Thursday, July 7, 2011

Against curiosity (25 August 2008)

A problem I keep finding myself returning to is why I seem to spend more time tagging and arranging my music files than I spend listening to my music. Part of that is a cognitive illusion, but a telling one -- I'm listening to music the entire time I'm doing the iTunes bookkeeping work, but my concentration is on the data, not on the intricacies, harmonies, melodies and hooks of the music. It barely breaks through, and usually only when the song playing is so irritating, I have to skip to the next one.

In my mind, this is symptomatic of a larger problem, of consuming information about goods rather than allowing goods to facilitate sensual experiences. In part, this is so we can consume more quickly, a product of the time crunch we face in expanding our consumption -- we want faser throughput, since quantity seems to trump quality, and the pleasure in consuming seems to come from the acquisition of the next thing. To authorize that next acquisition, we need to satisfy ourselves that we are done with what we have. Processing it as information is a quick way of doing just that.

As a consequence of this eagerness to process more and more stuff, I end up amassing an embarrassingly thorough knowledge of the surface details of pop culture -- who wrote what and who sang what and who played on whose record and when this show was canceled or had this or that guest star or whatever. Worse, I invest far too much significance in brandishing this knowledge as some kind of accomplishment, as if life were a big game of Jeopardy. This useless depot of detail is what a show like Family Guy tries to reward me for having accumulated. Getting to laugh at it is like a kind of booby prize.

But iTunes metadata seems to me the best emblem of the information problem, of the trap we are lured into of substituting clerical data processing for thought and experience. Adorno seemed to anticipate this precisely in "The Schema of Mass Culture," whose title alone suggests its application to the digitization of all cultural distribution. He argues that art, in being manufactured for the masses, is reduced to the data about itself, which masks its subversive potential. "The sensuous moment of art transforms itself under the eyes of mass culture into the measurement, comparison and assessment of physical phenomena." This is like accessing iTunes metadata in place of hearing the song. Because the metadata for all the music is the same, all music from that perspective is also essentially the same. And the argument can be extended to all of digitally distributed culture.

The underlying sameness of the medium for culture today reveals the truth about the phantasmal differences in form and genre. (As Adorno puts it, in his inimitable way, "the technicized forms of modern consciousness...transform culture into a total lie, but this untruth confesses the truth about the socio-economic base with which it has now become identical.") It's all more or less the same, allowing consumers to obey the command to enact the same self-referential decoding process, reinforcing the same lesson of eternal sameness.
The more the film-goer, the hit-song enthusiast, the reader of detective and magazine stories anticipates the outcome, the solution, the structure, and so on, the more his attention is displaced toward the question of how the nugatory result is achieved, to the rebus-like details involved, and in this searching process of displacement the hieroglyphic meaning suddenly reveals itself. It articulates every phenomenon right down to the subtlest nuance according to a simplistic two-term logic of "dos and don'ts," and by virtue of this reduction of everything alien and unintelligible it overtakes the consumers.

What Adorno would call "official culture" -- that which is made to be reviewed and talked about by professional commentators and promoted by professional marketers and consumed commercially -- seems to be so stuffed with data and information and objects and performers and whatnot that no one could ever in their right mind question its plenitude. There's so much, you'd have to be nuts to derive some satisfaction from all that. Think of all the stuff you can download! But the one thing missing amid all this data is the space for a genuine aesthetic experience, a moment of negativity in which an alternative to what exists, what registers as "realistic" can be conceived. Instead, one feels obliged to keep up with official culture so as to not find oneself an outcast. People go along not necessarily because they love pop culture but because "they know or suspect that this is where they are taught the mores they will surely need as their passport in a monopolized life." Pop culture knowledge becomes a prerequisite for certain social opportunities, a way of signaling one's normality, or one's go-along-get-along nature. "Today, anyone incapable of talking in the prescribed fashion, that is of effortlessly reproducing the formulas, conventions and judgments of mass culture as if they were his own, is threatened in his very existence, suspected of being an idiot or an intellectual." I think of this quote sometimes when it comes up that someone has never knowingly heard a Coldplay or John Mayer song, or hasn't seen an episode of American Idol. Really? Have you been under a rock? Are you lying? Why this makes me suspicious rather than elated, I don't know. And it especially reminds me of my record reviewing, when I tried to pretend there was inherent significance in the commercial output of E.L.O. or the Drive-By Truckers. And as the information about pop culture proliferates, we become more ignorant about politics and basic facts about how our economy operates.

Once participation in public official culture becomes a matter of collecting trivial, descriptive (as opposed to analytical) information about it, Adorno argues that "culture business" then plays out as a contest. Products "require extreme accomplishments that can be precisely measured." This I would liken to the data at the bottom of iTunes that tells you the number of songs you have and the number of days it would take to listen to them all. It's not intended to be a scoreboard but it can seem like one. This sort of contest culminates in collecting mania, where an object's use value has been shriveled to it's being simply another in a series.

To radically oversimplify, Adorno argued that mass culture, a reflection and paradigmatic example of monopoly capitalism, served to nullify the radical potential in art, debasing its forms and methods while acclimating audiences to mediocrity, alienation, hopelessness, and a paucity of imagination. It works to form individuals into a mass, integrating them into the manufactured culture, snuffing out alternative and potentially seditious ways for people to interact with one another while facilitating an ersatz goodwill for the existing order. "As far as mass culture is concerned, reification is no metaphor: It makes the human beings that it reproduces resemble things even where their teeth do not represent toothpaste and their careworn wrinkles do not evoke cosmetics." The contours of our consciousness are produced by our culture, and advertisements reflect those dimensions while fostering their reproduction.

Basically, through its ministrations, all the movements of the individual spirit become degraded and tamed and assimilated to the mass-produced cultural products on offer, which ultimately fail to gratify and perpetuate a spiritual hunger while occluding the resources that might have actually sated it. Pleasure becomes "fun," thought becomes "information," desire becomes "curiosity."

But what could be wrong with curiosity? It seems like it should be an unadulterated good, a way of openly engaging with the world. Adorno, in a feat of rhetorical jujitsu, wants to have us believe it means the opposite. Because it is attuned not to anything more substantive than pop-culture trivia, curiosity "refers constantly to what is preformed, to what others already know." It is not analytical or synthetic; it simply aggregates. "To be informed about something implies an enforced solidarity with what has already been judged." Everything worth knowing about, from a social perspective -- anything you might talk about with acquaintances, say -- has already been endorsed, is already presented as cool even before anyone had that authentic reaction to it. Cultural product is made with cool in mind, whereas authentic cool, from Adorno's standpoint anyway, must always be a by-product. At the same time, curiosity surpressed genuine change, supplanting for it ersatz excitement for cynical repetitions -- think the fashion cycle, in which everything changes on the surface but nothing really changes. "Curiosity is the enemy of the new which is not permitted anyway," Adorno says. "It lives off the claim that there cannot be anything new and that what presents itself as new is already predisposed to subsumption on the part of the well-informed." This means attention to the surface details, which prompts "a taboo against inaccurate information, a charge that can be invoked against any thought." Basically this means that in our cultural climate, your thoughts about, say, Eric Clapton's guitar playing are invalid unless you know what model guitar he was playing and what studio he was recording in at the time. The trivia is used to silence the "inexpert." So "the curiosity for information cannot be separated from the opinionated mentality of those who know it all," Adorno argues. Curiosity is "not concerned with what is known but the fact of knowing it, with having, with knowledge as a possession." Life becomes a collection of data, and "as facts they are arranged in such a way that they can be grasped as quickly and easily as possible" -- in a spreadsheet, for example. Or a PowerPoint presentation. These media suit facts as opposed to thoughts, and encourage us to groom our data sheets for completeness and clarity rather than insight. "Wrenched from all context, detached from thought, they are made instantly accessible to an infantile grasp. They may never be broadened or transcended" -- the metadata fields are unchangeable -- "but like favorite dishes they must obey the rule of identity if they are not to be rejected as false or alien." Works don't seek to be understood; they only seek to be identified, tagged, labeled accordingly to make them superficially accessible.

The reduction of thought to data allows us to consume culture faster, enhance our throughput, and focus on accumulating more. The idea that you would concentrate on one work and explore it deeply, thoroughly, is negated; more and more, it becomes unthinkable, something it wouldn't occur to anyone to try. "Curiosity" demands we press on fervently, in search of the next novelty.

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