24 December 2017

Automation and Autonomy

A friend suggests that live musical performance by human beings could become a species of Vintage Aesthetic when seen against the impending advance of computers and computer-brained robots. No doubt this dynamic has already manifested itself here and there vis-a-vis existing technological leviathans (e.g. "canned" music), and no doubt it will eventually take its place in the canon of anti-aesthetic prescriptivisms alongside moral uplift, the literary imperative, political activism, cultural preservation, and pediatric neural calisthenics. All of which is to say that it promises to have the same chilling effect that such historically contingent prescriptions have always had even as it keeps a lucky few human artists gainfully employed.

To take such a sea change and make it generative rather than prescriptive requires a retreat into the absolute. Indeed, I don't think it is a coincidence that as we perceive the general pace of change to have quickened artistic autonomy has become ever less fashionable, i.e. that feelings of anomie or "normlessness" would beget various desperate attempts to contrive new norms. The word "perceive" is important here, for do we not also see a strong correlation between the more-is-more phenomenon and a certain constitutional fixation on change as against stasis? Change-in-the-air is the supreme rationalization for scorched-earth modernism, whose manifestations range from puerile self-importance to the burning of libraries; hence there is always an important balancing role here for the attempt to step outside the parochial concerns of the moment. I would certainly not place the aesthetic sphere at or near the center of such concerns, but nor does banishing it to the compost heap of history do it justice. Everything is aesthetic, much as everything is political.

We must take the Vintage issue seriously, and certainly the larger one of automation/computerization as well, but only on our (and our art forms') own terms. That is, it behooves any contemporary musician to face directly the formal, technical, and aesthetic questions that automation raises, or raises in the negative, as it were. Fruitful cross-pollenation is inevitable, healthy coexistence is not, and prescriptions are always already constraints, no matter how urgent they might seem to be. Indeed, is it not merely by accidents of history that such urgency ebbs and flows? And is that not a powerful argument for artistic autonomy rather than against it?

1 comment:

Stefan Kac said...

In The Imaginary Institution of Society, Castoriadis locates the potential for change
in the ability of citizens to “self-institute”—to make their own laws. Most societies
attribute their imaginaries to a deity or some other extra-social authority, or to
ancestral obligations and traditions, but he argues that there is always the possibility of
initiating an autonomous society.

The Greek term for “self-institute” is αυτονομώ (auto-nomo: self-law, make my own law),
while the word for improvisation is αυτοσχεδιάζω (auto-sxediazo: self-plan, make without a
lot of preparation). In both words, the self is placed in relation to personal actions,
made with (or for) others, that have social implications: both seem to embody a struggle
over method, leading to a critical question—how might practices of self-institution relate
to practices of improvisation?

Cultural Collisions: Improvisational Practices in the Production of Precarious Common Spaces on the Periphery of Europe
Gigi Argyropoulou
Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation, Vol. 11, Nos. 1-2
Accessed 29Dec2017

From where I sit, the notion of "self-institut[ing]" has become its
own shapeshifting Paleocon "imaginary," incorporating all of the given mystical elements
and more besides, this by virtue of an intensely ideological and self-interested mythmaking
campaign waged by the powerful against the powerless. Essentially, these powerful have
taken to heart the axiom that a chaotic system is "sensitive to initial conditions," i.e. conditions
which by virtue of their existing power favor them. Of course this dynamic is no less destructive to
classical capitalist frameworks than to older and more basic ethical
ones. Hence the recession not just of the state but of "society" itself can be sold to the
plebs under the auspices of (re)gaining personal freedoms while in reality their odds of
joining the global winners' circle are drastically reduced by this maneuver.

It is true, then, that a word like "autonomy" has at the very least some unsavory
overtones, and probably some unsavory practical implications which are not (cannot?) be
accounted for here. Of course my specific point was merely that tecnological change is
begetting the theorization of a functional social role for performative recreations of
particular musical styles, and that this implicitly generates a value system whereby other
aesthetics without such obvious, concrete functions are banished to a lower caste. The
socially-conscious "struggle over method" is thus somewhat by proxy here, since the very
notion of an autonomous aestheticism encompasses a certain deferral of activism (ideally a
deferral to other spheres of life which are better suited to the struggles of the moment,
and not the total refusal to engage for which my position on all of this is customarily
taken). Yet I remain of the opinion that the recreational function of aesthetics is almost
never taken seriously enough, probably because historical and ongoing ineqities both
within the arts and without have a way of guilting affluent First-Worlders into selling
this function short. We may fully understand its indispensibility only after we too have
lost access to it.