Water Versus Objects: Reproduction or Dissemination, or How Did Pop Music Become Ubiquitous?
Walter Benjamin began the second edition of his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” with a long quote from Paul Valéry’s “La conquête de l’ubiquité,” a text that can be described as a complimentary opposite and supplementary counterpart to Benjamin’s famous text:
Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.1
It might also be possible to look at Valéry’s essay as a founding document for a specific theory of pop music in the same way that film, media, and other visual culture studies have claimed Benjamin’s essay as fundamental to their discourses and fields.
Why did Benjamin introduce his essay with Valéry’s quote? Perhaps the remark that there is “a physical component in all art,” which cannot be understood without recourse to “modern science” and “modern praxis,” represents a rare instance among Benjamin’s contemporaries since it seems to support his attempts at designing a media theory. But Valéry, unlike Benjamin, was not very interested in a theory of reproduction or of the technology and the apparatus of media since, for him, the technical prerequisites were secondary to the magic of dissemination; i.e., he was more interested in the cultural and psychological consequences of a medium than in its technological base. Also, in contrast to Benjamin, who focussed on the visual arts, Valéry focussed on music, and, in particular pop music, which I will define in more detail moving forward.
In “La conquête de l’ubiquité,” originally written for an anthology on music that later included his Pièces sur l’art, Valéry drew nothing less than a global and prophetic picture of music’s future, which, in fact, aptly describes how music circulates in the world now. For Valéry, music is ubiquitous. It resounds everywhere at all times. It can be called up at a whim, provided that an appropriate device exists to play it. Thus, in his essay from 1928 he already assumes the existence of something like the iPod!
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About this Article
Water Versus Objects: Reproduction or Dissemination, or How Did Pop Music Become Ubiquitous? was first published in Fillip 9 in Winter 2009. For more articles from this issue, see the Table of Contents.
Diedrich Diederichsen is a Berlin-based critic of art, pop music, theatre, and politics. He is currently Professor for Theory, Practice, and Communication of Contemporary Art at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, and was formerly editor at the music magazines Sounds and Spex.
The views expressed in Fillip are not necessarily those of the editorial board or the Projectile Publishing Society.
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