Resisting the Rhetoric in Retromania: Philosophical reflections on popular music criticism (3/4)
Part III: Metaphors, Undersights and Oversights
Two central tenets of the retromania argument are that I) digital technology is reversing society's perspectives away from the future and instead towards the past, and II) that this is problematic. I think that both of these claims are specious. In reference to the first claim, what the retromaniac position may overlook, or at least not award sufficient weight, is that the use of brand new digital technologies is itself a thoroughly up-to-date way of doing things. The significance of this should not be underestimated when it consists in using the new and efficient tools, for example finding old music on YouTube, or using torrents for tracking down recordings of obscure and deleted vinyls that enthusiasts have digitalised and put online. The tools being used are modern, and to the extent that they are it is wrong to say that there is something unreservedly retrograde about this change in access. Nonetheless the second claim pushes this point, and suggests that even if the means of access to music are new, the fact that technology is being used to revisit music of the past renders this meaningless.
This second claim also has a flaw, however, which relates to the fact that our perception of what is 'really happening' is limited. The further we move from an event, or phenomenon, or cultural shift or movement, the easier it is to see its full impact and view it as a totality of causes and effects. When we are relatively near the beginning of an event / phenomenon / shift / movement and in the middle of it we can only see increments or groups of increments of the whole process. Moreover we approach new situations with a degree of cultural baggage, and a set of personal assumptions about reality that are informed by the contingencies of our own experiences. Indeed, as has been argued previously in this blog, ‘a work can only be perceived as original by its position in music history.’ All of these factors limit our view. We do not yet know what the long-term effect will be of the ability to more easily consume an increasing proportion of the music of the past, but we should not assume that it will necessarily produce a net deficit of creativity or originality. The most we can do is observe that our access to the music of the past is growing, as given the newness of this phenomenon it is not yet possible to view it from any kind of larger perspective with authority. With this in mind I think we should reserve judgement, or if we cannot do that then to err on the side of optimism about the persistence of originality.
DJ Crystl - Warpdrive (LP "Meditation / Warp Drive", 1993)
Dave Clarke – Miles Away (Album "Archive One", 1995)
The first thing to say about this is that in one very basic sense we do not need to worry about newness, because what constitutes our past is permanently changing and being added to with every present moment that recedes into it. In the book Retromania and elsewhere, Simon Reynolds asks 'what happens if we run out of past?'. Whilst the question is easy to understand, it is again primarily a rhetorical question, rather than one that is properly rationally grounded. Given the ongoing production of present events, we can literally never ever run out of past. Every moment that moves from the future and occupies the present is unique. Although no single moment can be said to be any more original than any other, there is a fundamental sense in which newness is occurring permanently by virtue of the ongoing creation of unique moments which become the past. I admit that this is a somewhat metaphysical point, however, and is at risk of sounding obscure. We can ground it by reference to another quote from Reynolds himself:
'Nowadays, [musicians are] no longer astronauts but archaeologists, excavating through layers of debris (the detritus of the analogue, pre-internet era). The exploratory impulse survives, but the accent has shifted from discovery to rediscovery. They’re questing not so much for the unknown as the lost.'
This is a seductive argument. It sounds persuasive, in large part because of the metaphors that Reynolds has used. In reality though it is misleading. For example, in what sense can we compare musicians of the past to astronauts in a way that we cannot do now? In what sense can we even compare musicians to astronauts at all? Presumably Reynolds' argument is that astronauts operate at the very limits of man's technological capabilities and that space exploration exemplifies the human desire for discovery and progress. In this respect it might look like we can draw some parallels between pioneers of space science and pioneers of music, but my view is that is unfair to liken the two. Just as not everybody who would like to be a brilliant physicist can be sufficiently exceptional in mind and body that they can push the boundaries of space exploration, so not every musician can be Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, or Aphex Twin. There are many more musicians than there are astronauts, and all astronauts need to attain extremely high standards of achievement in their field in order to use the title 'astronaut', whereas a vast number of people can be musicians if they wish. Hence, the comparison is unreasonable.
As well as being unreasonable, the comparison is also absurd, for the quote suggests that it would be possible for there to be no musicians who wish to push the boundaries of originality or are artistically capable of doing so, and I do not believe that this can be true. If we are being asked to believe this then we are being asked to believe that creativity itself could be expunged. Given the cultural, social, and moral importance that art has for humans and the societies in which they live the grounds for suggesting that digital culture or hyper-referentiality threatens its existence are weak. Even Reynolds himself does not believe this, as the penultimate sentence suggests: 'the exploratory impulse survives'. My suggestion is we should assume that creativity to be an immutable feature of mankind. The aesthetic impulse is a product of consciousness, and a means of articulating otherwise inexpressible attitudes, emotions, feelings, and beliefs about existence and what it is like to be human. I argue that as long as there are humans there will be art, and as long as there is art there will be art which finds fresh ways to say something newly meaningful about human life, and art which does not. In short, as long as there is consciousness, original art will emerge - even if we do not and cannot yet know what form that originality might take.
On this final point Reynolds in fact concurs. At the very end of the book Retromania, Reynolds states he believes that 'the future is out there' . Presumably his view is that whatever is new and original will eventually emerge into the present. I think that this is absolutely right. Moreover I think it is important that this point is made, because in other respects the retromaniac position is unduly negative. My assessment is that it relies too heavily on a microscopic view from within new, rapidly changing socio-cultural and technological circumstances that we cannot yet fully perceive and which we may not yet fully understand, and it draws conclusions for which there is no long term conclusive evidence. It does this because it overlooks the crucial role that consciousness and the capacity for self-reflection play in defining mankind and what it is capable of. I will try to demonstrate this by returning briefly to the question of the nature of time.
(end of the Part III on IV. next and final Part to be published soon)
The Cure – A Short Term Effect (Album "Three Imaginary Boys Pornography Tour 82", 1982)