Here we go. A wee article. Yes, I actually turned this damn thing in.
Self, Soul, and Producing Authenticity
"To give free play to the imagination, to allow the heart to be moved, to attain an ideal interpretation, and to bring out - coax out - the melody which is echoed from the soul, one must be freed from the mechanically difficult operation of fingering."1 As I read through the various essays and chapters, I found myself again and again wondering what the “self” might be and what the authors (or their historical subjects) meant by "soul." Taylor's essay quoted above dealt most directly with the concept, but even in those instances, there was no definition provided. Though Taylor does suggest that the “self” is the same as the “soul,” perhaps intentionally, the definition and various inferences are left to the reader to determine.
My concern is not doctrinal but it is, in a sense, religious. I am not interested in challenging any author's theological assumptions. This is simply a recognition that it is surprising that the term would be left largely undefined in a field of discourse which includes Marx, Adorno, and Benjamin. Their engagement with religion and religiosity is dense, oft critical, and has greatly influenced Christian religious praxis and intellectual discourse for more than one hundred and fifty years. The concern of “soulfullness,” and how the marketplace may or may not diminish it, as we'll discover, is one which Christian musicians are addressing at some depth.
In Michael Gungor's2 recent book, The Crowd, The Critic, and the Muse: A Book for Creators3, the author addresses theorists such as Marx and Adorno directly and provides, by virtue of his music and his use of electronic media and social media, a ready example of what Patrik Wickström describes in his book The Music Industry4 as an artist attempting to break down the barriers of fetishismin order to make friends (to borrow from Facebook) with his audience.
Gungor quotes Marx, “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”5 He continues on the same page, “It is the nature of market economies to render everything a commodity.” As a musician, Gungor addresses this issue head on as one specifically about the “soul” of the artist. Quoting scripture6 and addressing the issue of selling out, and thus losing small bits of one's soul, Gungor treads the same ground of social theorists. His use is that of a progressive evangelical Christian. Thus, in one sense his use of the term is unsurprising. That Gungor quotes Marx possibly situates Gungor's own ideas of the soul in the same discourse as Marx. Similarly, Gungor writes of pain, boredom, and the place of human emotion in the commodifying market place.
“[A]bounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties,” a commodity is no small thing. A commodity, according to Marx's theoretical analysis is a socializing object and an object of socialization.7 Human societies construct themselves in reference to the creation of products which are then commodified in a set of historically and locally contextualized processes8 in relationship to the technologies that make such products possible. Taylor situates his analysis in the ongoing conversation of writers “decrying” the commodification of music as “soulless.”9 Taylor's desire is to open up the conversation so that it is not driven solely by Adorno's Lament of such soullessness or Marx's narrow understanding of the commodity.
“Reification” according to Taylor, is the process of convincing the consumer that the music itself is something to own. The intended object of desire at the turn of the last century was not the player piano or the scroll, but the music itself. To come to such a result, however, was a human process of reframing desire and re-situating the consumer's focus from the performance of music to the music itself. As Taylor closes his essay, a commodity is not “simply a social form that can be understood in and of itself, but a social form that must be understood historically and dialectically.”10 Does this wider view put the soul back into the music or is it still soulless? Is it possible that the process of commodification is itself soul-killing? The end result is a soulless commodity situated at the end of a network of processes that gradually and systematically remove the soul (or the self?) from the process.
“While it is unfortunate that some of the best artists in society will have to struggle financially, both the professional and the nonprofessional artist would do well to remember that art’s primary value system shouldn’t be monetary.”11 Gungor's idealism is clear though perhaps no less a outcry against the commodifying marketplace. His idea of how art might function pushes against the theoretical openness of Taylor's construct. “Art is too soul-ish, like love or sex,” Gungor states.12 Gungor also wants to widen the understanding of how the marketplace functions. Perhaps this is a redefinition of what defines a successful product and the very nature of commodification itself.
It is challenging to theorize how something so visceral as art defined by Gungor might be commodified and maintain any sense of its rootedness in human expression...or it's “authenticity.” Interestingly, Wikström's work suggests that technologies such as social or electronic media may be making it possible to bring the “soul” back to music distribution and thus commodification itself. This particular distinction is essential to recognize. If, as Taylor suggests, commodities are fashioned by a network of processes, then the previously soul-full product may maintain its soulfullness by virtue of introducing technologies into the process of commodification that undo much of the industrial regimentation of the music industry. Instead, the music industry becomes a web of relationships where the perceiveddistance between musician and listener is diminished to a single degree of association. Trent Reznor plays a new song. We, who are his online listener, have direct access to his product, the song, and may have it at no cost. In fact, we can reinterpret the song in our own way and “play it back” if you will. Then Trent Reznor13 ceases to be a fetishperforming the metaphysical purpose of drawing us to the musical commodity and instead, in the language of Facebook, becomes one of our many friends. Thus our relationship to the artist and to his music is more “authentic.” This perceived democratization of commodification casts an authenticating light on music making. The language of friendship, the liberty with which one may engage a musical product, and then the potential of a response by the originating artist creates a stronger sense of relationship than, say, a picture of Beethoven on the packaging of a player piano scroll.
The question then rises as to how artificial or “inauthentic” these electronic relationships are and how this process of relationship-building re-engages the soulfulness of music and the soulful experience of the listening audience. How regimented14 is our engagement with musicians on-line, for example, and does the long-standing music industry have enough legal power as a “copyright industry”15 to legislate the activities made possible by recent technologies? Will the attempts by such companies as Facebook to circumvent the copyright industries simply create a differently regimented social fabric? It's possible. In fact, it is possible that the so-called “friendship” available through social media is no more than a heightened fetishism. Then authenticity is simply one more product an industry may commodify.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. Vintage, 1995.
Gungor, M. The Crowd, The Critic, and the Muse: A Book for Creators. 1st ed. Woodsley Press, 2012.
Marx, Karl. Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Ben Fowkes. Reprint. Penguin Classics, 1992.
Taylor, Timothy D. “The Commodification of Music at the Dawn of the Era of ‘Mechanical Music’.” Ethnomusicology51, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2007): 281–305.
Wikstrom, Patrik. The Music Industry: Music in the Cloud. 1st ed. Polity, 2010.
1Timothy D. Taylor, “The Commodification of Music at the Dawn of the Era of ‘Mechanical Music’,” Ethnomusicology51, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2007): 292.
2Michael Gungor is a contemporary Christian musician and the front man for the band, Gungor. Self-described as "liturgical post-rock" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RULZ5_XDtU&feature=youtube_gdata_player), Gungor's aesthetic is thick and simple simultaneously. Guitar, piano, drums, caliope, viols, and dense vocal harmonies all combine to provide space for the soul. Instrumental and vocal phrases are overlapping and repeated (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyPBtExE4W0&feature=youtube_gdata_player). Michael Gungor's desire is to offer something beautiful and not traditionally doctrinal. Often the liturgies (the band leads their audience/congregation through a rite/rites that might be more commonly understood to be a concert, but the intention is decidedly different) include visual art projected onstage on scrims as well as spoken word poetry. Traditional Protestants hymns are sometimes updated and the audience is encouraged to add their voices to sing as a congregation (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzOyIkE5URs&feature=youtube_gdata_player).
3M. Gungor, The Crowd, The Critic, and the Muse: A Book for Creators, 1st ed. (Woodsley Press, 2012).
4Patrik Wikstrom, The Music Industry: Music in the Cloud, 1st ed. (Polity, 2010).
5Gungor, M. (Kindle Locations 1135-1137). Woodsley Press. Kindle Edition.
6“And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” Gungor, M. (2012-10-04).(Kindle Locations 1224-1225). Woodsley Press. Kindle Edition.
7Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes, Reprint. (Penguin Classics, 1992), 165.
8Taylor, “The Commodification of Music at the Dawn of the Era of ‘Mechanical Music’,” 283.
11Gungor, The Crowd, The Critic, and the MuseKindle Locations 1212-1214.
12Ibid. Kindle Location 1214.
13Wikstrom, The Music Industry, 1.
14Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 2nd ed. (Vintage, 1995), p. 170, ff.
15Wikstrom, The Music Industry, 10.