I had thought, or set of thoughts come loose while rereading Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" this morning. Page numbers refer to the 2007 Schocken books/Random House edition of the 1968 Harry Zohn translation. The paradoxical importance of notions of authenticity in (mass market, duplicable, industrialized) postwar popular music is a theme that I keep circling, so maybe that means its good blog fodder. We'll see, but in the meantime, here's Benjamin:
“The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” (221)
– But it’s worth noting that during the postwar period a lot of pop music exhibits qualities that are transmissible only because of the recording process, that are created through the recording and duplication process. (I’m including microphones and perhaps even megaphones here because the amplified sound produced is a shade different in time and history than the original vocalization) Benjamin’s thought here doesn’t take into account the way that the process is utilized to create new forms of “art.” A useful ethnographic exploration of this process in action is Louise Mientjes' Sound of Africa! which locates the recording studio right in the middle of the produciton of musical identities. So here, the multitracked recording creates an art object (Benjamin might argue with that) which has no original referant other than its duplicable form, unless we count master tapes and alternate mixes which do narrate authenticity without most of us ever hearing them and which arent' any more "real" really than the two track mixdown. This is all longhand for the slogan written across Cyclops, the old TV set that the Rex Rootz used to use on stage sometimes which read "The Bands in Yer head."
Another intervention, one that’s more common I think, is the substitution of personal experience with the duplicated object for the experience that in Benjamin’s formulation accrues within the original object. That is, we think of where we were when we first heard “Sweet Child O’ Mine” or “When Doves Cry” and the various permutations and experiences that we’ve undergone in relation to our continued experiences of those recordings of those songs, which become simply “those songs.” This is healthy I think in the way it allows us to involve ourselves emotionally with music, the way that it defeats the elitism that surrounds high and fine art by placing the experience of them behind barriers that place severe limits on who can see them when.
*I have an immediate want to quibble with this even as I write it, because we don’t, or I don’t, experience that “void” as a lack of anything in particular, that is that I have to work to historically recover the affective power of the aura that Benjamin so credits with the power of the art object, which suggests to me that both his and my engagement are historically constructed rationalizations after the fact intended to explain the power of an experience with music or art of nay kind, a “coming to self” before the presence of a “text” with the stipulation that the “self” one is coming to is historically constructed, is a self we make of the available materials and experiences of our times and places.