Towards a database subject
I have fallen a couple of weeks behind the pace that I wanted to keep with the blog due to an increase in calendar items at school – more meetings, appointments, I used a personal work day last week to tour my MS_DR students through Detroit, etc. – and it is also due to the fall study break which I used to get away with my family. So, there are probably some gaps to attend to in future posts, as we have moved in the last couple of weeks of the seminar from the agency of the walker (see the post below) through the voyeur-voyager travelling at high rates of speed in the automobile (see a future post) and whose agency is often constructed by systemic references to the cinematic, to the agency of the database subject, immersed in far-reaching informational networks and extended by digital processes the effects of which seems enormous. In this post, I want to deal a bit with the database subject.
But I am not going to have the time right now to flesh it out as much as I intend and will have to rely on a number of (future) shorter posts to get at it. For this post, I mostly wanted to contextualize the youtube video of Mixmaster Mike that I have pasted-in above.
A number of years ago there was a lecture given at school by the Canadian architect, Brian Mackay-Lyons. He started his lecture making an affirmation for how tradition and innovation often go hand-in-hand. To illustrate his point he played two versions of the canonical blues song, Cross Roads, consecutively. The first version was the original Robert Johnson recording made, as the legend goes, after Johnson travelled “down to the cross roads” where he made a deal with the devil resulting in his becoming a virtuoso guitar player and eventually a hall of fame bluesman. And hearing the original version is everything you would want from a 1936 blues song. The second version of Cross Roads that Mackay-Lyons played for the audience was the late 1960s version by Eric Clapton. It was my observation, as we listened to the Clapton version, that he had simply electrified and sped up the original song, which both kept it intact and produced a new version of it at the same time. And this was Mackay-Lyons’ point here, that the new song owed quite a bit to the old song and that the two of them together were a manifestation of the relationship between tradition and innovation. He left the analogy there and moved on to show some of his design work as innovation based on, among other things, vernacular structures. I might be a simplifying Mackay-Lyons lecture, but I don’t mean to do it as a dismissal… I mostly remember the lecture for how it started, with the presentation of these two songs.
And if that is all I got out of the lecture (it was not all), it was still a significant teaching point and I have been captivated by the idea that older things are getting sped up in new things since his presentation. We might not be simply electrifying them any longer, though. It might be more accurate to say that we are digitizing things and speeding them up… making new things come forth from old things. And this is one point that Eric Gordon, citing Lev Manovich’s book, The Language of New Media, was making in one of our required readings for this particular session. Digital media takes particular advantage of the historic relationship all new forms of media had with their precedents; namely, that the new form always made its transition and breakaway from the old form through mimicking its operational tendencies. And digital processes of cut/copy/paste, to be simplistic about it for now, extended the “range” at which one can deploy this process. (more on this, too, in some magical future post)
To Mackay-Lyons’ paring, I have added a third “version” of the Robert Johnson original that I think unsettles the relationship he established between tradition and innovatio . This comes in the form of the clip of Mixmaster Mike (MMM) from the documentary film, Scratch, that you have, hopefully, played a couple of times by now. Here, MMM is taking a Robert Johnson Blues Song (admittedly not the Cross Roads song, which would have been scary good for my purposes here) as raw material for making a new version that radicalizes the older versions. MMM speeds it up and slows it down and makes it stammer, studder, break apart and come together again as he swirls its contents with other contents in a dynamic celerity of hand movements and ascendant control practices over the tools of his DJ trade. He is not (yet) digitizing the song in this clip. His work is still within the category of the analog. But still, I think his performance models a set of behaviors that have only gotten more prolific and more wild in the digital medium. And MMM’s work with the original song has the effect of making Clapton’s work on the original song seem partial and limited in terms of its innovative potential.
So, this clip of MMM doing his thing operated as an approximation of a type of urban subject in our discussion in SUB that day. This is a subject whose agency is variable and negotiated, contingent and at times soft. Maybe it is even fair to say the agency of this type of urban subject makes kinds of appearances based on types of performance. This subject stages productions out of the raw materials of all sorts of other things and recombines those things in a number of durational configurations. The clip of MMM foreshadows the database subject, and the cultural move from the regime of assembly to that of assemblage (I hope to return to this notion in a future post in a more scholarly manner). Every traditional thing is either held up for its historical value or simply thrust into the mix as one more possible aggregate of material properties, or both… more vectors, more coordinates, more potential for being affective, more movement across a plane of immanence upon which things are built and unbuilt with both dizzying frequencies and with slow, deliberate, sustained effort. I like what Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid) had to say in his book rhythm science (an excerpt from which we also read for this particular session of SUB). He writes:
As George Santayana said so long ago, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s one scenario. But what happens when the memories filter through the machines we use to process culture and become software – a constantly updated, always turbulent terrain more powerful than the machine through which it runs? Memory, damnation, and repetition: That was then, this is now. We have machines to repeat history for us. And the software that runs the machines is the text that flows through the conduits like the flaneur of the unconscious. (pp 9-12)