Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Materiel World

The challenge that faces us when we want to think seriously about modern music concerns the "textiness" of songs, records, scores, etc. There is enough dissonance and contradiction within this theoretical area to keep aesthetic philosophers busy for a long time, and to keep the rest of us awash in drool and eye-glaze...

I am sure we will return to get impaled on the horns of these dilemmas in time (especially regarding matters intellectual property-related), but for now I merely wish to clear a bit of ground for extra-textual analysis, or, if you will, to think about re-inserting musical production and reception in the material world. Or, more precisely, the historical materialist world... you know, the obsolete, old-fashioned theater of class struggle, complete with alienated labor and exploitation and commodity-fetishism and all the other nostalgic residue of mass production that was supposed to disappear in the awesome nineteen-nineties technotopia.

Have I misspelled the title of this post? Well, not intentionally, at least. I have used the term "materiel," which denotes military supplies, weapons, artillery, etc. to underline the violent social relations that are required to keep our fantasy machines and virtual prostheses rolling off of production lines and neatly stacked on the shelves of Target and Toys 'R' Us. I was reminded of how little we know about this violent underbelly in a striking quote excerpted in a discussion thread concerning a piece by Michael Steinberg on the uses and misuses of the concept of "genocide" on the fantastic mrzine.org site. I have not reached anything like a clear idea about whether "genocide" ought to be retained as a legal category within international jurisprudence (I have only read enough to conclude that I have grave doubts about its status), and I have no expertise on the events debated on this thread... but I couldn't believe what I was reading when I encountered this statement from journalist Johann Hari, regarding the Rwandan invasion of the Congo:

"Oh, and the reason why this invasion was so profitable? Global demand for coltan was soaring throughout the war because of the massive popularity of coltan-filled Sony Playstations. As Oona King, one of the few British politicians to notice Congo, explains as we travel together for a few days, 'Kids in Congo were being sent down mines to die so that kids in Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms.'

This link between catastrophe in the Congo and the selling of phantasmic imaginary aggression in the rich countries of the West suggests to me that behind the screens of virtuality, the violent destruction of real human bodies continues to be a precondition. Not only is
coltan a key component in Playstations, but it is also used widely in cellphone circuit-boards and inside the guts of many personal computers and no doubt many other gadgets... Playstations and other video game units are increasingly important media of musical transmission... surely the acousmatic dimension of video games contributes to the construction and perpetuation of the fantasies to which gamers gain access when they fire up the various high-ticket cubes and boxes... and cellphones may be the most significant new addition to the technology of sound communication since the radio...

Nevertheless, my interest in this story is not so much motivated by the obvious salience of this story to these phenomena as to the more general theme of the marketing of affect: how feelings become saleable commodities. It is certainly true, as many commentators such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have insisted, that this category of production (literally, the production of feelings, as in the luxury "care" sector, the production of arousal in the porn industry, the imperative to produce a sense of well-being and comfort on the part of many service employees) has become increasingly dominant in the contemporary international economy.

And who are the original affective workers
par excellence but musicians... from the baroque composers who pioneered the theory of the "doctrine of affections" to the environment coordinators and feeling-modulators of the Muzak corporation, from the twinkling of the Nordstrom's pianist to the punk rock screamer whose voice delivers access to a "structure of feeling" that liberates the preteen listener from the confines of suburban desperation.

I would not want to suggest here anything but the significance of music-making as affective work, and to remind myself that in mass-reproduced forms, the process that intervenes between a whisper leaving the lips of a singer and entering the ear of a listener is sometimes a murdered body politic.

Nice Blog :)
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