Why I hate iPods #143

Amongst my biggest problems with these devices, or any other portable digital music players, is they way in which they structure a social tautology - the individual no longer moves to the rhythm of the urban soundscape but to their own daily schedule, continually modulating external events' affective states by bringing them in line with what's inside. Eg. I'm on the train, I don't like the sound of these people talking about whatever, I'll put on my iPod and listen to x because it will put me in the right mood for what I need to do when I get off the train, and then when I'm walking to there I'll put on y because it's good walking music, and so on and so on. Rather than attunement to whatever sonic textures surround one, the digital player allows you to continually collapse bodily and mental movement so that the only thing your listening practices mirror is yourself. Not even does the iPod force you to at least sit with a particular piece of music (say, a cassette or a disc), but at 'touch' you can switch things around endlessly, shuffle them up until all that's left in meaningful, affective, material terms is whatever you want it to be. Sure, this isn't some kind of liberated freedom rather a form of micromanagement of the self, post-Foucauldian control in action. Just what about the music though, at least? Does it even matter anymore? Is a politics of genre (or artist, or period, or any other identity of actual songs) even possible under these conditions?

7 riffs:

Anonymous said...

Just what about the music though, at least? Does it even matter anymore?

Without wanting to deny the fact and force of history, did the music ever "matter" in the way you imply in those questions? Hasn't the significance (in all the senses of that word) of music always been a question of ethos? which is as much as to say that the image of the self that recurs in both the notion of listening practices mirroring oneself and the idea of a micromanagement of the self is too individualistic?

Sure there's a material difference between the scroll of a clickwheel and the stop, eject, extract tape, replace tape of walkman. But to what extent does this material difference negate rather than enhance the potential for an ethical dimension to be cultivated within the listening event?

If the iPod constitutes a mechanism for potential micromanagement of the self, in other words, it also constitutes a mechanism for a different kind of management, a micromanagement out of the self, so to speak.

Lawson said...

hi anonymous, thanks for your fascinating comment. i have to say right off the bat that i'm not sure if i fully follow you; maybe if you read this you can give me some clarification. but what i gather your saying is that iPods present the possibility of a new ethics of music, one connected to the social (ie. non-individualistic)? if so, i'm not sure how one can possibly argue that - as i feebly attempted to argue, the materiality of the iPod is such that it privileges continual modulation and mirroring of mood and music; whereas the very 'immobile' force of previous technologies at least meant that music 'went past' the moment of gratification, which in itself i see as the basis for any conception of musical ethics (or politics). how might you argue against this? in more plain terms, as again, i'm a little slow on the uptake. might the suggestion be that this device allows you to effectively scroll outside of individual concerns? kind of like a schizophrenic mapping of the self that is only constituted by a thread of associations? i'm not sure. again, i think iPods only increase the demands on individual "aesthetic reflexivity" (DeNora).

Anonymous said...

Hi Lawson

If you can't follow me it is more than likely because my comment isn't particularly coherent. In any case, I'll try to put the point more clearly. But let me preface it by saying that I don't disagree with the substance of your argument, only the extent — or rather I disagree with the substance only insofar as it seems to entail a kind of hypostatic abstraction.

It partly comes down to what you mean by music "mattering". In its simplest form, the question I'm asking turns on this "mattering" of music that you see as somehow being lost and on whether this "mattering" is a function or quality solely or primarily of the materiality of the music. I think not, and I read your comment (wrongly?) as thinking so. Your use of the term "privileges" suggests a qualification of the claim ("the materiality of the iPod is such that it privileges continual modulation..."), but that's still too strong a term for me.

That's the brief explanation. For the longer explanation, let me clarify my use of some terms. First up. when I said that the image of self recurring in your post is too individualistic, I meant in its etymological sense of indivisible. Now, don't get me wrong, the reference to F. is enough to show that you're capable of appreciating arguments about the non-identity of the "individual", etc.. I just think that in this particular argument, the conception of self revealed in different formulations of the self's relation to music comes across as more individualistic than is warranted — and this has implications for how one may account for the "mattering" or otherwise of music.

Second, when I used the term "ethos", I meant in the sense of the self's relation both to the self and to the other, where, of course, both the self and the other are already constituted in various ways within and by discourse (to use a shorthand for the many different ways in which "subjects" and "objects" are made intelligible and sensible). In that sense, "aesthetic reflexivity" embodies an ethical relation to the self and to music — albeit one that, judging from the critical tone of your comment, you don't particularly value.

Put the two together and the crux of my point is that you seem to be suggesting that the individualistic ethos in relation to music (what you've subsequently described as aesthetic reflexivity) is a product of or is privileged by the emergence of portable digital music players — especially to the extent that your commentary concludes with a lamentation that (arguably) the music is not taken to "matter anymore".

So when I suggested that the significance of music has always been a question of ethos, I basically meant that forms of ethical relationship that are possible in a digital-mobile listening environment are premised not just on the materiality of the digital-mobile but also on preceding forms of ethical relationship (e.g. listening habits) and that such forms of ethical relationship are multiple (albeit certainly not unlimited nor even particularly numerous). To that extent, I agree that iPods may structure a social tautology, or rather a number of possible social tautologies — in the sense that they may aid in the carrying on of business as usual, as it were. Then again — and in recognition of the irreducibly material difference between the physical-mobile and the digital-mobile — the advent of iPods does change things, but only in the sense (1) of changing the overall strategy (in the sense of the array of possible uses, freedoms, constraints, etc.) and (2) of being accompanied by a whole set of relatively concomitant but potentially incongruous transformations to the listening context (understood in terms of political-economy and cultural habitus as much as technology).

What that means is that (1) what you've identified as the emergence of an aesthetic reflexivity is more properly thought of as an amplification; (2) that amplification might be attributable not just to the iPod itself but indeed to a whole complex of micro-changes to the music economy; and (3) that if the iPod appears to constitute a technique for aesthetic reflexivity, it may also be deployed for other purposes or be activated by a very different ethical demeanour.

A case in point, I'm more likely to listen to albums on my iPod than when listening to music via my computer. (Let's put aside the question of what kind of politics is at play in the privileging of the album as an aesthetic unit.) This is so for a number of reasons. First, my relationship to music has long been defined by an ethico-aesthetic relationship to albums rather than to songs and to the extent that this particular "connection" plays a big part in the way I understand myself as a listening subject, the advent of the iPod isn't likely to have that great an effect on my listening habits insofar as they related to the "freedom" of "one-touch" music selection. Second, the sheer volume of material I can stuff into my 20GB iPod (yes, very outdated, I know) may mean that potentially I can skip across a massive archive to find the song that suits my mood at any given time, but effectively that archive is too massive for me to peruse and navigate through. It's more efficient (for want of a better word) to program albums (and so much for the idea of "one-touch" music selection). Third, what really changes things for me is not the digital-mobile element, which given the preceding point is not all that different from the physical-mobile, but rather the possibilities for data access and manipulation opened up by iTunes. That application provides much more scope for modifying listening habits than the hardware, insofar as it makes it much easier than anything else I've come across to manipulate tracklistings (i.e. create playlists), construct aural histories (via "last played", "playcount", etc.) and make visible and available for manipulation my very appreciation of given songs (i.e. through playcount, ratings, etc.). So it's not the iPod as such and its inherent portability that is most likely to change my relationship to the value of given aesthetic units, but rather the application that is apparently secondary to that device.

Of course, my own uses can't be used to trump accounts of general transformations, but the implications of my overly-long ramblings are simply that (1) the aesthetic reflexivity you identify could (and probably should) be attributed to much further-reaching changes to the music economy (and more besides) than simply the advent of portable digital music players — though digitalisation, in particular, is undoubtedly a key factor here; and (2) that a politics of music hinges less on the apparent "immobility" (immutability?) of music than on the range of forms of ethical relationship currently available to and affirmable by the listening subject.

Hope that doesn't come across as over the top or overly critical or as just far more words than was necessary. Let me way again that I take your point about the amplification of a particular kind of listening practice and its implication in what I would call a conservative politics. I just wanted to note some of the ways in which any counter to such conservativism might want to address issues other than the specific technology and its apparent qualities.


Lawson said...


I'd just like to start by saying thank you for such a generous engagement with my post, it's quite humbling. And also, by offering a few caveats of my own: (1), the post in question was written in a flurry in the context of a much broader engagement with digital music technologies and practices and so is necessarily incomplete, and (2), I have a tendency to often throw my hands up and say "what about the music?" in this really reductive way, berating the loss of some idealised situation in which music 'mattered', as it were, entirely on its own terms, which obviously, is a bullshit position to take, one that elides history and the fact that music is always thoroughly mediated.

But then, that second point is almost a launching pad for the argument I made, the fact of music's mediation (which I guess you'll agree with?). And to make another qualification, in the post, in referring to the iPod, I was using the definition of technologies as brilliantly put by Sterne: "repeatable social, cultural and material processes crystallized into mechanisms". I primarily read you last response as a warning against a type of technological determinism that was implicit in my post, and so to that I offer that definition, of a technology as the artefact that 'reveals' or expresses a whole ensemble of cultural and economic changes. Of course, I could have gone through and looked at the various facets of this ensemble, but I didn't mostly because I'm just a poor undergrad, who finds it very difficult and time consuming to parse these points, so I just go for what most obviously registers things.

And too, I seriously do stick to a notion of technology as providing a set of 'affordances' (another term from DeNora) for practice, which I take to mean that technologies set the range of possible behaviours in a given environment. As your post pointed out, though, I was likely quite blind to a whole range of other practices as enabled by the iPod, and the software accompanying it (and yes, that was quite true, I should have looked at the whole set of applications around that device). Because, thanks to that specific example you gave me about listening to albums and the overwhelming size of the iPod's database, I now see what you mean by the possibility of another listening practice with the device (again, I was only talking about what seem the most 'dominant', as corroborated, actually, by Bull's 2007 study of users whose practices were actually the spark for my argument). Although, I'm still unsure whether you've hit on anything truly 'progressive' (I can't find a better term), and this is to criticise myself mostly - the preference for albums and the unwillingness (or inability) to confront the storage potential of the iPod seems to be a reactive relationship to the device, one that bases itself on a whole other set of practices relating to prior forms (in this sense, you might value the iPod for its ability to simply offer an amplified experience (in terms of storage and portability) of listening to albums). These practices/technologies carry with them a whole other range of problems...

Regarding you comments about my argument manifesting a too 'individualistic' self, well what I was getting at was not that this individual stood prior to the iPod, but that this device (along with a slew of other technologies/practices) actively formed this very notion of individuality. I was implicitly asking - from a range of possible subjectivities, which one does the iPod privilege? (again to use that limiting term). Does this set my argument straighter? Or do you believe that I was in some way already predisposed to this notion of individuality that I then read into the device?

Although, I definitely value your comment on looking past the dominant form that technology takes as a means of countering any sense of 'conservatism', enshrined in whatever practice. However, apart from some idealised notion of music as an abstract presence, I'm still not sure how we can effectively do that in a distinctly technologised phenomenon. Maybe it has to do with really thinking about, as you first said, how the ones currently under question also 'afford' a new relationship outside of the self. I'd love to really get to the crux of that.

Hope this, which basically amounts to a set of poorly thought-out qualifications and retreats, puts my initial argument in more of a context, and hopefully gives you something further with which to engage.


Anonymous said...

Hi Lawson

Thanks for the response to my remarks, which of course are not exactly fair, since they ask a hell of a lot from a brief spur-of-the-moment post on your part. In my defence, my first comment amounted to little more than a couple of questions, intended only to get a sense of the directions you might take the analysis were you called upon to elaborate.

I think you're absolutely right to suggest that there's something "reactive" about the example of iPod use I gave, which was given largely to make precisely that point: i.e. that responses to the advent of iPods are very likely to be reactive, at least initially. For me, this has two consequences: (1) it takes the heat off the device as such; and (2) it allows us to consider the full range of available listening practices/relationships, etc. I appreciate your appeal to the notion of technologies as "repeatable social, cultural and material processes crystallized into mechanisms", and I think that its extremely productive in terms of making the critical move. But as you've worked out, I'm very much interested in the way such critical moves are accompanied by a conservative gesture, insofar as they affirm the (actual as distinct from ideal) centrality or dominance of a particular complex at the expense of exploring or exposing (or indeed creating) a range of conflicting possibilities.

With regard, then, to the question of thinking about how particular (new) technologies might also afford a "new" relationship outside of the self, I can't help but come back to thinking about ethos. To the extent that uses of new technologies are initially reactive and to the extent that forms of subjectivity, radically new or otherwise, aren't built into the technologies themselves, then the question has to consider, among other things, how the different forms of relationship to music define or shape both the experience and the possibilities of music, which of these forms of relationship is worth affirming (for its openness to experimentation, say, or for its refusal of music as ideality, etc.), and how such forms may be continued or amplified and potentially transformed in the digital-mobile context.

There's also another side to this question, which we've left unexplored thus far but which might fruitfully intersect with the above: are there some rhythms or some urban soundscapes the annulment of which, by means of the digital-mobile, might be considered heterological rather than tautological?

I don't actually have any answers to these questions, by the way, though I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts...


Lawson said...

Well it's been a long time since I've worked up the courage to reply again, and to leave some of the wider questions unanswered I will, instead just focusing briefly on your heterological/tautological idea. This idea came to me when I considered the comparisons between iPodding (gross term I know) and skateboarding as urban practices. I'm not sure if what I'm about to offer will simply restate my former position in a different way, but here goes.

Both change the texture of the city precisely by denying it. The skateboarder empties the ideological connotations of the handrail, for example, (a crutch for consumption) by grinding down it; the iPod user blocks out the discord of the urban soundscape by reconstructing a personal sonic mosaic that inverts the relation between body and city (the former no longer dictating the latter, rather vice versa).

That's pretty succinct. But then..

The problem inherent in both these strategies is that they fail to analyse or critique precisely the ideological structures of the urban, to confront and truly change (challenge) them. They are only temporary tactics.

Maybe we could not wish for more? Apart from some kind of 'storming the barricades' type situation, I guess nearly all oppositional urban practices are only ever tactical, right? To that, I would again add that tactics can easily be swallowed up by strategies (I'm sure you can connect the dots here, least to say that one can now 'detourne' an urban environment from the comfort of the living room with Tony Hawks Pro Skater series and other such games) and that these practices then only seem to present themselves as symptomatic of the urban, not an attempt to truly alter it. Like you said, it's about 'annulment', not change.

If you're still here, thoughts?

(btw, I would be stoked if you might send me an email to find out just who I'm chatting to, but if that's not your wish then that's totally cool.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Lawson

Thanks for this reply. Unfortunately, I don't have the time to add to our exploration of these issues, but I just wanted to post something so that you knew that I'd read your words.

As for my identity, well you know me from a unit you took at uni, one that was oriented towards promoting the kinds of activities that take place on this blog, and you invited me to have a look, which I did and have done a few times now.