Week 8 Private: Joel Arellano


The most valuable point I’ve taken from Gere is how digital culture has made it faster and easier to run through different possibilities. As I’ve reflected on various phenomena in digital culture throughout the term, I’ve frequently returned to this idea as an explanatory model. Take, for example, the most fundamental complaints about digital culture– that it leads to alienation, erodes traditional values, and trades quality for cheap, vacuous, numbing sensationalism. These complaints seem familiar, but where did they come from? By quickly reviewing the dawn of digital culture, we can arrive at a better understanding of the universality of Gere’s point, as well as a clearer view of what digital culture’s future may hold.

Though the erosion of values began long before the steam engine, the industrial revolution offers the most striking example of the spirit of digital culture present in global culture, comparable to Hegelian Geist. Traditional wisdom rejected digital culture – as did Hegel’s foil and pupil, Marx – seeking instead a return to an idyll state prior to the dawn of industrialization, where we could recover the value of our relationships to our communities, our products, our values, and ourselves. But human appetite for advancement has always overpowered such utopian nostalgia, and so digital culture marches on, conquering the world. All the while the rate of production has increased, along with the number of new products, markets, and services enabled by technology, many of which have come about as result of the radical democratization of the means of media production.

Here I’ve conflated industrialization and digital culture, because one entails the other. Gere defines digital culture as more than machines, stating that it’s also characterized by an ideology of codification and abstraction. Thus, in thought and practice, digital culture is predicated on purposive devices – tools – that by nature expedite work by replacing human involvement (which is what leads to alienation). These tools are so effective that they transform all other aspects of the cultures they inhabit, since they bestow disproportionate power to those who wield them. Communities awed by such power have been threatened by technocratic hubris, as the utilitarianism introduced and popularized by such a tool-centric culture impinges on traditional values, which check excess.

The degradation of values leads communities to further alienation and existential crises, as traditional sources of meaning and purpose lose purchase. And so society looks elsewhere for meaning, most frequently to the arts, since its expression of authentic human emotion helps us recuperate the humanity lost to digital culture both at work and at church. Yet it was this very demand, a sudden influx of attention and expectation, which bankrupted art, driving it to seek radical means to respond to digital culture, which, in fact, all belonged to the common language of digital abstraction. Gere cites John Cage’s silent piece as emblematic among these, since its emptiness offers unlimited possibility. The trouble, as we’ve seen throughout modern discontent with digital culture, is that unlimited possibility is emptiness. As the cycle of production becomes faster and more efficient, and democratized production multiplies the sources of digital products, the transitory nature of such products increases dramatically, leaving us with an endless parade of cheap, unfulfilling products.

This profusion of meaninglessness is desensitizing, and so we still need a way to reclaim meaning within the commercial context of digital culture. The challenge here is to mix authenticity (a constituent of meaning) with monetization, and I think music provides the most fertile ground for exploring options in this space. Musician James Blake presents one example, using traditional and electronic means to combine the soul in the vein of Sam Cooke with the acoustic atmosphere inspired by Joni Mitchell. Though he employs keyboards and drum kits, Blake performs live, eschewing music programming software like Ableton. But there’s a twist– he records and uses vocal loops during these performances, often layering over himself multiple times to create ‘solo harmonies.’ In a live environment, these loops also capture audience cheers and applause as Blake introduces the opening lines of a new song,  injecting their voices into his performance as the loops are constructed. So there’s your audience involvement– nothing really new there. But at the end of his most recent tour performances, Blake prefaced his final song with a warning about this very phenomenon. On this haunting, a cappella modern gospel performance, Blake advised audiences that he needed silence to preserve the integrity of the song, then proceeded to sing five to six variations of the same 32-count verse, slowly building a more complex track than the last time as he added another vocal layer to the loop. The process was mesmerizing, but also tense as the audience was intently aware that at any transgression by their peers would shatter the project.

Blake’s example of negative audience participation is incredibly engaging, preserving the artist as the sole generative force in the performance, thus collapsing the plurality of artistic participants back down to the original creator. The development of digital culture has trended toward a profusion of content creators resulting in a cacophony of noise, yet Blake manages to invert this. The intensely personal and singular quality of that last song is hardly available for mass reproduction, which limits its application while preserving its value as a middle ground between meaning and monetization in digital culture. I find this a fascinating example of the homeostatic capacity of digital culture, whereby the sudden availability of all music for free via digital exchange drives innovative modes of performance that recuperate meaning (and revenue). It is also significant that Blake’s solution reverses the fast-and-easy trend of digital culture Gere identifies- instead, Blake establishes a slower, more difficult way to construct harmony, resulting in a powerful work that reclaims the value of human production.

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