digital rhetoric

a pro-tools theory of composition

On Salon, Simon Reynolds reviews Kanye West's and Axl Rose's new albums. The review takes an interesting detour into the increasing role of digital tools in corporate music production, specifically Pro-Tools and Auto-Tune. Reynolds summarizes his negative review of Guns 'n Roses this way: "Rose wanted to create something of grandeur and beauty the way the
classic rock gods did, but like the cosmetic surgery addict who doesn't
know when to stop having operations, he ended up with something botched
and grotesque: a face that can't transmit a recognizable emotion."

Pro Tools works by creating a simulated perfection. Perfection might be a particular way of conceiving the simulacrum: it is a copy of an object that doesn't exist. Auto-tune works in a similar way by "correcting" off-pitch notes. As Reynolds notes, in this practice we can encounter the monstrosity in perfection, and the result can be a production that doesn't quite work (as the case with Guns 'n Roses, at least according to Reynolds) or, more typically, a production that sounds like all the others (as we see with Top 40 songs).

So let's work by generalization toward a theory of composition. Pro Tools and Auto-Tune, at least as they are typically used (and that's a key point to which I will return), assume that beauty-cum-perfection is generalizable: what is beautiful here will be beautiful everywhere else in the song. They also assume that beauty can be/is digitized. That is, what is beautiful in this part of the song is captured in the digital articulation/recording and can be copied/pasted elsewhere.

I believe this is a faulty theory of composition, even though it does function crudely speaking and can even succeed in producing marketable music. Essentially it ignores the value of kairos, the embodied, situated-ness of rhetoric: what is beautiful here/now may not be so elsewhere. Indeed what makes sense here/now may not make sense elsewhere. Furthermore reiteration leads to mutation: in some mathematical/digital sense the sound is the "same." But I'm not listening to a song with my calculator. I'm listening with my ears. Without that sense of real embodiment, one is left with a cold, ineffectual aesthetic or as my favorite line from this review states: "There's a gross tumescence to the sound of "Chinese Democracy" redolent
of the 4-hour erections induced by Viagra: engorged but devoid of

desire, a meaningless show of strength."

Or think of it this way. The problem with plagiarism isn't just that it is intellectually lazy or unethical. Generally speaking the plagiarized text doesn't make sense. That's how we notice it as readers of student papers. You can't just cut and paste material, even it if it is beautiful somewhere else. But it's not only plagarism. The problem extends more generally to rhetorical-compositional methods. This of course is what we mean when we say that we cannot speak of the writing process. How many compositions, extended to meet a page requirement might be described as engorged but devoid of
desire, a meaningless show of strength

This is also why on the one hand we can speak of the importance of regular reading to being a good writer but also recognize that we don't really learn to write by creating conscious rhetorical "models." If you want to think about the texts you read as models, that's fine. If you want to imitate a text as a kind of heuristic exercise that's fine too. Ultimately though, writing is about the internalization. As we all know with music, it isn't about perfection. It's about affect and expression (in the Deleuzian sense).

For Reynolds this appears to be the case with Kanye West's album, where he sees the use of Auto-Tune, in conjunction with other digital effects, as integrated into an experimental heuristic rather than as replication of the same (though obviously he doesn't put it in those words!). This is always the danger with the kind deterriotiralizations made possible through digital technologies. One pole leads toward mutation and becoming; the other pole toward fascism and replication. The former reminds me of Wiliam Gibson's remark that the street finds its own uses for things. Composition becomes a series of inventive, non-determining tactics for unfolding texts. Bring in these machines but seek out their mutative potential.