Sunday, April 13, 2008

Walter Benjamin Authenticity Interface

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."

But: this is right on, and still holds true: “since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former too is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.” (221)

-I have two interrelated thoughts here: one that he’s absolutely right, that whatever the actual conditions of the postwar musical era, we have enough of the cult of the art object hanging over our sense of aesthetic pleasure that we want to make a claim for the authenticity of our experience of the song by locating some essence of what we hear behind or above or beyond the processes by which it comes to us.

The second and related point is that the lack of an original at any point in our experience of the song creates a void that we fill with various significations of authenticity.* These can come from a variety of places in our engagement with the recorded object: one of them is the way that blues record collectors, following the aesthetic that Hamilton** credits James Mckune with establishing among his coterie, locate authenticity in the primitive (“honest” “transparent”) recording of the highly personalized and individualized expression of vernacular tradition. This finds the least-mediated to be a ‘captured’ version of the unmediated and rests on the power of a (seeming) one to one communication that elides space, time, and the social and economic barriers that might sit between player and listener in a real “one to one” moment. This is the same aesthetic of personal authentic testimony that legitimates indie and lo-fi recordings with their audiences, and its similar to the more specific discourse regarding overdubbing in jazz and classical recordings.

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.

It’s unhealthy though in the way that it hides the material processes that produce those recordings (the absolute substitution of “the song” for “the recorded song”) and thus hides (in plain view) the material relations that produce and deliver those recordings to us & thus hides the imbrications between our emotional lives and various systems built on alienated labor. Those relations stay hidden usually unless they are summoned into being in a benign way such as the “Live Aid” performances where the apparatus of the music industry becomes all at once a charitable structure, or if they bubble up to the surface as when old blues and R& B artists try to recover lost royalties or when, like during the controversy over Graceland, the power discrepancies between auteur artists and the specialist musicians that they employ to achieve certain effects becomes too audible. In the latter case it’s a conflict between our longstanding, market nurtured affective investment in the headline artist as auteur, and our immediate affective response (renewed and renewing investment in) to the textural, timbered and rhythmic pleasures we find in the songs themselves. It’s a Paul Simon album, but the things we like most about it don’t issue forth from Simon unless we embrace a version of auteur theory so drastic that it flies in the face of the socialist rhetoric that emanated from the French New Wave directors who pioneered auteur theory in cinema. This only works if we recognize it as a Paul Simon album beforehand and maintain that recognition through the intervention of the systems of legitimation that comes down to us through the Western classical composition tradition. It’s a Paul Simon album because he “wrote” all the “songs.”

There are various ways to work around this elision of the material processes. One of them is I’d call the Dischord records method, whereby live performances are privileged by the band’s (Fugazi’s) insistence that they be accessible (all ages shows, $5.00 cover), their refusal to engage in merchandising at the shows themselves, and a general dictum of demystification and transparency regarding the mechanics of business, record making, touring and performing. Another is the renewal of agency post-recording that Hip-Hop DJs pioneered, and which intellectual copyright laws quickly and effectively neutralized, and another is simply the kind of listening engagement (and a kind of song) that brings the material constraints of the process to the surface as a set of references that allow contact between performers and audiences. I had a great example of this, but I lost it somewhere in the flow of words above & I’ll come back and fill it in when I get it back.

-Update: maybe I was simply thinking of the kind of engagement wherein response to the song includes a response to the material conditions of its production and a conscious foregrounding of the songs performative/recorded history. I think that I;m thinking here of how George Lipsitz posits the “hidden histories” of popular music, especially in “Weeds in a Vacant Lot” in Footsteps in the Dark. There’s also probably a brief for taper culture among jamband audiences here too, as a way to substitute an alternate and more audience-controllable set of relations around recorded objects by positing specific recordings of live sets pinpointed to specific dates as the 'real" versions of the songs. You don't want to go too far with this though because there's alot of elision of material performance production in dead culture too, otherwise there would be/have been a wider recognition of the band as a bunch of junkie millionaires by their fans. I mean, at least Stones fans know what they're buying when they pay the ticket.

*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.

**Marybeth Hamilton, Searching For The Blues. It’s a book about the history of the idea of the blues in the hands of folklorists and record collectors. It’s not a complete history of that by any means, as it cuts off at the beginning of the 50s when, to my mind, things really get interesting, and it does the reader a disservice by not pointing them to either Robert Gordon’s Lost Delta Found or Benjamin Filene’s Romancing the Folk, both of which offer expanded understandings of some of Hamilton’s material.. But it does establish a solid foundation for understanding, for instance, how Mystery Train-era Greil Marcus probably heard Robert Johnson and the role of “the blues’ (especially the “country blues” or “delta blues” in the construction of the boomer-rock aesthetic. Hamilton, according to her introduction, is a teenage New York Dolls fan turned academic historian, so maybe there’s a generational conflict that explains Dave Marsh’s vehement trashing of her text in the New York Times Book Review, or maybe she just hit a little too close to home.

1 comment:

Nick said...

This is an absolutely brilliant post. Thank you.