Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Music Blogs as Electronic Literature

Throughout the semester we have grappled with the definition of Electronic Literature. What is it? How do we position it within a critical framework? Blogs are interesting because of their capabilities to combine hypertext, visual aids, and audio within a seemingly linear and approachable format. Although Katherine Hayles does not discuss blogs in her book, Electronic Literature, it has served as the primary foundation for my discussion of music blogs and their contribution and contradictions to the canon of electronic literature we have discussed. Hayles discusses the interactions between the human and the machine, “evolving in active interplay with intelligent machines, the ‘human’ neither encloses the technological nor is enclosed by it. Rather, human agency operates within complex systems in which nonhuman actors play important roles…human language is interpenetrated by computer code, operating in architectures that mediate between the human meanings and binary code that is the only language computers can use to operate” (Hayles 2008 pg 131-132). Blogs are meant to be an accessible piece of technology for users, in which it is not necessary to understand the language of computer programming, and individuals can publish their opinions with only basic computer knowledge. My work is an example of this in various ways. Firstly, I do not have extensive computer knowledge, and programming and formatting my own website would have been a nearly impossible task. However, because of websites such as blogspot and wordpress, I have been able to publish my project online easily.

Blogs have created a form of electronic literature that allows gives the user the illusion of control, but more so than other websites, the user has little agency. Bloggers are often limited to a small number of layouts, and within in these, changes in font and color can be made. Blogs represent a compromise that technology is based on. In order to be accessible, most blogs are prepackaged, however if they were inaccessible, it would deter the flood of self-publishing that has risen during the technological age. The blog functions as a machine inside the machine, a mediator between the computer and human, creating a dialogue where the blog is able to translate computer code into language that humans can comprehend.

In Kittler’s book, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, he states that,
"during the founding age of mechanized storage technologies, human evolution, too, aims toward the creation of machine memory…to make forgetful animals into human beings, a blind force that strikes that dismembers and inscribes their bodies in the real…writing…is no longer a natural extension of humans who bring forth their voice, soul, individuality through their handwriting…they turn from the agency of writing to become an unscriptural surface…all the agency of the writing passes on its violence to an inhuman media engineer.” (Kittler 1999 pg 210)
Kittler’s discussion of the typewriter can be paralleled to the analysis of the blog. Kittler looks at the machine as a new mode of agency and expression, and the blog, similar to the early machines that Kittler discusses, also allows the author to transfer agency to the machine, as they gain access to publishing and new media. The relationship between the human and the machine is increasingly evident with the rise of the blog. The blog gains increasing agency, as it works as mediator between the machine and the human.

My project is a blog about blogs, and in this sense, both the structure and the content are a commentary on electronic literature as a medium of publication and communication. I worked to create a critical analysis of the world of blogging as a mode of creative expression, and a medium through which amateurism is valued, and publishing is readily accessible to the masses. Through my research I found that as blogs have become increasingly popularized and accessible, they have slowly transformed into a commodity and another piece of our capitalist infrastructure. While this phenomena is not unique to music blogs, it is more prominent amongst them, as the music industry has appropriated this genre of literature. Music blogs began as a community of fans who would review their favorite albums and concerts, and occasionally post select mp3 off new releases. Now posts have become premeditated promotional materials, through which labels are able to attract new audiences. Third parties have even purchased some blogs, such as Stereogum, enforcing how influential music blogs have become.

Initially, the primary focus of my blog was to look at blogs and the loss of privacy, as I began to analyze music blogs, however, I noticed trends throughout them. The more prominent music blogs were formed to mirror print media and the music magazine rather than the typical blog format. Music blogs utilize different tabs, and often have contests and other features that an individual would not be able to support. My project began to focus on the shift in blogs as an amateur form of publishing to a lucrative business and marketing tool for the music industry. During the rise of the blog era, music blogs were initially demonized for file sharing, and were seen as one of the contributing factors to the death of the music industry. However, it is now these same individuals who have begun to capitalize on music blogs and their accessibility. Instead of creating a new, peer-reviewed form of literature, blogs have started to slip into the same power dynamics and dichotomies of print media. Many of the larger music blogs now have editors, and some, such as Pitchfork, do not allow reader comments. This is contradictory to the initial purpose of blogs – creating free form literary expression on the Internet, which could be read by millions of people.

While blogs are still inarguable an influential part of Electronic Literature, music blogs seem to be moving away from freedom of expression, towards a capitalist motivated format. Regardless of this, the blog is still a form of new media, and represents a shift towards the computer as a medium of production, rather than just a method of “distribution and exhibition” (Manovich 1999 pg 19). The blog informs our view of the computer, however, it is meant to provide the author a false sense of agency, as superficial choices are made, while the computer predetermines the format of the blog. The blog is also part of “a new media revolution – the shift of all culture to computer-mediated forms of production, distribution, and communication” (Manovich 1999 pg 19). Manovich then discusses how the “computer media revolution affects all stages of communication, including acquisition, manipulation, storage, and distribution; it also affects all types of media – texts, still images, moving images, sound, and spatial constructions” (Manovich 1999 pg 19). While on some levels I agree with Manovich – blogs allow innovation in texts, incorporating both audio and visual aids into literature in novel ways, the music blog, instead of moving away from print media, is returning to it. Not all music blogs have followed this form, and the key characteristic that continues to separate music blogs from music magazines, their print counterpart, is mp3 downloads. There are some music publications in print that are accompanied with an audio cd, but none are as instantaneous as the mp3 download. Some music blogs post a new download each day, allowing the reader greater access to music, while a music magazine might release one compilation disc per month. In this sense, music blogs are strongly related to the questions posed by Katherine Hayles, in her book Electronic Literature. Hayles asks us to consider, “the contexts that give them (electronic literature) meaning and significance, and that implies a wide-ranging exploration of what electronic literature is how it overlaps and diverges from print, what signifying strategies characterize it, and how these strategies are interpreted by users as they go in search of meaning” (Hayles 2008 pg 2). These questions are what have informed my discussion of music blogs, and how they have become part of the cannon of electronic literature. My primary focus was to look at how music blogs differed and were the same from their print counterparts, and it quickly became the most expansive section of my analysis . Music blogs, instead of having a linear progression away from print media, have formed a cyclical relationship, where they initially moved away from print, but now, as capitalist institutions such as record labels have began to appropriate them, have started to move closer to print, with a focus on advertising and marketing, rather than dialogue and community.

The original music blog can be compared to the DIY music zine. A collective discussion about music and culture that is transferred throughout a musical community. While zine culture was limited because of its basis in print media, it was formed on the same principals as blogs – freedom of expression and accessibility. Just as zine culture has begun to die out, the music blog has started to drift away from the Utopian ideals it was based on, and move towards an overly-structured, one way discussion about music. Many of the questions raised by the authors we have been studies are addressed in interesting ways when compared to music blogs. Music blogs are unique in their recent shift and serve as an interesting case study in our discussion of electronic literature. There also lies the question of whether or not blogs are part of this cannon, just as magazines are criticized for not being a legitimate form of literature, and the same argument can be made for the music blog. However, through the readings discussed, the cannon of electronic is much more open – which is partly due to its relative newness as well. While music blogs have become increasingly appropriated, at the same time, because of the accessibility of blogs, there are still new authors rising everyday who hope to voice their opinions and interact with a community of readers that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is because of this that the music blog, no matter where capitalism takes it, will never die off, and will always be a form of expression and community.

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