October 28, 2003


Hyperdub's Steve tells me that a lengthy interview with none other than Wiley is forthcoming on Hyperdub. The man will be discussing his love of winter and will broach the question of those oriental influences. Can't wait.

I saw Steve at Middlesex's University's Capitalism and Philosophy Lab (organized by the estimable Ray Brassier ). I burbled briefly about Baudrillard's For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign , and tried to initiate some discussion on the question of mp3's and sign value. You might remember this being raised here (or at the old site , if you are being pernickety).

Baudrillard's point is that many traditional analyses of capitalism have left what he calls 'sign value' out of account. Marx's analysis, for instance, was based solely on the difference between exchange value (how much a thing costs) and use value (what it does). According to Baudrillard, more important than both of these guages are sign value (the prestige attached to a particular object). It isn't exchange value, still less use value, that determines sign value; just the opposite in fact. Things acquire monetary value on the basis of their prestige, not the other way around.

The mp3 has limited exchange value (as we all know, there are sites where you can pay for mp3s, but these are flying in the face of the general trend towards gratuity). My question was: does it have any sign value?

Baudrillard argues that the level of sign value ascribed to an object has no relation to the intrinsic qualities of that object. Rather, sign value is determined by the object's differential relations to other objects. Baudrillard's example is fashion. If a mini-skirt is deemed 'beautiful', it is not because of any of its own qualities, but simply because of its difference from the maxi-skirt.

So does the mp3 have sign value? My conjecture was that, lacking the allegedly supplementary features of the record or the CD (the cover, even the materiality of the disc itself), reduced to pure functionality, the mp3 lacks those elements in which sign value could be invested.

Steve pointed out that the mp3 is an audio object, and that there is no reason to assume that only visual objects have sign value. Others pointed out that an mp3 collection as a whole could have prestige. In certain online filesharing communities of course, if your collection reaches a certain size, you garner extra privileges (a form of online exchange value).

The relation between sign value and the visual is an interesting one. A record collection can be displayed , and the display itself has an aesthetic quality. Yes, in a certain sense, an mp3 collection can be displayed but such a collection has a non-aestheticizable brute functionality.

With music, as Steve said, prestige is acquired not solely or even primarily by being seen to possess something , but by being seen to have heard it (the journalist or the blogger) and being heard to have heard it (the DJ).

All that said, I still think that there is something different about the mp3. This isn't only about its lack of visual presence; there is also the issue of its lack of tactility (nothing to touch or hold).


Speaking of 'Give me a sign....', Pop latest:

Britney/ Madonna. I'm with Spizzazzz on this one. It's Madonna who lets down a really rather serviceable single. The video has reached such a velocity of kwick-kutting delirium that it is almost nightmarish. Witness that wood slatted corrdior straight out of Welles' The Trial (the scene with Titorelli the painter). I want this to be a hit. Britney has attained a tragic, pathetic grandeur over the past year or so (which reached its apogee with the painful humiliation of her appearance at the MVA's). Give her a break.

The new Kylie is rather good, too. Be much better if she wasn't singing on it, though.

Posted by mark at October 28, 2003 05:45 PM | TrackBack
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