New Audiovisual Aesthetics, Part the First: in which we talk Twitter, cyborgs, and the uncertain future of art music

I recently began reading The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics (OHNAA) for a book review for Notes: The Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association. One of the ways I hope to gestate the book’s essays is by reflecting on them here, processing and synthesizing ideas it contains with those I’ve encountered elsewhere, with the intention of making a proper review easier to write. We’ll see how successful the outcome. But I should be clear that what I will write here is not so much a summary of the authors’ points, perspectives, or arguments, as it is my impressions, contemplation, and response to their essays. I’m less concerned with accurately representing the authors’ position (although there will inevitably be some of that) and more concerned with being able to articulate what I got out of their essays and where it sits in my larger experience.

Today’s essay: “Classical Music for the Posthuman Condition” by Lawrence Kramer of Fordham University.

This essay begins Part II of the Handbook. (For reasons I don’t unite understand, Part I was the introduction to the rest of the book. Why it wasn’t simply called “Introduction” and Part I given over to first contributed essays, I don’t know.) This essay is about classical music (in the broad colloquial sense of the term, which I don’t prefer; henceforth, I’ll be using the term art music in its stead), social media, cyborgs, and humanity. Yeah! All in about fourteen pages. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed a flurry of tweets today making reference to these concepts.

Music as Space

One of my increasingly favored areas of inquiry is that of conceptualizing music in metaphors of space, distance, weight, and other physical properties that it does not literally have. I don’t mean the physics of sound, which has various properties that operate in actual spaces. I mean the metaphors of physical bodies through which we perceive and experience music, not mere sound. Not the cold rationality of quantifying a sine wave, but the rich warmth of an encounter with, say, Beethoven.

One of the first elements Kramer raises is that of distance. The distance between man and machine, between person and person, between art music and modern audience. These are, of course, not literal, physical distances; they are psychological, emotional, technological ones. It is here that Kramer posits a possible reason for the long-trumpeted “death of ‘classical’ music” (which should also not be taken too literally). He states:

Digital media project a model of mind drastically different from the model that has informed classical music for more that two centuries. The music acts through time and depth; digital media act through space and surface.

—OHNAA, p. 39

Typically, Twitter and other social media consist of rather shallow interactions—probably why many academics have been so slow to adopt Twitter as an academic tool. This shallow interaction seems at odds with the profundity associated with the great works of Western art music. Live-tweeting a concert or recital, then, might seem to ensconce the sublime amid the ridiculous.

Like all new-media technologies, Twitter involves a collapse of distance. Tweeting is prosthetic telepathy; it transports virtual thoughts like a kind of mental telephone. But the collapse of distance is also the collapse of nearness.  In the twittersphere, ‘near’ and ‘far’ become meaningless terms.

—OHNAA, p. 40

Kramer then invites us to consider how much we are “near” the music—near in the sense of timely. A live performance of a given work only happens once in the history of the universe; the experience is unique to its time and place. Are we near that place when we attend such a performance? From my own experience, I know that even though music recordings may be note-perfect, I have been more often moved at live concerts than when staring at my iTunes playlist. But this metaphor of distance conjures feelings of the immediacy, intimacy, and subjectivity of being “near” the experience of those fleeting moments, or else the detached, remote, and objectivity of being “far” from them.  Kramer points out that Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which he has been using his point of departure, is itself a study in distance. He says:

The symphony is a musical essay in distance: distance lost and won, distance enjoyed and regretted. There is the distance sought in nature from the troubles of urban life and moral confusion, and the distance from nature imposed by the artifice of representing it. There is the distance in history that prevents us from being too credulous about the pastoral ideal (the pastoral is dated, and always was), and the distance from history that gives the ideal its continued allure (the pastoral is timeless, and always will be).

—OHNAA, p. 40

Posthumanity

“My name is C-3PO: Human/Cyborg Relations.”

This dichotomy between distance in and distance from mirrors the dichotomy I’ve been alluding to all along,—that of  the rich, warm, subjective, immediate, qualitative human-ness of the “near” versus the rational, cold, objective, recorded, quantitative machine-ness of the “far.” I don’t mean to imply one of these is inherently better than the other, or that an event can only be experienced through mutually exclusive bifurcation. After all, the idea of warm has no meaning if we do not also have an idea of cold.

Kramer points out that humanity has increasingly used machines for music making, graduating from voice to ever more complex instruments to increasingly sophisticated sound reproduction technologies. We are becoming posthuman as our lives are increasingly mitigated by technology. The distance between human experience and machine becomes ever smaller. This is where the cyborgs show up—the singularity—an event forewarned by numerous writers of science fiction and hailed by some futurists like Ray Kurzweil.

The increasing naturalization of the machine–human interface has led to an emergent reconnection of the body.

Thus the body is merely extended by the technology we use as a kind of prosthesis. In what ways, then, has recording technology altered the way we experience music. In some ways, music recording has opened up new vistas—wider dissemination, new audiences. At the same time we have had to pay a price for those vistas—orchestras around the U.S. (and other countries, I expect) are closing because attendance is too low to sustain local ensembles. Why go to a live performance when I can download the songs I actually want, keep them, and  return to over and over again?

Kramer suggests:

The distance of the machinic—the distance from the human that becomes the distance of the human—is now lost. In its absence the distinctions between the human and the machinic and between consciousness and the flow of information become meaningless.  . . . the music loses its audience, not in the sense that fewer people listen to it, but in the sense that the figure of the human, the fiction of ‘man,’ to which the music is addressed has become vestigial.

—OHNAA, p. 45

Even in the use of earbuds, says Kramer, we merge machine with man.

Earbuds exceed the older headphones in this respect; with earbuds the apparatus is taken into the body cavity and thus literally incorporated. The earbuds become prosthetic eardrums in which the music itself becomes prosthetic, less a sound transmitted to a listener than a making-audible of what might otherwise be heard only in the mind’s ear.

—OHNAA, p. 46

The Musical Work

. . . it involves the transmission not only of the classical work but also of the distance between music and audience on which the concept of the work depends. The work asks to be contemplated; contemplation requires distance.

—OHNAA, p. 44, emphasis added

That last sentence in particular struck me, as I have considered the notion of contemplation, or rather Contemplation, in earlier posts (1, 2). C.S. Lewis’s “Mediation in a Toolshed” seems to be becoming a theme for me. The work asks to be contemplated, and that contemplation demands a certain distance. If I understand rightly, this is very much in line with Lewis, who says that in order to Contemplate the beam of light, one must move outside of it. When one is within the beam of light, one cannot Contemplate it because one is experiencing it; we must have distance. At the same time, distance, in this sense, seems to fall more on the side of objectivity, rather than the subjectivity I’ve been ascribing to the moment-to-moment experience of live performance. Perhaps the distinctions I’ve ascribed to these different modes of thought are false, but they at least help me think about it.

Kramer describes five conceptual pillars that supported the traditional modus operandi of art music:

  1. the music is a psuedo-object
  2. the musical work is an integrated totality (i.e. works made up of movements or sections that go in a particular order)
  3. the music addresses the listener from a psychological distance to allow contemplation
  4. the musical work is mysterious, requiring musical and conceptual interpretation
  5. The music is to be attended to in activity of nothing but listening

The cyborgian nature of the way in which we now experience most of our music distorts these. (1) Music is less like an object than perhaps ever before. We cannot even pretend to hold it; there is no record or cassette tape or CD. We still call them “tracks” even though the term is the remnant of when records actually left analogue tracks visible to the eye. We may have purchased the right to listen to our digital recordings forever, but that is hardly the same thing. (2) With the iPod’s shuffle feature, the connective tissue between the many parts of a musical work begin to dissolve.  (3 & 5) I think the third point may be closely related to the fifth, in that focusing attention, what we might call active listening, provides space for contemplation. In contrast, passively hearing the same music does not prompt one to cognitively engage with it. (4) How many people buy all the available recordings of a given Schubert song cycle? Or even just all the recordings of a single one of his songs? Not many, I’d wager. This limits one’s experience of the piece to probably one (at most, a handful) of interpretations of the work.

Doom and Gloom or Unprecedented Opportunity?

Kramer suggests we “rebrand” (my choice of word, not his) art music as “something that cannot be recorded but only simulated” (p. 49). This nebulous ideal of the standard-by-which-all-other-performances-are-measured might be traded in for a conceptual approach that looks at the uncertain and potential of each unique performance experience.

In concert [the body] would be charged with making the event of music happen and making the music happen as an event, with the outcome uncertain until the last note has sounded.

—OHNAA, p. 44, emphasis added

Reminds me of Schrödinger’s Cat. The musical work is both alive and dead until we hear the final strains and open up that box. That very reframing of the the live performance in these terms fills me with greater anticipation of such an event. As we become increasingly disembodied in our interactions with other people, and increasingly integrate technology in our everyday lives, perhaps the live performance will become again the unique and exciting exception to the rule of recorded monotony. Art music would again be an “uncertain adventure” (p. 51).

So I will end with the apt words with which Kramer himself ends his essay:

. . . classical music may claim a renewed value not by invoking long exhausted claims of transcendental expression, but by securing a space in which the infinity of the posthuman interface yields to the plenteousness of a simply human finitude.

P.S. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much joy I got from Kramer’s use of Brobdingnagian in his last footnote. Until this morning, I had never seen the word in print, but was even more delighted than I knew what it meant (thanks this scene from The Big Bang Theory).

—OHNAA, p. 51

Video Game “Immersion”: in which we Contemplate a return to Enjoyment

I am in the midst of reading a recent article in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Games Criticism by Brendan Keogh entitled “Across World and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games.” This article has made quite stir, apparently, making the rounds (assuming one pays attention to the right circles—Dan Golding, Daniel Joseph, Ian Bogost, Zoya Street, Felan Parker; I imagine there are others too, but hat tip to Dan Golding for this particular list).

One of the things Keogh says in his introduction reminded me of another recent read completely unrelated to game studies. (Although, as a good votary of the liberal arts, I should never say “completely unrelated,” as we shall see.) In an earlier post, I reflected, as I am wont to do, on C. S. Lewis’s essay “Meditation in a Tool Shed,” which was, in turn, much influence by philosopher Samuel Alexander‘s Space, Time, and Deity.

This excerpt is what got me thinking:

The first of these sections observes how the concept of ‘immersion’ obscures critical analysis of video games [sic et cetera] as cultural forms that actually exist, as it leads to the same separation of form and content that Susan Sontag (1964) so completely dismantled half a century ago. The videogame critic, I argue, must avoid immersion to understand how videogame play functions across worlds. . . In my conclusion, I argue why a shift towards close, critical analyses of specific videogames is inevitable and, indeed, is already emerging as a younger generation of theorists with a more everyday relationship to videogames begins presenting and publishing research. These scholars have grown up in a time where playing a videogame is as mundane as watching a film or listening to pop music; they do not require all-encompassing formal methods to understand what videogames are, but critical toolkits to deploy and alter as they build a stronger understanding of videogames as a cultural form.

—Brendan Keogh entitled “Across World and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games,” Journal of Games Criticism, v. 1, no. 1, 2014

(emphasis added)

Compare that to Lewis:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, ninety-odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

— C. S. Lewis, ”Meditation in a Toolshed,” from Essay Collection, p. 607

(emphasis added)

Looking along the beam versus looking at the beam. Samuel Alexander referred to theses as Enjoyment and Contemplation, respectively. In some ways, Keogh’s words reminded me of Lewis and Alexander. It seems to me the very nature of formal criticism must be Contemplative, i.e., looking at the beam, studying object of interest from without in order to gain an appreciation for its composition (structure, artistry, fill-in-the-blank). Conversely, Enjoyment, i.e., looking along the beam, would correspond to Keogh’s use of the term immersion, a slippery word commonly used in the gaming community. This strikes me as the same idea, albeit in significant different language. Lewis, as literature professor, took a much more literary tack. Thus, can one say…?

Alexander / Lewis / Keogh
Contemplation = at beam = criticism
Enjoyment = along beam = immersion

I got the impression from Lewis that he did not advocate one of these perspectives at the expense of the other, but preferred to let them inform one another. I suspect that may be at the root of what Keogh says as well when he mentions young scholars who have grown up with video games as a norm. Despite the fuzziness of what age-range constitutes a young scholar, I suspect that those who think of video games as a normal part of their childhood (of which I would consider myself a member), and continue to participate in that culture have an easy enough time looking along the light beam and have, perhaps more recently begun to look at that beam they have long enjoyed. Perhaps they will indeed find it easier to shift between those two experiential paradigms, allowing for a balanced understanding of reciprocal perception. That is not to say, of course, that “older” scholars cannot find such a balance, but I suspect they will have to be willing to lay aside the clinical sterility of Contemplation in order to let themselves Enjoy games, which will, in turn, deepen their critical engagement.

All this from the introduction to an article I have not yet finished. Maybe I should have thought that through before posting this; it may be far off from what the author’s intended destination. Still, there it is.

Contemplating My Enjoyment of Contemplation: in which C. S. Lewis blows my mind!

But there is one act, of which every man should be master, the art of reflection. If you are not a thinking man, to what purpose are you a man at all?

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Author’s Preface to Aids to Reflection

I’ve begun reading Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, and so far I love it. This book seeks to explain the seemingly confused amalgam of elements (both intra- and trans-book) in the “Narniad” (a term I learned from Ward) through the lens of medieval/Renaissance cosmology. The very premise makes sense to me, given C. S. Lewis’s area of expertise.

I don’t usually blog about everything I’m reading, but reading this book gave me an
epiphanic moment today. You see, my mind is like a flock of vultures (not a particularly pleasant simile . . . also, do vultures come in flocks? Onward!); it ravenously circles ideas for a long time, waiting for them to group together for safety—then it consumes them all together. If you are still reading, then I can only assume that that crude metaphor worked better than I thought it would, or else you have nothing better to read. If the former: YAY! Read on! If the latter: Have I told you about this book I’m reading called Planet Narnia?

[N.B. I know I planned to write about music in Bioshock Infinite, and I still expect that to happen. I submitted a paper proposal on this very subject to the North American Conference on Video Game Music, so we’ll see if it is accepted. The problem is not in finding something to say about it, but in how to narrow down what could be said. Still waiting for the vultures to strike on this one, but you can read my thoughts on the game’s use of theology and story and on the original Bioshock.]

Pressing forward. In Planet Narnia, Ward points out a Lewis’s affinity for what he called the “Kappa element.” The kappa comes from the character that begins the Greek word kruptos, meaning “hidden,” from which we get the word “cryptic.” It would not suffice to summarize Ward’s treatment of the idea as it pertains to the hidden unity underlying the Narniad. As interesting as it is, I was particularly captivated by a mere digression Ward makes—Lewis’s drawn dichotomy between Enjoyment and Contemplation. You can guess that capitalizing these terms, they are not merely used in the colloquial, humdrum meanings, but are rather nuanced.

The antithesis Lewis embraced was drawn from philosopher Samuel Alexander‘s Space, Time, and Deity. In his “Meditation in a Toolshed,” from Essay CollectionLiterature, Philosophy and Short Stories, with which I am not familiar, Lewis describes the difference between Contemplation and Enjoyment, as with so many abstract ideas, with an analogy:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, ninety-odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

— C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” from Essay Collection, p. 607

C. S. Lewis

Lewis experienced the beam two ways. The first was what Alexander would have called Contemplation—the more abstract, objective, external kind of experience. One might substitute “clinical” or “uninvested” or, perhaps, “meta.” Then Lewis experienced what Alexander termed Enjoyment by “looking along the beam.” This was a more participatory, subjective, internal experience. When he observed the beam from without, he could not perceive the experience from within and vice-versa.

As I often do, I’m applying this revelation to the experience of music. I have, on more than one occasion, encountered musicians (usually performers, some of whom were my doctoral-level colleagues in graduate school) who refuse to see the value of music theory because they perceived it to wipe away the magic of their experience of the music. I’ve never really understood this until today, perhaps. Could it be that they had only ever “looked along the beam”? It’s true that, as a student, I had to shift into an analytical mode to successfully navigate my theory classes. But my undergrad professors modeled an almost effortless shifting back and forth between an Enjoyable and a Contemplative perspective, as easily as Lewis stepped into the path of that beam of light, such I was utterly surprised that other musicians might not share that understanding. I take no credit for that understanding. Were it not for reachers who understood it and silently enacted that understanding before me, I expect my perspective would be quite different.

On the other hand, I’ve observed musicians (usually academics) who can only observe and dissect and postulate about the sunbeam. These musicians Contemplate the music, but do not enter into it in any personal way. There is no passion, no vibrancy, no first cause to justify the Contemplation. Or perhaps there is, but they do not Enjoy their teaching; they merely Contemplate it. Even though there are multiple reasons we could point out that contribute, it is no wonder so many performance-focused musicians have an aversion to music theory. They’ve not been shown that the best musicians can and must both Contemplate and Enjoy music. As Lewis’s anecdote implies, one cannot experience both perspectives simultaneously, but one can move back and forth between them. (This mutual exclusivity reminds me of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that one can know the location of an electron or it’s momentum, but not both at the same time.)

As a side note, Lewis’s description actually reminds me a lot of John Granger’s discussion of J. K. Rowling‘s numerous instances of objects that are “bigger on the inside.” Lewis himself runs this theme through the Narniad, such as the wardrobe’s “containing” Narnia and the ramshackle stable in The Last Battle “containing” Aslan’s Country. Enjoying the sunbeam revealed trees and ninety-odd million miles to the sun, all “contained” within that beam.

Enjoyment is a mysterious, mystical, and wonder-filled experience. And I was Enjoying my experience of (what I must now call) Contemplation. Just basking in my experience of is. But Lewis’s words force me to Contemplate Contemplation, to step outside my perspective and reflect upon the perspective itself. It’s really meta, I know.