It’s all about meme

Phil Ford

The dead body of the old meme has hardly cooled before another follows quickly to take its place. (Oh, and by the way, from Kim Schafer here’s another one, which gets extra
points for sort of looking like her, only in a Lichtenstein-esque way.)


Scott has tagged me with this:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

Since I’ve just sent a couple of dozen books back to the library in my biennial half-hearted-desk-clearing, there was actually only one book near at hand — Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, ed. Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner. Which, by the way, I recommend warmly, since it neatly anthologizes a great many invaluable pieces of writing that lie at the intersection between music, sound, technology, and the listening body. A few of my favorite pieces in it include Simon Reynolds’s “Noise,” Frederic Rzewski “Little Bangs,” Brian Eno’s “The Studio as a Compositional Tool” and “Ambient Music,” and Glenn Gould’s “The Prospects of Recording.” Most of these essays have been abridged, but intelligently, and Gould’s essay (the full-length version of which can be read here) is actually improved by the editing. (Gould’s prose style was pretty undisciplined — he would have made a good blogger.) As it happens, this is the essay that’s on page 123. And here are the relevant sentences:

When we find that the expression of that culture represents what seem to us archaic ideologies, we condemn it as old-fashioned or sterile, or puritanical, or as possessed of any other limitation from which we consider ourselves emancipated. With simultaneous transmission we set aside our touristlike fascination with distant and exotic places and give vent to impatience at the chronological tardiness the natives display.  To this extent, Professor McLuhan’s concept of the “global village” — the simultaneity of response from McMurdo Sound to Murmansk, from Taiwan to Tacoma — is alarming.

Funny that it should be this particular passage, given that I’ve written so many times about both Gould and McLuhan (though not at the same time). Gould here is thinking about what kinds of impact recording technology might have on people generally, and he’s thinking about McLuhan’s insistence on the simultaneity/instantaneity of electronic media. McLuhan defined a medium as anything that extends human senses and capacities — a book, in his thinking, was an extension of the eye, the gramophone an extension of the ear, and so on. So In McLuhan’s way of thinking, the worldwide network of electronic media made each individual like a spider sitting in the middle of its web, feeling the vibrations transmitted from the periphery, instantly aware of movements in a vast space beyond the limits of the body. For McLuhan, this new interconnection and receptivity would lead to the renewal of archaic tribal forms of social organization within which “the individual,” an invention of modern literate man, would vanish. Though Gould didn’t mention McLuhan by name very often, it’s often been remarked that his ideas about technology and society were rather McLuhanesque. There’s a passage in his eccentric self-interview “Glenn Gould Interviews Glenn Gould about Glenn Gould” where he lays out his “neomedieval anonymity quest on behalf of the artist,” a vision of ancient social forms (nonhierarchical, nonindividualistic) coming into new existence through the paradoxical mediation of modern technology:

I simply feel that the artist should be granted, both for his sake and for that of his public — and let me get on record right now the fact that I’m not at all happy with words like “public” and “artist”; I’m not happy with the hierarchical implications of that kind of terminology — that he should be granted anonymity. He should be permitted to operate in secret, as it were, unconcerned with — or better still, unaware of — the presumed demands of the marketplace — which demands, given sufficient indifference on the part of a sufficient number of artists, will simply disappear. And given their disappearance, the artist will then abandon his false sense of “public” responsibility, and his “public” will relinquish its role of servile dependency.

But in my randomly-selected passage Gould shows some ambivalence about the “global village,” too. Gould is disturbed by the thought that a “global village” might simply lead to a kind of large-scale rationalizing of the multiple and overlapping temporalities that exist throughout the world. McLuhan himself was often asked about whether his vision of a new tribalism implied a new mass conformity. In the Playboy interview (probably the best place to start for anyone wanting a quick introduction to his thought — or at least that part of his thought that made him an intellectual celebrity in the 1960s), McLuhan responded to a similar objection in this way:

The tribe, you see, is not conformist just because it’s inclusive;
after all, there is far more diversity and less conformity within a
family group than there is within an urban conglomerate housing
thousands of families. It’s in the village where eccentricity lingers,
in the big city where uniformity and impersonality are the milieu. The
global-village conditions being forged by the electric technology
stimulate more discontinuity and diversity and division than the old
mechanical, standardized society; in fact, the global village makes
maximum disagreement and creative dialog inevitable. Uniformity and
tranquillity are not hallmarks of the global village; far more likely
are conflict and discord as well as love and harmony — the customary
life mode of any tribal people.

There’s more to say about this, though . . . actually a lot more, because this gets into some of the stuff I write about in an article on exotica that I have coming out in Representations later in the summer.

Oh, and by the way, Brent, Phil, RebeccaGabriel, and the dudes at amusicology  . . . tag, you’re it.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to It’s all about meme

  1. David Cavlovic says:

    Let’s see…pg. 123 of the nearest book….Ah, here we go! From Serge Marc Durflinger’s dissertation “The Royal Canadian Navy and the Salvadorean Crisis of 1932” (1987):
    56. Sarty, op. cit., p. 424.
    57. Eayrs, p. 104.
    58. Tucker, p. 329.
    59. Eayrs, p. 107.
    God, that was almost Webern-esque!

  2. brent reidy says:

    i’m witholding meme until i finish this paper for your class. perhaps i have the wrong priorities.

  3. brent reidy says:

    i’m also spelling the word “withholding” wrong.

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