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The Analog Fetish

The Analog Fetish

“Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign” writes the philosopher and semiotician Charles Saunders Peirce.  An interrogation into the nature of the medium yields a paradoxical relationship to its materiality: on the one hand, the medium can act as an indexical “here and now” of the present; on the other hand, the ability to observe its functions and conditions produces a distance which renders its materiality and form.

In “Memories are Made of You”, the media archaeologist Frederich Kittler argues that media and its materiality cannot be decoupled from one another.   He situates his argument within the computer’s architecture, dissecting it into entities of “storage, transfer, and processing.”  None of these entities are capable of being disembodied from the computer’s hardware, itself a storage medium of legible code.  Mary Ann Doane also makes reference to the tension between materiality and absence or illegibility, noting the work of art historian EH Gombrich; according to Gombrich, the illusion of an “absence” is what then enables the spectator to actively participate in a “projection” which aims to construct “an impression of the real” (p. 130).

Doane goes on to attribute the cultural nostalgia for nearly obsolescent technologies to be the result of a desire for the “certitude of the imprint, the trace, the etching in a medium whose materiality is unthinkable” (p. 146).  Such nostalgia, she argues, is the mark of a dissolving medium in search of a verifiable existence.  In a similar vein, Kittler notes Victor Hugo’s observation in The Hunchback of Notre Dame,that cathedrals were erected as knowledge repositories in response to the proliferation of the printing press.

What memory techniques are we erecting today? It didn’t take me very long to find my answer, looking no further than my porch.  The return of the so-called cassette culture has been well-documented (see websites like these for more information) One of the first things I did upon moving to North Carolina in 2006 was to purchase a tape player so I could play old mixtapes from high school.  Having collected vinyl since the mid 1990s, it was not surprising that I had to push even further to find certifiable nostalgia.

The boombox pictured above just sold on ebay for $1025 US dollars.  The fetishization of the analog world is everywhere around us. Typewriters sell for upwards of $200. New cassette-only record labels are emerging every day. Vinyl is back (though some might argue it never went away).   The indexicality of the analog world, physical to the touch, seems to live in stark contrast to the ephemerality of the digital.  So how can we privilege the digital so that may engage more fully with it? Is it even possible to isolate the digital into a specific medium, as Doane seems to advocate? If so, what affordances does that allow, and what obstacles does it create? 


1 comment

Well, that particular boombox is clearly amazing, so... :)

Cassette tape ts!You end with really interesting questions! My idea doesn't address your whole post, exactly, but looking at that cassette tape blog, it occured to me that a lot of these questions are about privileging the nostalgic object, but not necessarily for its original purpose. That cassette tape blog---maybe one post in five was actually about tapes you could listen to. The rest were references to tapes---on t-shirts, bands names, band art, etc. The person who bought that (amazing) boombox--will they use it to listen to anything? Mmmmaybe, but probably not.

So... the digital may be ephemeral, but even if there's an "I love the 80's"-inspired nostalgia, probably many of these collectors still listen to most of their music the way the rest of us do--digitally. (Yes, there are holdouts etc., but... eh. I don't think going back to vinyl is a large-scale "movement" by any means--which is to say, I don't think it's "back.")  Which is all to say, perhaps, that I am skeptical of hipsters (despite the fact that I am currently wearing Chucks, an American Apparel shirt*, and skinny jeans myself): can we separate a trendy/ironic pseudo-nostalgia from... "real" nostalgia? Or is all nostalgia nowadays (post-"I love the 60s/70s/80s/90s") really a sort of pseudo-, ironically self-aware nostalgia? (and does this trendiness make even these physical objects... ephemeral?) 

If these types of nostalgia can be separated, one starting point might be to separate the "nostalgic object" (as pure object) from the one that actually get *used* (nostalgically or not).


*dating from before they were so egregiously gross