vinyl heart: inaugural
About a decade ago, I bought my first turntable. My family had always had a turntable — part of an incredibly cheap all-in-one audio system — but I was born at exactly that moment in time when it seemed to make sense to put your money into CDs and cassettes because vinyl was clearly going to become a thing of the past. That meant that when I saved up money from my first part-time job so that I could buy my own audio system, I didn’t bother with a record player. I bought a nice Onkyo integrated amplifier, a Proton cassette player, a Sony CD player, a pair of Bose 302 speakers, and everything was, naturally, held together with Monster Cable. Over the years my system evolved, but I never thought to pick up a record player until I found a vintage Pioneer PLC-590 at a thrift store for forty dollars.
Once I mounted a new cartridge on it and unpacked the tiny record collection I had built up over the years, I was hooked. There was something different about playing records, and it wasn’t simply a matter of the nostalgia reflex coming into play. I’ve heard the ritual of playing vinyl described as a “tea ceremony for audiophiles” before, and certainly the attention that’s brought to the music seems somehow more concentrated when vinyl is involved. But that’s not all — it’s as if the very texture of the experience of listening to an analogue source is somehow fundamentally different to that of listening to a digital source.
For a very brief time I entertained the thought of writing for an audio magazine (I’m talking about equipment here, not music reviews), and I imagined a monthly column called “Vinyl Heart” that would somehow deal with the theme of audio and imperfection. But rather than take the traditional stance of audio journalism that imperfection — deviation from the original source material — must always be seen negatively, I wanted to flip the equation on its head and show how the idea of audio perfection can end up ruining the enjoyment of listening to recorded music. This is no longer a heretical idea in audio journalism, if it ever was, and younger writers like Stephen Mejias often point out the folly of missing out on good music because you’re too hung up on sonic perfection.
I don’t think the piece I wrote ten years ago really holds up. Not only does it try to run too far with the vinyl/digital metaphor, I also think that quite a few of the ideas I threw into it are a little too leaky for the boat to float. Also, it remains — quite obviously — unfinished. Still, I feel that as a think piece it does a significant amount of good work, and more importantly it allows me to start a new sub-series related to music within the Notebook. In addition to the Cabinet of Wonders series (related to objects I find interesting) and the Visual Spectrum series (related to cameras and photography), I’ll now occasionally post about audio gear and music under the Vinyl Heart tag.
So, here’s what I wrote a decade ago, just as the vinyl revival was taking off and long, long before the primary means that people use to access music became the digital download:
Our age-old vinyl hearts have begun to disintegrate. Sleeves of ourselves, once an indication of a more precious interior, begin to pulp and fray and the images that once defined a content inside fade under a sunlight that does not quite feel like the actual sun in the actual sky. At the center of this demise? An infectious desire for imaginary perfectibility, a perfectibility that has become so tangible within the cultural unconscious that our bodies crave toward it even though no one has ever experienced — or will ever experience — perfection proper, the distilled and static moment of crystalline purity that seeks to escape time itself. In the meantime, while we do everything we can to approach this moment, our enjoyment of this moment, of actual day-to-dayness, is relegated to an abysmal blank that we have forgotten how to speak with.
The central metaphor for this discussion can be found in the qualitative differences that exist between the two central mediums for musical reproduction available in the 20th century — the analog vinyl record and the digital compact disc. The debate concerning the audio purity or the audible advantages and disadvantages of analog versus digital forms of audio reproduction is not what is at stake in this metaphor, and I’ll be up front about the fact that I listen to and enjoy both records and compact discs and don’t actually think that either sounds categorically “better” than the other. In fact, the entire debate surrounding the sound quality of the two mediums seems to me to be ridiculously inappropriate outside of the rarefied pages of certain audiophile magazines that deal in equipment that is well outside the range of the average person’s pocketbook. Instead of adding to the already dismal and enormous rubbish pile of debate that is concerned with the relative audio merits of these two forms, I’m going to use the fundamental metaphorical differences between these forms as a jumping off point for a discussion of what I see to be a growing and fundamental problem of late capitalist subjectivity.
What I am calling the “vinyl heart” is a certain capacity for viewing objects as if they were objects in time, objects with a history. Another way to say this is that the vinyl heart is able to appreciate the character of objects, the actual material given of objects as they age and decay. While listening to a record, you can literally hear the history of that record’s past. While listening to a record, you can tell if it’s been cared for or not by the sequence and intensity of pops and scratches. You can hear the oil of fingers that have grabbed the middle of the record rather than held it at the edges and you can hear dust and dirt as the needle scrapes over them as it moves through the groove. Records are mortal, but they are mortal in the same way that people are — they grow old and marked and accidents leave their lasting imprint. It is these marks of a record’s character, these accidents of a record’s history, that the compact disc was intended to eradicate. And, indeed, the compact disc — in addition to the convenience it gives us in terms of track selection — has largely succeeded in doing away with the noisy mortality that has come to be seen as the primary shortcoming of vinyl. While compact discs draw very little attention to themselves as a medium, however, they do suffer from one quality that vinyl does not. When a compact disc gets scratched to the point where the scratch is audible, the disc is no longer able to reproduce music that can functionally be heard as music. A record can be scratched (not to the point of skipping, of course) and still be listened to. The scratch of a record registers as one noise along a continuum of sound that is centered along the temporal playing out of music. The compact disc that is scratched to the point of audibility, however, necessarily wrecks the continuum of sound and fractures the temporal unfolding that is such a fundamental quality of music. The digital language that forms the basis of the compact disc, the series of 0s and 1s that are either on or off, makes the disc itself an object that can only exist in two states. The compact disc can only exist as an object that works perfectly or as an object that does not work at all, and it is this that is, finally, the fundamental quality that differentiates it from the record.
But the compact disc is not simply a medium for audio reproduction — it also throws off a quality of sheen that seems to surround and envelop it (the classic jewel case packaging is an element of this sheen — until it scratches or breaks and obtains that special look of irreducible cheapness) . It has become a truism of cultural criticism that capital creates images of desire and imaginary identities for us to inhabit. In turn, these identities — identities that imagine themselves to be both discrete and unique — are tied into and express themselves through a language of objects. When we watch television or wash our hands in the glossy waters of magazines we are always being penetrated by images that disturb us in our identities because they offer up the enticing option of identities that are not yet, and somehow always better than, ours. We can’t fail to notice that the promises offered up for pleasure in the past are promises that do not seem have been fulfilled, but still we slog on from one promise to the next, always purchasing (at a furious frenzy) the next thing or set of things that will complete our own sense of the self that we think we are being offered. That this is the case seems obvious and yet, at the same time, inescapable. That this is our condition — my condition as well, since surely I can’t speak from a standpoint of innocence — we can view ourselves as inherently menaced. We are constantly in the condition of being fundamentally altered as persons in the interests of those who want to sell us things. As everyone who has studied economics already knows, Marx was right when he wrote — in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1884 — that under capitalism, “every person speculates on creating a new need in another, so as to drive him to fresh sacrifice, to place him in a new dependence and to seduce him into a new mode of enjoyment and therefore economic ruin.” We have long passed the time when corporations manufacture products in order to try fulfill the needs of the consumer; instead, the role of corporations has become to manufacture the consumer, cut new from whole cloth with each season. Why bother to create new objects when companies can instead perpetually recreate in a single person new individuals who move from one desire to the next in an effort to find solace.
So newness is nothing new. Mutable identity (if there ever was such a thing as immutable identity) is nothing new. What is new is the space of unified perfectibility that is offered up as an image of identity not only in the form of the compact disc but in the content of spectacular society itself. What is dangerous in this promise of perfectibility is the sense of enclosure that accompanies it, a sense of enclosure that is like an aesthetic force field or safety zone into which nothing can intrude. This safety zone allows an access to perfectibility; but it does so through a system of exclusion which is, in one sense, an exclusion from life itself — an exclusion from that zone of being in which there are always open doors through which to let the unexpected — or even the unwanted — in. Let me see if I can give an example. In the advertising image we are offered an object. Let us say that this object is a stick of lipstick, or a sports car, or a telephone. It really doesn’t matter. In the advertising image this object carries with it two distinct cries. The first is a model of identity that we are begged to inhabit (ruggedly individualistic SUV owner, smart and sassy sex kitten, countercultural adherent of ‘alternative’ sports). The second cry though, and by far the most insidious, is the cry of perfectibility itself. The advertising image creates a fully enclosed realm, one that does not admit of blemishes or flaws and one that offers up a world without contradiction. These images insinuate themselves into us by becoming resting places for our hearts, places that we go to in an effort to escape the inevitable tensions and disappointments of contradiction. The contradictions that we feel — many of them created by the same ecosystem of consumer culture in which we attempt to dissolve them — are not, of course, resolved in these images. But what these images do give us is a simulation of unadulterated unity, a simulation that turns itself into our body as an actual sense of perfectibility. Perfectibility, a sense of perfect life produced from outside, begins to sit inside of ourselves as an emotion that can be triggered by certain aesthetic moments of stimulation. Initial purchase might be seen as one of these aesthetic moments. At the moment of initial purchase we pay cash for an object that goes from being not-ours-at-all to totally-and-completely-our own at the point of exchange. The completeness of this transformation is like the ideal cleanliness of 0s and 1s. Now we hold this object in our hands. If it is a good product it will live up to its image and appear as crystalline in its actual physicality as it did in the ideal form in which it first came to us. If it is a poor product, its creases and seems will be revealed to us immediately and we will be thrown back into the world of disappointment. But even if the object is perfect in its material iteration, it will behave like a negative ghost within the home. On the one hand it will shed a pale sick-light over your other possessions, showing them up as inadequate, unequal to the sheen of the new. On the other hand, as it becomes a ‘member of the household,’ the object’s enclosure is necessarily opened up and the object itself fades as its unity in itself is forced to mingle with the imperfections of the everyday.
The truth of the matter is this: Perfectibility enters us until we want to enclose ourselves in crystal spheres and float, unencumbered, in the ring of our own harmony. But the truth of the matter is this: We will never be able to inhabit this perfection and so images of perfectibility end up constructing us as always inadequate subjects. Compared to the perfect, what else could we be but ugly, incapable, animal, perhaps even mollusk-like?
And that’s where I ran out of steam.
Ironically, it seems that vinyl is going to outlast the CD — “perfect sound, forever” — as more and more audiophiles either switch over to high-resolution digital downloads and get out of the solid media game altogether, or move back in time to experience the joys (and pains) of the physical medium of vinyl.
At this point I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Michael Fremer’s website, Analog Planet, where you can read about more high-end vinyl gear than your drooling pocketbook can ever hope to afford, and Art Dudley, who remains my very favorite audio writer.
And for all the real audio nerds out there, the photo at the top of the page is a Rega RP1 with Rega Bias 2 cartridge that was a temporary replacement for the PLC-590 (which I passed on to a friend before leaving for Japan). My current setup consists of a Michell Engineering TecnoDec, a Soundsmith Boheme cartridge and MMP3 phono preamp, an Equinox SE CD player by Simaudio, and a Unison Research Primo (in black). Speakers are Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s, which weirdly were selling for about $1,000 less in Japan than they were in the US at the time that I bought them (I believe this is still the case). It’s all held together with a lot of Furutech cabling, and a Shunyata Guardian for power conditioning.
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Tags: analog vs. digital, audio equipment, audio gear, CD, compact disc, imperfection, listening to records, perfectibility, perfection, record player, records, simulations of perfection, sound system, the beauties of the imperfect, turntable, vinyl heart, vinyl revival