- 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, Adornos
commentary on Walter Benjamins 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 waysidewhat 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 technologiesmade
explicit as Rose shows in hiphop musicmight be anticipated already
in Michael Oldfields opposition of glorious stereophonic sound
against an old monophonic tin box, criminalized and thus somehow very
- 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:
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.
- "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" materialsthough 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 Adornos remarks about Mahlers use of
obsolete and second-hand material: "The enemy of all illusion,
Mahlers 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).
- 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,
have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is to say, to its
fundamental objectthe world space of multinational capitalat
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)
- No doubt this is quite a lot of weight
to place on such a brief and peculiar musical passage as this excerpt
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.