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The Affective Logic of the Sound File in the Age of the Global Sound Archive


Notes: Article presented during the first Neuro-Aesthetics conference organized at Goldsmiths University, London UK, May 2005. DJ Culture and Sampling Section



First of all, I’d very much like to thank Prof. [Brian] Massumi for his brilliant analysis of the new regime of power taking place in America and pretty much the globe, especially using the case of Toshiba as a case study of something that I think really exemplifies the whole way of thinking about biopower.  I’d like to thank Daniel Glaser for his elucidation of science and the brain, and I very much want to thank Paul [Miller] for his multi-media lecture on the poetics and aesthetics of the mix. I think it’s kind of broadened the discussion and opened it up to aesthetics.

I am Kodwo Eshun, I teach here at Goldsmiths; I teach the MA in Aural and Visual Cultures; I am part of the artist group called the Otholith Group, and I write on questions of futurology, questions of the city-sonic, questions of technoculture, generally, and what I took from Paul’s lecture was the notion of the gift-economy and that’s what I’m going to be talking about. This notion of the gift-economy is really of interest to a lot of cultural practice at the moment, and what I want to do is cast the question of the gift economy in a slightly wider context. Probably the next couple of days, people will be talking very much in terms of the lens of cognitive science, and I want to slightly tilt that away and look at the question of the emotional and affective dimensions. I want to see what happens more when the question of the emotional dimension of the human nervous systems aren’t so much subordinated to the workings of the brain, to the cognitive patterns of the brain, but what happens if they’re fore-grounded, what happens if we move the notion of the dimension of the affective and the dimension of the emotional into the front, because we know from the work of Sadie Plant who characterizes the human nervous system more as a living laboratory, Sadie says that the nervous system can be seen as a living laboratory, a vast system of chemical processes that is continually engaged in the manufacture, the synthesizing, the distribution of a vast range of chemical communications and regulations, and these chemical communications are closely related to our experiences of pleasure, of depression, of euphoria. So, effectively, we are experiential, excited, vital bodies. We are our own alcohol. We are our own alcohol, and within this alcohol, millions of processes happen simultaneously– processes of pain, stress, arousal, excitement, the body’s normal and extreme processes, activities, and states. We are a soft clock telling several times, simultaneously.

So that is the sort of broad context in which I want to think about the gift economy and I want to, kind of, bring it into a particular case which I’m sure we all know about, the case of Napster. Paul mentioned Napster briefly. If we look at Napster in its heyday, between 1999 and 2001, Napster was responsible for 58 million users downloading files. That’s 58 million users. This is a way in which we can think about what Professor Massumi was talking about in which media operates as a nervous system in which the relationships between humans and machines are plugged in and vitalized. So, we can think of Napster as this distributed system of appetites, this distributed, transmissible archive that amplifies all kinds of energies and all kinds of emotions and all kinds of affects. So, I’m very much interested, not so much in the technical aspects of that, not so much in the implications for intellectual property, because there are people who specialize in that. I’m much more interested in the cultural imaginary, and in the effective dimension of what those 58 million users thought they were doing in those 2 years before Napster got modified and closed-down, and the whole legal apparatus captured Napster—the moment before that, what was going on in that moment in which virtual, which, effectively 50 years worth of popular music was effectively allowable and collapsible into the virtual space of software. It was free for the taking. What I’m interested in is the affective dimension of those people. How do we characterize that very nervous extended system, that kind of mass system of desire and appetite?

Maybe there are two things we can talk about. The first thing is that the flouting of copyright becomes something that’s virtuous, becomes something that’s righteous. People want to do it; they feel empowered to do it. They feel that it’s theirs, not just their right, it’s their imperative. And not just their imperative, it’s their entitlement. It’s what they should do. This stealing, this mass stealing, this mass illegalization of process, this notion in which our pleasures make us criminals, this was eagerly desired. And I guess it was eagerly desired because there’s ease of access, because of course there’s a volume of acquisition that’s easily accessible, and of course there’s this absolute blanking of the actual material origins and conditions of music production. So it arises as files, files that sit on your desktop. Paul talked about the human outsourcing of various aspects of the psyche into technological objects, into your zip drive, into your various technical accoutrements. This is about the enlargement of data space, the enlargement of memory.

I’m very much interested in science fiction, not because science fiction predicts the future in any way, because it doesn’t, but because of what the science fiction writer Samuel R. Delaney said, he said that science fiction offers a significant distortion of the present. So science fiction allows us to exaggerate, to hyperbolize the present. In this way, we can think of Napster as very much a moment in which science fiction and social reality have merged, a moment that Hakim Bey would have called a “pirate utopia,” an online pirate utopia. You can see that in some ways Napster actualized dreams that existed in radical literary culture, the dreams of Roland Barthes, who said that ‘the birth of the reader must be requited by the death of the author.’ He said that the text is a fabric of quotations resulting from a thousand sources of culture. In the same way Napster was a popularization of post-Structuralist ideas that had been in the academy for some 20-25-30 years; Napster in some way massified that. But, as I said, what’s striking to me is the sense of entitlement that went with that. I’ll wrap up quickly by talking about a particular science fiction writer called K.W. Jeter. K.W. Jeter just published a book called Noir, and I’m drawing very much on the work of Stephen Shaviro’s book Connected, who links these questions together in a really fascinating way. What K.W. Jeter’s book is really about is the psychology of copyright piracy. So for my purposes, he is really talking about this emotional dimension of file-sharing, of being part of this giant global sound archive, this appetite for sound, this giant sono-sphere, this mediascape, and he says that what we see in file-sharing, what we see in global sound archive, what we see in Napster, what we see in peer-to-peer sharing, what we see in the whole idea of an online pirate utopia, is the idea that books, music, paintings, and information really belong to the thieves and not to the creators. What Barthes sees as a positive utopian force, Jeter sees as a kind of outrageous sense of aggression against creators, against artists. It’s kind of an exaggerated way of playing out some of the more unconscious drives that take part in file sharing, and I’m interested in it because file sharing tends to be written about as a kind of transparent, utopian project. I’m interested in Jeter because he’s possibly the first person to draw on the pathological aspects of file sharing, downloading more music than you’ll ever need ever in your whole life or can ever listen to, the whole pathological notion of the iPod and playlist culture. I’m kind of interested in that. So, what he says is, you want a gift economy? This is a gift economy; I’ll give you a gift economy. In my world, in the world of my book, Noir, I’m going to have a trophy system. And in this world, the downloader is immobilized, but is compelled to remain conscious. The downloader’s limbs are lopped off, his or her torso is sliced open, his brain and spinal cord are extracted, there is just enough neural tissue left to make sure that the offender retains “basic personality structure and ongoing situational awareness.” The offender’s neurons and synapses are encased within a household item, a vacuum cleaner or a toaster, and then they are handed over to the artist whose copyright the offender has violated. That’s his vision of a gift economy.

Kodwo Eshun is Lecturer in Aural and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths College. He studied English Literature at University College, Oxford University. He is the author of More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (1998). His research interests include notions of fabulation, discourses of futurology, aesthetics of the archive, electronic musicology in relation to Black Atlantic historicity, and questions of the cinesonic.