Oct. 11 Readings

These three readings provide different approaches to questions about music, technology, and agency. Adorno addresses the question of agency—specifically how it is taken away—under the influence of what he calls the culture industry. Ellul deals not so much with technology as with technique, the internalization of the principles of technology in human behavior and the workings of society. Taylor pulls it all together with a look at technology and popular music, and specific ways in which technology, when applied to music, alters personal agency.

Theodor Adorno’s work is an unmitigated condemnation of the culture industry and its manipulation of consumers. Adorno conceives of a monolithic culture industry which imposes its will through the distribution of cultural products characterized by an “eternal sameness.” Where consumers demand individuality—in fact, they have been conditioned by the culture industry itself to expect individuality—they are presented with works in which an “incessant newness” of surface elements to the music (or other cultural product) which covers over that sameness, granting consumers an experience of “pseudo-individualization.” In reality, Adorno sees the culture industry as undermining not only individuality but the capacity for individualistic thought. The products of the culture industry offer the most banal advice as a substitute for real understanding, and demand conformist behavior, although they are not terribly clear as to what exactly that behavior should be. Adorno uses dramatic language like “anti-enlightenment,” and “mass deception” to describe what he sees as “a means for fettering consciousness.” Here, we can observe a theme through this weeks writings, of the metaphor of sensory deprivation for the loss/reassignment of agency.

It is scary how accurately Adorno's description of the culture industry defines not only the music industry, but also the major mass-media outlets (FOX news, MSNBC, etc.). "It lives parasitically from the extra-artistic technique of the material production of goods, without regard for the obligation to the internal artistic whole implied by its functionality (Sachlichkeit), but also without concern for the laws of form demanded by aesthetic autonomy" (7). This is essentially the issue that many recording artists and people in general have with the music industry, which increasingly plays the middle man, rather than the sole provider of studios in which musicians can record.

"Thus, although the culture industry undeniably speculates on the conscious and unconscious state of the millions towards which it is directed, the masses are not primary, but secondary, they are an object of calculation; an appendage of the machinery. The customer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object" (2). The more I read articles from the major news outlets, the more apparent this becomes. The partisan networks primarily supply not the opinions of the people, but the opinions of their employers and talking points of both parties. This similarly reflects politics, because most politicians do not relay the will of their constituents, but rather the will of lobbyists who write a large amount of the legislation that passes through Congress. The mass media on both sides of the aisle tend to give artificially-magnified voice to the political fringes in the minority, instead of the 70% (rough approximation) of the country that doesn't strongly believe all the issues that the minority frames.

"The total effect of the culture industry is one of anti-enlightenment, in which, as Horkheimer and I have noted, enlightenment, that is the progressive technical domination of nature, becomes mass deception and is turned into a means for fettering consciousness" (17). This quote particularly struck me as still relevant. It seems that this "anti-enlightenment" is exactly what large industries (music, news, telecommunication, etc.) want to occur so they can keep their monopolies. Average people are no longer catered to, but are instead manipulated into believing, doing, and buying what the industries want. When people cease being the target market, replaced by advertisers and personified corporations, enlightenment is no longer the goal of the manufactured culture.

Jacques Ellul concerns himself not necessarily with music or popular culture, or even necessarily with technology, but with technique and the impact of technological means and processes as we internalize them into our behavior and assumptions. Ellul identifies technique with the repertoire of methods, or “ensemble of means” used in various fields of human activity, including but not limited to (as some imagine) mechanics, science, and technology, to maximize efficiency toward some desired end. While technique cannot be equated with the working of machines, technique can become a process of internalization, within people and within society, of the principles that govern the operation of machines. Ellul identifies certain dangers involved with the increasing focus on technique in society, mainly in the potentially dehumanizing effect of governing society according to the laws of the machine: the agency and dignity of humans is compromised in the pursuit of productivity, efficiency, or some other goal.

What technique does have to offer us, though, is the expansion of human possibilities. Ellul explains the transformation of the technical operation, essentially the methods used to attain a particular end, into the technical phenomenon through the application of reason and judgment, which allows people to discover new possibilities of action.

Timothy Taylor finally brings together these issues of agency and technology in relation to popular music. Taylor’s stated aim is, first of all, to examine ways in which digital technology has altered patterns of distribution and consumption in the music industry, and second, to tease out the role of agency in existing theories of technology and society. Taylor is more optimistic than either Adorno or Ellul in his evaluation of the agency that consumers of popular culture do have. Taylor observes a tendency among theorists to polarize toward either a belief in an industry that operates from top to bottom, giving to consumers only what it decrees that they shall have, or a belief in a popular culture that shapes, from the bottom up, the meanings that they will derive from the industry’s products. He identifies in the discourse both a deterministic attitude toward technology that shapes the actions of people, and a voluntaristic belief in a neutral technology that acts according to the agency of the people who create and use it. Taylor believes that while each argument has merit, they are inadequate when theorists attempt to prove either one position or the other, because reality is negotiated somewhere between those poles.

In approaching all three articles, it is useful to ask: Where does agency lie? Who has agency and how do they exercise it? We may then go on to ask about technology and about music (or the products of the culture industry in general), and what roles they play in either the suppression or expression of human agency. How do we control popular culture and technology, and in what ways do they exert power over us? Further, as musicians and scholars, what is our obligation in pointing out the differing types and levels of agency found in society, and how is it possible to critique these systems? Is it even possible (if the "culture industry," etc.) is considered from a Gramscian perspective?

Adorno is adamantly and impeccably clear about his belief that the culture industry wields agency, at the expense of the agency of consumers who he clearly regards as victims. In fact, his insistence on referring to the “culture industry,” rather than using the common term “mass culture,” is a way of clearly showing who is in control. Using the term “mass culture” risks the erroneous implication that the masses in question have something to do with their own culture. Referring to the “culture industry” makes it clear that the humans involved are of the least importance. In fact, to the culture industry, consumers are hardly human: the minds and wills of consumers are only significant inasmuch as they can be manipulated. They are “an object of calculation, an appendage of the machinery,” not culture’s “subject but its object.” According to Adorno, the culture industry is in the business of turning humans into “masses” which it then despises. Additionally, Adorno suggests that even the critics or analysts of popular culture conform to the system of the culture industry by continuing their analysis on the products produced for the masses rather than focusing on changing the system. Adorno’s position on agency is more than abundantly clear.

Adorno's conception of the "culture industry" should be explored more thoroughly to examine the ways in which it may, or may not, fall short of how he envisions it in the modern world. Two seemingly obvious questions that need to be asked when reading this article are: 1. Is the "culture industry" a monolithic entity? and 2. If the "culture industry" is truly controlling culture in society, how is it functioning (or more directly, WHO is making it function)? The first question is important because Adorno presents the culture industry almost as if it were one entity that works towards one goal. The industry can encompass many aspects of culture, not simply music. Fashion, art, literature, architecture, and many other fields all contribute to culture. How does this complicate the way in which we view the culture industry? Does it work in the same way for all of these areas (and the numerous others not listed here)? As for the second question, Adorno refers to the culture industry as if it were something outside of human control, a separate entity that functions on its own. But this de-humanizing description makes us forget who runs the culture industry: humans! Top executives from music, fashion, art, and other areas are controlling what is released to the public. It is PEOPLE who make these decisions, not a computer program or evil force of nature. Related to Gramscian concepts of hegemony, etc., one might point out that the "culture industry" is indeed in place by the consent of the people, and that it can occupy its position only in juxtaposition with critics and types of music in opposition to this "industry." Therefore, instead of being monolithic and inevitable, the "evil" of culture perpetuated upon the masses can, in effect, be seen as enacted by the people themselves. (Whether their choices are misguided or not is another question entirely.)

Ellul’s position is slightly more complicated. He shares Adorno’s concern with social systems that have an ultimately dehumanizing effect on people. At moments, he even seems prone to wander into similarly apocalyptic territory with his assertion that technique has become autonomous: we follow its rules, rather than it following ours. At the same time, the reason and judgment exercised by human agents are what transforms technical operations into the technical phenomenon, ultimately extending the limits of what humans are capable of doing.

Ellul states that all techniques are essentially the same and that "there is a continuity in technical operations and that only the great refinement resulting from scientific progress differentiates the modern technical operation from the primitive one" (19). He may have a point that there is continuity between the composition process of the nineteenth-century symphony and the creation of a song on Garageband. Both are making music with a visualized and usually additive process. However, the fact that there is continuity should not be confused with being the same. Both processes obviously require technique. In the design of something like Garageband, however, was not the technique for using it planned? People have added new plug-ins and found new ways to use Garageband beyond what its programmers may have initially imagined, but a part of their programming process was not just imagining the techniques for its use but also limiting them to make it more accessible. The level of individual control as far as being limited or enabled by this technology is thus entirely dependent upon the desires of the user.

Taylor nuances the question and places at least some significant agency in the hands of consumers. Taylor points out that the question of where agency lies, with the music industry or with the listeners, cannot be answered by answering either one or the other. Sometimes the industry enforces its will; sometimes the people do. He uses the phrase “double-movement of containment and resistance” to describe this process. Taylor then proceeds to tease out specific ways in which technology has altered the way that we experience music, sometimes in a manner that arguably returns agency to the consumer.

For example, digital technology has the potential to create new ways of experiencing music, blurring the lines between the consumption of music and the production of something new. Equipment and programs with the ability to alter MP3 files offer listeners the agency to alter the products that are given them by the industry—those dangerously consciousness-fettering objects that Adorno described—by re-mixing and re-mastering them into something new and reflective of their own creative ideas. While still one could question the processes by which consumers re-mix these items (do the increasingly lose creative limits placed upon the user by Garage Band still constitute "top-down" form of consumption?), it is clear that there is increased choice, whether or not the masses choose to make use of it.

Taylor also describes how music consumption is becoming an increasingly eclectic and personalized experience. The availability of a much, much wider range of products allows consumers to define their own tastes in a way not possible before. Consumers are put in a position to construct and convey a sense of personal identity through music using a much broader range of materials than were previously available. However, while Taylor describes this increased access to information through the internet, a newer phenomenon was arrived since the writing of his article that Adorno or Ellul would certainly critique in current technological practices: the tendency for consumers to believe that everything that exists, exists on the internet. While as Taylor suggests, the consumer instantly has a larger pool from which to construct their cultural identities due to the internet, there is the danger (as before, with the "widening" selection in record shops) that consumers may be limited in their thinking and choice by the seeming variety of material available—which might turn out to be less plentiful than expected.

We can ask if this is only one more manifestation of the pseudo-individualization that Adorno warned about: are we flattered into believing that we are being ever more individualistic when we are, in fact, still being fed more of the same? Are we still being manipulated in our choices? At the same time, we can ask if Adorno’s theory regarding a somewhat monolithic culture industry which controls the consumption habits of all within its sphere of influence is still applicable in a global society, where the internet allows consumers to collect music from a range of sources far beyond what their local culture industry can rule with its tight, hegemonic iron fist. It is one thing for Adorno, who formulated many of his theories during the era of Tin Pan Alley, to insist that, just below the shiny new surface of each new hit, is the same pop song structure replayed again and again with only slight variation. But it is another thing entirely to refer to perceived individualization, as expressed through musical taste, as pseudo-individualization masking an essential sameness when the musical materials at hand may include Tuvan throat singing and Tongan nose flute as well as Justin Bieber and Katy Perry.

At the same time as these technologies give consumers unprecedented flexibility, they also give the music industry new tools for invasive propaganda. In the end, the question of personal agency, as expressed or suppressed through music, and empowered or restricted by technology, is possibly more complicated than ever before.

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