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A Ubiquitous Subjectivity?

  1. Unabashedly polemical, this argument is the necessary precursor to rethinking our approaches both to the study of music and to the idea of subjectivity. As more and more kinds of music are played in more and more settings alongside more and more activities, it becomes crucial to develop ways of approaching this phenomenon. As Gifford puts it,

    Muzak anticipated the way we live our lives today, accompanied by a constant soundtrack of radio, television, video and film…Muzak’s real significance is that it paved the way for a new ambient culture, a culture that Sensurrounds us with digitized music and pixelated images, endlessly looping screen savers and point-of-purchase interactive displays, occupying all areas of our multitasking minds. (installment 6, page 3)

    But many analysts insist on continuing to see the music industry in very traditional terms. According to the phenomenal foresight of experts in an October 7th, 2000 Economist special supplement on E-entertainment, for example:

    If the music industry manages to sort out the piracy problem, the Internet will become a hugely important source of revenue. The record companies sold their music all over again when the CD came out, and they can now sell it all over again over the Internet, again. What is more, they can sell it in more flexible packages to make it more attractive to different kinds of consumers. (“A Survey” 32)

    What the writers of the Economist clearly understand is that, the RIAA’s best efforts notwithstanding, digital music delivery over the Internet is inevitable and all the industry’s watermarking and security efforts are doomed to failure. What they don’t understand, and apparently don’t even think about, are the vast social changes attendant on these new technologies. The same music will be sold yet a third time, in more flexible packages, precisely because it makes it easier to use the music as an environmental technology, conditioning and conditioned by a new kind of subjectivity.

  2. This third selling is a performance of the ubicomp world in the making. Its attendant subjectivity is not individual, not defined by Oedipus or agency or any discrete unity. The listener of this third selling is no mere subject, but rather a part of an always moving ever-present web. S/he is not a listener of a genre first and foremost, but rather a listener tout court. Ubiquitous music is cable that networks all of us together, not in some dystopian energy-producing array à la The Matrix, but in a lumpy deployment of dense nodes of knowledge/power figured by, for example, the SETI@home project. SETI@home uses home computers when they are otherwise idle as a resource for ramping up computer processing power for the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence project. In this extreme model of distributed computing, each home computer is a little lump or node in an enormous array of computing activity. Likewise, we are each nodes in an enormous array of listening.

  3. There are numerous attempts to describe what I’m getting at here, from many different directions—from Xerox PARC, to Donna Haraway, to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. In Autoaffections: Unconscious Thought in the Age of Teletechnology, Patricia Clough proposes “a new ontological perspective and an unconscious other than the one organized by an oedipal narrative” (20). Throughout, Autoaffections works in two genres—academic prose and prose poetry. Not only the chapters, but also the genre shifts themselves are performances of the book’s work.

  4. Autoaffection opens with a prose poem, “Television: A Sacred Machine,” which is a work of remarkable power, both more beautiful and clear than what we usually call theory. Clough says:

    My machine has more parts; it has more action,
    Like the action of fingertips attached to ivory keys,
    Playing in between the beats of a metronome’s patterning. (22)

    The node we usually call “self” is attached through keys that make hammers hit wires that make sound that attaches to another node, sound disciplined by the metronome machine to attach the nodes in particular ways.

    Still, I was destined by that piano,
    Destined to find myself in attachment to machines. (25)

    This attachment is, as I have suggested, the stuff of contemporary science fiction. Cyborgs, matrices, webs, nets—all these dystopias threaten us with the dissolution of the boundaries of our very selves. But they fail to see what Clough hears: that dissolution is already well under way.

  5. What I am proposing is a theory of subjectivity based on ubiquitous music called ubiquitous subjectivity. Like ubiquitous music, parts phase in and out of participation in ubiquitous subjectivity, but it never leaves us—and we never leave it. If that sounds ominous, it isn’t meant to. It’s simply a habit of mind from an earlier notion about our discreteness, and it’s time to notice that ubiquitous music and ubiquitous listening have been forging a different subjectivity for quite some time now. Like Star Trek’s Borg, we are uncomfortable being unhooked from the background sound of ubiquitous subjectivity, so we turn radios on in empty rooms and put speakers under our pillows. We hang up when a telephone connection is not kept open by sound. We prefer to be connected, need to listen to our connections, can’t breathe without them. We already live a network we insist on thinking of as a dystopian future.

  6. This networked-through-music subjectivity could seem similar to ideas about music and collectivity. As Eisler and Adorno argue in Composing for the Films, many anthropologists and writers about music suggest that music operates differently from the oculocentric individual of contemporary Western culture. They say that music listening:

    … preserves comparably more traits of long bygone, preindividualistic collectivities …. This direct relationship to a collectivity, intrinsic in the phenomenon itself, is probably connected with sensations of spatial depth, inclusiveness, and absorption of individuality, which are common to all music. (21)

    Other writers do not attribute this collective quality to music per se, but do—quite rightly—note that music is a part of many social formations and practices in different historical and cultural settings.

  7. I am not suggesting that ubiquitous music has reintroduced such a collective identity through music to modern or postmodern societies. Far from it. What I am arguing, rather, is that ubiquitous music has become a form of phatic communication for late capitalism—its purpose is to keep the lines of communication open for that lumpy deployment of dense nodes of knowledge/power we call selves. We are Borg because isolated consciousness—silence—is unpleasurable in the extreme.

  8. As we enter the second century of the disarticulation of performance and listening, new relations are developing that demand new models and approaches. It is easy to see that the industry is changing. It is perhaps harder to hear the changes in music, in listening and in subjectivity that all of this portends. Yet musics, technologies, science fiction, social relations and subjectivities have been fermenting these changes throughout the twentieth century. At least in the metropolis, listening to music is ubiquitous, and it forms the network backbone of a new, ubiquitous subjectivity.

1    2    3    Works Cited  




Ubiquitous Listening

Draughon and Knapp:
Mahler and the Crisis of Jewish Identity

Photo Essay

Masson and Berish:
Review Essay

Allen Forte


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