Guns, Dub, Technique
By Crispin Sartwell
Questions about technology are, of course, bound up with questions of power. And if our posthuman present and future are defined in part by technological environments and technological enhancements of or interventions in the body, then a central question will be whether these will amount among other things to strategies of subordination. Here we can see continuities between the human and the posthuman; in the will to power, and the use of every new dimension of technology as a way to turn people to account within ever-more-pervasive power structures.
We might think, for example, of the gun. Like many technologies, the gun is designed in relation to the human body, as, we might say, a prosthesis: the pistol-as-hand or rifle-as-arm. And of course the gun as an enhancement of the body's capacity to kill has been central to power in modernity: a key to the slave trade, colonialism, genocide, and just the everyday policing that represents the small-scale or pedestrian saturation of our lives by the state.
On the other hand, the gun has provided a mode of resistance, and one can't conceive of an "unarmed" insurgency or guerilla band. The gun, as it were, exceeds its intended application as prosthesis of power and is also the instrument or even the very body of the resistance. It introduces and enhances forms of order, but it simultaneously and in complement induces chaos. That chaos in turn drives the technology of the gun and its ammunition, the projection of the body into other bodies, the penetrative purpose which is the real power of the gun, its trajectory from my body into yours that expresses the gun's actual power. I fuck you at a distance, and then you're fucked. We introduce ever-new generations of the gun to enforce order on the ever-spiraling chaos. The gun locks down Virginia Tech, or secures its students, but then also erupts in the insane or unaccountable explosion of violence. It's the principle of order and the whirlwind of alien, suicidal strangeness, the essence of both rationality and insanity at one and the same moment at one and the same place.
If we think of technology in its conceptual structure or as Heidegger might put it, its essence, as purposiveness, we can begin to conceive our problem and our hope. The idea of technology is the idea of controlling our environment and each other in accordance with some telos, of bending the world and each other, or including each other, to our will. This of course divides the world into subject and object, animate will and the inanimate reality over which it wants dominion. This, we might say, is in one sense the origin of the human individual, of the phenomenological detachment of the body from the environment and from other human bodies. But it is of course also the continual compromise of the individual, now nested in a power structure that proceeds through it or that manifests itself within it as it environs it in instruments. The gun is an assertion of integrity or even invulnerability, a defense of the body that increases the space it occupies in potential, the carving out of a defended space that asserts and preserves the body as an individuated object. That is, the gun individuates the body by asserting its identity with the space around it, by increasing its scope beyond the skin and into the space beyond, or even into the bodies of those that might occupy this space. The gun is an instrument of self-assertion or defense, but also in both directions a demonstration that the body does not end at the skin, that the skin can be penetrated and the body can be projected into surrounding space.
Technology typically has this multivalent or contradictory effect. It increases the integrity of bodies or expands that integrity: of the human body, of the state or corporation, of the specific inanimate thing. So, for example, the cell phone, surrounding each of us in a haze or aura of wavicles, projecting that haze or aura to others, right through their ears and into their heads, creating a new layer of the atmosphere that unites and separates our bodies from one another. The history of cellular technologies has been and will be at once a making-public, an increased pervasion of waves over the earth, and an intensification of the private, an ever-more intimate incorporation of these waves into each nervous system: an internalization that is also at the same time a connection. And of course the cell phone will at once serve power - make money, enhance surveillance, and so on - and create uncontrollable chaos, a storm of signals inside which to make drug deals or to detonate improvised explosive devices.
The IED or improvised explosive device is a pretty good emblem of technology gone mad or awry, turned from the concerted, systematic technologies of bureaucracy into the semi-sane suicidal outbreak of unaccountable intervention in that very bureaucracy. Indeed the idea of improvisation itself is interesting in this regard. To move from violence into art, the technologies of control, of systematic generation of and pursuit of purpose, always also enhance the possibilities of improvisation. Improvisation is one way to "turn" or deflect technologies, one way of showing their excess to their own essences, or to mount a demonstration that they have no essence, that each instrument packs within it excesses to its conceived purposes. Each assertion of control is also an atmosphere of improvisation or makes possible improvisations heretofore unimaginable.
Here I'd like to consider Jamaican dub music [like this, an audio collage produced by the great recording engineer Scientist]. In its origin, for example in the work of basic dub originator King Tubby, dub music is a technological music in the sense that though its materials originate in the music-making of guitarists, drummers, etc, what makes the music dub is the technological intervention in the song by the "engineer." The engineer proceeds, first, by subtraction: removing vocals and dropping instruments out, then bringing them back in. And by enhancement, adding echo effects or reverberations that create a sense of vast space and then close it down, that project the sound into an imaginary world and then collapse that world back in on itself. And by addition: of beeps or snatches of other songs, often in a different key, an explicitly foreign element disrupting or fragmenting the riddim, creating a fractured surface.
One effect of dub is to break down the integrity of "the song," and dub's expansion and destruction of the song is now common coin in the world's popular music. Like American pop, Jamaican music of the 1960s presented the listener with integral songs suitable for radio play, three-minute temporal organisms characterized by internal "narrative" order: verse/chorus verse/chorus bridge chorus. The basic way these songs were presented was on the Sound System, at outdoor parties or dancehalls where the system operator would set up a speaker system and a DJ would spin records. These began by playing American jazz and r&b records in the fifties. By the early 60s, when Jamaica achieved political independence from the UK, the sound systems were spinning Jamaican ska records, which, like subsequent Jamaican waves such as rock steady, reggae, and ragga, in turn colonized England, Canada, and much of the rest of the world.
In emulation of American radio DJs, the Jamaican sound system DJ would chatter into and out of the records, and soon DJs such as Lee Perry, King Stitt, and U-Roy were as big stars as the top Jamaican recording artists. Jamaican producers began making versions of their records especially for DJ/sound system performance, first removing the vocals from records that were often recorded on four tracks, often issuing the instrumental versions as the b-side of the vocal single. By 1970, early in what is known as the roots reggae period, the DJs themselves became recording artists, rapping over pre-existing instrumental tracks. Now producers realized that they could sell a series of singles from a single song: the vocal, the instrumental, and the DJ version.
King Tubby, a stereo builder/repairman/sound-system operator began improvising "dub" versions of tracks brought to him by various producers. He used improvised effects to create shattered soundscapes that would be comprehensible to people already familiar with the song. He would throw or drop a reverb unit, for example, to create crashing echo effects. He would pull pieces of the vocal and DJ versions into and out of the mix, or delete the bass, suddenly pushing it back in in a way designed to create a different atmosphere for sound system dancing. Now a single song could support an indefinite number of versions, at once an economical strategy for reducing overhead and a profound compromise of the very idea of a song. Some songs have sustained dozens of versions from the rock steady period to the present, been extended to whole sides of LPs or provided the vaguely recognizable underpinnings of entirely new generations of vocal, DJ, and dub versions.
In the seventies, dub became a Jamaican industry that came to be emulated in many ways all over the world. In the US, disco producers made "extended mixes" so that people could dance for ten or fifteen minutes at a time to, say, Le Freak. Hip hop masters such as Kool Herc (from the Bronx, but raised in Jamaica) started versioning or "sampling" previously-recorded funk and disco records and putting rappers over them, first at parties, and then on separate singles. These various uses of sound technologies (the turntable, the mixing board) had never been conceived by the people who invented them, but they have been absolutely central to world popular musics since the seventies.
One aspect of these practices is that they introduced new dimensions of improvisation, both in the sense of using technologies in unintended and unpredictable ways, and playing with them as a jazz player plays with his horn: by feel, as it were. Improvisation is in some sense opposed to the conceptual framework of technology, which relies on systematic administering of means toward a pre-determined end. Both the ends and means were put at stake by dub producers: songs undermined, combined, indefinitely extended or suddenly cut off in mid-stream. Michael Veal, in his amazing book Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae writes as follows.
Given the heavy demand for dub mixes from sound systems preparing for weekend dances, it is important to realize that these mixes were improvised on the spot. . . . Most dub mixing was done on Friday evenings, when producers deposited their master tapes with engineers, and sound system operators gathered at the studio so that each could be given a unique mix of a currently popular tune. Under these circumstances, an engineer might create dozens of mixes of a given tune in one remix session. . . . [E]ngineers had no way of preparing a mix beforehand; they usually improvised their way through dozens of mixes of the same track. King Jammy's approach was typical of most engineers: "I don't plan it before I get into the mix, it just comes creatively. I don't plan like, Okay, I'm going to take out the bass at two minutes or whatever. It's just instant creativity." ... Using the mixing board as an instrument of spontaneous composition and improvisation, the effectiveness of the dub mix results from the engineer's ability to de- and reconstruct a song's original architecture while increasing the overall power of the performance through a dynamic of surprise and delayed gratification.
Every new dimension of technology brings with it the possibility of creative misuse; you can throw it at the wall and see what happens. As the world becomes more subject to control, it exceeds or undermines the mechanisms of that control, or pulls them into a subversion of themselves.
One way to frame this would be in terms of Deleuze and Guattari's idea of territorialization, deterritorialization, and reterritorialization. Technology territorializes the world, maps it, surveils, brings more and more of it into the scope of comprehension. But people appropriate technologies in all sorts of bizarre ways, often with transformative effects, as dub music transformed world popular music. Then of course such developments are themselves colonized, comprehended, exploited, driving a new series of technological innovations (for example, in this case, digital sampling). Dub and digital sampling undermined such ideas as intellectual property or the integrity of the work, its authorship, its origin, which in many cases became untraceable or impossibly complex. These ideas then have to be reconstructed or elaborated at different levels, with different effects, which are in turn encoded in new technological means of definition and elaboration. Then of course these are in turn subject to misuse: they will be torn apart and turned to use and beyond use in sequence.
Technological innovation produces new ontologies, new levels or planes of reality, conceived as ersatz, virtual, each level a simulation and subversion of the one underlying it. At the same time, each level authenticates the level beneath it, leaves it feeling organic, anarchic, a people's technology. Or to put this away, each posthuman layer of reality humanizes the level beneath it, or shows forth its authenticity or humanity by contrast, makes it an instrument of truth and resistance. The weaponry of the state is the weaponry of the next generation's resistance or terrorists. This is in part because of the technology's very dissemination: what is exotic, expensive, or cutting edge becomes common as dirt, cheap, and correspondingly useful and subject to improvisation. The art of the cutting edge looks finished, clean, perfect, like glossy computer design. The art welling up from beneath looks pointedly human, imperfect, rough-hewn, improvised, even when it serially appropriates last year's dominant methods. Punk bands advertise by screwed-up handscrawled posters, reproduced by xeroxing. But the xerox itself begins to look authentic or truthful, it gains the aura of the original, it comes to be understood as a trace of hand, where it was once precisely the opposite.
It's worth saying that Jamaican recording and remix studios, which created many of the most radical technological innovations of modern popular musics, were primitive by the standards of cutting edge Los Angeles, London, or Nashville recording facilities. No one is going to take a beautiful expensive new piece of technology and see what happens when you drop it. In superseding the technologies available to King Tubby or Scientist, recording technology suggested that those technologies were trash, detritus, which opened up a space of freedom for their exploration. As it were, the technologies are made into pre-technological authentic equipment, hand tools or acoustic instruments; they are disinterpreted, we might say, underdetermined and hence enriched. Or we might say their determination and interpretation had lapsed, so there were no longer right or wrongt ways to utilize them. They were rendered over into improvisational environments. Lee Perry famously buried unprotected tapes around his studio and then used the weathered, degraded material as masters. He treated his tapes with rum, smoke, and urine, among other things.
What circulated from the studio to the island, from the island to the world, were snatches of a torn-up revolutionary consciousness, a black nation in disintegration and recohesion. Veal speculates that the reverberations and echoes of dub mixes were a symbol of the yearning for and disintegration of the African origin thematized in the original Rastafarian-oriented lyrics and nyambinghi drum styles. Echo is a sonic representation of multiple repeated diasporas where the music circulated - Africa/Kingston/London/Toronto - where at each point the origin is lost and recovered, reconstrued, reasserted, mis- and displaced.
Technological innovation itself rely on this process of the reinterpretation of its own history; you don't know how the posthuman moment should be articulated except by the human purposes welling up from below; we rely wholly on the primitive, and the primitive is as volatile and as progressive as the cutting edge of technologies. The cutting edge is arid, yanked out of the human context, but is continually being recontextualized in the human from below. The first world provides its last-generation technologies to the third world or the internal third-world pockets within it, then skims off its artistic improvisations; controls the third world and depends on it to live; takes its resources and re-exports them as trash; then re-imports them as art and reinterprets the art in technologies. And so on.
This process is severely problematic, the acme of injustice and the heart of the cry for justice, the posthumanization of the human and the humanization of the posthuman, a killing and a death, a meaningful destruction and a constructive meaninglessness.
 Michael E. Veal, Dub (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007), p. 78.