September 2019

Arts & Letters

Losing yourself

By Anwen Crawford

Photograph courtesy Yanni Florence ad ReadingRoom, Melbourne

How can we be transformed by music if online platforms mean we will always remain ourselves?

I’ve lost not one but two external hard drives this year. The first crashed without warning, and the second, its replacement, I dropped on a tiled floor. Losing the first was the real blow: it held material dating back more than a decade, from two different computers I’ve owned during that time. Gone were the drafts of every article I’d written since 2006, the entire manuscript and original interview transcripts for my first book, which was published in 2015, and much more besides. I’d been using that hard drive as storage for files that would otherwise have clogged my current laptop, but had I thought about backing up what was, effectively, the backup? I had not. I took the drive to the most reputable computer repair place I could find, but not a byte could be salvaged.

Gone, too, was my digital music library, an ungainly (so it had always felt to me) archive that I’d built up over many years from numerous sources. There were thousands of files dutifully ripped from CDs, along with albums and tracks I’d bought straight from iTunes, Bandcamp and elsewhere. There were some torrented files – I’m no saint – plus digital versions of new LPs, because the record labels toss in the download for free, with the vinyl. Then there were other, less easily replaceable odds and ends, like live radio sets, DJ mixes and demos sent to me by musician friends. At least half a decade’s worth of digital music that I’d acquired disappeared, into the ether.

Now, no one need lecture me on the ephemerality of digital media. I don’t need to be converted, or reconverted, to the cause of the material object. Come visit my flat sometime: it looks like a second-hand book arcade. (God forbid the landlord ever terminates my lease.) I still buy CDs, for heaven’s sake.

A collector’s appetite requires an object to stoke it; in this I agree with Walter Benjamin, who, in his famous and influential essay on collecting, “Unpacking My Library”, written in 1931, described the attachments that an object entails. “The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership – for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopaedia,” he wrote. Here’s the mint-condition German pressing of New Order’s “Blue Monday” that I bought only recently, with the die-cut 12-inch sleeve that makes it look like a giant floppy disc. Here’s the creased Dinah Washington LP, A Gal Called Dinah, once owned by somebody called “S. STEP”, who wrote their name on the rear sleeve, in biro, just above the catalogue number. Thousands if not hundreds of thousands of copies of these two records exist, but not my copies. My copies are mine alone. A single copy is an animating paradox of the collector, who forges significance out of their personal assemblage of mass-manufactured stuff, be it porcelain or books, records or postage stamps.

Benjamin wrote that a true collector “lives in them” – the objects – through ownership, and for this reason I can’t properly describe my lost digital music library as a collection. It never existed for me to own materially, and when the files disappeared I felt frustrated, but I wasn’t devastated, not like I would be if I lost my books or records and the dense tangle of memories and histories that belong to them, and hence to me, for as long as the objects remain in my possession. Which is why objects are so bound up with our mortality – because they hold traces of the passage of time. I didn’t live in my digital music files, not in the sense that Benjamin meant. My ownership of them had nothing of life, because no death was implied there.

But, though it was immaterial, I did “own” that digital library in a limited and – it turned out – contingent sense. It was stored by me alone, and offline, too, which is why it proved able to vanish. The library, and my use of it, was an anachronism, stranded between the analogue past and the wholly online future. (Digital anachronisms are dishonoured by the stain of an unaesthetic inefficiency. At least vinyl records look nice.) The majority of people now listen to the majority of music digitally, and do so without the interface of files. Music is a stream, music is in the cloud, and so it is always there. (This, as the degradation of existing nature accelerates. Perhaps the online streams will outlast the real rivers.)

The perpetual presence of music creates a lethargic present for the listener, or so it feels to me. I find my online listening becoming narrower, more predictably situated within my established tastes – a far cry from the all-you-can-hear smorgasbord that platforms like Spotify or YouTube seem to promise. If the stuff I haven’t heard will still be here tomorrow, why listen to it now? I feel no urgency in streaming, no sense of finite time. And then there is the mirroring effect of algorithmic recommendations, giving me more versions of myself and that self’s habits, which my data has already identified. The shadow cast by the cloud is our data, lifted out of lived context and reflected back to us.

The knowledge that we are trailed by our data selves is hardly a new thought, at this point. And the truth is that consumer capitalism has always displayed to us versions of ourselves – improved versions, forever just out of reach, which keep us buying. Being sold, and sold to, isn’t what bothers me. (I mean, of course it bothers me, but it’s an old concern.) What keeps nagging at the edges of my thought has something to do with a different kind of knowledge and a different kind of intimacy; not the intimacy of data – which is intimate, in its own dispassionate way – but the intimacy of imagination, which, to properly thrive, must be detached from the ambient awareness of being always surveilled. Because surveillance is different to marketing, if more and more enmeshed with it, and so produces a different kind of self. If we know we’re being tracked all the time it shapes, even subconsciously, our capacity to imagine bolder, more complex, less legible versions of ourselves.

Recently, I watched a new film by British artist Jeremy Deller, Everybody in the Place. (Open tab, Chrome history: August 10, 2019, 18:57: Everybody in the Place: an Incomplete History of Britain, 1984-1992.) In this film, Deller traces the path of acid house music in Britain, from its origins in the gay clubs of Chicago during the ’80s, to its adoption by black British audiences, particularly in London and Manchester, and then its mutation through the outdoor party scene into rave, culminating in headline-grabbing events like the Castlemorton Common Festival of 1992, which saw 30,000 ravers converge for a week-long free party in the English countryside. Deller, who is 53, presents his “incomplete history” as a mild-mannered lecture to a classroom of contemporary London high-school students. They are sceptical, amused, baffled and curious, as Deller hands around old rave flyers and plays them grainy video footage of partygoers dancing in fields and warehouses. “No one’s watching each other,” observes one student, of the footage. “If we were to see someone dance or do something a bit different, we’d instantly record them.” Recording won’t itself necessarily inhibit people – after all, someone recorded the party footage that these students are watching now. It’s what comes after recording, or, now, is simultaneous with it: online circulation and its attendant deathlessness.

You know that feeling when you see historical footage of ordinary people – TV footage, film footage, home video footage, footage shot up until about the start of this decade, which is so soon to end – and you realise that the people you’re watching never expected their documented self to outlive their real self? I find it so poignant: the human frailty, the unselfconsciousness. Very occasionally, someone will wave at the camera, but mostly people go about without thinking that they’ll be seen, after the fact. You could say that they’re living in the moment, but what this implies, to me, is that they’re living for the future.

I think the future can only be fully imagined, and therefore created, if we remain, somehow, both oblivious and painfully attuned to the fact that by the time it arrives we’ll be gone, and that whoever comes after us won’t quite understand where it was that we were trying to get to. If we know that our time is finite, then we may live in it with the urgency it deserves, hoping to pass on some of what we made, but conscious that whatever we did make will be used in ways that alter or even mistake our intentions. This is how popular music has progressed, historically: not by transparency but by misapprehension, and the differences that misapprehension creates: variations, modifications and deviations, taken up and carried forward energetically and so changed, then changed again. To put it in a slightly different way, pop music futures have relied on our potential to be embarrassed by our past selves: embarrassed by our fervency, our ignorance, our silliness.

Pop music has relied, too, on the tension between the individual and the mass, and this axis crosses the other, the one of intent and misapprehension. A group of people – in a city, in a studio, in a club – does something, creates something, musically, which is taken up by individuals in a crowd, and responded to by each of them in slightly different ways. Or the other way around: a crowd responds to an individual. Either way, the push-and-pull is there, between being yourself and losing yourself and, in doing so, maybe becoming someone else. This was rather the point, and the power, of rave: to meld with the crowd and the sound system; to transcend your own limits through the group; and then to take that energy out of the rave and apply it elsewhere – differently, creatively.

But you can only lose yourself if you don’t always have to be yourself, with Google Search and the spectre of your next or current employer hovering over you. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, views my own, et cetera. Who wants to make mistakes, who wants to embarrass themselves, when we’re all being watched and filmed and tracked, including by each other, all the time, and we know that our data will outlast us, dwelling in an eternal, ineradicable present? Unlike my possessions, my data will never not belong to me – in the sense of being identifiable with me – not even when I die. Though in another sense, my data was never mine to begin with, because it’s owned by those companies, and even if you’re not on these social media platforms, which I’m not, the sense of being tracked by them, and therefore possessed, is hardly mitigated. This is a different kind of loss of self, where one is stripped of the potential to be anything but a node enmeshed with the infrastructure of mass surveillance. No push-pull here. The power is all on one side.

I was born just a little too late for rave. Old enough to have read about it in the ’90s, but too young to have been there. And now I find myself slightly too old (though I am not by any measure, except a teenager’s, old) to feel at home in the online world, which, increasingly, is the world, the whole world. Out of time and out of place, stuck between the online and the off, much – I imagine – like those who lived their early lives without electricity and know that living without such a thing is possible, while also being inconceivable from the vantage of the present. There’s no going back and no usefulness in wanting to, though I feel that much has been lost, of objects and their histories, of crowds and their histories. The crowd always has potential: living, finite, intricate, contradictory, teeming with single copies. Strange how the word copy refers both to one thing and to many. The cloud is inert.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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