Introduction to a Theory of Musical Technology Before Music - pt 2

by SAKONDA Nobuyasu (musician)

Born in Kobe in 1961. By concentrating on the realtime communication between personal computers and the surrounding environment, Sakonda explores the musical possibilities that emerge. He is the co-author of the book Magical MAX Tour (D-Art Publishers), and has released a CD called MAX Variety Show (Kaeru Cafe).

There are countless perspectives from which to view technology. However, the perspective I chose in the first part of this article was to examine "technology as a cultural phenomenon." Even though technology seems on the surface to be diverse, take for example, the steam engine, telephone, computer, and gene manipulation, there are also cultural aspects inherent in the appearance of such things. What I mean by "cultural" is a social system of meanings; or more roughly put, a pair of glasses through which meaning is given to the world. A phrase used in daily conversation like "the way we see things" might be understood in philosophical terms to mean "this is the frame of reference through which we recognize the world."

There are two specific reasons I emphasize the phrase "the way we see things." One is to suggest that contemporary technology is by no means universal nor does it stand outside of history, and therefore, we have the opportunity to put some distance between it and ourselves and establish a relative relationship to it. Now, we might not be able to take our glasses off, but we can at least be aware of the fact that we are wearing them. The second reason is that like science, technology itself is actually structured around a kind of mystical faith which is neither technical nor logical.Å@This faith, despite the fact that technology today appears to be thoroughly "logical", affects the color of the entire enterprise at the deepest level. By rights, this should then be a decisive, central issue to deal with when we consider the relationship between technology and art.

So what exactly is that faith? That is what I would like to examine in this article using the metaphor of the "sign" and the "machine." "technological rationality" is in truth nothing more than rationality that has been built upon a faith in the sign and the machine.

The Reduction to a Sign : Alphabets and Printing

The way we see things always include two extremes: "The subject doing the seeing," and "the world that is seen." Technique is an externalization (objectification) of the person and as with communication, is the essence of self-awareness. In the same way, the hammer is to fist as scissors are to tooth and nails as the wheel is to walking--all forms of externalization. The most important features in this are that the body and the act are disconnected from the chain of reactions in which they are primarily positioned and can be understood visually and manipulated. Understanding the externalized object is nothing less than understanding the self. At the heart of the violence in a fit of passion is the fist is buried within the act. When the fist is externalized as a club or spear, people immediately understand the violent meaning or dynamics of the fist. In this way, by reinternalizing the externalized self, people form a basis from which to attach meaning the world. Yet, in this dynamic process, both the self and the world emerge simultaneously. At this instant, technique changes into a form that mediates between the self and the world. When the mediation is between club and spear, the warrior that is the self and the aggressor that is the other emerges along with the just and unjust, allied territory and enemy territory. It never occurs in the reverse order.

The method that people use to externalize the self, technique, needs neither tool nor machine. "Writing" is certainly an externalizing technique of linguistic action. In particular, the phonetic alphabet promotes an analytical, homogeneous material in the process. To externalize language, the thought processes and world that is represented by language must be disconnected from the chain of actions that language is buried in, and positioned within a visual space. Writing, as well as the polishing and editing of a text, is nothing less than visual manipulation of thought and the world. A text gives rise to completed thoughts. Generally, systematic thought is not formulated without writing. Yet, in most of the cultural traditions that have writing systems, the letter is a symbol that possesses an illogical, sacred power. Only geographical areas that have been in some limited historically have successfully escaped the symbolism of written language.

The complete Greek alphabet, including both consonants and vowels, reduced all languages to the combinations possible with merely 24 distinguishing signs analytically representing homogeneous spoken units of language. In other words, an alphabet divorces an accumulation of meaning that is of essential significance to the language from the letter. This clears the field for the roots of "faith," which is able to reduce all things to attributes such as numbers or information and map out a world on a completely homogeneous plane.

This concept is not true, incidentally, for kanji (Chinese characters) in which one by one, letters leave their stamp of memory on the body, immersing us in the symbolic dimensions of transcendency, pleasure, and death.

In the middle of the 15th century, with GUTENBERG's invention of movable type, the nature of the alphabet was given an even clearer, more concrete form. The visual manipulation of thought and the world became the physical manipulation of a concrete object--type. In one sense, this created an awareness of a homogeneous space where these manipulations were performed. Over this entire process, the form of the machine was thus clearly projected.

The Machine as a Symbol : Automata and the Clock

While on the one hand a simple tool is the externalization of the internal organs, the machine is the externalization of a process, a series of movements. The machine as the symbol of practicality and efficiency is something new. The machine has a long history as a mysterious object used to astound people. This in itself is of no use, but on the other hand, it is a rare machine in which this characteristic doesn't surface. When considering externalization of the self and the understanding of the self through technique, the essence of being human, the attempt to externalize the entirety of the living self is in a sense the most natural course of events. In fact, such attempts are nearly as old as the history of the machine. Engineering discussions on robots and artificial intelligence that have really begun to unfold in this century are by no means the first attempts to deal with this topic.

In ancient Alexandria, automata (mechanical people) were skillfully constructed out of screws, linchpins, levers, and wheels. These appeared in religious plays, arousing mystical awe in people with their ability to sprinkle holy water. A maturer version of the automata, which appeared by way of Islamic society, came into its own on the corners of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The minutely crafted Vaucanson automata was a flute player that played a melody with its fingers while adjusting air flow with its lips and tongue. This was one perfect example of the realization of a machine that externalized the self.

Automata techniques were further cultivated through the development of the mechanical clock. In the 17th century, clocks, which were small chronometers that were already equipped with springs and balancing wheels, gradually started to permeate middle-class society. In the clock of the day, there were also complex functions such as longitude measuring for sea voyages, but there was still no reason for common people to know the precise time or measure their day. Clocks, like automata, existed as symbolic, not utilitarian, machines. The origin of this symbolism was rooted in the simple fact that they "moved freely."

At the dawn of the modern age, time began to be measured by mechanical clocks. The clock became a symbolic metaphor for the movement of the universe, natural systems, and human beings. With the clocks they thought up, DESCARTES, GALILEO, and NEWTON opened the door to the modern era. The machine, with its "mechanistic" tradition, that sheds the most intense light on the history of Western thought is none other than the clock. Scientific analysis and synthetic methods were derived from assembling and disassembling clocks. The uniform division of abstract, homogeneous time and space, which became the foundation for mathematics and physics, was already being measured out by the tick-tack (the sound of infinitesimal calculus!) of the clock. The clock was the first engineering product in human history, and increased need for clocks called for the development of an energy resource to activate automated machine tools. Clockmakers of the time broke with the industrial revolution and became spinners. They were in essence discharged by the flow of history that was moving toward the machine for the purpose of production. It would be no exaggeration to say that modern and contemporary Western knowledge and technology all radiates from a single point of light, the mechanical clock.

What exact part of people was it that was externalized by the clock? The clock externalized the mysticism at the very recesses of humans and the world. Externalization in this case concerned free movement in constant repetition, and the universality of "being alive" as seen in humans and the world. In this era of dynamics, if automata were a concrete projection of the human body, the clock projected a highly purified, abstracted version of human life.

The Production Machine

To explain the relationship between the machine and the capitalist economy, it would require a discussion so detailed as to be uncontainable in a single volume. In the end, the machine assimilated the principle concepts of capitalism to become what is today a given: "The production machine." In the same way, humans and the world both became entangled in the production process. In this process, the nature of the machine became utilitarian and efficient, making it seem as if these were its original features. In the age of the clock, the slight movements of the spring and pendulum were enough. But with the shift to machines for production, more energy became necessary, and the 19th century became the age of power production. Massive amounts of energy were used for massive machine tools. Each part of the machine was divided into functions for each independent machine with a production line of efficiency installed to link them all together. It was a continuous series of goal-oriented methods in which machines were used for the production of movement in order to move machines for the production of machines for the production of something.

The massive amount of energy that the human race tricked out of nature had to be tamed for the purpose of production. Continuing on into the 20th century, the situation became like a bucking bronco that had been broken in with the start of control and communication. To make machines function with the reliability of a living thing, it became necessary for the machine to know itself and the surrounding environment. The concepts of information, entropy, and feedback extended the view of system, which until that point had been thought of as closed, to the exterior.

The Cybernetic Machine

Cybernetics came into the world as a form of interdisciplinary research that dealt with control and communication. Cybernetics was essentially nothing more than a shift to a more abstract, more comprehensive focus concerning the machine. The concept of the machine became one of transforming systems. In this equation, substance was not the foundation; the sign (information) was the foundation. The historical process of reducing the world to homogeneous units of signs passed from phonetic alphabets to printing, and on to scientific quantification until it was at least reduced to the simplest, clearest ultimate signs: 0 and 1. The two lines that led to mechanization and reduction of the sign, passed through the history of science and capitalist production, asserting a strong influence on each other as they extended, and for the first time, intersected.
Strangely, today cybernetic machines have resurrected the original machineness of the automata and the clock. Finally, we have gotten to the point where we can begin to talk about the computer.

(To be continued)

I welcome all opinions and criticism at:


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