Ethnomusicology in the Twenty-First Century
“…the concept of “culture” itself is radically reconfigured in terms of globalising, increasingly sophisticated media and information technologies.” (p.1)
“Ethnomusicology of technoculture: mean an ethnographic study of musical culture with emphasis placed on technological impact and change.” (p.1)
On the Concept of “Technoculture”
According to Andrew Ross, “the term technoculture refers to communities and forms of cultural practice that have emerged in response to changing media and information technologies, forms characterised by technological adaptation, avoidance, subversion, or resistance.” “Ross (1991:3) argues that “it is important to understand technology not as a mechanical imposition on our lives but as a fully cultural process, soaked through with social meaning that only makes sense in the context of familiar kinds of behaviour.””
“An ethnomusicology of technoculture…is concerned with how technology implicates cultural practices involving music. It includes not only technologically based musical countercultures and subculture but behaviours and forms of knowledge ranging from mainstream and traditional institutions, on the one hand, to contemporary music scholarship, on the other.” “As Paul Theberge (1993:151) points out, “electronic technologies and the industries that supply them are not simply the technical and economic context within which ‘music’ is made, but rather, they are among the very preconditions for contemporary musical culture, thought of in its broadest sense, in the latter half of the twentieth century”. Thus, by examining technocultres of music, we can overcome the conventional distinction, even conflict, between technology and culture, implicit especially in studies of “traditional” music in the field of ethnomusicology.” (p.2-3)
“Technology privileged the researcher, distancing him or her from the object of research — whether music/sound or human behaviour — and allowing him or her to control it. Indeed, the sound document becomes a true object: isolated from the noisy chaos of real life in the field, it becomes analysable, frameable, manipulable, and, ultimately, exploitable.” (p.3) “After all, the history of ethnomusicology is intimately linked to the history of audio recording, a technology tacitly regarded as culturally neutral by most scholars and uncritically utilised in music research (see Shelemay 1991:279)” (p.3)
Technology and Culture
“As Simon Frith (1986:265-66) notes in reference to popular music, “the implication is that technology is somehow false or falsifying,” that it is “unnatural” (creating an artificial presence in performance), “alienating” (coming between performers and their audiences), and somehow “opposed to art” (emptying musical performance of creativity and expressiveness).” (p.6)
“…technology is implicated in the formation and perpetuation of cultures not only in America but throughout the world…technologies are created and/or used in particular cultural contexts for specific purposes.” (p.6)
“Three methodological distinctions for understanding the place of the technological in society: the ontological, the pragmatic, and the phenomenological.”
“The ontological determines what technology is, the focus being on the technological object itself (i.e., the turntable, the amplifier, the CD, etc.).
The pragmatic is concerned with how technologies are used and the practices and forms of knowledge that arise from their use (such as deejaying, computer hacking, etc.).
The phenomenological focuses on how the technological impacts human experience in ways not directly tied to the function of a particular technology (for example, how the automobile has taken on other meanings beyond its simple utility, like upward social mobility, masculinity, youthfulness, fashion, etc.)
With these methodologies, we look … beyond the hard edges of physical objects, to view technology as a culturally saturated component of human activity.
Our definition of technology encompasses not only the technological artefact but the ways in which technologies are used and conceived (Theberge 1997; Bijker et al. 1987)
To study technoculture, then, we must examine technologies not just as things — autonomous or neutral “devices” — but as material culture that people use and experience in ways meaningful to their particular needs and circumstances.”
“Three kinds of culturally determined agency closely related to technology: interaction, knowledge, and experience.
Interaction means engaging with the technological in a direct way: driving a car, playing a piano…
Knowledge involves understanding the significance of a device or phenomenon, learning what it can or is supposed to do. This can range from fully understanding its constitution (its scientific principles or construction) to simply intuiting its intended use (or potential uses).
Experience involves understanding a technology in terms of both the past and the present (as well as, perhaps, the future). This means thinking about the technological in relation to other aspects of life. Technologies like the piano are thus imbued with meaning through their utilisation and, because of this, their meaning may change over time and place. At the same time, because these same technologies may offer other possibilities of meaning, they often also generate new desires, needs, and uses.” (p.7)
“The obvious but seldom explored premise that technologies become imbedded in cultural systems and social institutions, which, in turn, are reconfigured by those same technologies. Technologies are acculturated in societies through human agency — through their utilisation by people — and, in turn, generate new needs and social spaces for those people. Without the meaning conferred through use, technologies become dead objects, empty artefacts.” (p.8)
“Historically speaking, we might argue that older technologies often suggest possibilities for subsequent ones. More importantly, however, certain technologies are created to serve specific needs and desires, but they also generate new needs and desires that, in turn, give rise to new technologies.” (p.8)
“However, it is not to say that technology has meaning only through its use…They are developed for explicit reasons by people living in specific historical moments and social contexts. Indeed, technologies are often designed with particular social effects in mind. One might even say that many, if not all, technologies are inherently political. As Langdon Winner (1999: 34) points out, “If we examine social patterns that comprise the environments of technical systems, we find certain devices and systems almost invariably linked to specific ways of organising power and authority. The important question is: Does this state of affairs derive from an unavoidable social response to intractable properties in the thing themselves, or is it instead a pattern imposed independently by a governing body, ruling class, or some other social or cultural institution to further its own purpose?”…Indeed, technologies can also be used to support or subvert long-established sociopolitical and economic institutions.” (pp.8-9)
“Technology emerges from and gives rise to particular social configurations. The creation, distribution, and use of technology have social consequences. However, ... it is not new technologies as such that challenge old social configurations and create new ones but the people that engage with and use these technologies.” (p.9)
“MP3 and Internet software have been crucial in the establishment of new possibilities for the exchange of music. …they give greater control of music selection to the end user, allowing people to freely share music online and, in this way, undermine the power that the popular music industry has over its consumers (see Lewis 2000; Segal 2000). Such technologies further distort the landscape by allowing unsigned artists to distribute their own recordings on a scale heretofore unthinkable, establishing new musical careers and reinvigorating past pursuits. They circumvent the established recording industry altogether by making “the world your hard disk [and] everyone a publisher,” says David Post (quoted in Snider 2000). Or, as Andrew Sullivan views the phenomena, only partly tongue-in-cheek, these technologies form the centre of a social non-revolution, an emerging “e-topian” or “dot-communist” world where “mine-thine” distinctions are erased for those with a computer, a modem, and a phone line (Sullivan 2000)” (pp.9-10)
Localising Global Technologies
“Technological meaning is historically grounded and, as a result, becomes located within a larger social imaginary. New technologies, on the other hand, are volatile. Their social meaning is not established: a new technological device might be known to only a few people or be economically unfeasible, its social affects debated, its intended use subverted. Thus, we argue that the technological device, whether it is a quill pen or a personal computer, gains meaning through human agency. Because of human agency, technology can be politically oppressive yet also liberating; it might build community while simultaneously causing social alienation; and it can benefit the sick and infirm but also damage the environment or even destroy life. It is at the intersection of human agency and technological artefact where meaning is most often contested, where we find resistance, subversion, co-option, coercion, and domination. This is why technological devices often become politically charged with conflicting ideologies of identity, community, knowledge, and power.” (pp.10-11)
“Timothy Taylor argues that colonialism and imperialism first shaped the globe into a lopsided configuration in which Western forms and signs were disseminated throughout much of the world. However, with today’s globalisation, driven by multinational capitalism and its information and media technologies, forms and signs from elsewhere flow to Europe and the United States with increasing speed. Such junctures between peripheries and metropoles show how within this postmodern world sharp distinctions between local and global are often elusive.” (p.11)
“The use of technologies of reproduction — digital synthesisers and samplers — not only makes possible the appropriation of the expressive forms of non-Western peoples but through the discourse surrounding the technology, justifies their commodification, exoticisation, and exploitation.” (p.11)
“Although, … technologies often transcend political, linguistic, and even cultural boundaries, much of their associated meaning is locally grounded — again, through the specifics of history and circumstance.” (p.11)
“We argue that all technological knowledge is local knowledge, though we recognise that technologies may reshape notions of the local, extending or transcending old boundaries through changes in transportation and communications. This is way…radio broadcasting and sound amplification take on different meanings in different parts of the world.” (p.12)
“Technologies, even the most oppressive and alienating, are thus constantly being reinterpreted in ways that make sense of local circumstances and that intersect with local interests, often subverting their original intent. Thus, rather than viewing technologies solely as imposed from the West and accepted passively elsewhere, like Penley and Ross, we see technologies within social and political processes “by which people…make their own independent sense of the stories that are told within and about an advanced technological society” (1992:xv). Such a view allows “technocommodities” to be transformed into social, economic, and political resources, emerging from the unorganised daily activities of populace (Penlay and Ross 1992: xvi).” (pp.12-13)
The Ripple Effect and Regimes of Technologies
“Ripple effect: one kind of technological innovation gives rise to other forms of innovation.” (p.14)
“Theberge (1997) points out two aspects important to technological innovation and the ripple effect of technological change: “continuous” and “transectorial”innovation.
In the case of the first, that the increasing pace of technological innovation derives from “dependencies between small, creative firms and large, scale-intensive corporations” (1997: 68).
The second concept, transectorial innovation, argues that “innovations generated within a specific industrial sector find subsequent application in other, often unrelated sectors” (1997: 28).
Thus, like the technological adaptations generated by continuous innovation, transectorial innovation results in an interdependence among often disparate industry firms, multinational corporations, and manufacturing sectors (1997:59).” (p.14)
“The meanings we derive from technology are situational, fluid, and polysemantic.” (p.15)
“Magnetic tape and its use began to dislodge (musical) sound from its source. This dislocation required new strategies for understanding sound and affirming what is “real.” Drawing meaning from tape-recorded sound and its reproduction demanded an understanding of a set of linked signs, situated within the technology’s sonic characteristics, its fidelity vis-a-vis other audio technologies and unmediated performance, and an affinity with the listener’s changing expectations…. The time-disordering operations found in a recording studio, which, like print-through, disrupt the flow of musical time, become a means of exploring the temporal conditions of research and ethnographic representation.”(p.15)
Technological Control, Resistance, and Subversion
“Technology is not just about “building order in our world.” In most cases, the development of new technologies is also implicated in political, social, or economic control. Simon Frith argues that recordings, from their inception near the beginning of the twentieth century, shifted new authority to performers by reducing the importance of composers for the popular music industry and gave commercial voice to musically illiterate blues and “hillbilly” musicians (1986:269-270).” (p.17)
“Technologies are brought into existence both to control and to expand human potential, creating ongoing tensions between cynical exploitation and utopian cooperation…it is in the use of technology that meaning is found, and that it is at this intersection of human agency and the technological artefact that meaning is also contested — this is where we find the potential for resistance, subversion, cooption, coercion, and domination. Thus, technologies related to music are far from neutral, and they are never fully controlled by any single constituency. They are sites of continuous social and political struggle — in the field of ethnomusicology, such struggles are acted out in terms of cultural ownership, musical authenticity, and intellectual authority…. As all forms of music become increasingly implicated in the globalisation of advanced technologies, an ethnomusicology of the twenty-first century will have to adapt to changing ideas of musical authenticity, cultural representation, and intellectual authority.” (p.18)