Christmas has ruined me, and I’m struggling. Many people suffer similar or related problems in January: it’s that time of year.
It was Blue Monday on the 18th January, the statistically-proven lowest point of a dark, cold month that represents a boom time for the diet and fitness industries. It’s a boom time also for DeAgostino, the publishers of those weekly magazines that provide people with the parts needed to build a scale-model of a ship, or a racing car. You only ever see their adverts on television in the early weeks of a new year; they promise a new hobby for a new start, and the hope of combatting the same old ennui. There are already adverts on television for summer holidays, and the Easter bunnies will shortly go on sale in Tesco.
Unlike some, however, I’m not struggling due to Christmas excess, or an excess of Christmas. I’m struggling due to Christmas indolence. Three weeks of sitting on the sofa, slowing depleting the Roses tin, has turned my brain to jelly. Concentration is elusive. My sentences are very short. The ability to sit down and read or write for any decent length of time has deserted me. I somehow lost an hour this morning listening to the 3-second Windows 98 start-up chime slowed down 4000%, which had turned it into a 4-minute ambient masterpiece.
I remembered that the chime was created by Brian Eno, and I wondered if perhaps he made it this way, and then sped it up 4000 times. And then it was 10am, and I had nothing to show for the day.
Things were much clearer in the past, in those dim and distant days of 2015. I was motoring along, fighting on two fronts. I was making progress with some self-directed learning around data, and I was sticking (mostly) to a regime of daily writing that was producing over 5,000 words each week. Some of those words were even quite useful.
I lost another 30 minutes last week, repeatedly watching a 27-second clip of the film Napoleon Dynamite, in which Uncle Rico expertly lobs a minute steak into the face of Napoleon, a moving target on a bicycle. Uncle Rico spends much of the film wishing he could get back to 1982. I feel much the same way about late 2015.
Just like Uncle Rico, though, I’m possibly looking backwards with rose-tinted glasses. His assertion that things would be different now had the coach only thrown him into the 1982 game doesn’t help his situation in the present day. His claim that, “Back in ’82, I used to be able to throw a pigskin a quarter mile”, is similar in part to my own assessment of my productivity and progress in late 2015. I was working, and putting the hours in, but it’s questionable whether I had successfully honed in on my target in the same way Rico eventually, but pointlessly, did with the steak. How do I avoid becoming Uncle Rico?
Things just don’t add up.
“Things throw themselves together but it’s not because of the sameness of elements, or the presence of a convincing totality. It’s because a composition encompasses not only what has been actualised but also the possibilities of plenitude and the threat of depletion. Matter in an unfinished world is itself indefinite – a not yet that fringes every determinate context or normativity with a margin of something deferred or something that failed to arrive, or has been lost, or is waiting in the wings, nascent, perhaps pressing” (Stewart, 2008)
Is this a convincing argument for the fragility of a robust theory? And surely that question contains something of a paradox. Things just don’t add up.
Along with the Write Club prompt piece, quoted above, and in an effort to kick-start my 2016 writing, I recently read a 1997 article by Will Straw on record shops (Straw, 1997), picked at random from a digital pile of papers in my ‘To Read’ folder. The paper considers the emergence of music Megastores in the early to mid 1990s, stores that capitalised on the CD boom and pop music’s rich and varied catalogue. It ponders the potentially dangerous possibilities of a production, distribution and consumption chain (of events) that is highly rationalised, and increasingly reliant on data. It felt like looking in the mirror, seeing my own project reflect back at me, but somehow distorted by another time, another place, another unique collection of events. It is a paper trapped in a fascinating mid-1990s singularity, one where the CD boom appears to have perpetual momentum; it is a boom in cruise control. It has no idea that a steak is flying through the air on an inescapable collision course with its face.
Straw has no way of knowing this, trapped in time on the page (trapped in time like the stalled version of Uncle Rico, the one who did get thrown into the game, back in ’82). From the vantage point of unfrozen time, I want to tell Straw that he was right, but also that he was wrong, but also that it’s ok, because so was everyone else.
Or were they? The events of the digital revolution were ‘waiting in the wings, nascent‘ and certainly pressing. And pressing with a certainty that neither Straw, nor the people behind the counters of the Enormostores, could possibly have foreseen.
The singularity of January 2016, when a man – me – types words into a laptop – these words – also affords the benefit and luxury of suggesting that perhaps they should have known. But they couldn’t, and they didn’t. We now know that the steak met the face sometime between 1998 and 2000, the watershed period of the ‘Napster moment’, according to Bhattacharjee et al (2007), and a new configuration of possible singularities were set in motion.
Straw’s is a singularity that contains a listener experience fragmented to hitherto unseen levels, where each listener experience is ‘an innumerable collection of singularities’ (De Certeau, 1984) arrived at through things that had happened by 1997, and also things that hadn’t happened. I’m trapped in a similar singularity, in the here and now. I have no way of knowing how the ‘book’ I could (or threaten) to write about this will be read (…or if it will be read…) and can not possibly know how it will stand up in the year 2037. We could be listening through chips installed in our inner ears by then. Or we could be doing something else entirely. All Year 2037 singularities are possible, and the version of 2016 seen from each of them may well beg questions about how on earth we didn’t see it all coming. We can never see it coming.
I never liked Bruce Springsteen, and I never quite got David Bowie, either. Then, one day, without me seeing it coming, the penny dropped for me with Bruce Springsteen. The penny is yet to drop for me with David Bowie (and, yes, I realise I’m almost certainly at fault here). There are innumerable singularities implied by this. If I hadn’t listened to Nebraska on that particular day in 1997 and had listened instead to Aladdin Sane….(I can’t be sure it was 1997, by the way, I just know that it was around that time. For the purposes of cosmic neatness, though, let’s conspire in the fiction that it was the very day Straw put pen to paper). Bowie or Springsteen, separated by a fraction of a second of a day almost 20 years ago, when the stars aligned and wind blew in the right direction and my mood was receptive. A freakish event constructed of infinite variables, past and present. How do you theorise something like that? And how do you theorise something like that when it’s a situation extrapolated out to encompass the musical experiences of millions of people, as I am trying to do with my PhD? Don’t get me started…I’m trying to write a thesis.
So let’s get back theory instead, weak or otherwise.
There is an argument implied by much of the rhetoric of what I’ll refer to here as ‘the data lobby’, and it’s been put forward explicitly by Anderson (2008) in the form of ‘The End of Theory’. It suggests that theory has had it’s day. Academics disagree, but their actions imply they perhaps see a flying steak out of the corner of their eye (Savage and Burrows, 2007). The line of reasoning behind these developments, on either side of the Dead Theory fence, has it that the depth and accuracy of knowledge that (Big D) data can produce, or predict, means there is no longer any need for theoretical models for understanding the world. Instead we’ll simply know, or (more worryingly) won’t need to ask. And we’re back once again to Straw: we can’t possibly know if this is true but we can retreat instead, in the meantime, into a theory of data. We can construct, for instance, a method of holding the algorithms to account (Ananny, 2015). Each position here (dead theory, or theory that alive and kicking) is a singularity, lurking inside the potential of a larger one.
“For me” says Stewart “the point of theory now is not to judge the value of analytical objects or to somehow get their representation ‘right’, but to wonder where they might go and what potential modes of knowing, relating and attending to things are already somehow present in them as a potential or resonance” (Stewart, ibid). A data scientist training a predictive model may make a similar statement. No-one knows if either, or both, are correct. We can never know, we can only arrive at the future singularity and look back over our shoulder.
For me, looking at popular music consumption in 2016, is it the ‘singularity’ of the violent explosion of the Napster moment (the digital big bang) that is my analytical object? Or is it the slow re-intermediation brought about by the emergence of the likes of iTunes and Spotify (..and lo, the earth cooled)? Or is my analytical object the innumerable, unique, but still strikingly familiar ‘Vermonts’ (Stewart, ibid) that throw themselves together for an instant when someone puts the needle on the record and listens to a song (and in that instant becomes a David Bowie/Bruce Springsteen fan)?
(If we want to consider a conspiracy theory singularity for a second, it has just occurred to me that Nebraska was released in 1982, the year in which it all went south for poor old Uncle Rico. This is probably just a coincidence, though)
Using the phrase ‘putting the needle on the record’ is itself an example of a moment in time having what Stewart calls a resonance, or a residue. Despite what you read in the papers about the rampant resurgence of vinyl as a musical artefact, or in the fact that DeAgostini have now added vinyl reissues of classic jazz albums to their suite of products, the (Big D) data would suggest that – in the grand scheme of things – very few people do put the needle on the record these days. Somewhere amidst that dichotomy, there is a singularity where the elusive truth of this present moment may potentially reside.
I think that’s what I’d like my singularity to be.
So, I’d better get started on this book. There is no time like the present.
ABOUT THIS POST: As of my PhD studies at BCU, I’m involved with a Pop Music Writing Group. We meet once a fortnight and respond to an academic paper, or a book chapter, or some other provocation, with a few words of our own. The purpose is to get us all writing regularly, flexing the muscles so that the task of coming up with 80,000 words isn’t quite so daunting. This time around we were responding to Kathleen Stewart’s 2008 article, ‘Weak Theory in an Unfinished World’, and specifically we were to relate a line from it to our own projects and working process. The line was: “Don’t get me started – I could write a book”.
We each post our writing to a private Pop Music Writing Club blog, but sometimes I post mine here (normally when I remember – I’m very bad at maintaining this blog). I should do it more often, though, as I quite like the element of risk, the sense of ‘growing up in public’, that is involved with putting works-in-progress such as this out there.
If you would like to know more about my research project, or just tell me how wrong I am about David Bowie (even though I already know I am), then please feel free to drop me a line – firstname.lastname@example.org – or say hello on Twitter (@craigfots).
Ananny, M., 2015. Toward an Ethics of Algorithms Convening, Observation, Probability, and Timeliness. Sci. Technol. Hum. Values 0162243915606523.
Anderson, C., 2008. The end of theory: The data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete. Wired.
Bhattacharjee, S., Gopal, R.D., Lertwachara, K., Marsden, J.R., Telang, R., 2007. The effect of digital sharing technologies on music markets: A survival analysis of albums on ranking charts. Manag. Sci. 53, 1359–1374.
De Certeau, M., 1984. Walking in the City.
Dynamite, N., (Unpublished). Hunting Wolverines in Alaska
Savage, M., Burrows, R., 2007. The coming crisis of empirical sociology. Sociology 41, 885–899.
Stewart, K., 2008. Weak theory in an unfinished world. J. Folk. Res. 45, 71–82.
Straw, W., 1997. “Organized Disorder”: The Changing Space of the Record Shop. Clubcultures Read. 57–65.