Sterne, Jonathan, and Tara Rodgers. “The Poetics of Signal Processing.” Differences 22, no. 2–3 (2011): 31–53.
I. On Myth
In “Poetics of Signal Processing” Jonathan Sterne and Tara Rodgers promote a mythic approach to the analysis of auditory culture. Here, I mean “myth” in the sense that Jim Buhler discussed it in our conversation with him [as part of a seminar on cultural studies in musicology]: a world-making impulse that eludes fixity. It affords a background system of beliefs that interpellate the believer into it. Myth then, according to Buhler, requires a level of investment and proximity; practices that run counter to the disinterest and critical distance valorized by demystification-minded scholars.
Extrapolating from Buhler’s “Enchantments of Lord of the Rings: Soundtrack, Myth, Language, and Modernity,” myth serves two functions: 1) it theorizes that which gave birth to the world, and 2) it narrates the fall from an Age of Heroes to an Age of Humans. In this essay, I will focus explicitly on the former but the latter informs much of my thinking as well. Buhler notes that music (of particular types) helps to chart the birth-through-disenchantment of a world that exists in historical/diegetic/narrative time. Sound (of particular types) can confound issues of authorship, underwriting, and ownership and thus place us on the cusp of myth, which exceeds the framing authority of capital control. When it appears in advance of the filmic image, cinematic sound, Buhler argues, draws the world of images into being and raises questions of origin: Where does the film begin and what came before? This enigma in turn presses an ontological question: Where does the world itself begin?
Myth is concerned with the stuff of (our) origins.
II. On Cosmology
My last trip to Minnesota coincided with the announcement that cosmologists had found evidence of gravity waves that support the Big Bang hypothesis about the beginning of our universe. Minnesota Public Radio was jubilant, both because this story was so easily mobilized as counter-evidence to Creationist hypotheses that are anathema to MPR’s northern liberal secular mythos and because one of the authors of the paper, Clem Pryke, is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Physics Department. Pryke attempted to explain the phenomenon his team had measured when he appeared on “The Daily Circuit” on March 19, 2014:
The Big Bang is the creation of space-time. It’s an explosion of space-time, if you want to think about it that way. It’s unfortunate that our puny human brains are three-dimensional, and we can’t think in this warped four-dimensional space-time. But people always want to think … if it’s an explosion, it must have been exploding into something, right? And that’s because we’re locked into this three-dimensional thinking that we evolved on the plains of Africa because it was perfectly appropriate.
Pryke struggles to locate the beginning of time in a past which could not yet have existed and to wrap his head around an expansion of space that creates the possibility for such an expansion. In essence, Pryke appeals to a mythic origin outside our “fallen” age of humanism. He laments the circumstances that led to our disenchantment, that led to to our loss of the fourth dimension of “warped” space-time.
III. On Technology
Jonathan Sterne and Tara Rodgers’ article is suffused with indirect references to Martin Heidegger’s 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology” which theorizes a poetic response to dominant twentieth century understandings of technology. In it, Heidegger argues that obsession with causality has rendered us unable to experience the world that technology reveals or “discloses.” Instead, we tend to use technology instrumentally, to become ever-more efficient at mining our current conception of the world for raw resources. Worse still, our instrumental application of technology compels us to refashion this world as one in which things are increasingly likely to appear to us as instruments that might be used to conceive of more of the world in terms of exploitable resources.
This distanced—Heidegger might say “de-worlded”— approach to the world is one that seeks to stand outside, to explain, to demystify and disenchant, to debunk. Debunking does not challenge or dispel the mythic formulations it apprehends, however. Rather, debunking simply fails to understand the truth that is only possible through experience and practice. That is, demystification does not disenchant but simply describes the epiphenomenal myth of Science while missing the more fundamental “myth”— the structured holism of which detached reflection is a component. Or, in the words of Giambatttista Vico (referenced but not cited in Sterne and Rodgers): “myth is defined as vera narratio, true narration.” This is starting point for Sterne and Rodger’s exploration of signal processing technologies in the production for contemporary sound cultures. They advance their argument for a technological poiesis of signal processing by critiquing two prominent metaphors in the industry: rawness and voyage.
The “rawness metaphor aims at how everyday engineering talk represents the work of signal processing and elevates it as a kind of culturing process, a readying for the consumption of sound by others.”(36) That is to say, some engineers use signal processing technology to afford themselves a view of the world as full of raw resources. This enacts something very like Heidegger’s instrumentalist view of/through technology. When they take up signal processing as a tool for readying the raw world for consumption, engineers step back from—alienate themselves from—involvement in the world. Sterne and Rodgers explain this relationship in Heideggerian terms as follows:
Raw sound is sound that is ready-to-hand, that is available to be processed. It comes not to the sonic world as it is contemplated, but rather, rawness emerges from a relationship to the sonic world where sounds are used and manipulated (the latter word containing within its etymology a reference to the hands and to bundling up).(38)
As a metaphor, “rawness” not only helps engineers deal with the world as it lies but creates a world full of raw things that appear as “to-be-processed.” Note here that Vico (a self-proclaimed mythic poet) understands metaphor as a myth-in-miniature. He states, “the most luminous figure, and hence the most basic and common, is metaphor… it confers sense and emotion on insensate objects.” By doing this, the great poets of history “created myths about [the origins of humanity]; and every such metaphor is a miniature myth.” In other words, the move to capture the world in a web of instrumentality creates a myth from within which all relations are instrumental. To the extent that this instrumental(izing) myth works against itself by denying its own mythic character, instead declaring itself disinterested reality), it does not achieve disenchantment so much as mis-enchantment.
Those who mistake mis-enchantment for disenchantment too-easily adopt discourses that urge a return to raw, auratic aurality. That is, when we think the world has been reduced to resources due the pervasiveness of “processing,” critiques of consumer capital find themselves painted into a corner: concede that there is no way out of capital or seek a way back to the time before time. Neither is particularly appealing.
The design and fabrication of electroacoustic instruments often describes a realm in which the conception of signal processing is particularly instrumental. Many synthesizer designs (”topographies”) are based on Hermann von Helmholtz mythology of sound. The twin of visual color perception, sound has three ears called loudness, pitch, and timbre, analogous to the former’s three eyes: brightness, hue, and saturation.(44) From these fundamental materials, Helmholtz theorized, one could build any sound imaginable:
For Helmholtz, [sound] is a thing in the world, a material with definite qualities. The analog synthesizer circuit animates this legacy and takes it literally. If we can analyze sound and break it down into its fundamental components, we can also create it.(44)
In resistance to Helmholtz’ instrumentality, engineer Jessica Rylan takes a poetic approach to synthesis that prefers creating rainshowers to drawing maps of the sea.(44-45) By “poetic, Sterne and Rodgers mean the condition of being a “maker;” not necessarily a maker of poems but, more importantly, a maker of meanings.
IV. After Myth
Sterne and Rodgers articulate a way of being with technology that diverges from Buhler who suggests that time begins “after myth.” The poetics of signal processing that Sterne and Rodgers describe does not ask us to choose “myth” over “disenchantment” nor does it necessarily promote the adoption of better myth over worse. Instead, Sterne and Rodgers (by way of Vico and Heidegger) position myths that allow for future re-invention against those which pretend to have moved beyond mythology. That is, the myth of “after-myth” evacuates the possibility of creation in its poetic sense, while a “poetics of signal processing” turns attention to signal processing as a process. In a world of disenchant, technology must be realistic; it cannot reshape reality. It has no recourse but to serve as tools for efficient production—it becomes picks and shovels and the world looks ever more like a vein of coal ready to be mined, processed, and burned.
Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In The Question Concerning Technology, 3–35, 1977.
Pryke, Clem. “’Puny human brains’ and the beginning of time.” Daily Circuit, MPR, March 19 2014. Web. http://www.mprnews.org/story/2014/03/19/daily-circuit-big-bang
Vico, Giambattista. New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations. 3rd ed. Penguin Classics. London ; New York: Penguin Books, 1999.