Notes On Virginia Heffernan’s “Magic And Loss”

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“All ‘realism’ grounded in the confidence of art’s ‘fidelity’ to reality is a conceit of certain technologies.”
– Virginia Heffernan, Magic and Loss, p. 127.

Among the many pleasures of reading Virginia Heffernan’s Magic and Loss, a wildly creative, energized, and forward thinking meditation on the Internet and online experience as a global collaborative artwork, is the author’s observations on the life of music in the digital era. Heffernan notes how the MP3 format tricks the senses into believing “that one slice of data, skimmed off the top, can communicate a sound made in time and space by multiple bodies, collisions, textures, and movements” (194). In other words, digital music–like digital socializing generally (i.e. browsing Facebook)–is and isn’t real. It’s a hyper realistic representation of an experience we are already familiar with from the physical world. Heffernan shares with us her excitement back in the pre-streaming era when iTunes and iPods changed her listening life, enabling her to make playlists of her favorite MP3 tracks for private listening. Then she moves back to macro mode to reflect:

“The music that we hear on mobile devices is not music exactly, but a representation of music, in bits. Like other representational arts–realist painting, journalism, photography, film–MP3 music is an extremely persuasive and pleasurable illusion. The MP3 representation is so seductive, in fact, that we regularly take it for the thing itself. We’re like the mythical birds said to have pecked in vain at Zeuxis’s fifth century BC trompe l’oeil painting of grapes, with their illusion of volume” (181).

Elsewhere in the book I was struck by how Heffernan’s thoughts on reading, writing, and technology might also apply to listening to music. If readers is “another name for moral agents in a world of symbols” (56), perhaps listeners are agents awash in an ocean of sound symbols? If reading is “reverie–and profoundly selfish. It’s play and only play” (75), how too is music listening a cognitive-educational game? If the special pleasure of technology is a function of it being “in productive tension with other technology (83), maybe we can consider musical style in a similar dialectical fashion? And if digitizing written language “restores something…call it mentalness, proximity to pure thought” (85), what has digitizing done to music? How is music adapting to our era’s “profound psychic shift” brought about by technologies like the iPhone? (117).

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