Name: Geraldine Snell Matric Number: 1162411 Department: Intermedia Sound and Vision Assignment
“To the extent that plus/and is becoming the dominant principle of culture (so many options, so much information, so much entertainment), it could be that it’s actually killing music, because its ultimate tendency is towards a kind of indifference.” (Simon Reynolds) Discuss.
The dominance of digital culture and the impact this is having on the individual and collective psyche has come into question more and more as the initial utopian ideals of a digital society begin to fade. Although figures such as Benjamin and McLuhan have long ago examined the implications that technology has for art, there is now more mainstream debate on whether the incessant march forward comes at a sinister price. The increasing popularity and consequent journalistic coverage of alternative lifestyles (off-grid living etc), analogue technology and vintage style are just some examples reflecting a tide of nostalgia; an understandable, albeit biased and idealistic pining for simpler times, with less stimuli competing for our attention. It’s a clear given that in the realm of urban public space our senses are saturated with everything from aggressive adverts to the sickly sweet scent of Subway sandwiches. Faced with a seemingly endless confectionery aisle, my mind panics and ultimately stalls. I am left feeling overwhelmed by this potent reflection of the plus/and principle that undoubtedly defines our current culture.
Reynolds explores some fundamental issues that arise from engaging with our culture of excess and instant access, but the statement above is highly generalised and shows little faith in our ability to prioritise and give importance to certain things above others, to see the message in spite of the medium. To say that music can be ‘killed’ by people’s gradually increasing indifference towards it is
a naïve way of generalising, as it suggests that everyone had the same level and mode of engagement to begin with: the same scanning, shuffling methods that Reynolds assumes are across the board. The statement also assumes that the way in which we experience music as a download/shuffle practice – which in itself is a generalisation – compromises or even destroys our ability to engage with music deeply: “Every gain in consumerempowering convenience has come at the cost of disempowering the power of art to dominate our attention, to induce a state of aesthetic surrender”(2011: 71). Looking further afield there’s plenty of literature to support this idea, estimates that claim that our engagement with art – and the capacity to feel a deeply emotional response to it – is being compromised and even destroyed as we are increasingly dehumanised by machines. It’s impossible not to fear this eventuality when one constantly reads “the information we receive is increasingly flat and homogenised”(Lasn and White 2010: 16) and that “slogan recognition is enough to navigate the net-mobile-magazine informational plane”(Fisher 2009: 25). These statements have a lot of weight to them and taken to their logical conclusion, it seems natural to suggest that art is just another blur on the “infinite flat surface” (Manovich 2001: 77) which we'll ultimately become indifferent to.
However, Reynolds never seems to mention the fact that we have the self-awareness and free will to stay vigilant, to not sit numbed before the track list, to not succumb to the “franticity”1 that he argues is part of the iPod listening experience. Throughout the book, Reynolds attempts to support the idea that we are becoming indifferent to art, even if he does end on a note of optimism about music of the future. One statement in particular stands out, “If there's no cost, and no issues to do with storage, there is no earthly reason to desist from the 'and this … and this too' imperative”(2011: 127). This all you can eat
“soon I was listening to just the first fifteen seconds of every track; then, not listening at all – franticity strikes again .. the logical culmination would have been for me to remove the headphones and just look at the track displays” Reynolds, 2011 p120
mind-set may be one response to the abundance of music available, but Reynolds uses his own reactions to assume that everyone engages with music in this way. The notion of the digital native may help to explain his response, as Reynolds has joined the plus/and world as an awe-struck adult, whereas for more adapted generations the magnitude of music available has been more of a given. We are able to sift through and filter in the same way we can ignore pop-ups and adverts on a screen, the presence of which can confuse and disrupt a digital immigrant's processing of text
^Ghost adverts can often distract a digital immigrant from the content on a page
and information: “Today's older folk were 'socialized' differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain”(Prensky 2001: 2). Reynolds further invalidates the relevance of his argument to humanity in general by distinguishing himself as a kind of collector, and by placing so much emphasis on genre and an abstract vision of originality that ignores the power of a good moving song, even if it doesn’t sound completely fresh. The ability to download never-before-released bootlegs of concerts he attended in his youth or to obtain all the music he couldn't afford to buy on vinyl at the time, and even the quest to find music that sounds like the future “the vertigo of limitlessness”(2011: 428) seems to have provoked in him a mid-life crisis that has left him a download addict, stating that “If I had a second life … I could happily while away my days feasting on all this culture carrion” (2011: 63). This kind of statement depicts Reynolds as someone who favours quantity over quality and it makes me – as a reader and music listener – feel alienated, and unable to empathise with a musical engagement that appears so different from my own.
Reynolds' argument relies on the assumption that his practices are the same for everyone. His laments that “it's easy to imagine that as a collection's size approaches infinity, the appetite to listen to music shrinks to infinitesimal” (2011: 111) make me think 'why would your collection size be approaching infinity?' Most of us are guilty of acquiring too much music, and when I look through my iPod I admit that probably two thirds of the stuff on there I don't listen to: it's there as storage in case I happen to get back into it or suddenly want to recall a particular song I was infatuated with long ago. Of course on a device like an iPod Shuffle, the amount of music would probably overwhelm to the point of indifference, as you can't search for individual songs or artists. But on a regular iPod or mp3 player, you have the joy of the playlist or listing things iPod can play the same role as the Radio or record without compromising engagement, we don’t have to shuffle, and it can be a device for experiencing new music
by individual artist, and a playlist doesn't have to be “Radio Me” (2011:
118) as it's a great way to dip your toes into new music or create a compilation that appeals to everyone in the room as the iPod goes on the speaker dock and takes on essentially the same role as CDs or albums but without the practical inconveniences. The backlash at the proposed closure of Radio 6Music also supports that there is still a large number of people with an appetite for fresh new music, the iPod is not everyone’s only source of engagement with music. Reynolds convincingly argues that “In both cases (correcting the album and the skipahead impulse) you witness consumer empowerment disempowering both artist and Art” (2011:118) which is true: of course if you spend all your time skipping to the next track in hope of some distant gratification then you won't engage deeply. He even cites a university
study which concluded that “nowadays, even though people listened to … more music … and to a much wider range, their listening was 'not necessarily characterised by deep emotional investment'” (2011: 121). Although the inclusion of 'nowadays' evokes bitter old men harking on about the good old days, quantity can undermine quality, and looking at current culture in a general sense, quantity and plus/and are the dominant principles. It must be remembered, however, that not everyone in the 'golden age' was a vinyl connoisseur, and not everyone spent all their money going out and buying a record that they listened to on repeat in the solitary confinement of their room for months, just as not everyone 'nowadays' lies in their pitch-black bedroom listening to one particularly moving song on repeat while the tears roll out. Using this 'research' fetishizes the past to the point of saying that people back then were more emotionally aware, they had a deeper attachment to art, a conclusion that goes well beyond the question of whether downloading and shuffling make us indifferent and attempts to qualify and trivialise an aspect of human experience that is so beyond the capabilities of scientific research that it's purely ridiculous.
There is nothing more frustrating than reading that without owning a tangible record of a current band that you bought with all your pocket money from a real shop, you can't have an emotional attachment to music. Emotional qualities are inherent in the music, that's why it is such a transcendental medium that cannot be 'killed', just in the same way that emotional capacity is inherent in humans, and varies person to person. That's not to say I haven't experienced music as a tangible item: I remember my little yellow Hi-Fi, going into town with £5 pocket money and spending £3.99 on the 'Pass The Courvoisier' single. I remember the frustration I felt at hearing a song and not being able to find out what it was, returning to find it years later with internet capabilities and making my Dad order the single (this was still pre-mp3) and jumping around the room like a maniac
when it arrived and I played it full volume on the Hi-Fi. What I'm trying to highlight with these anecdotes is that I've grown up in a transition period, and that I know the joy of obtaining an album and playing it over and only being able to buy one single a month, or having to record the chart show onto blank tapes. But I knew all this before I had a deeper emotional relationship with music. During adolescence, as a general sense of anguish increased, music would lift me to a place beyond individual struggle. There was optimism in the way that people could create such beautiful art out of their pain. Whether it was a particular song or favourites playlist I listened to on repeat through immersive headphones in a pitch-black room, or an album by someone new that I'd put on my iPod to lose myself in – in order to block out screaming eleven year olds on the freezing school bus – the abundance of music that I could have consumed never interrupted my deep-listening and it never made me indifferent.
Nicholas Carr's reflection that “once I was a scuba diver in a sea of knowledge. Now I skip along the surface on a jet-ski” (2008) and Reynolds' attempts to find “ways of resisting the info tsunami” (2011: 125) both use the sea as a metaphor for experiencing culture through digital media. If the whole of culture is a sea, then surely we can use the same methods we do with the real sea to stop ourselves either skimming along indifferently or drowning in its mass. We dip in and out in different locations, and although the magnitude of the sea provokes a sublime sense of awe and fear, the image of culture is not this large in real space, it's only that overwhelming if you think about it in such terms. I personally favour Robert Pepperell's approach: “surf or die. You can't control a wave, but you can ride it” (1995: iv).
The idea that we will become indifferent to music because we're crippled by choice is absurd. The fact is, we are not isolated individuals who sit before a list on the screen thinking 'what should I listen to first when the whole of musical history is at my fingertips?' We have trajectories to follow, friends and family to share music with. We have ways of navigating through the infinite flat surface and attaching ourselves to things. It's a given that we all have the need and ability to narrow things down. Reynolds frequently uses statistics that have a judgemental slant, for example “it would take the individual viewer 1,700 years to watch all of the ... videos on [YouTube]”(2011: 59) when similar statistics could easily be applied to the time it would take to listen to all the CDs in a record shop, or to read every book in a library. When he states that “life itself is a scarcity economy … what's missing from all the techno-utopian scenarios of access and choice is the reality of limits”(2011: 127) the same could be said about a library, but we generally don't enter a library unless we are looking for a specific thing, we have a limit. Of course it is true that “search engines have obliterated the delay involved in searching through a library's maze-like stacks” (2011: 57), but this doesn't mean that the field is open
There to advertise, but recommendations help you navigate digital terrain without getting overwhelmed
and we have a limitless plane of information before us. We are still searching for specific songs, artists, still following 'you might like …' recommendations, only there to provoke greater spending but nonetheless help you find new music. We can still listen to 6music and get a song in our head that we go on to download, without being overwhelmed by the need to download hundreds of tracks that we'll never listen to just because they're there.
<We don’t walk into a library and frantically attempt to digest everything there, so why would we do this on the internet? If anything the physical scale of a library is more overwhelming, more sea-like
An area that deserves more emphasis in terms of its implications across culture is that “self-design has become the mass cultural practice … though not everyone produces artworks, everyone is an artwork” (Groys 2010: 41). The use of social media exacerbates the cult of the self, the idea of “I share therefore I am” (Turkle 2011) and it makes most that use it more conscious of the image that others see. People try to convey a sense of their self and individuality through their Facebook likes, through allowing software like Spotify to post what they are listening to onto their Facebook time-line. What possible reason, other than to display to the world how cool you are for liking the music that you like, would we have for making playlists in a public space? Maybe we can tell ourselves that it's for the benefit of others, it might help us make friends because we can see our mutual likes, or that it's just easier to have everything in one place, displayed publicly or not. Lasch’s statement that ‘modern life is so thoroughly mediated by electronic images that we cannot help responding to others as if their actions – and our own –were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience’ (1979: 97) seems all the worse now with the internet, and the abundance of people fashioning their image and commodifying their thoughts and feelings in an attempt to reach out and make their mark within the virtual space at their disposal. Along with the plus/and principle of excess and instant gratification, this culture of narcissism is fundamental to the workings of capitalism: making people think that the key to freedom and contentment is in being able to express their individuality through what they spend their money on. This has implications for art production in general, with John
Roberts declaring that self-design and the rise of the amateur has created “a new cultural economy of art, in which the productive consumer' becomes an increasing reality” (2007: 181). This poses the question of how art can survive and progress, or how 'genuine' art and music can stand out in a world where everyone is an artist of sorts, and culture
^Tedious facebook updates
is saturated with so much content that it overwhelms. Here, Groys points to the spectator, or audience, saying that “the artist needs a spectator who can overlook the immeasurable quantity of artistic production” (2010: 93). The truth is everyone navigates digital terrain in their own way, everyone fits the definition of this idealised spectator. The concern is when music is background noise, 'currently listening to...' information posted directly to Facebook as one Instagrams their dinner, tagging their friends and locations, liking memes, watching a film in one window and a music video in the other, all the while thinking of a witty remark to with which to update one's status. This can never be classed as deep engagement, and if this is the way the majority of people are going then it's easy to concede that this plus/and activity is making people indifferent. However music as a background noise is still – just as it was in the 70s when people listened whilst driving or talked over the radio at home – only one form of engagement and it's not necessarily the dominant mode for everyone. Maybe now people use music to screen out the world on public transport but immersive headphones can make listening to music in a public place – especially on a boring, uncomfortable journey – very much a foreground activity, as I'm sure it was when people listened through a cassette player in the golden days. Experiencing music in a social setting or as a background presence is something that's always been common and just because it's now easier to be distracted by the multitude of
other items competing for our attention, it doesn't rule out engaging with it in the foreground. If people don't have the capacity to put down their iPhone and let music immerse them, it's their loss, and this one mode of distanced indifferent engagement shouldn't force Reynolds to take such a defeatist and generalising stance.
By stating that “plus/and … is killing music”, Reynolds is projecting his own need to simplify the world into “ultimate” outcomes, which is in itself a grasping for control and limits, labels and certainties, meaning out of chaos. His own attempts to define an “ultimate tendency” and to generalise the way people experience music are examples of his need to manage the world. By quoting Susan Orlean: “the reason it matters to be passionate about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size” (2011: 92) he confirms that by liking some things more than others, we are able to cope with the magnitude of everything we could be listening to. One day humanity may be locked into individual cubes with nothing more than an advanced iPad to rely on, one that lists the whole of culture and music in a way that can only induce indifference. But for now, we listen to what we like and we are able to find more of it in ways that weren't possible before the internet, and if we stay vigilant and resist the urge to download and shuffle everything, just as we resist the urge to eat everything in a sweetie aisle, we can avoid this tendency towards indifference which Reynolds predicts.
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