Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Where are the Robots?

One of the most interesting points in the recent debate over capital and the perversity of 'Accelerationism' was made by No Useless Leniency, who invoked the Detroit techno ethos that 'Ford's robots' are more a source of interest and inspiration than 'Berry Gordy's Music'. The more interesting point, perhaps, is that Gordy himself was heavily influenced, if not by Ford's robots then by the Taylorised man-machine that preceded it (Bat suggests this Martha and the Vandellas video as conclusive evidence). There is an essay, or a book to be written on the desire to become automated that runs from jazz to funk to techno, an area in which Adorno was actually highly insightful in his otherwise misbegotten critiques of jazz. This is particularly worthwhile when fighting (more in academia than in the world of music criticism and blogs, where it is an orthodoxy) the suspicion of pop music, give or take 'industry' suffix, as a machine. Viz Peter Wollen's critique of Le Corbusier's allegedly racist comments on jazz in the late-80s anthology Raiding the Icebox, exuding his usual 'breathtaking Michael Ignatieff authoritativeness' (NB there is also a long section of the unfinished thesis giving this a kicking):

'Constructivism was closely linked to the Americanism that swept Europe in the twenties, the so-called jazz age. Jazz was perceived as both stereotypically primitive and ultra-modern, Le Corbusier put it, with shameless projection: 'the popularity of tap-dancers shows that the old rhythmic instinct of the virgin African forest has learned the lesson of the machine and that in America the rigour of exactitude is a pleasure' – and the jazz orchestra in Harlem 'is the equivalent of a beautiful turbine' playing a music that 'echoes the pounding of machines in factories'(!). In this racist vision, black America was taken to be a fascinating synthesis of the 'primitive', and the 'futuristic', the body and the machine.'
Irrespective of the patronising hauteur and hint of colonial fantasy in Le Corbusier's argument, he appears to have had a far more accurate and insightful take on black music of the 20th century as actually described by its practitioners than does Wollen and his ilk - this is a prophecy of 'George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator', that other heroic Detroit cliché, albeit with the proviso that there was nothing 'primitive' about Clinton's music, for all its carnality. Not only are there the innumerable records that describe the jazz, rock & roll or funk band as a machine, there is James Brown's definitive coinage, which essentially puts Corbusier's over-rhetorical prose into two words: 'Sex Machine'. The best works on the subject, like Kodwo Eshun's More Brilliant than the Sun, or Peter Shapiro's essay 'Automating the Beat' concentrated on precisely this tension. 

Interestingly however, if you listen to a lot of recent Detroit techno, this dynamic has mostly disappeared. The work of Gerald Donald (reckoned to be half of Drexciya with the late James Stinson, and all or part of Dopplereffekt, Der Zyklus, Arpanet, Japanese Telecom etc) has abandoned the robots, and often the repetitive, automated beat altogether. Take the deliberately simple, blank playing with robotic cliché on Dopplereffekt's early singles (on the Gesamtkunstwerk LP), with its invocations of scientists, sterilisation and the cold bleakness of porn, all presented in the automatic, computer generated voices that open lift doors and inform you of train destinations - then compare this embodiment of inhuman precision intersecting with the human with, recent work like last year's Calabi Yau Space, Der Zyklus' 'Cherenkov- Radiation' 12" or Arpanet's Quantum Transposition - in all of these, the obsession is with the seemingly unearthly abstractions of hard physics and Big Science, and the music accordingly goes from Kraftwerkian repetition to strange, diffuse spaces which, aside from a passing similarity to Herbie Hancock's Crossings and Sextant and soundtracks by Gil Mellé or John Carpenter, has little allegiance to any other music. Donald seems to have gone from a (parodic) machinic positivism to a Pythagorean music of the spheres, or of the Large Hadron Collider: an area in which not only are human beings uninteresting as subject matter, but the once-fascinating idea of machines taking on human roles is also absent - perhaps as a response to the retro fetishism of electroclash and its eventually wearying sexbots.

Accordingly, except for when they are presented either as retro kitsch or thinly disguised neocon fantasies (by all accounts Transformers fulfilled both), robots seem to have become less and less an area for the popular imagininary. What makes this especially sad is that, by all accounts, robots are becoming more efficient, and more and more able to achieve what has for a long time been a dream of utopian socialists - the abolition of work (or at the very least, toil) by letting the machines do it, a call which resonates from Oscar Wilde's 'Soul of Man' to Paul Lafargue, to the Situationists, and was later  complicated by Mark Sinker and Kodwo Eshun's notion of robotic slavery as a retrospective foundation of Black Sonic Fiction, and Blade Runner as anticolonial parable. Occasionally the news will report some new servomechanism, which is usually employed as a household toy or a futuristic domestic, but more interestingly there is something like 'contour crafting', the system developed by Dr Behrokh Khoshnevis, which essentially uses computer aided design, not for the making of whimsical art galleries, but for removing human hands entirely from the process of building. This was dismissed a little while ago in a post at Things, and rather unjustly: a robotic Levittown would, aside from being so cheap and so energy-efficient as to ensure that the building industry would be permanently bankrupt and a huge chunk of carbon emissions be slashed, be a fulfilment of dreams far greater, and far more significant, than any number of bespoke non-orthogonal architectural fetish objects.

No doubt, it's a Man in the White Suit technology, unlikely ever to be allowed to fully develop because of its obvious dangers both to profit margins and to employment - appropriately, it seems only NASA have declared an interest, as doubtless even the helots of Dubai's construction industry can't be set to work making cities on the Moon. Tellingly, by far the most interesting recent presentation of a robot in recent years is Pixar's Wall-E: here the robot as domestic servant, that bland Eisenhower-era fantasy, is extended to the point where the servomechanism is the last thing left on earth, sifting through the endless detritus left by a Big Box retail firm turned world government. Pixar's marketing creates yet more worthless detritus churned out from Chinese factories, but to separate out the film and its (equally important, for the sponsors) marketing campaign for a moment, it's notable that while Wall-E has its problems - a few of its assumptions are sympethetically critiqued here - the most heartbreaking moments in it are the stunning, balletic opening romance of machine and machine, the obsolete cranky object and the Apple-type smooth, targeted creation; and the later suggestion that the only thing that could possibly shake human beings out of their spectacular inertia is the pathos of the machines themselves.

Nonetheless, automation is something about which there is depressingly little political thought - especially as it's ever more clear that the work which Wilde lists as unfit for humanity (mining, road sweeping, etc) could be done by machines using already existing technology. Yet as Wilde points out, there is the tragedy that under capitalism, as soon as man develops a machine to do his work, he starves. Accordingly, the forms of work that would be created by the (very worthwhile, in the grim circumstances) 'Green New Deal' campaign seems to aim at reviving the sort of skilled and semi-skilled manual jobs made obsolete by neoliberalism. Yet the fetish of work still infects what is left of the workers movement also. Take the unfortunate spectacle of Scargill singing the praises of coal at the recent Kingsnorth Climate Camp, as if the whole point of the Miners Strike or the NUM's long history of militancy and self-education wasn't so much to advance the cause of the working class, but in defence of the mere act of extracting coal, and as if unions never supported the transfer of work from one industry to another in emergencies (war, most obviously). As automation at present, for all its benefits to consumerism, has the immediate knock-on effect of creating unemployment and immisseration, the robotic future where dull, unpleasant work (ie, 90% of it) is finally abolished is forever postponed, something we can only think about as coming into place after an increasingly unlikely development towards an automated socialism rather than our mechanised barbarism, or merely for the class that pays for the machines. So a question for any accelerationism which doesn't fall into macho nihilism or a jargon-fortified neoliberalism is: is it possible for the inhuman possibilies of this technology be used for revolutionary purposes, and not postponed until after the receding glorious day?


Blogger Seb said...

RE: Jazz... This deserves a much more thorough response, but for now: the "automehcanical music" analyses of jazz are misreadings as gross as Kerouac's unschooled, romantic perception of it as purely intuitive id-spew. There was nothing mechanical about jazz until it incestuously synthesized with its own offspring, funk & acid blues. There's certainly no more industrial throb or stiff chug inherent to the sound of jazz than in so-called "white" & "rural" genres like bluegrass or honky-tonk.

Hell, how can anyone call the first four decades of jazz "mechanical" as compared to polkas & waltzes?

6:06 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Ask Duke Ellington, he wrote 'Take the A-Train'.

6:19 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

two points:

jazz - the act of becoming a jazz musician, present before but consolidated after Parker (who coined the maxim 'you've got to learn all the rules and then forget them', after all), involves the mechanical mastery of almost innumerable theoretical and technical systems and techniques, which then have to be deployed instantaneously. It is a fetishisation of machinic repetition, although in a manner that is transcendent... achieving an extra level of humanity by becoming-machine. In this way, we could suggest that modern jazz can be read accelerationalistically.

second- regarding 'contour crafting' : This technique is nothing more than 'rapid prototyping' on a very large scale. While you could say that this could be very beneficial, regarding rapidly deployable architecture for emergencies, when combined with the increasing automation of the design process (parametricisation), you have a condition where bespoke, highly efficient architecture can be built rapidly and cheaply as possible, i am cautious.* What would the ideological value of this be? What would it signify? What harms could it bring to the built environment?
In what way would it specifically be deployed by the spectacle? The notion that a technology with the capacity to make something useful will be deployed for that purpose is dubious in the extreme...

6:49 pm  
Blogger Seb said...

Owen - Har har. Tell me what about the sound (not the title) of "A-Train" is innately mechanical, and I'll tell you what sounds innately Parisian in Gershwin's "An American In Paris".

Murphy - One wonders what studious, repetitive practice to absorb a skill set which could then be called upon in an improvisatory manner was compared too before machines were invented.

7:00 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Look, I only finished the post 5 minutes ago...(I do have a tendency to rewrite posts after putting them up, I have only been caught in the act about twice, but thought I might flag this one up).

Re: jazz, this could go on and on. I'm only going to point out that for Corbusier or Adorno, ragtime and bluegrass would likely count in their rather inexact definitions of 'jazz', so the point is moot; the dance musics of the early 20th century sounded, to those ears (and mine) as, not just very strictly syncopated (it started with marching bands, after all) but fast, sharp, a fierce repetition like that produced at Ford's. The waltz was no doubt compared to machines in its own manner, probably different and rather more cranky machines.

Re: contour crafting; sure there are elements that would be dubious were it to be used by Gehry, say - but I don't think it ever will be, hence the Man in the White Suit comparison - it puts both bosses and workers out of a job. It's too dangerous a technology for the building industry. However, we could use it.

7:09 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

seb, I'm bemused by your rather proprietorial stance here, but whatever.

regarding waltzes and polkas, they were originally received by polite taste in a similar way to the way jazz music was received, a long time later - an overly sexualised and somewhat dangerous folk idiom becomes domesticated and intellectualised.

swing, the tripletting of quavers, is, one could say, an anti-machine sound, stylised but in an organic manner; the sex of the sex-machine.
however - this tripletting of quavers also can be found in the sound of train carriages passing over breaks in the track - in this way, all jazz is train-like, and train references abound in song titles. It's not a coincidence that so much mileage was gotten out of 'Trane's name...

however; i agree that Kerouac's jazz attitude is utterly patronising, but he was a disgusting shit anyway...

and also - improvisation as it relates to previous, unrecordable art-music and folk traditions is a very big issue, especially as it relates heavily to the status of improvisation in modern jazz, and why it is fetishised to such an extent. I think it can be argued that mechanical reproduction of sound alters the cultural meaning of improvisation... creating the disciplined improvising jazz musicians we understand now, which are not the same animals as J.S. Bach bashing out an ad hoc fugue, or Listz making up his own preludes, or some undocumented cotton picker singing blues.

7:54 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

oh, and, 'white suit' reminds me of the urban myth of the everlasting match, or that electric car that was supposedly squashed (didn't see the film).
but those who commission the buildings aren't necessarily people with a permanent stake in the construction industry...

8:02 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Not always, but very often: Dubai, frinstance, or Russia, in both cases the state, the construction industry and finance capital are almost the same entity.

(also, though everlasting match may well be a myth, the Tesla electric car suppression is pretty uncontested fact...)

8:06 pm  
Blogger Seb said...

Owen - We could, indeed, go on forever about how mechanical (if at all) jazz is. It's not that I don't see where Adorno & Corbusier are coming from; I just think they're wrong.

Murphy - Not trying to sound standoffish; apologies!

Certainly, by the time jazz became a recognizable breed, polkas & waltzes had lost whatever rogue spirit they once possessed - as jazz (and most of rock, hip-hop, etc.) has now. So is the life cycle of all genres, but this only makes it more amusing to me that, at the time, someone would call the nascent genre of jazz stiff or rhythmically automated.

And I'm not sold that jazz' swing has anything directly or implicitly to do with the sympathetic thrum of trains, though the connection was obvious & often made. Swing rhythms can be found in folk music of varying age from all corners of the globe - katcharsee from Okinawa, tihama from Yemen, Irish folk, and obviously various west African styles that juxtapose rhythms of 3 against 2 in a way that's immediately familiar to any jazz fan.

But you couldn't be more right when saying that music's becoming a physical, recorded medium is a big issue - not the least of which with regard to improvisation. That's a life's work, let alone something readily examined in a comment thread.

8:30 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

that photo is utterly bizarre, and it's from 1931 - there was no 'modern' jazz at this point.

I'd like to open up Corbu's stance on jazz, considering the fact he's playing the bass here, the previous comment and also how he was later to have a brief affair with Josephine Baker...

the criticism of future primitivity in the quote is a bit nonsensical, esp. considering that that mix of earth and space was such a political stance for many black musicians, but then you all already know that of course...

i should write something, i suppose.

doweatom is my word.

8:57 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

I think at the very least we can say that Corb caught the direction that a lot of black popular music was going to go in, regardless of scholastic debates about jazz (which you may note makes up 2 sentences of this 1000+ word post). Not only did the protagonists of Motown, P-Funk, Disco and Techno make perfectly clear their affinity with the production line in sundry interviews (just listen to Holland in that Vandellas clip - clank, clank), if you can't actually hear the pulse of the factory in these musics I'm very impressed.

12:07 am  
Blogger socialism and/or barbarism said...

Not to skip the foregoing discussion, but I did want to offer this rather great 1982 German gem of electro robo-doom. This album is a soundtrack without a film, at least as I hear it, the icy tinges of grumbling sexed factory production with ambient synth sweeps, slow chugging guitars, twittering backing vocals piping in ("Watch out! Watch out!"), and a Marvel-villain-sounding lead vocalist dressed like a dimestore Darth Vader.

Well, well worth the listen.

7:25 pm  
Blogger Benjamin said...

I'd suggest Thomas Brinkmann's Maschine

relying on my partner's A level German: I am a machine being, without feeling, without thought

2:53 pm  
Anonymous parodijski sturm und drang said...

i just heard the DVD commentary on WALL-E, and the director (stanton) confessed himself that pixar as a big corporation has fallen into the trappings of consumerism, without trying to make it a secret that the self-parody in wallE is lame and no thought was invested in its ideological implications; but much more interesting is that he likened the storyboarding process with archaeology, digging up dinosaurs, and wondered what would happen if you dug up a bone part which ended up creating a Stegosaurus instead of the projected T-rex. If this line of thinking was followed, Wall-E would end up not exactly restoring humanity (in sentimental fashion suggested by the present film) but remaking it on entirely new premises: for example, discovering that humanity actually comes from robots and not the other way round. And then you'd get a really interesting movie instead of this corporate confection.

6:14 pm  
Blogger Kenneth said...

'The Machine' in Poetry

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