities and the resulting fetishes, pacify the desire for a change to the structure of society. Instead, it is useful to attempt to understand the impulse to succumb to the overwhelming complexity necessary for such an apparent triviality as entertainment and thus whatever power systems facilitate this as reality. This is not to disregard the critique of the content produced by the culture industry as put forward by Adorno and the Frankfaurt School or indeed its later day proponents such as Stiegler. Indeed those perspectives are key to this research. However there has always been the vulnerability to such perspectives as being easily caricatured in such a way as to fall in line with the simplistic conservative cultural analysis: popular music is stupid, it makes its listeners stupid. Rather, it seems more effective to argue that, regardless of the particularities of the content, which may or may not be stupid or contain explicit propaganda, the vary way we experience music can have ideological consequences. As Adorno had observed in 1932;
No matter where music is heard today, it sketches in the clearest possible lines the contradictions and flaws which cut through present-day society; at the same time, music is separated from this same society by the deepest of all flaws produced by this society itself. And yet, society is unable to absorb more of this music than its ruins and external remains. The role of music in this society is exclusively that of a commodity; its value is that determined by the market. Music no longer serves direct needs nor benefits from direct application, but rather adjusts to the pressures of the exchanges of abstract units. Its value – wherever such value still exists at all – is determined by use: it subordinates itself to the process of exchange. (Adorno et al. 2002, 391)
What can be understood from this remark is that not only have the producers of music ceased to engage beyond the economics of the industry, but also the listeners have become consumers who regard such music ‘only’ in terms of the commodity. Of course, what Adorno may regard as, the most vulgar of music can have a complex aesthetic relationship with members of its audience, but first it must work on the level of a ‘socially useful’ commodity. However this is also the case for the more sophisticated work that Adorno championed. We are confronted with the uncomfortable situation that, as Marx recognised, capitalism forces a particular kind of creative practice to take place which results in the ‘immense collection of commodities’ (Marx 1990, 125). These are commodities designed to meet the demands of consumers in the market place. This demand now, perhaps as ever, is for artwork that provides cathartic escapism. However this particular demand, in the context of a market place faced with diminishing sales due to Internet piracy (Jones, 2012), means any deviation from this demand has been further marginalised. This does not mean that deviant desires have as yet been diminished, nor the total output of such work but rather that the content in the public sphere is geared towards a particular, commercially viable, homogeneity.
Let us return to the student in the class room described by Mark Fisher in the Capitalist Realism (2009) always no more than inches away, be it moving the headphones or pressing play, from the ‘sensation stimulation matrix’. He is always on the verge of the cathartic escape personal music players can provide. If, we imagine a future for this student, in which he begins to work at a trendy Internet Company staffed by people of an average age of 26, with a relaxed
atmosphere that allows people to work in the open plan office space with headphones in. From this situation of perverse manipulation of Goodman’s formulation of ‘sound comes to the rescue of thought’ (2009, 82) for the purposes cognitive capitalism (Moulier Boutang 2011) more can be unfolded about the role music plays in the vast social economic and technical systems of this form of society. With this in mind it is possible to unpick the way in which music facilitates the reproduction of labour while blurring the traditional understanding and critique of free time and the role it plays in the appreciation of human capital.
As Marx describes in Capital vol. 1, in the chapter on the working day (1990, 340) the production of value through human labour power has certain temporal restrictions. There is only so long a worker can expend labour power in a day, everyday, and still go on living to labour the next day. This is a particular problem for capital accumulation if labour is scarce or what is required is skilled labour. Time is required in which the worker is to recover from the strains of labour. This is commonly referred to as free time, however as Adorno has pointed out, free time is in fact its opposite as the recovery takes place for the benefit of capital. The amount of hours available for the pursuit of other activities is necessarily reduced as more of the concerns of work intrude upon time that is not specifically designated for labour;
…unfreedom is gradually annexing ‘free time’, and the majority of unfree people are as unaware of this process as they are of unfreedom itself. (Adorno and Bernstein 1991, 188)
The anxieties of work to come and the necessity to escape it are infecting the way in which time notionally spent not at work is experienced. As was argued in the previous chapter, Adorno posits that the culture industry creates distraction to placate these anxieties and provide catharsis with disastrous ideological consequences. This is to a great extent true but there is much more to be uncovered.
The edges of free time have been blurring with increased noticeability for the last fifty years. A young man sitting at his desk listening to music with head phones in is ostensibly, at work, and is illustrative of new forms of labour that further complicate discussions of ideology, hegemony and the formation of consciousness. The young man is both at work and not. He performs the tasks of labour required of him for his wage, or more likely the stipulations of his contract but he is made to feel as if this is in no way, or only in a small way, infringes on who he considers himself to be. Much has been written about popular music and social identity, which shall not be rehearsed here, suffice to say the choice of what music to listen to can be a vital part of an individual in self-defining their identity and their social relations. Contemporary practices in, especially the technology and media business do not seek to quash this individuality, rather it appears to be championed. This could be an example of a new form of capitalism, what Yann Moulier Boutang calls ‘Cognitive Capitalism’ which, as a working definition, he defines as follows;
By cognitive capitalism we mean, then, a mode of accumulation in which the object of accumulation consists mainly of knowledge, which becomes the basic source of value, as well as the principle location in the process of valorisation… it now follows that human capital and the
quality of the population have now become crucial factors in defining the new wealth of nations. (Moulier Boutang 2011, 57)
Whether or not this is an entirely new situation is debatable but undoubtedly this mode of production has grown in economic significance. However as Marx has observed in the conditions of liberal capitalism, labourers must be free to sell their labour power (1990, 272). This could perhaps be knowledge but can certainly be considered as human capital. Additionally, this form of capitalism is not divorced from its origins; industrial capitalism and so-called primitive accumulation must still take place. Moreover the practice stems from the alienations resultant from the exploitation of so-called primitive accumulation.
However, to accept that there are in fact some shifts taking place in capitalism, necessitated by the increasing dominance of neo-liberalism is useful. To read these changing labour practices through the concept of human capital in an economy based on knowledge leaves us with an even more problematic situation. That being that arguably for a neo-liberal active subject there is no such thing a free time. There is not a moment to spare for fear of being over taken in the buyer’s market of labour that constitutes cognitive capitalism. Adorno’s term ‘unfreedom’ above, is perhaps most apt in describing this situation as these subjects do not seem entirely oppressed or entirely free. They are, as is argued by Michel Feher. constantly engaged in the act of self- appreciation so as not to allow for them to depreciate in value as defined in terms of human capital (2009, 27). The traditional understanding of human capital as Feher describes it had a somewhat limited scope as;
…the set of skills that an individual can acquire thanks to investments in his or her education or training, and its primary purpose was to measure the rates of return that investments in education produce or, to put it simply, the impact on future incomes that can be expected from schooling and other forms of training. (2009, 25)
Traditionally human capital was a resource for the personal valorisation of capital. Individuals would invest time and money and effort to develop skills that would allow them to earn more money and perhaps time. However the situation for human capital is not so simple, human capital has mutated to become more than the facilitation of economic relations. It seems that in Feher’s understanding, human capital has taken on a more personal psychological importance;
It now refers to all that is produced by the skill set that defines me. Such that everything I earn—be it salary, returns on investments, booty, or favors I may have incurred — can be understood as the return on the human capital that constitutes me. (2009, 26)
This way of thinking about individual human beings and their social relations as the appreciation and exchange of the discrete currency of human capital collapses the ability to separate labour and free time. The free labourer in Marx is a ‘split being […] between a subjectivity that is inalienable and a labor power that is to be rented out’ (Feher 2009, 29), that provides the possibility to overcome a situation such as the exploited elements that can conflict with the subject. Where as, according to Feher, human capital exists;
…in any existential domain (dietary, erotic, religious, etc.), all contribute to either appreciating or depreciating the human capital that is me, no less than does my diligence as a worker or my ability to trade my
professional skills. As investors in their own human capital, the subjects that are presupposed and targeted by neoliberalism can thus be conceived [of] as the managers of a portfolio of conducts pertaining to all the aspects of their lives. (2009, 30)
Popular music can function within this understanding of human experience as social interaction as yet another forms capital exchange. As we might expect, the sort of music to which an individual listens is a way in which one could accrue human capital, contingent upon their professional life and social circle. This can perhaps be understood in terms of fashion, the ability to be engaged with what is at this moment considered to be ‘cool’. However perhaps of greater importance to human capital is the way to which this music is related. In the novel American Psycho the protagonist Patrick Bateman often remarks on the relative merit, or lack thereof, in contemporary (in the setting of the novel the late 1980s) popular music. Remarking how, before Peter Gabriel departed, he never really understood the popular rock band Genesis but with Phil Collins taking more of a central role;
…complex studies of loss became, instead, smashing first rate pop songs that I gratefully embraced. (Ellis 2006, 128)
Ellis’ psychotic investment banker expresses the need for the music to be useful to him. He has no use for psychological quandaries, what he wants is banal upbeat pop that won’t cause any form of psychic or social disturbance. It is, as Adorno argues above, a commodity in the first instance, artistic expression is secondary at the earliest, that is, if it features at all.
It is not enough to simply like the right band; they have to be performing the right role. As Curtis White summarises the critical back lash to a band attempting to create artwork with more cultural than social lubrication ‘ “You’re supposed to be a pop group […] You’re supposed to be a commodity, stupid! Just make your money and give us what we expect”’ (White in Tate 2005, 11).
The student in Fisher’s classroom is not Patrick Bateman, but the public projection that Bateman represents is still held up as, by many, to what he should aspire. A man with a large income, a job that wields influence, with knowledge of all the relevant social and economic concerns and holds all the politically correct opinions (Ellis 2006, 14). How he relates to popular music is part of this. It seems that to express an admiration or to simply defend work that falls outside the money-for-what-we-expect, risks becoming alienated from his social group and a diminution of his human capital. Losses that most individuals can ill afford to make. Such deviances can be exchanged perhaps as eccentricities allowed for a particularly useful type of genus or other skill, but this is a pre- requisite. Without these exceptional circumstances fitting in is at a premium and proud deviation can make others look or feel inadequate or threatened.
So with the concepts of catharsis and complicity is there a way to understand what is happening when the vibrational force culturally codified as music impact the eardrum. The affective utterances of this sound, teaming with space in which to create cathartic bliss, to relieve us of our burdens by means that, does in fact, creates more. Yet still more burdens are, in this act, created by our
unwillingness to acknowledge the harmful practices that are currently necessary for the industrial manufacture of experience and memory.
However despite these new forms of accumulation the originary, so-called primitive accumulation is still necessary. These forms of accumulation have not gone out of date. They only appear to be diminishing in the fashionable language and political discourse in ‘post’-industrial societies. Our tertiary retentions are already preparing a cynical response to such concerns. A mentality has been created that accepts what needs to be done in order to reproduce this version of reality. What is more, personal survival is at stake. What I listen to literally and interpersonally in networks that I perhaps can’t afford to exit from, should anything mean I am passed up for promotion with increasing costs of living. However, that being said, to listen to a song linked to you by anyone requires colton, which requires mines, miners and the associated dangers associated with delivery personnel, oil and so much more. All this to temporarily regulate changes in air pressure in such a way as to effect your mood.
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