1. But the use of old sounds and old technologies does not have to end in such tragedy. In the emotional intensity with which technological obsolescence and broken machines are invested there is simultaneously a possibility of moving beyond irony or uneasy dissembling. Although he was operating in a very different context, Adorno’s commentary on Walter Benjamin’s claim that history needed to be written from the standpoint of the vanquished rather than the victor is relevant in this regard. Along with the "fatally rectilinear successions of victory and defeat," Adorno writes that knowledge "should also address itself to those things which were not embraced by this dynamic, which fell by the wayside–what might be claimed the waste products and blind spots that have escaped the dialectic. It is in the nature of the defeated to appear, in their impotence, irrelevant, eccentric, derisory" ("Bequest" 151). The sounds of broken down and discarded machines, I believe, offer just such an example of "cross-grained, opaque, unassimilated material," that concerned Adorno, but I see them not as signs of failure but as evidence of survival. That there is an subversive potential inherent in old technologies–made explicit as Rose shows in hiphop music–might be anticipated already in Michael Oldfield’s opposition of glorious stereophonic sound against an old monophonic tin box, criminalized and thus somehow very threatening.

  2. The Portishead song "Cowboys," can illustrate this critical potential. Embedded in a tense sonic environment, gritty with the noise of vinyl, the song features a very peculiar guitar solo that is based on the central icon of rock authenticity: a highly distorted guitar chord. But as we listen on it become clear that the guitar sound is a sample as it is looped again and again. Its revelation as artificial, even a mechanized hoax, resonates with the text:

    Did you feed us tales of deceit
    Conceal the tongues you need to speak
    Subtle lies and a soiled coin
    The truth is sold, the deal is done.

  3. "Cowboys" marks a clear contrast to the recuperative mode of the Alpha example that presents the old as authentic and whole, and the framing contemporary mechanisms as invisible. The treatment of the guitar sample within the noisy space not only foregrounds the fragility and imperfections of the old materials, but exposes their artificiality. Thus there is no question that the guitar sound is a fake. Yet the song does not lapse into the elegiac character of the Moby piece or the resignation of the Lo-Fidelity Allstars example. Rather, and with explicit appeal to hip-hop techniques, a barrage of virtuosic and almost maniacal turntable scratching reanimates the copy with tremendous energy and intensity. The point is not that Portishead is working here with "white" materials—though this aspect of their range of stylistic references is significant14— but rather that their approach stresses the artificial quality of all the borrowings. Inauthenticity thus becomes part of the compositional material, recalling Adorno’s remarks about Mahler’s use of obsolete and second-hand material: "The enemy of all illusion, Mahler’s music stresses its inauthenticity, underlines the fiction inherent in it, in order to be cured of the actual falsehood that art is starting to be" (Mahler 30).

  4. By shattering the reality effect and "coming to consciousness of themselves as media," such a piece might be thought of as approaching what Jameson calls the possibility of a new political art. Such an art, he writes,
  5. will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is to say, to its fundamental object–the world space of multinational capital–at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode or representing this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our position as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion.(1991, 54)

  6. No doubt this is quite a lot of weight to place on such a brief and peculiar musical passage as this excerpt from "Cowboys."15 And certainly, any sort of political potential in such techniques should not be overstated. Such music, as Andrew Goodwin says of Philip Glass, Brian Eno, and Laurie Anderson, would seem to call for listeners who have the "cultural capital" to decode its broad range of references ("Popular Music" 88). But I would argue that with this "guitar solo," patched together as it were from a single surviving fragment of sound, an instrument that has been too often deadened and soiled through decades of cliches and artificial emotion, has been brought to life once again.