Monday, August 24, 2009

Hearing and Seeing

so! i would really like your opinion on something, but i understand if you are too busy to bother with it.
here is my dilemma...
i am reading this article for my WMST/MUSI 4310 class...gender and music video. it is chapter 3 ("Intersections") from kevin williams' book "Why I still Want my MTV."
In this chapter, there is a section called "sight and sound." williams writes, "sight is the metaphor for modern, fragmentary consciousness." and "sound might be considered as the metaphor for integral, postmodern consciousness." he writes that his visual attention focuses on one thing or the other, but that sound "unifies the field." i don't really understand, because to me...we can pay attention to different sounds just as we can pay attention to different images. sound waves are moving through "the field" just as light waves are. why would one be considered more fragmentary than the other? (he wrote more than i wrote here...about 2 paragraphs, perhaps i will send them to you in a separate message)

i have never quite understood the difference between "modern" and "postmodern" and was wondering what you think? kevin williams describes modern as fragmentary and postmodern as integral. said that modern is avant-garde/experimental and that postmodern is "extremely modern." wikipedia did not help much and neither have the friends i have asked so far. i thought maybe you might understand the difference? thank you for any help you can give!

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Amanda Trader
August 21 at 7:12pm

"Sight and Sound"

Vision, as McLuhan (1964) pointed out years ago, is fragmentary. The experience of sound is, on the other hand, holistic--enveloping. Right now, as I type these words, I can focus my eyes on the screen or the keyboard. Of course, I can "see" the glimmer and light of the computer monitor in the "corner of my eye" while I look for the correct keys to punch on the keyboard. I can also "see" in imagination and memory the bookshelf behind me, and even the recording studio across town where I will work this evening. However, my visual attention focuses on one or the other. Moreover, the empirical bias that exists tends to treat vision as the physiological experience of sight--in terms of light information relating to the retina. The visual, perhaps I might suggest visionary, experience of memory and imagination are rarely considered when discussing vision. Vision is, when seen this way (i.e. physiologically), focused, opaque, linear, segmented, exclusive, spatial (I see this or that), and temporal (I see this and then that). My gaze carves out a path, a course of action and attention. Sight is the metaphor for modern, fragmentary consciousness.

Sound, on the other hand, pervades the room. Right now, as my gaze moves back and forth between the keypad and computer monitor, the sounds of Pink Floyd ("One of These Days") resonate and resound through the room, through these words. The sound fills and colors the space; it is mood and affect; it is intensity; it creates the depth of spatial and temporal experience. Thus sound is, in this way, dispersed, transparent, linear, interpenetrating, inclusive--I hear this and that and more as every sound interpenetrates the other and is heard through the other. Sound, in its transparency, facilitates the inattentive-attention of audiences who are working and playing, whose attention is divided and dispersed among various acts, because it unifies the field. Sound might be considered as the metaphor for integral, postmodern consciousness.

Answering a few simple questions about Sight and Hearing

Sean Mills

There are many layers to the your question, the direct question as you posed it, "What is the difference between Modern and Post Modern? It relates to the question: "How is the perception of vision different than the perception of audio?" Both of those huge questions are only predicates to the argument: "Sight is the metaphor for modern, fragmentary consciousness." Also, "Sound might be considered as the metaphor for integral, postmodern consciousness." Meanwhile, this is a question being asked in the context of a Women's Study Class, which a very specific frame to "view" such a series of questions.

Ok, the difference between Modern and Postmodern is essentially dissoluble like you've been told so far- because "Post Modern" is very "modern." Let me break that down as easily as possible, with apologies to Frederic Jameson.* Modern as my hero George Nelson* liked to say, is not about newness or freshness or even technology. Modern means making thing better. That is not just a commercial tagline, or an endorsement of Modernism. The potential flaw in modernism, as the post modernist might suggest, is that you must believe that things COULD BE better.

Post modernist believe that... well, do they believe anything? That's the problem, its sort of all about whatever it happens to be. So, yeah you look up a wikipedia entry and it says Post Modernism is really modern. It is modern, because attempting to replace an outmoded philosophy (i.e. believing that good exists independently of a contextual framework) is trying to make things better.

The connection seems like a Russian Nesting doll*, right? Well, that is because they are related, just like the ancestry the dolls are supposed to analogize. (Russian Nesting Dolls, could be modern because they are made as a time tested craft, yet they could also be Post modern if you happened to take a snapshot of a Russian dolls while on vacation and then blow up your snapshot and put in art show.)

Art is actually very slippery concept, itself, yet important to the discussion. Look, it actually makes sense when you use examples. (Just like any abstract concept.) When you describe a dollhouse you can describe its dimensions, but to explain an abstract concept you need lots of examples and lots of descriptions, and you still won't always get it, until you...either do or don't.

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel* is very Modern, it was built on the concept of Greek models being improved on by Giotto*, and then "perfected" by the master. The underlying platonic Christianity that literally sponsored this project helps explain why Mike and the Pope both thought that "good" and "bad" exist. I mean they weren't painting biblical scenes in a church, for God's sake...

Meanwhile, Andy Warhol* is the poster boy for Post Modernism. He loved the notion of art itself. He loved to make art into a commodity. He loved fame more than anything else, including what he was doing to get it (which happened to be making art.) He took photographs of famous people and blew them up, made them high contrast to the point of being almost unrecognizably human and then multiplied them. He was a human ambiguity, raised in America during a time of social unrest all over the world relating to a cold war. No wonder he didn't stand on tradition...

Ok, why these two examples? Because they really fit my argument well. Here are a few more, John Currin's* work is modern. Pablo Picasso's* work is Post Modern.

This is where things get fuzzy again. Try not to use "things made a long time ago" as a substitute definition for Modern and likewise try not to substitute things that aren't oil paintings as a definition for, Post Modern. I could go on all day, but it might be helpful to explain some of the factors that are often present in these two worldviews. Do to their natures, Modern ideas are often "built up" using traditional tools and using traditional ways of thinking. Meanwhile, Post Modern ideas are often born in a new way and often exist in the untraditional ways.

Let me muddy the water in one more way. George Nelson often called the name in Modern Design during the fifties. Famously defined, "Modern" as being whatever was necessary. Imagine a coffee shop set up inside the ruins of an old coliseum, half the walls are imported Egyptian marble and half are glass and plastic. Half of the building is form the past, and half from the cutting edge present, but it is all being used in the service of the current need. All of this was modern to Nelson, and I bring it up to remind you that just because something is unconventional it doesn't mean that it isn't Modern.

Let's pretend that you understand the difference and similarities between the Mo and the Po Mo and return to the source of all our concerns: Is Vision like Modern thought and Hearing like Post Modern thought? I guess that means we have to discuss Vision and Hearing, first.

Well, skipping the brain in the box arguments and assuming you have already heard the name Descartes, the two big connections humans have to the world are their sights and sounds. As ambiguous as the total spectrum of sensations a human can feel let alone interpret seems, there are actually some pretty black and white answers. The key understands thresholds. (And this is where I actually start to address you question, instead of setting up postulates.)

Yes, you can hear all sorts of things and even focus on certain parts. But, unlike vision, you cannot turn up the volume on some noises and down on others. I know, I know, I am skipping a lot of explanation. A whirlwind tour of some of the highlights goes like this: We are all born as visual creatures, and as creatures we can point our eyeballs at a subject and focus on details. Our peripheral vision is pretty good at picking up motion, but otherwise it’s not that "good." Hearing meanwhile, is pretty much non-specific. We can turn our heads around in different directions but it’s all the same sound waves bouncing off of objects. Light is different than sound, ergo vision is different than hearing.

I mean technically, sound and light might both be equals in a philosophical sense, but as far as what our organs evolved to interpret these two stimuli, light is king. This might be why the eye was called the noblest organ. This might be why oil paintings were considered the highest art form. This might also be why images are so powerful. I am still more telling than showing you, but if you can't just take my word for it, consider the following argument. Light waves are capable of bouncing off of discrete objects and making their way into our eyes bringing us lots of helpful information. Vibrations are only as useful as the noises being made in the locale and the objects capable of resonating in a discrete way.

To address your particular wording, consider that phrase you used saying that both sound and light are just moving through fields. In some ways the objects in a room might be considered a "field" for lights to bounce off of, or even a "field" for sound waves to bounce off of, but its not a very useful model now or centuries ago. People in Isaac Newton's time were still toying around with the concept of "ether." This magical field was supposedly the field in which eyeballs were able to gather information. Otherwise, Kevin Williams observations are pretty accurate: "vision" excludes and is linear in some ways while "hearing" is fragmentary and inclusive.

So, FINALLY the assignment: "...Sight is the metaphor for modern, fragmentary consciousness... Sound might be considered as the metaphor for integral, postmodern consciousness." First of all, you might notice that I have been saying Sight and Hearing instead of Sight and Sound. I think William's phrasing is a little sloppy, but intriguing. To be honest, I think he is on to something, at least cosmetically, but I am also a little offended. The idea of Post Modernism being inclusive and Modernism being exclusive misses our whole point about Modernism being "inclusive" of Post Modernism and vice-versa.

Among those cosmetic similarities, I am amused by the fact that those old oil paintings are for your eyes only, while "sound art" a fairly recent development is all ears. Meanwhile, I hate the idea that Modernists are in some ways, "opaque," while Post Modernists are some how more "deep" and "passionate.” Really, I am just being a picky Modernist; the argument is not bad, just too selective.

Essential Reading


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