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Vaporware and the Commodification of Ghosts
By Grafton Tanner
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2015 Grafton Tanner
All rights reserved.
Spectral Presence: Vaporwave and the Uncanny
For when it dawned – they dropped their arms,
And clustered round the mast;
Sweet sounds rose slowly through their mouths,
And from their bodies passed.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
In Tobe Hooper's 1982 horror blockbuster, Poltergeist, malevolent ghosts enter a suburban family's home through the television set and kidnap their daughter, all while ransacking the house and upending their lives. The film has remained a canonical, mainstream fixture of the horror genre since the 1980s and seems to advance a heavy-handed anti-TV argument: that the television is a medium of horrors. For viewers of the time, Poltergeist allegorized the rampant, media-fueled fears of the Reagan-era nuclear family – namely threats against children, such as kidnapping and even ritualistic Satanism. The film is literal in its representation of outside forces entering the safe enclosure of the suburban home and corrupting the balance of family life, and the conduit through which the ghosts enter is the television – the "medium of the dead" (his italics). What happens in the Freelings' home takes the 1980s fear of television's near-spiritual power and uncanny presence to its frightening conclusion. Poltergeist's ability to tap into a cultural mistrust of electronic media has afforded its timelessness, such that a remake was released in mid-2015 (appropriately updating the story to fit with our current screen-saturated environment).
Perhaps no other book more accurately details the history of electronic media's relationship with the occult, from contacting the dead via the radio to fearing the televisions in our homes, than Jeffrey Sconce's Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, which posits that we have often thought of electronic media as "gateways to electronic otherworlds." Beginning with the invention of telegraphy and the rise of Spiritualism, Sconce outlines the history of electronic media's uncanny ability to appear "haunted." In particular, "sighted" media (such as the television) foreground this uncanniness because the "'ghosts' of television ... [seem] to actually reside within the technology" – ghosts in the televisual machine, if you will. Drawing on the idea of haunted television, Sconce notes:
Sound and image without material substance, the electronically mediated worlds of telecommunications often evoke the supernatural by creating virtual beings that appear to have no physical form. By bringing this spectral world into the home, the TV set in particular can take on the appearance of a haunted apparatus.
Though we can easily understand Sconce's definition of a haunted television, why do we associate the uncanny with ghosts, especially ghosts in our machines? What about the radio or the phonograph? Certainly, Sconce's notion of haunted media can apply to digital technology and the Internet, but how can we think of the ghosts of the digital age? And what is their relationship to the ghosts of analog media, the ghosts of both the immediate and far-reaching pasts?
Writing on the uncanny, Hélène Cixous proposes that the uncanny "asserts a gap where one would like to be assured of unity." She expands on Sigmund Freud's notion of the uncanny, or "that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar." There exists a rift between the familiar and the warp-of-the-familiar – we are justifiably unnerved by floating furniture, sudden chills that come from nowhere, and disembodied voices. These animated objects are uncanny because they rob the familiar of its comfort. There exists a gap between a sound heard and the sound's source, and as audio theorist David Toop notes, "In every place that feels or becomes uncanny and unhomely, there is a sound that does not belong, an interloper." Uncanny sound is phantom sound: it comes into familiarity from nowhere.
But how does one act in the presence of the uncanny? How does the uncanny disrupt our experience of the world? In The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny, Dylan Trigg sets out to accurately describe our experience of memory in terms of spatiality. Writing in the vein of phenomenologists like Gaston Bachelard and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Trigg asserts that our memories function like the spaces that we used to frequent or even inhabit. The physical dimensions of a childhood home are important in shaping my memory of childhood because I experienced it. Experience and place are intertwined, allowing my memory to form from a particular feeling of childhood as well as a particular place. Trigg is especially interested in the ghosts of these memory houses and the feelings we get upon revisiting a place of memory. For Trigg, experience itself has a lot to do with the "strangeness of things." He writes that "Such an estrangement from the natural world is, I would argue, at the heart of phenomenology." Trigg writes of the "creeping strangeness" that accompanies an encounter with "augmented familiarity" (his italics). The uncanny is both old and new, familiar and eerie, and confuses us upon first encounter. We find it "in the manifold space between experience and thought, perfectly at ease with its ability to invoke repulsion and allure in the subject experiencing the uncanny" (also his italics). In this gap lies a truly alien realm wherein the strangeness of the everyday rises up to present us with the unalterable reality that the world is not for us.
These gaps produce the ghosts that film theorist Linda Badley refers to in her book. Their very intermediary nature confounds us as they rise from within the familiar to assert its strangeness. Our reaction to such a ghostly encounter would likely resemble Jack Gladney's in Don DeLillo's suburban thriller White Noise, when he unexpectedly sees his wife Babette on television. The passage is worth quoting at length:
The face on the screen was Babette's. Out of our mouths came a silence as wary and deep as an animal growl. Confusion, fear, astonishment spilled from our faces. What did it mean? What was she doing there, in black and white, framed in formal borders? Was she dead, missing, disembodied? Was this her spirit, her secret self, some two-dimensional facsimile released by the power of technology, set free to glide through wavebands, through energy levels, pausing to say good-bye to us from the fluorescent screen?
A strangeness gripped me, a sense of psychic disorientation. It was her all right, the face, the hair, the way she blinks in rapid twos and threes. I'd seen her just an hour ago, eating eggs, but her appearance on the screen made me think of her as some distant figure from the past, some ex-wife and absentee mother, a walker in the mists of the dead. If she was not dead, was I? A two-syllable infantile cry, ba-ba, issued from the deeps of my soul ...
Gladney's description is one of awe and terror, not unlike the emotions felt by the Freelings and their team of parapsychologists when they successfully contact Carol Anne in Poltergeist. Jack is reduced to an infantile state, muttering his wife's nickname more as a childlike gurgle than an affectionate gesture. His behavior is that of a person encountering the living dead, witnessing the animation of the inanimate. The familiarity of his wife and his television set turn inside out; his mind cannot properly correlate the information he is given. He confronts the uncanny and undergoes emotional reorientation as he attempts to understand his there-but-not-there wife and the in-betweenness of it all. Babette is an intermediary being, a ghost rising from the spectral glow of the television – present yet absent.
To witness a "haunted" electronic medium is to confront the uncanny with all its gaps. When we listen to a warped vinyl record or examine the visual traces on the blank screen of a finicky television, we are immediately struck by the characteristics of their ghostliness because their malfunction, actual or perceived, indicates a rift between them and their carried messages. The horror then arises from electronic media's propensity to glitch and malfunction, throwing us (the users) into a sudden state of disarray. The analog electronic media of prior decades were particularly prone to presenting ghosts. Unlike the sleek, liquid form of digital media, early radio and television for instance channeled information through a low-definition interface, while static and poor resolution interrupted the flow of sound and image. When the radio signal gives out and another channel comes through cloaked in fuzz and static, it is as if the radio has acted entirely on its own and, most unsettlingly, is more prone to malfunction than maybe we think.
Like ghostly objects of haunted lore, faulty electronic media resemble autonomous interfaces because they seem to operate freely or by the hand of some unseen presence with minimal human interaction involved. Instead of extending the nervous system, as Marshall McLuhan affirms, haunted electronic media appear to transcend the nervous system, and this transcendence suggests that haunted media, such as the television or the radio, are "capable of generating their own autonomous spirit worlds." In other words, these media seem haunted by "ghosts" that dwell within the electronics. Ghosts, as Linda Badley writes, "empty 'reality' of meaning ... They are like Derridean words; they 'kill' meaning. Ghosts pretend to assert transcendence but actually speak the nothingness, the death, of the things they name." Here, Badley binds Cixous' assertion of the uncanny with Jacques Derrida's meaningless words to illustrate ghosts as gaps in the meaning of reality signified. They are meaninglessness made manifest. Thus, the television, the phonograph, and the radio all have the propensity to seem infested with "ghosts" and are portrayed as such in fiction and films (like Poltergeist) because they remediate information. These types of media assert gaps between the information they relay and their electronic forms, providing the feeling that some unseen force animates them.
Re-Animating the Dead
With the invention of the electronic musical sampler, gaps and remediation took new forms. Now, recorded music could easily be manipulated to create new pieces of music, and entire songs could be constructed solely out of audio samples shorn of context and reference. It was the ultimate postmodern musical gesture and one that proved legally problematic if a sample of an artist's song was used without permission. Music critic Simon Reynolds describes sampling as "a mixture of time-travel and séance" and characterizes it as "the musical art of ghost coordination and ghost arrangement." Reynolds' choice of ghostly metaphors when describing the capabilities of the sampler is apt; the previously static recordings of artists from any era could now be rearranged in endless ways. A 1970s disco hit could be joined with a Charles Mingus tune to create an ahistorical piece of music, giving new life to "dead" records. It is Franken-music, using various pieces of former wholes to create a new being.
The sampler is still used by artists today for both in-studio recording and live performance, but the software sampler and the digital audio workstation (DAW) now allow musicians to easily produce sampled music directly on their computers. Before DAWs became relatively inexpensive or even free to acquire, artists creating appropriated forms of music relied on phonographs, tape machines, cassette players, and the sampler to produce samples. The ease with which someone with a BitTorrent client can now pirate an expensive DAW, such as Ableton Live, enables anyone with a computer to produce amateur or perhaps professional-grade sampled music. Most DAWs come equipped with some kind of sampler, so the average DJ, producer, sound artist, or amateur can not only load and manipulate samples in a DAW but also mix and master those tracks. The end result can be a professional-grade music track produced solely on a laptop by anyone.
But the art of sampling problematizes the notions of authorship and source originality and magnifies recorded music's association with the uncanny to an extreme degree. Writing prior to the invention of the modern hardware sampler, Marshall McLuhan categorizes various media and their respective transcendence of certain "walls." The phonograph, in particular, can be thought of as the "music hall without walls" for McLuhan. Armed with this terminology, the sampler can be considered the studio or perhaps the phonograph without "walls." The phonograph drags sound and music outside the music venue, and the sampler takes the track of recorded music outside the phonograph and into a mechanism that has the ability to rework that track into a new form. What about the DAW? Perhaps McLuhan would consider the DAW a sampler without "walls," indicating a truly wall-less medium capable of producing endless sound and allowing musicians to sample anything with the push of a button.
Such an ability to render endless loops accentuates the art of sampling's relationship with the uncanny and, more specifically, the idea of haunted media. As an art form of remediation and appropriation, sampling requires an artist to transpose media onto different media, and the creation of songs by sampling other recorded sound clips exposes gaps: gaps in authorship, continuity, and the information needed to determine originality. The sampler can also appear haunted because of its technological capability to loop samples and songs for an innumerable duration. The phonograph can allow music to play with only the initial touch of a "play" button, but eventually, the vinyl record ends – and so does the music. However, software and hardware samplers enable users to create and distort any loop of any sound for any length of time.
One of the defining characteristics of many vaporwave tracks is this element of repetition, which draws attention to the uncanniness of audio looping. Usually focusing on one fragment of an entire song, a vaporwave producer will then loop that fragment ad nauseum, often for the length of the entire track. The effect is absurd, hilarious, unnerving, and sometimes boring. Can you really sit through a three-minute song built from a fifteen-second loop repeated twelve times? The repetition in songs by MACINTOSH PLUS, INTERNET CLUB, and Local News are meant to be exhaustive and to walk that fine line between funny and uncanny, and listening to an entire track can waver between transcendental elation and disengaged ennui.
This emotional mixture of unease and humor, boredom and profundity, likely stems from our detestation of repetitive gestures. In her book On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis ascribes this aversion to repetition to "the idea that thoughts are not our own, spontaneous, soulengendered entities, but rather products of some invisible, subconscious script," and likens our distrust to "a fear about automaticity and loss of control." Her example is HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. As astronaut Dave Bowman shuts down the sentient supercomputer, HAL repeats the phrase "I can feel it" in a flat, unemotional voice, quite unlike his calm yet rational manner of speaking heard until that point in the film. Repetition means mechanical processes are underway. For the human, repetition spells a loss of humanity in favor of the machine. A shuddering, repeating machine such as the dying HAL 9000 presents us with an animated corpse ventriloquized by some unseen force. Perhaps for humans, we fear not the mechanization and loss of control so much as the fear of becoming Frankenstein's monster – a babbling corpse, hollow yet able to run amok with machinelike skill. Barely sentient, yet functioning all too well. Again, Simon Reynolds provides an apt metaphor with the stigmatized broomsticks in Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, in which the multiplying, spellbound brooms become "an ungodly slave swarm dementedly fetching water and causing a flood." There is a horror here in the proliferation and constantly reproducing throng of sentient objects. They are nonhuman, autonomous, unconscious, and eerily precise in their repetitions.
A great deal of vaporwave's unsettling sound comes from the relentless repetition of vocal hooks, introductory motifs, and refrains (among other samples of song sections). A good example is "Sports Champions" by Local News in which the line "Here's to the winners ..." is repeated for nearly its entire 3:42 running time. At a certain point, the voice loses its immediacy and no longer sounds like the familiar voice of Frank Sinatra. Eventually, Sinatra's lyric becomes a sound bite, a mechanized voice repeating the same meaningless line without ever arriving at a resolution. "Sports Champions" is the sound of a song trying to find its footing and never escaping the circular dungeon of the intro. Instead, I find it funny that Sinatra is stuck on a loop, cheers-ing the "winners" until the congratulatory gesture is rendered vapid; but the effect can also be quite disturbing, as if the CD is skipping, the vinyl is warped, or my iTunes is glitching.
Excerpted from Babbling Corpse by Grafton Tanner. Copyright © 2015 Grafton Tanner. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction: Ghostly Encounters,
Chapter 1. Spectral Presence: Vaporwave and the Uncanny,
Chapter 2. Erasing the Human: Anthrodecentrism and Co(s)mic Horror,
Chapter 3. Lost Futures and Consumer Dreams: Hauntology and the Sounds of Capital,
Chapter 4. Sick and Tired: 9/11 and Regressive Culture in the Twenty-First Century,