Musings On Technology And The Left

As Grammaphones Became Less Expensive, Designers Sought To Create More Elaborate Designs As A Mark Of Social Status

As Gramophones Became Less Expensive, Designers Sought To Create More Elaborate Designs As A Mark Of Social Status

Until The 1920's The Biggest Seller For Recordings Was Enrico Caruso.  Aria's Has To Be Interrupted And Collected In Volumes Because Of The Time Constraints Of Early Acetate And Shellac Records

Until The 1920’s The Biggest Seller For Recordings Was Enrico Caruso. Aria’s Has To Be Interrupted And Collected In Volumes Because Of The Time Constraints Of Early Acetate And Shellac Records

For Robin Horning And Other Leftist Cultural Critics, "Social Media" Continues And Amplifies A Social Project Of Atomization With Technology As A Means

For Robin Horning And Other Leftist Cultural Critics, “Social Media” Continues And Amplifies A Social Project Of Atomization With Technology As A Means

The positive tendency of consolidated technology to present objects themselves in as unadorned a fashion as possible is, however, traversed by the ideological need of the ruling society, which demands subjective reconciliation with these objects – with the reproduced voice as such, for example.  In the aesthetic form of technological reproduction, these object no longer possess their traditional reality.  The ambiguity of the results of forward-moving technology – which does not tolerate any constrain – confirms the ambiguity of the process of forward-moving rationality as such. – Theodor W. Adorno, “The Curves of the Needle” (1927), in Richard Leppert, Ed. Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music, pp. 271-272.

1. Subjectivation is not a flowering of autonomy and freedom; it’s the end product of procedures that train an individual in compliance and docility. One accepts structuring codes in exchange for an internal psychic coherence. Becoming yourself is not a growth process but a surrender of possibilities that we learn to regard as egregious, unbecoming. “Being yourself” is inherently limiting. It is liberatory only in the sense of freeing one temporarily from existential doubts. (Not a small thing!) So the social order is protected not by preventing “self-expression” and identity formation but encouraging it as a way of forcing people to limit and discipline themselves — to take responsibility for building and cleaning their own cage. Thus, the dissemination of social-media platforms becomes a flexible tool for social control. The more that individuals express through these codified, networked, formatted means to construct a “personal brand” identity, the more they self-assimilate, adopting the incentive structures of capitalist social order as their own. – Rob Horning, “Social Media Is Not Self-Expression” (2014), in the blog Marginal Utility, online edition of The New Inquiry

Three short – I’m not even sure I would call them essays; more musings, perhaps – on the social and aesthetic effects of changing technology – “The Curve Of The Needle” on early gramophones, “The Form Of The Phonograph Record”, and “Opera And The Long Playing Record” – span over 40 years (from 1927, when “The Curve Of The Needle” first appeared to 1969, the year of Adorno’s death, and his gratification that the long-playing record had rescued opera both from the opera-lover as well as preserved in far better aesthetic condition its most important part: the music) a lifetime during which so much history transpired, and continued, it’s a wonder anyone could take the time even to sketch out the ramifications of sound technology both for aesthetics as well as how that technology functions within the demands of late capitalist society.

Yet, here are, 45 years after Adorno’s piece on LPs, and still socio-cultural critics – most prominently for me Rob Horning of The New Inquiry – continue to push a view of technology that purports to liberate even as it simultaneously binds us to the demands of late capitalism and separates us – socially, culturally, and aesthetically – in order that we would fulfill roles designed for us.  While focusing less on both aesthetics and relying less on a notion of the compromised position enforced upon all of us, critics included, due to the overarching dialectics of late capitalism, Horning nevertheless continues a tradition of left-wing wariness of the mass-marketed liberating possibilities of technology, particularly communication technology (and what was the gramophone, radio, and the long-playing record but a form of communication technology?).  These three short pieces, along with Horning’s vast library of pieces from The New Inquiry, give us a glimpse of the necessary caution we all should take when we’re told by corporations or other leaders that some new technology will free us, will educate us, will bring us together; precisely because the needs of late capitalism are to do the exact opposite, it is best to begin from a position of wariness at such claims, and look at the technology itself before making any conclusions.

Since the 19th century, advances in technology have been accompanied by wild claims about the possibility of human liberation through the (small “d”) democratic spread of innovation.  Whether it was the train, the steam ship, the telegraph, the telephone, the electric light bulb, the washing machine (hand-cranked first, then electric), the static vacuum, photography, cinematography, or sound recording, each and all were offered to the public as “freeing” them in some way, whether by making travel faster, freeing people from the discomfort of carriage travel as well as the need to stop and stay the night at Inns of questionable hygiene; the arrival of home appliances that were often marketed to women as time-savers in housework, when in fact the amount of time spent maintaining a clean home has not changed significantly in a century and a half; the invention and spread of image and sound reproduction, along with the lightbulb, have all simultaneously created massive industries while separated human beings from one another at a rate that only went supersonic with the rise of social media and its illusion of community and interconnectedness.

Adorno was concerned with the ambiguities of sound technology upon music qua music.  Precisely because it is historical, it needs to be considered dialectically, and existing firmly within a historical frame of reference that helped to shape its meaning and truth-content.  Sound reproduction technology, as we’ve already seen in the essay on the radio symphony, at least in its earliest decades, did violence to the integrity of the music qua music.  As such, it not only did not present the music, it did not offer the possibility of persons seriously reflecting upon the dialectical reality of the music, extracting what could be called the critical value from the pieces which were split in to pieces due to the time limitations of recording technology.

By his late essay on the long-playing record and opera, Adorno recognizes that, as an art form, opera as a whole is dead.  Precisely because of attempts to restage historical operas in contemporary settings, Adorno asks, “What’s the point?”  The creation of the LP does one thing – preserve the most important aspect of opera, the music (that staging, setting, make-up, and other theatrical elements of opera were open to change, it was clear to Adorno that the only thing that mattered was the music).  In this instance, Adorno is critical both of the opera audience, who he considers snobs who have no idea what it is they actually like about opera, as well as those who would see in updating the staging of opera an attempt to revive an art form that was clearly gone.  Even recording whole operas, however, was more an antiquarian function, with collections of opera LPs little more than museum collections.  At least, however, at this point Adorno sees an aesthetic, if not social or cultural, benefit to changing technology.

While softening a bit, Adorno would always understand that music reproduction was first and foremost a business, what he called the Culture Industry (CI), the sole goal of which was profit.  That violence was done not only to the integrity of the music, but through commodification of music it was robbed not only of truth-value, but had become reified as this thing that can be owned on this piece of shellac, was always in his mind, always a part of his consideration of how CI destroyed the liberating possibilities of music (that the New Music did not gain wide acceptance was further evidence, to Adorno, that the CI wanted no truck with an aesthetics of confrontation).

In much the same way, Rob Horning has, for years, been critical of the naive view of social media as a tool of personal growth, of social growth, and even – as during the Egyptian revolution a few years back – of potentially revolutionary significance.  Just as the technologies discussed above were created within a historical matrix that almost immediately created a market for them, commodifying and reifying that which before had not even been possible, so, too, has social media emerged as a tool only incidentally for use by the mass of people in general.  From algorithms that check your web-surfing habits so you’ll get pop-up ads the computer thinks you want to see to the data mining done both by corporations and the state, each to its own unstated end, social media is far more about collecting information not only for social control, but the maintenance of a system of profit through providing information to consumers that producers believe, through algorithmic control (“numbers don’t lie!”), consumers can use.  All the alleged liberating possibilities of social media exist as a cover for ever more atomization, ever more privitization, ever more separation of human beings from one another, all in the name of technological progress that, as Adorno noted nearly a century ago, is inevitable.

I am sympathetic to much of these criticisms, although I also see their limitations in the real world, as social media provide opportunities for those home-bound for one reason or another, to continue a form of connection and communication with others.  While the Egyptian Revolution was not “the Twitter Revolution”, there is little doubt that in Egypt, and even in Ferguson, MO, the power of social media to draw attention to events – and in each case both the powers that be as well as the people were cognizant of the possibilities inherent in the uses to which social media can be put – cannot be denied.  Technology of any kind, from a particle accelerator to a hammer, is just a tool.  While certainly all technologies are created within and defined by the historical context of their genesis, uses to which they are and can be put are always changing.

On the other hand, looking to technology to save humanity from the possibility of political liberation through political action not only ignores the reality that technology always exists in the hands of the powerful, and as such can and will be used as tools of social control before anything else.  Furthermore, it is only through political action – the assertion of power; the ordering and reordering of social classes, of cultural backgrounds, changing the control of the means of production; mass action either by the state or the people – that political liberation can and will come.  Reliance upon a technological fix for a political problem rests upon the soothing words of advertising copywriters and politicians to ignore the reality around them and gaze upon this or that toy – whether it’s a new electric screwdriver or a new stealth fighter – as the key to human advancement and freedom.

Thus it is that I may not be a good leftist, but I at least see in the criticisms from Adorno through Horning and others as the necessary corrective to far too much glazed-eye praise of freedom through technological progress.  Despite its inevitability, that promise has been fed to us in the west for almost two centuries, and it hasn’t happened yet.  I’d rather listen to the critics, then, to see a bit more clearly.