Musical Life in Softcity (pp.23-64)
An Internet Ethnography
Introduction: Ghosts in the Machine
“Softcity, what William J. Mitchell also calls the “City of Bits,” a metaphorical place of infinite space that exists without location or materiality… like a web, it ensnares us with utopian promise of posthuman transcendence as ageless disembodied tele-presences without nationality, gender, creed, or colour. Thus, we have become living ghosts in the machine…. We might say that Softcity is not really about contemporaneity but about commmensurability…Thus, Softcity is a city of software-driven ephemerality, its fantastic edifices built from the bits and bytes of data retrieved from remote mainframe servers. Its inhabitants exist as disembodied nomadic identities with no simultaneity of presence, only a collective solitude.” (p. 24)
“While the Internet may hold utopian possibilities for the future, its current realities are still grounded in fundamental economic and political contingencies. Nevertheless, the Internet gives rise to new social formations, even while those formations are still limited to those privileged people that have access to cyberspace.” (p.27)
“The Internet…provides a context in which social interaction and group formation can take place — it forms….the culture of simulation.” (p.28)
Postmodernism and the Culture of Simulation
“Sherry Turkle states that “we are moving from a modernist culture of calculation into a postmodernist culture of simulation” (Turkle 1997: 20). She argues that the “modernist computational aesthetic” (1997: 18) revolved around calculation, one-way processes, and hierarchical relationships. Computers and computation reflected the grand narrative of scientific empiricism: causal relationships, reductive reasoning, and an absolute division between lofty science and popular culture. In the postmodern culture of simulation, this narrative has given way to complexity, interactivity, and decentralised relationships. The GUI (graphical user interface) — along with hypertext media and the Internet — has changed the way we interact with our computers, allowing us to navigate within simulated environments and to manipulate metaphorical objects, As an increasingly important part of our lived experiences, the computer and media technologies are changing the way we think about the real and representations of the real.” (p.28)
“...Frederic Jameson’s well-known essay (1983) on postmodernism…some of his points, particular those that are reactions against high modernist aesthetic sensibilities: blurred categorical boundaries (between highbrow and lowbrow culture, between the Scientific and the Popular), stylistic pastiche (“cut’ n’ paste” creativity, imitation without reference), an end to privileged subjectivity (the decline of the heroic [white male] narrative and the advent of multiple perspectives), and, most importantly, the conquest of representation over reality. Since, as Jameson points out, postmodernity emerged out of late-twentieth-century multinational capitalism, the culture of simulation is informed by an aesthetics of commodity consumerism. Jameson suggests that the penetration of advertising, television, and the media throughout society, the accelerated rhythms of fashion and style, and the development of rapid transportation and communication systems all contribute toward an aesthetic sensibility in which reality becomes transformed into images and time fragmented into a series of perpetual presents (Jameson 1983:125)” (pp.28-29)
“It is important to recognise that there are various understandings of postmodernity, and that these are differentiated mainly along several axes relating to particular sets of social practices and trends in intellectual thought.
Hal Foster (1983) discussed two main ideologies of postmodernity.
The “postmodernism of reaction” is described as neoconservative, rejecting modernism yet preserving the status quo,
...while the “postmodernism of resistance” seeks to critique and deconstruct modernism yet resist the status quo, thus following a more progressive impulse.
Ann Kaplan (1988) takes the debate further, arguing that discourse around postmodernism can also be differentiated by two main intellectual trends: feminist scholarship and cultural studies.
...she calls the former “utopian” postmodernism and describes it as a movement away from traditional and oppressive cultural binaries and hierarchies.
Kaplan refers to the latter as “co-opted” or commercial postmodernism, “linked to the new stage of multinational, multi-conglomerate consumer capitalism, and to all the new technologies this stage has spawned.”
Following this particular vein, co-opted postmodernism might be understood as the complete transformation of the subject through consumer capitalism and the media industry.
… According to this logic, we cannot stand outside of this world because as Beaudrillard (1994: 2) points out, “the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referential — worse: with their artificial resurrection in the systems of signs…” The real and the simulated have thus become one and the same. This suggests, then, a nihilistic perspective in which the social meanings and practices that emerge out of this culture of simulation are illusory and false. From this dystopian viewpoint, postmodernity sets the stage for a darker, seamier side of Western imperialism, where human consciousness itself is now open to colonisation and oppression….” (pp. 29-30)
“Polemics aside, such arguments suggest that postmodernism is grounded in Western cultural and political expansionism while also constructed out of uniquely American, neo-avantgardist aesthetic sensibilities (Huyssen 1986)….In another critique, Mike Davis (1988: 80) points out that postmodernism is a totalistic concept that “tends to homogenise the details of the contemporary landscape, to subsume under a master concept too many contradictory phenomena which, though undoubtedly visible in the same chronological moment, are none the less separated in their true temporalities.”” (p.30)
“Arturo Escobar’s “Welcome to Cyberia” makes the compelling argument that, while the culture of simulation (what he calls “cyberculture”) might orient itself toward constituting a new order, it “originates in a well-known social and cultural matrix, that of modernity” (Escobar 1996: 112). In other words, while the Internet may be rooted in familiar terrain, it still holds the promise of new cultural narratives and social formations. It remains to be seen whether these will be understood as an extension of modernity, inherent to a larger postmodern condition, or simply one of many alternative modernities.” (pp.30-31)
“…an increasing amount of our day-to-day experiences is mediated rather than live. New technologies can also enhance mediation, creating virtual and hyperreal experiences that might be almost indistinguishable from the real or impossible to find in real-world contexts. Sometimes called the “Disney effect”, such simulated environments and social interactions are becoming a major part of our lives….Thus, it might be better to say that we are experiencing radically new forms of social interaction as a result of media technologies — but the quality of these social interactions, however mediated they might be, still depends on the embodied humans that give rise to them.” (p.31)
“Whether arising out of the postmodern condition or simply constituting a reconfiguration of modernity, new media technologies have altered our relationship with the world around us so radically that the real and the simulated seem to be indistinguishable. Yet despite having such a profound impact on our daily lives and, indeed, our understandings of the world, these technologies are rarely seen as being part of culture. It is too easy to forget that the realm of science and technology is, to use Geertzian phraseology, as much of a cultural system as the realms of art or religion.” (pp.31-32)
Simulation and the Creative Process
“Creativity in electronic music is based on what Arthur Kroker (1993) views as digital recombinancy, where identifiable elements of one expressive form are reconfigured to become another, entirely different.”…”music recombinancy redefines the compositional process. Instead of writing for certain music instruments, as in past Western musical practice, mod composers create music with instruments. In other words, mod composers work directly with sound rather than writing instructions (i.e. musical notation) for musicians specialising in particular instruments. This has direct implications not only for the creative process but also for the social organisation of music production.
When music is produced in the simulated environment of computer technology, it forces us to reconsider the Cartesian mind-body divide. Traditional Western art music, on the one hand, valorises virtuosity, which in turn hinges on the close relationship between body and music-making — even while musical creativity is understood to be centred in the mind. Virtuoso musicians are valued for their technical skills in performance in the way that athletes are valued for their speed, flexibility, control, stamina, and power. Furthermore, musicians are evaluated according to their mastery over a musical instrument, their technical control of it, and their physical ability to make it do extraordinary things. They have an intimate and direct relationship with the sound they produce. And that relationship has always been through the body. On the other hand, Western art music composers have come to be regarded as great musical thinkers. Being a composer might be less glamorous than being a performer, but composers are seen as the front of creativity, while performers are merely interpreters and technicians: composition results from the creative mind while performance is executed bu the interpretive body. Thus, the Cartesian divide is manifest even in the social division of musical labor.” (p.45)
“In electronic music such as that produced in digital modules, the mind and body divisions are blurred: the composer determines all aspects of the music, including how it is to be executed down to the most minute detail. In this way, the composer both creates and interprets music with the computer. Yet Western notions of musicality, virtuosity, talent, and so forth have all been bound up in an ideology of human agency, individualism, and personal autonomy.” (p.46)
“In traditional art music the composer scores out ideas to create a piece that is performed by a singer, instrumentalist, or ensemble. Similarly, in electronic music the composer codes instructions for software programs that, in turn, render those codes into music. Both scoring and coding music, broadly considered, are forms of inscription. A conventional music score, however, is a kind of text that is (re)interpreted by the performer to become music. In this way, the score becomes a textual record of an ephemeral phenomenon, but before the fact. That is, when music is rendered into notation, it becomes textualised in a way similar to language…Conventional music notation is thus often implicated in the simple-minded but persistent analogy drawn between music and language.
On the other hand, electronic music code might also be considered a kind of text, but it’s not written to be read by humans. It forms a set of instructions to the computer to carry out particular commands in precise order and detail….In this way, music coding is more like an audio recording than a text. … A composition (or any part of it) can be immediately “played back” by the computer so that the composer can listen to any passage throughout the compositional process. In this way, composition becomes a more intuitive form of musical expression, somewhat akin to improvisation in jazz or blues.
...the audio recording fixes performance in time, specifically in the past (after all, the recording is by definition an archival document). Musical coding, too, fixes the performance in time, but in the present.” (pp.46-47)
Conclusion: Techno-performativity and Virtual Community
“The computer, in a way, allows for a new kind of performativity, an actualisation of multiple and perhaps idealised selves through text and image.” (p.54)
“I would argue that all communities are based less on material and embodied proximity (humans sharing physical space) than on a collective sense of identity, of feeling that one belongs and is committed to a particular group. And the group coheres through the common interests, ideals, and goals of its membership….The Internet lays the groundwork for community by providing access to sustained communication, informational resources, and, most important, a common locus for members to gather (even while that locus is virtual). Internet communities have emerged, despite temporal and spatial displacements, because they are formed entirely out of social relationships that are very real to members — relationships emerging out of communication, exchange (of information, ideas, even goods and capital), common interests and purpose, and mutual commitment. As Nessim Watson (1999: 120) argues, “we should begin thinking of community as a product not of shared space, but of shared relationships among people.”” (p.55)
“A community is defined by the social relationships that form its underpinnings, and these are its reality.” (p.56)
“It is the context of online communities that might be virtual (or electronic, or cyber, or whatever), not the sets of social relationships such collectivities engender.” (p.57)
“In Attali’s utopian scenario, music becomes a participatory enterprise in which consumers are involved in the creative process itself; distinctions between high and low culture disappear (or at least blur); economic networks of use and exchange dissolve; and finally, composing is no longer a specialised profession, aimed at the production of a musical object, but an ongoing communal activity that remains perpetually unfinished, undertaken for the sheer pleasure of social interaction — what Christopher Small (1998: 13) calls musicking.” (p.58)
“Following Hebdige (1979), a subculture is based on the materials of the parent (or dominant) culture, reconfigured to become meaningful to its rebellious participants.” (p.58)
“The Internet provides a place for individuals to gather and, as a collective, to generate emergent (sub)cultures, complex prestige systems, elaborate commodity exchange networks, and structured governing bureaucracies.” (P.59)