Monday, September 24, 2012

Seeing and hearing: Radio and TV in modern culture via Frightened Rabbit's Old, Old Fashioned

Finished reading Jonathan Sterne's excellent book The Audible Past yesterday. Sometimes, in particular works, there are chapters or sections that are well worth the time to be read again and again. The conclusion to Audible Past lands squarely in this category. While effectively wrapping up the entire work, the conclusion also raises additional questions and areas for additional study. One of the more memorable bits in this conclusion is Sterne's examination of the relationship of the metaphors of sight and hearing, especially in Western language and thought. After finishing up this book where the relationship of sound and vision were very much on my mind, my daughter and I were hanging out listening to Frightened Rabbit's The Midnight Organ Fight. The fifth song on this album is Old, Old Fashioned and the lyrics fit particularly well into the thinking about the relationship between sound, , sound reproduction, bodies and media that Sterne has explored throughout the book. So, largely for fun, here's an exegesis of FR's Old, Old Fashioned's lyrics and its connection to listening, sound reproduction and culture.

The first four verses w/ chorus are below with all lyrics available here:

I'll turn off the TV
It's killing us we never speak
There's a radio in the corner
It's dying to make us see

So give me soft, soft static
With a human voice underneath
And we can both get old fashioned
Put the brakes on these fast, fast wheels

Oh let's get old fashioned
Back to how things used to be
If I get old, old fashioned
Would you get old, old fashioned with me?

Put the wall clock in the top drawer
Turn off the lights so we can see
We will waltz across the carpet

So give me the soft, soft static
Of the open fire and the shuffle of our feet
We can both get old fashioned
Do it like they did in '43

In the first verse, the act of turning off the TV is turning off a host of other voices and images that interfere with the song's protagonists' own conversation(s).  The speaking of the TV versus the act of having a conversation with the ensuing or desired destruction or silencing of the TV is a popular trope within Western culture. This trope holds that destroying your TV is in the best interests of the individual and his/her relationships. (Good examples can be found by googling kill your tv.) Because we are so easily distracted by the combination of moving images and audio, our conversation cannot transcend or push back that of the TV unless it is turned off.
However something needs to replace the TV as a medium to draw people together. Thus the radio, drawing deeply on the nostalgia of the radio as a centralizing, community-building entity is called upon; see Norman Rockwell illustrations of listeners gathered around the radio. Additionally, turning off moving images forces the erstwhile viewers to look at each other, hence the radio " dying to make us see". Note that the radio which projects no images but only sound is a better conduit of sight because it connect the listeners with, presumably, a better understanding of the real world through personal conversation and interaction. There is the subtext that sound/image are difficult, if not impossible to traverse in conversation but sound only can be pushed into the background so that conversation can be foreground. Additionally, the radio's "soft, soft static" pushes back against the hyper-edited, HD-obssessed TV viewing. The radio as a media object that receives and interprets particular waves, in fact would be useless without those waves, also, in this context, functions as a communicative medium that reconnects two individuals. The chorus's desire to get "old fashioned" and "back to how things used to be" refers not only to the removal of interfering media (TV) but also the restoration of the relationships between the protagonist and his audience. Nostalgia is drawn on heavily here, while nostalgia is often for a falsely remembered golden age, in the case of this relationship the couple is well able to relive their previous relationship by reducing the relationship back to what mattered, time together.
Both verse one and verse three make entreaties to re-enabling the ability to see by the means of listening. The radio in verse one is "...dying to make us see" while verse three asks to "Turn off the lights so we can see". The joint juxtaposition of opposites is mirrored in both verses. Where verse one calls for sound to cause the listeners to see, verse three sees turning off the lights, which mirrors turning off the TV-also light-emitting,calls for the absence of light to cause the individuals see each other. While normally we seek to "shed light on a matter" in this case the reduction of light allows or helps to foster reconnection. Presumably the parallelism between the TV's light and the room's light are both or have been distracting enough to warrant their dimming.
It's particularly interesting in the third verse that time is stuffed into a drawer. Where watching TV kills time or is accused of doing so, here time is deliberately taken in hand to be disregarded until further notice. Rather than wasting time, time is gathered up and subjected to the listener's control in defiance of its passing. Sterne suggests that "In bourgeious modernity sound recording becomes a way to deal with time....moderntiy being assumed to assure the perpetiuty of cages, the constanty of upheaval and transformation. But the sound recording itself also embodies fragmented time. It offers a little piece of repeatable time within a carefully bounded frame." (p. 310) Time now only exists for the listener based on the length of the song. Also, the repeatable time is not only the possibility of replaying a particular favorite song but also attempting to recreate "how things used to be".
The fourth verse re-emphasizes the importance of made sound rather than relying on outside, edited or delivered sound. The singer asks "give me the soft, soft static/ Of the open fire and the shuffle of our feet" The human or organic aspects of the radio static is mirrored in the static created by the interactions of the listeners in and with their environment. The fire is a real fire, not a fake one on TV. Not only is the static generated by dancing feet, but also the static is generated by bodies moving together and over physical surfaces. Since the TV is off there is not danger of vicariously living through the dancing of others. The dance is itself the old-fashioned waltz which is both a way of marking the time signature of a piece (waltz time-3/4-tying back to repeatable and controllable time) and performing an fairly dated dance style.
Sterne, in his conclusion emphasizes the importance of sound culture to our modern way of living. "...we must first recognize that there is a domain of significant and connected questions surrounding the social life of sound in all its manifestations." (p. 348) The enjoyment of sound, via the radio, between two people is deliberately contrasted between the isolation of TV (image/sound) even while being watched by two people. What struck me in playing around this idea and listening is that this song, Old, Old Fashioned, becomes the song playing on the radio. Old, Old Fashioned is itself a waltz and while the lyrics presume a slightly pleading one-sided conversation, the song as a whole calls out on a larger scale to any one listening to join in and dance, turning off the TV to  embrace literally the physicality and immediacy of the available present relationships. Passively listening is not enough. Passivity is for the TV watchers. Dancing or movement is for the radio listeners.
Throughout this song while vision, 'the gaze' is privileged as two individual relearn to look at one another, listening is incredibly important. The dancers must here the music in order to dance to it. Seeing each other is not enough, the dancers must also speak to one another to "remember how things used to be" and stop death. In this song, listening halts the progress of the death of a relationship.
Additionally, to grasp the full impact of the lyrics of the FR song in the first place, one must be able to listen to or hear the song.
 It's interesting that, in this case, I was listening to this song as a MP3 which is the least physical or the least old-fashioned of any of the currently available musical formats. I also, unfortunately, have never heard this song on the radio. Fully embracing the song's calling for an return to old fashioned ways would, in my case, nullify my ability to listen to it because of the changes to how music  is consumed. Except, I think this is missing the point slightly. The medium of the music matters less than the act of listening to it and to the conversation we generate "like soft, soft static" between one another. And not simply passively listening but dancing "like they did in '43".

Thursday, September 13, 2012

GoogleGlasses and the Telephone: Getting technologies off the ground

Came across this video demoing GoogleGlasses today. I would like to submit that GoogleGlasses looks good because of its editing. The fact it's promoted as a short film is mildly silly as no one, yet, really wants to watch hours of straight pov footage.Google in this particular clip is not showing off the glasses as much as highlights. Unfortunately, as far as I know, when you get the glasses, you're not getting the editor as well, unless you can afford one or take the time to do it yourself.
 In his book The Audible Past Jonathan Sterne documents how Bell and Watson traveled around the country to promote the use of the telephone, demonstrating it in various cities. Since being able to comprehend, let alone hear all the words being spoken by the other person on the opposite end was pretty, at best, terrible, common words, phrases and songs were used  to help encourage legibility. ""...experimentation with sound reproduction largely had the machines reproducing easily remembered and imitated language." (p. 254) Sterne argues that these particular common words/phrases, etc. were used in order to help the technology; "...the desire for the machine to work" (p. 251). That is, if the message was completely unintelligible who would be interested? Bell and Watson had to prove that the telephone could indeed "speak". If people got even parts of the message that at least proved the possibility of communication in some capacity with hope for the future.
Thus, the telephone in its early, development stages, received assistance from its developers in order to generate enough interest in it so that "...the machine and the process [were] as desirable to audiences as possible." (p. 251)
I think there's a parallel here with GoogleGlasses. The vast majority of viewers are not yet at the place where there is desire to watch someone else watching the view in an unedited fashion. Getting stuck in traffic, using the bathroom falling asleep at your desk, eating a meal-there are things that are not important enough (right term?) to be viewed.
If you read the blurb about the video on its page as well as observing the editing style (sped up sequences, jumps in time, etc.) which really closely mirrors that of reality tv (think TLC-type shows). The language in the blurb "never before seen footage", "capture", "fit seamlessly" etc. These phrases pull from common language of the extra footage of DVDs, behind the scenes desires and one of the biggest consumerist desires-no hassle. The blurb, at least, speaks our language. The editing of the event takes it one step further using editing styles and practices that remind one of another type of show but as we are reminded by the lipstick on the glass, this is a special camera.
What's edited also communicates glamour, success, smiling faces and, if permissible, happiness. Nothing breaks, nothing is hurt, nothing is wrong in this particular film. As interesting and potentially important as the ability to shoot video is, editing how or what is seen, is just as important. The choice of language for the messages conveyed through early telephone demonstrations could have greatly decreased the effectiveness of the telephone if no one could understand what was being said. Similarly if the recording from the glasses went on for a Warholian 15 hours no one would watch because that footage would be truly incomprehensible; any message would be lost.
The editing in this piece seeks to help the use of GoogleGlasses make sense by condensing what was probably hours of footage into a nice couple minute long exciting package. Lacking the hours of footage would diminish the amount of highlights to be drawn from them but including everything swamps the message.
Since video can not be self-edited, as speech can, the editing process assists, or attempts to assist our embrace of GoogleGlasses as a viable technology. This bit of filming is designed to make us want the Glasses to "work", succeed and become part of our daily life.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hammering on the ego

David Sizemore, a rather talented graphic designer whom I'm really pleased to consider a friend, has a really excellent recent blog post. This post originates out of Dave's recently attending a design conference and wrestling with the conundrum or philosophical state of choosing between fulfilling work versus paying work. The last paragraph and the next to last sentence in that paragraph is where the meat of David's thoughts lay. He states "...I’m trying to figure out if my ego can take hammering out a solid living for myself and my family doing good, smaller work."
Doing work that may be loved takes a certain toll or has particular consequences. It's really romantic to state "do what you love" but it's something else entirely to actually do that type of work because our egos, shaped and called upon and worked at by the advertising, writing and people around us, don't, usually, want to be hammered on. They want to be massaged and stroked, frankly. Understanding up front what type of hammering might occur and that hammering is inevitable is going to give a better understanding of the worth of attempting to do what one loves for a living. Beyond the personal ego trip there's the economic implications of what stuff one can buy or the ways one's family gets supported in attempting to do good, fulfilling work.

If you go to Liga Masiva you will find that after 3 years in business this really awesome coffee company is closing their doors. In the section of the page on "What Didn't Work" they write "...we failed to build a strong enough consumer community around this mission and failed to create a product that was so remarkable that it would spread ... at a scale necessary to support such an ambitious project."
If you go to David's blog and go down to his second post, you will see an animated FAILURE looping in an infinite circle. Beneath that image is a post where David describes his inability to start a t-shirt company. Toward the end of that post he states "But I did enjoy this process, even though it was a failure. I learned to embrace a teeny-tiny failure, and I think it’s given me the willingness to fail at bigger things. "

How failure gets processed demonstrates how well prepared the ego is for the hammering process. And not just giving lip service to learning from failure but good engagement and interaction with the implications and necessary steps to pick up what is left and try again.

To quote a poet "everyone makes mistakes /like it’s the only way we learn." ~David Bazan "'Messes"

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Worship, Technology, and the Church: A Failure of Language

The reason for this post is that I'm concerned with, to borrow Lanier's term, trying to make humans into gadgets, especially in language. The official term for this being technological determinism. Technological determinism is dangerous wherever it shows up but when its adherents pop up in evangelical journals in the discussion of worship, church and technology, I get especially nervous.
    Multnomah Seminary publishes a journal called Cultural Encounters. The current issue deals in part with questions of the impact of interactions with technology. To that end this issue features an interview with the editor of the journal, Robb Redman, Quentin Schultze, professor of Communications/Arts at Calvin College and DJ Chuang who works for Worship Leader magazine entitled Worship, Technology, and the Church. The discussion/roundtable interview revolves around the use of technology in worship and the possible uses and implications for worship practices and church communication. There are some interesting points raised in the discussion as the three discuss philosophical shifts, changes and implications in worship and congregational interaction as churches try out  various technologies. What caught my eye are several dicey statement which bear some closer examination.
On page 97, in discussing the impact of streaming a worship service, Quentin Schultze states that "We're technological beings, and even the use of the voice and ears constitute forms of technology." There's a couple of problems with this statement. First, this statement is a type of technological determinism manifesting itself in Schultze's reading of technology back onto the human body. To say everything about the human body is technological reduces, I think, our status as created beings and thus our humanity. If we are technological beings then we as humans are easily replaceable, able to be swapped out like a hard drive or power supply. Additionally if everything is technology why make the differentiation at all? What good is the term if it can be applied to anything.
Later on in the article, DJ Chuang claims that " is awakening another aspect of our humantiy and desire to connect, both virtually and in person shops or "third places" are a place to do othat..." (p. 102) But he does not go on to say what this aspect is. I would guess that this other aspect is in some ways related to the cultural shift towards postmodernism, which is the subject for another post. What's implicit about Chuang's statement here is that technology can awaken which implies that technology has certain powers and/or that those technological powers effect or cause cultural change. Johnathan Sterne in his book The Audible Past suggests that "Technological change follows cultural change". To state or imply the reverse, as Chuang does, implies that technology drives culture giving the arena of technology a much greater amount of control then it really has. Finding the line between whether culture or technology can be rather difficult. In reflecting on Sterne's statement the emphasis is not as much on causation as the overall philosophical approach. To say we are technological or that technology is awakening us states that we are now in service to or subjected to technology. Rather I would suggest that technological development is driven, for better or worse, by our cultural decisions, supposed needs and consumerist desires.
Shortly after Chuang's quote above Schultze states "Technology involves human action-it's always a thing embedded in action-and we can't completely separate the thing from our action...all that we do as human beings is like technology. The most central technology to the human begin coming from the body is actually speech. Techne, the origin for the word technology, actually comes from "speech," and in the Hebrew and Christian tradition, we say God spoke the world into existence, and tthen of course from the Gosple of John, "In the beginning was the Word." So you get this idea that the primary technology is word, and word shapes culture and ways of life and it never does so neutrally." (p. 103)
First, Schultze dramatically misuses language here. while techne may come from speech it does not serve as the root for technology-please see the OED listing. This is an unwarranted linguistic leap. Secondly, I believe that Schultze digs himself a bit of a hole with this statement. If speech is technology and God spoke the world into existence, is God then a technology or composed of (a) technology? Should John 1 read "In the beginning was technology?" This seems absurd and I doubt this was the point Schultze was trying to make but that seems to be a logical implication of Schultze's thinking in this interview. Lastly,  if speech was a technology then it should have been able to be easily reproduced, which is not the case historically. (See Sterne's The Audible Past)
  Technology is most certainly a tool and instead of  having moral value, as a tool, it possesses both good and evil qualities in that it is up to the user how the tool is used.To suggest that realm of technology can be good or evil misses the point of its existence as a medium through which good or evil can be accomplished.
In closing, my point is not that these are bad people or that is a bad interview. Rather my concern is that this type of thinking creeps in around and through legitmate and truthful conversation. Humans are not gadgets and we cannot succumb to language that attempts to elevate technological processes to human levels especially in the context of discussions of worship and church. We need to be able to recognize the errors and failures in this thinking and call it out when necessary so that we can adjust our thinking, our speech/language and our practices accordingly.

Happy 100th Birthday John Cage

Today is John Cage's 100th Birthday. I was looking for his home page to post on the library Facebook page and found it.
In clicking around and through the site, I selected Indeterminacy and this was what was displayed:

"I     went     to     hear     Krishnamurti     speak.
                                            He     was
  lecturing                on     how     to     hear
    a     lecture.
                                                He     said,
                                 “You     must     pay
   full     attention     to     what     is     being
    said                 and     you     can’t     do
   that     if     you     take     notes.”
lady     on     my     right     was     taking   
                                     The     man     on
    her     right     nudged      her      and     
said,                                    “Don’t      you
     hear      what      he’s      saying?
                                    You’re      not
 supposed      to      take      notes.”
                                               She      then
     read      what      she      had      written
  and      said,                                   
“That’s      right.
             I      have      it      written      down
     right       here       in       my       notes.”"

When the process of note-taking distracts us from the process of listening. When the process of doing distracts us from listening. I don't agree with all of Cage's philosophy of approaching music and composition. But he worked and hung out with a lot of the same people that Stefan Wolpe did and like Wolpe has much to say on the relationship of opposites, sound and silence, movement and stillness.