Speaking in Sung

In Understanding Media, McLuhan uses the metaphor of Narcissus to explain the almost hypnotic/narcotic effect that electric technologies have upon us — that is, we are almost hypnotized by our own reflections emanating from the "changing same" surface of the electronic media pond.

To continue the metaphor, I've often considered the DJ-as-archivist to be the individual that stirs up the sediment pooled beneath the water's surface. Sometimes you get muddy water, but sometimes the light reflects/refracts in the most beautiful way on the shifting particles/digital artifacts floating in solution.

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In Archive Fever, Derrida notes that the meaning of the word "archive" comes from the early Greek, in which city magistrates or authorities — the archons — were granted "hermeneutic right and competence" to interpret the official documents stored within the arkheion. "The citizens who thus held and signified political power were considered to possess the right to make or to represent the law" (p.2).

Nike can pay $250,000 for the rights to use the Beatles' "Revolution" as the soundtrack for a shoe commercial in 1987, while almost two decades later DJ Danger Mouse must illegally use Beatles samples to create The Grey Album — and then circulate it via the Internet's "samizdat of sound" (cf. Miller) to share with others. If the DJ is archivist or gatekeeper to a sonic past and its potential futures, then we must view the act of repurposing samples as an attempt to seize control of that hermeneutic right to interpret — even if at first glance the issue is presented as an economic battle over musical IP and royalties.

The storage of information may be as valuable as its transmission, and the archive is a vector through time just as telesthesia is a vector through space. The whole potential of space and time becomes the object of the vectoral class (Wark, A Hacker Manifesto, #318)

As Chris Cutler points out in his essay, "Plunderphonia", samples can now be manipulated to the point of non-recognizability before insertion into a song. So why want to be recognized? Put another way, if Miller tells us that "today, the voice you speak with may not be your own," the question should be "why not?".

Because we — or at least the hackers — are literally fighting against a vectoral class (if we ride with Wark's framework) for the political right to communicate, to make the law, to exist and participate in a democratic society. To do so, we need the right to speak freely, in all senses of that word. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and we must also speak through their voices.

Archiving Chess

Derrida, Archive Fever:

The question of the archive is not a question of the past. It is not the question of a concept dealing with the past that might already be at our disposal. An archivable concept of the archive. It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise, and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive, if we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come; not tomorrow, but in times to come. Later on, or perhaps never.

This is an interesting perspective that Derrida offers us, and in that spirit I would like to offer an example regarding the unknowable tomorrow that an archive presents.

Consider chess, a game with centuries of history. Were the original archivists of the game to understand the possibilities afforded by the elegant simplicity of the grid system? Were they to foretell how this grid system could offer a higher degree of information compression in their archival pursuits? Were they to imagine competition by telepresence? Between human and computer? Or that said computer would destroy the human and become a celebrity?

No, it would be inconceivable for these keepers of the archive to have known what their archivization of the game would eventually mean.

Marcel Duchamp:

The chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chess-board, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem. … I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.

To Duchamp's chagrin, I am certain, the block alphabet of the chess game appears to contain more than just poetry in its structure. There is also the more prosaic consideration of chess notation, and the use of its language in the archive. For what can we say if the greatest chess player in the world — the game's greatest artist and poet — is summarily dismissed by a computer?

Is the computer showing signs of artistry? Or, on the other hand, is science beginning to pull away from art (at least in this case) — a shift with grave consequences for humanity, as well as one that implicates the archivists of the game from so long ago?

The Archive

From Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, p.17:

[T]he archiving, printing, writing, prosthesis, or hypomnesic technique in general is not only the place for stocking and for conserving an archivable content of the past which would exist in any case, such as, without the archive, one still believes it was or will have been. No, the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event.