Blog Post

Rest In Vinyl (RIV): Bodies, Sounds, Assemblages

We now apparently have the option to have our bodily remains pressed into vinyl records (http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2010-08/27/and-vinyly). This morbid, quite literal take on human-object assemblages raises all kinds of questions about materiality, embodiment, identity, affect, and sound. 

The relationship between sound and death is nothing new. In The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, Jonathan Sterne links the inception of audio recording to a larger ethos of preservation.  The history of sound reproduction in the 19th century, Sterne suggests, is entwined with the introduction of embalming practices and an explosion in the production of canned goods during the first two decades of the phonographs existence.  He explains, "Recording was the product of a culture that had learned to can and to embalm, to preserve the bodies of the dead so that they could continue to perform a social function after life" (292).  Sternes connection amplifies how the recorded voice can offer an extension of life after death.

But in this particular historical moment, why sound?  MP3 and digital video technologies are readily available, so why resort to a vintage audio medium? Why vinyl?      

 In The Presence of the Word, Walter Ong writes, "Sound is more real or existential than other sense objects, despite the fact that it is also more evanescent. Sound itself is related to present actuality rather than to past or future. It must emanate from a source here and now discernibly active, with the result that involvement with sound is involvement with the present, with here-and-now existence and activity" (111-12). 

 Like images, of course, sounds can trigger associations with the past.  We experience sound in a situated space and time, we can identify sounds from specific historical periods, etc.  But with recorded sound, there is something about the grain of the disembodied voice that seems timeless.  As Ong reminds us, "Sight reveals only surfaces.  It can never get to an interior as an interior, but must always treat it as somehow an exterior" (74).  When listening to a voice or music that we associate with a lost loved one, the signs of age, disease, or trauma (the surfaces that mark the past-ness of the deceased) are not visible. It is the present-ness of sound that creates an intimate experience. Vibrating sound waves literally enter, or physically impact, our bodies.  In this sense, sound is a form of touch as well.  Because sound is a kind of raw interiority, then, it affects people (impinges upon their bodies) more so than photographs or videos.  It may be the closest we can get to corporeally interacting with the presence or essence of the person we lost. 

But there is still the question of vinyl.

I think the choice of the vinyl medium has to do with its materiality.  Though MP3s are material too (we can physically manipulate digital sound waves on computer screens), a digital option would not work for the particular task of melding human remains with a non-virtual tactile object.  The chemical fusion of ashes with CDs or cassettes, which are becoming obsolete media in many ways, probably wouldnt work as well either.  Perhaps it is the longevity and fetishization of the vinyl album that gives it a (perceived) permanence that is lacking in other audio media. 

Some people believe that once a sound is sounded, it continues to reverberate forever.  Maybe the fusion of body and vinyl is a way to re-corporealize and distinguish a voice from all of the ghostly traces of sounds that are still vibrating out there in the universe.  Maybe its physicality--its seemingly permanent present-ness--is what makes this bizarre corporeal-sonic object a source of comfort. 

Regardless of the personal reasons behind the decision to become a human-vinyl assemblage, what I find most compelling here is the blurring of the lines between organic and nonorganic material--a blurring that troubles the relationship between matter, bodies, and technologies, between interiority and exteriority.  As Patricia Clough states in The Affective Turn, the communion of technology and the body "inserts the technical into felt vitality" (2). The human-vinyl assemblage is not just an extension of the human. Rather, the human is transformed and inserted into the technology.  The resulting felt vitality is a manifestation of affect.  In other words, the record transmits the affect of the life lost back into the present (via sound) and simultaneously produces (interior and/or exterior) affective responses in the listeners. 

What may seem like a hip alternative to being bottled up in an urn incites all sorts of complicated theoretical questions (not to mention a number of rhetorical conundrums: Would you choose to do a voice message?  Or create a track list and let the songs speak for themselves?  Or let the record eerily pop and crackle, allowing your audience to experience your once lively body as lively noiseas audible remnants of your lived energy?).  Theorizing the intersections between sound, bodies, technologies, affects, and materiality is an ongoing part of my dissertation research, and the thinking (or thinking through) Im sharing with you is still very much in process.  That said, I always welcome any thoughts, feedback, or related resources, so please feel free to join the conversation. 

 

Works Cited 

Clough, Patricia, Ed. The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. 

"GE Record Player." gggone1. January 3, 2009. YouTube. September 2, 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhAAOdDH4-E

Ong, Walter J. The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967.

Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. 

 

 

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5 comments

I wonder which subset of music fandom would be most attracted to this practice -- my friend Tom Ewing, a music critic, expands on a point he made about "new hoarding" in the digital age (among music fans) now that digital file management systems have to some extent displaced the sheer volume of records (or cassettes or CDs) that one can collect and retain their music fandom social capital.

http://tomewing.tumblr.com/post/1050026669/tom-could-you-expand-a-little-the-hoarding-bit-of

 

This is a process that would seem to combine several strands of status-presentation in music fandom -- discovery (who will be "first" to press their body into a record designed like Public Image Limited's Metal Box, say?), forced exclusivity, and creativity in a way. Of course that would depend on how much this process also comments on other aspects of a person's tastes.

 

The basic package costs £2,000 and comprises of the standard artwork along with up to 30 ash-flecked discs with whatever sounds you choose, lasting a maximum of 24 minutes.

 

Totally fascinating -- THE FINAL MIXTAPE! What will your final 24 minutes sound like?

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Interesting point, David (and thanks for sharing that link).  

I think the whole vinyl-human assemblage thing definitely raises the stakes for fandom.  I mean, if you included a song (or a whole 24 minutes!) by your favorite band on this final album, it's basically the highest form of fandom, right?  You literally become one with the music.

About the vinyl/digital debate: I wonder if the easy access to digital music (now people can download songs and own a large archive of music much, much faster than it would take a record collector to build a library) is making the vinyl record a symbol of status once again. For instance, I know a lot of people who consider themselves "hardcore" music fans because they own the vinyl despite being able to easily and cheaply download music. I'm really curious about why some forms of audio media continue to recirculate and become popular. There's a rumor that cassettes are going to be the new vinyl soon. Only time will tell...    

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Another friend (in another life I circle a music journalism orbit, if it wasn't obvious!), Marc Hogan, wrote a nice piece about the  burgeoning "cassette underground": http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7764-this-is-not-a-mixtape/

While the critic I mentioned above then wrote the NEXT step in this process -- a "CD fandom" group that forms in the year in 2021: http://pitchfork.com/features/poptimist/7772-poptimist-26/

My own experience of this is that when I transfer songs digitally to a hard drive space, my investment in them is far less intense -- I continue to buy CDs in part because I have an expectation of an expiration date for digital music, whether or not this is merely psychological. I'd love to see some studies -- neuroscience, maybe? -- on how we might literally think differently about music we acquire online from music we hold onto as an object. I would maybe allude to Benjamin here, but I'm not sure that "aura" is quite what I'm getting at -- more accurately, I'm wondering if online storage and "online listening" has an impact on memory. (That would make the vinyl pressing of ashes an interesting commentary, too -- "you'll remember me better if you have me on vinyl!"

 

 

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Sweet post, Steph. I saw that article on Wired.UK as well. I thought, sign me up, shit. I think that, at least theoretically, one of the draws to vinyl for me in the visibility of inscription. Just like a tattoo, sculpture, hand-written note, the process that went into the composition shines through the material object itself and thus makes it feel more authentic and more material. When data is inscribed on cassette reels or hard-drive it's also observable only in a) breaking the artifact (or at least making it unplayable) or b) through the interface of code. Am I missing any ways? But anyway, I think you hit on the theoretical and affective quandaries that this mega-awesome new way to live forever brings up. Would you consider it?

I think the ability to literally "buy one's self back" or "beat-box the reaper" is just plain wacky. Of course, one com modifies their remains when they (or their loved ones) buys up urns, burial plots, or gravestones, but these object don't have any specific cultural use-value. Or, more specifically they have a larger range of cultural feedback.  I can't help but think that seeing an urn lined up next to all the other bric-a-brac and knick-knack is limited in affect to "oh, what a shame" or "I'm sorry for your loss" but a multi-media object let's the dead "feedback," and haunt the situation.

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so maybe the vinyl is chosen because of the revolutions per minute, the rpm, and how those revolutions -- unlike those of the compact disc -- lay bare the fact of spinning as a mode of life. the earth orbits, which is to say revolves, around the sun. the earth spins, which is to say revolves, on its axis. we see this constant turn and turn again in mechanical reproductions, and in the production of social bodies, such as the Ring Shout and the Islamic circumambulatory moves about the Kaaba. perhaps vinyl point us to life -- even in death -- life that is fundamentally about torque, about movement, about spinning. life is about cyclical behavior, eternal returns to zone of the needle. the compact disc, of course, attempts to perfect circumambulation by digitizing while likewise removing the material trace of its resonance by spinning faster and faster [between 200 and 500 rpm's versus the vinyl 33]. there is loss in the fast-pace revolution and the vinyl points us to this fact as well :: you hear the pops and scratches and imperfections. such is life, indeed. 

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