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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 2 (July, 2007).

Blind Faith: Baudrillard, Fidelity, and Recorded Sound 1

Dr. David J. Gunkel
(Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois, USA)

I. Introduction

"Girl Wants (To Say Good-bye to) Rock & Roll"2


            I begin with a “mashup” – that blasphemous concatenation of two or more recorded pop-songs which produces a new recording that is both more and less than the faithful reproduction of an original recording.  I begin with this deliberate and allegedly criminal form of audio infidelity, because it introduces and heralds both the subject matter and method of what follows.  I begin with a mashup, therefore, because it does not so much illustrate the point of my essay but renders its thesis and procedure audible.

            What one hears in this or any other mashup, whether well executed or not, is something that sounds a lot like what Jean Baudrillard calls simulation.  "Simulation," Baudrillard writes in one of the most often quoted passages, "is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance.  It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal".3  But the mashup is not unique in this regard.  The theory and practice of sound recording, from at least the moment of the invention of the phonograph, has been groping toward "simulation" and the "hyperreal" even if these words are not used as such or, when used, are employed in a way that is not entirely faithful to or even cognizant of Baudrillard's writing.  Conversely Baudrillard's texts from at least Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976) to the recent interviews collected in Fragments: Conversations With François L’Yvonnet (2001), whether explicitly acknowledged or not, articulate and provide a vocabulary for explaining, perhaps better than any competing theoretical lexicon, developments in sound recording.  To put it another way, Baudrillard is one of the most attentive theorists to sound and sound reproduction, without saying much about it and without the music industry or contemporary theorists recognizing it as such.

            Proving this thesis will require a method of demonstration and argumentation that is, for lack of a better word, a mashup.  The writings of Baudrillard and the disciplines of sound recording and music production are at least as distant and different from one another as Christina Aguilera is from The Velvet Underground.  The task of this essay, therefore, is to bring these seemingly disparate sources together, jamming and remixing them in a way that is not entirely faithful to either the original material or the metaphysical concept of originality.  Just as an audio mashup demonstrates unanticipated collaborations, connections, and co-ordinations in seemingly distinct genres of popular music, so too the mashup of Baudrillard and sound recording complicates accepted categories and result in something that inevitably forces a thorough reconsideration of the source material that is involved.  This approach, I should point out, is not necessarily original.  Mashups, although often not identified by this particular moniker, have been undertaken before, at least in theory.  Perhaps the most famous (or notorious) example is Jacques Derrida's Glas.  According to Kembrew McLeod, Glas operates much like an audio mashup, because it "samples the 'masculine' discourse of philosophy and juxtaposes it against the 'feminine' style of literature to create a new kind of writing".4  But even this particular instance is not, technically speaking, original.  In fact, efforts to locate the "first mashup," no matter the media involved, has precipitated a contentious debate that remains fundamentally unresolved.5 Consequently, the mashup already and quite deliberately questions and operates in excess of the ontological position and value that has been customarily accorded to originality.  If there is anything "original" in the method of the mashup, it is the way in which it, much like the writings of Baudrillard, intervenes in and blasphemes the metaphysical faith in the system of fidelity and the dialectic of original and copy.


II. Fidelity

I have some difficulty replying to this question because sound, the sphere of sound, the acoustic sphere, audio, is really more alien to me than the visual.6


            Baudrillard writes little about sound.  Even a cursory reading of his texts, demonstrates an overwhelming interest in visual artifacts and techniques, a rhetorical style that is dependent on metaphors and tropes derived from optics, and the use of examples that involve vision and aim to make theory visible.  This visual orientation is not something that is unique to Baudrillard but is part and parcel of a long and venerable tradition within western thinking. The concept of ideology, W. J. T. Mitchell writes:

… is grounded, as the word suggests, in the notion of mental entities or ‘ideas’ that provide the materials of thought.  Insofar as these ideas are understood as images – as pictorial, graphic signs imprinted or projected on the medium of consciousness – then ideology is really an iconology, a theory of imagery".7


This iconographic orientation produces, as audio theorists like Jacques Attali point out, something of a blind spot, when it comes to thinking about and theorizing sound.8 The blindness is not, we could say following Baudrillard, a lack of vision, but the effect of an excessive visibility and extreme dedication to the image and the imaginary.  To say that Baudrillard simply ignores sound, however, is inaccurate and not attentive to his published writings.  As Mike Gane points out, Baudrillard is "haunted" by a certain concern with music, specifically "the technical perfection of musical reproduction".9 This interest is evident in at least four places in Baudrillard's published texts, lectures, and interviews.  These four passages, which span some 25 years, are remarkably consistent in tone, subject matter, and effect.  All four are concerned with and address the concept of "fidelity," the perfection of sound reproduction through technological means, and the resulting effect this has on the understanding and enjoyment of music.  

The first (1979) occurs in the essay "Stereo-Porno" in his book Seduction:

A bewildering, claustrophobic and obscene image, that of Japanese quadraphonics: an ideally conditioned room, fantastic technique, music in four dimensions, not just the three of the environing space, but a fourth, visceral dimension of internal space. The technical delirium of the perfect restitution of music (Bach, Monteverdi, Mozart!) that has never existed, that no one has ever heard, and that was not meant to be heard like this.  Moreover, one does not ‘hear’ it, for the distance that allows one to hear music, at a concert or somewhere else, is abolished. Instead it permeates one from all sides; there is no longer any musical space; it is the simulation of a total environment that dispossesses one of even the minimal analytic perception constitutive of music's charm… Something else fascinates (but no longer seduces) you: technical perfection, ‘high fidelity’, which is just as obsessive and puritanical as the other, conjugal fidelity.  This time, however, one no longer even knows what object it is faithful to, for no one knows where the real begins or ends, nor understands, therefore, the fever of perfectibility that persists in the real's reproduction.10


            Seven years later, Baudrillard (1986) returns to this subject during his presentation at the Futur*Fall conference in Sydney, Australia:

We are all obsessed (and not only in music) with high fidelity, obsessed with the quality of musical ‘reproduction’.  Armed with the tuners, amplifiers and speakers of our stereo systems, we adjust bass and treble, we mix, we combine, we multiply tracks, in search of an impeccable technology and an infallible music.  I still remember a sound booth in a recording studio where the music, broadcast on four tracks, reached you in four dimensions, so that it seemed visceral, secreted from the inside, with a surreal depth…This was no longer music.  Where is the degree of technological sophistication, where is the 'high fidelity' threshold beyond which music as such would disappear?  For the problem of the disappearance of music is the same as that of the disappearance of history: it will not disappear for want of music, it will disappear for having exceeded that limit point, vanishing point, it will disappear in the perfection of its materiality, in its own special effect (beyond which there is no longer any aesthetic judgment or aesthetic pleasure, it is the ecstasy of musicality and its end).11


            In 1992, Baudrillard reiterates this concern with high-fidelity and the disappearance of music in the course of the first chapter to The Illusion of the End:

Third hypothesis, third analogy. But we are still dealing with a point of disappearance, a point of evanescence, a vanishing-point, this time however along the lines of music. This is what I call the stereophonic effect. We are all obsessed with high fidelity, with the quality of musical ‘transmission’.  On the console of our channels, equipped with our tuners, our amplifiers and our baffles, we mix, regulate and multiply soundtracks in search of an infallible or unerring music. Is this, though, still music? Where is the threshold of high fidelity beyond the point of which music as such would disappear? Disappearance would not be due to the lack of music, it would disappear for having stepped beyond this boundary, it would disappear into the perfection of its materiality, into its own special effect. Beyond this point, neither judgment nor aesthetic pleasure could be found anymore. Ecstasy of musicality procures its own end.12


            Finally, Baudrillard offers the following comment during one of the interviews that is collected in Fragments: Conversations With François L’Yvonnet:

When they began to build quadraphonic rooms – I'd tried them myself in Japan – there was absolutely perfect sound reproduction, a sort of musical perfect crime.  You had the impression that the specifically musical illusion, which is also a parallel universe, was eliminated.  Sound was elevated into an object; in its perfection it became an object, and no longer something you can perceive at a distance.  When you compare listening to an opera on CD or in a concert hall, it isn't really the same thing!  The stereo puts out music in which you're immersed, as in a bubble, whereas in the opera house it's listened to at a certain distance.  The latter is real music; the other is a circulation in the mind.  Obviously, you can be much more immersed in it with the CD player, as you can in the virtual world.  And indeed it's virtual music: the more perfect the reproduction, the more it becomes virtual.  Where is the real music?  Who's to say?  They've even felt the need to reintroduce noise and static to give it a natural effect, or an effect of the hyper-simulacrum of the natural.13


            If we take these four passages together, we find that Baudrillard's comments on music are organized around the concept of fidelity and the technologies of high-fidelity, whether the specialized quadraphonic room he encountered in Japan or the recent and now common-place artifact of the compact disk, which for Baudrillard constitutes something of a "terrifying" eternal object.14  "Fidelity" is a derivative of a Latin word indicating faithfulness and, prior to its application to the technology of audio reproduction, had both theological and conjugal employments.  And if there is one thing to which the concept of audio fidelity remains faithful, it is a particular philosophical understanding of the relationship between originals and copies.  According to Jonathan Sterne:

Conventional accounts of sound fidelity often invite us to think of reproduced sound as a mediation of 'live' sounds, such as face-to-face speech or musical performance, either extending or debasing them in the process... From this perspective, the technology enabling the reproduction of sound thus mediates because it conditions the possibility of reproduction, but, ideally it is supposed to be a 'vanishing' mediator –  rendering the relation transparent, as if it were not there.  Inasmuch as its mediation can be detected, there is a loss of fidelity or a loss of being between original and copy.  In this philosophy of mediation, copies are debasements of the originals.15


            This "philosophy of mediation", which regulates and explains both the ontological and moral status of the original and its subsequent copies, is at least as old as Plato's Republic.  In the final book Socrates not only characterizes copies as inherently deficient derivations from an original, but argues that the value of any such mimetic artifact, be assessed on the basis of its proximity and faithfulness to the original.16  According to this arrangement, the best copy would be one that eludes detection as such – a vanishing mediator.  That is, a copy that is so faithful in its reproduction of the original that the technique of mediation is not detectable and the resulting product may actually be confused with and taken for the original.  This is, in fact, the classical test of fidelity in both the visual arts and sound reproduction.  In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder recounts the story of two Greek artists, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, who engaged in a contest of skill.  Zeuxis, according to Pliny, "represented some grapes, painted so naturally that the birds flew towards the spot where the picture was exhibited.  Parrhasius, on the other hand, exhibited a curtain, drawn with such singular truthfulness, that Zeuxis, elated with the judgment which had been passed upon his work by the birds, haughtily demanded that the curtain should be drawn aside to let the picture be seen".17

            The same issues and players are involved in tests of audio fidelity.  Take for example the Victor Talking Machine Company's trademark, which depicts Nipper the dog sitting obediently before the horn of a gramophone, listening to a recording of "his master's voice".  Like the birds that were deceived by the painting of Zeuxis, the reproduced sound of the gramophone was purported to be so faithful to its original that the dog, the traditional pictorial symbol of fidelity in European portraiture, is unable to tell the difference.18 Deceiving an animal is one thing; it is quite another thing, as Pliny's story recounts, to accomplish the same feat with human auditors.  For this reason, Victor print advertisements at the turn of the previous century challenged listeners to distinguish live performance of operatic music from a recording.  "You think," the advertisement's copy read, "you can tell the difference between hearing grand-opera artists sing and hearing their beautiful voices on the Victor.  But can you?"  The same question was posed by the Edison Phonograph Company's "tone tests," a series of elaborate demonstrations, staged between 1915 and 1925, that challenged audiences to distinguish between the live performance of music (again operatic) and a recorded reproduction.  And some fifty years later, print and television advertisements for audio cassette tape asked audiences the question, "is it live, or is it Memorex?"

            The height of fidelity – perfect fidelity or high fidelity – would be the point at which the line separating original and copy becomes negligible and effectively imperceptible.  This is precisely what concerns Baudrillard.  In the technology of quadraphonic stereo and the near-perfect recording that is facilitated by digital audio, the difference and distance that had separated "real music" from its technical reproduction appears to be ontologically moot.  In this way, high fidelity constitutes the end of fidelity, where "end" connotes both completion and termination.  At this point of "the perfect restitution of music," the concept of fidelity no longer applies or makes sense, for "one no longer even knows," as Baudrillard argues, "what object it is faithful to, for no one knows where the real begins or ends".19  As Rex Butler explains, the experience of "stereo is only possible because of the distance between it and its music, and once this line is crossed it no longer reproduces music at all".20  Consequently, with high fidelity, there is, technically speaking, neither original music nor its reproduction.  Or as Baudrillard characterizes it, music as such "would disappear into the perfection of its materiality".21  For Baudrillard this "technical delirium" is obscene and "a sort of musical perfect crime."  In quadraphonics and on CD one hears, or better experiences beyond hearing, a music "that has never existed, that no one has ever heard, and that was not meant to be heard like this".22

            In characterizing the experience of high fidelity in this way, however, Baudrillard is not involved in nostalgia.  He is neither making a belated case for the assumed superiority and loss of "real music" nor engaging in that curious retro-tech fetishism exhibited by the collector of vinyl records and analog equipment.  He is rather, identifying and describing the ontological effects that are rooted in and that logically proceed from the concept and project of fidelity.  He is, we could say, being faithful, exceedingly faithful, to the concept of fidelity and the philosophical tradition that informs it.  In effect, Baudrillard is making the following argument: If we take the concept of fidelity seriously, that is, if we are faithful to this metaphysical concept of faithfulness, its goal can be nothing less than the achievement of perfect sound reproduction, foreclosure of the distance and difference that had distinguished the original from its copies, and, in the end, the "ex-termination" or disappearance of music as it has customarily been understood.  "The music we are talking about," Baudrillard concludes, "is the integral reality of music".23


III. Infidelity

The most striking signs – such as those of fidelity, for example – may, in any particular case, be interpreted the opposite way, since they are produced just as well – and even better – by infidelity.24


            Although offering a compelling and faithful analysis of fidelity, Baudrillard's account is not entirely accurate and faithful with regards to the situation of audio technology and sound recording.  To put it another way, Baudrillard's consideration of high-fidelity in music is faithful to the idea of fidelity and its faithfulness to a metaphysical system that has a long and venerable history.  At the same time, however, this faithfulness is not attentive or faithful to the theory and practices of sound recording, which resonate with alternative and somewhat noisy configurations that are, in a curious twist of fate, more faithful to Baudrillard's writings than Baudrillard himself.  In other words, Baudrillard's consideration of sound fidelity exercises something of a blind faith in a concept of fidelity that his own writings effectively question and blaspheme. Take for example, Evan Eisenberg's comment concerning the word "record," which is offered in his book The Recording Angel, a title that makes deliberate reference to the Deutsche Grammophon trademark picturing an angel with an oversized stylus inscribing the surface of a phonographic disk.  "The word 'record' is misleading", Eisenberg writes.  "Only live recordings record an event; studio recordings, which are the great majority, record nothing.  Pieced together from bits of actual events, they construct an ideal event.  They are like the composite photograph of a minotaur".25  According to Eisenberg, the word "record," as it is applied to the phonographic disk, is a misnomer.  The nominal form "record" is derived from the verbal infinitive "to record" and gives one the impression that what is inscribed on the surface of the disk is a document of some actually existing audio event.  "On this account," James Lastra writes, "phonography transcribes sonic events that (although staged for the device) are fully autonomous of it.  Notionally, these events would have occurred in exactly the same manner were the phonograph not present.  In other words, phonography did not “penetrate” the event in any manner but sought instead merely to duplicate it from the outside".26  This particular understanding of phonographic reproduction permeates the history of recorded sound, affecting professional practices, theorizing, and even common understanding.  It is, for example, deployed in and popularized by Thomas Edison's early writings on the phonograph.  According to Edison, this invention facilitated "the captivity of all manner of sound waves heretofore designated as 'fugitive', and their permanent retention".27  For Edison, therefore, the phonograph was understood and promoted as a device of audio documentation.  It was, quite literally, a recording technology that was to capture, transcribe, and store audio events. 

            This understanding is also operative in contemporary practices and is especially evident in moments of crisis, like the Milli Vanilli scandal.28   All of these assumptions are, of course, rooted in Platonic metaphysics, specifically the Phaedrus, which records the first recorded debate about recording technology.  In this dialogue, which begins with a book containing the written record of a speech by the famous orator Lysias, the technology of writing is presented and investigated as a technique for recording speech and reproducing it, as Edison will later write of phonography, at another time "without the presence or consent of the original source".29

            According to Eisenberg, however, all of this is, at least from the perspective of actual sound recording practices, a fiction.  Although there may be instances where sound recording functions in a documentary mode, like the live recording of a concert performance or the preservation efforts of ethnomusicologists like Alan Lomax, the majority of recordings are created and work otherwise.  As Eisenberg points out, studio recordings, especially of popular music, actually record nothing.  Instead they manufacture, often through clever studio manipulations and various technological artifice, what it is we presume they record.  Recording technology, therefore, does not just "penetrate" the original event but complicates the assumed order of precedence. 

           Examples of this are evident throughout the history of recorded music.  Tape editing, for example, allows musicians and record producers to fabricate entire recordings from any number of fragmented and disconnected components.  As Steve Jones describes it:

…editing meant that a piece [of music] did not necessarily have to be performed all the way through.  Instead, parts of it could be performed and then spliced together later.  Moreover, editing ability meant that the 'perfect' take could be assembled from several imperfect ones.  The best part of each take would be chosen and carefully joined into one seamless piece.30


This practice not only found application in popular music with producers like the Beatles George Martin but was also employed by classical musicians.  Glenn Gould, in particular, employed editing not to repair errors in his performance but to construct it.  "Gould," Eisenberg writes, "did not use the splice, as most pianist must, mainly to correct mistakes.  He used it to weld numerous takes, all correct, each different, into a structure that would stand up to repeated listening".31  Another popular technique is overdubbing, which was pioneered by guitarist Les Paul.  Overdubbing, produced either by bouncing tracks between two recording devices or by use of multitrack recording equipment, allows an artist, like Paul, to accompany himself, creating a one-man band in which all instruments are played by one musician, or for any number of musicians to collaborate on a recording without needing to occupy the same space or time, as was the case in Natalie Cole's duet with her deceased father on the 1991 recording of Unforgettable.  In either case, the result is a recording that is not, strictly speaking, the record of a musical event but a technologically facilitated fabrication.  And in Eisenberg's experience, these fabrications are not the exception in sound recording; they are the rule.

            As Eisenberg demonstrates, recordings do not simply document or make reference to some sonic event that is, to repurpose the words of Baudrillard, "logically and chronologically anterior".32 Sterne takes this conclusion one step further, arguing that the very concept of an audible original is itself a byproduct of sound reproduction.  "We can", Sterne writes, "no longer argue that copies are debased versions of a more authentic original that exists either outside or prior to the process of reproduction.  Both copy and original are products of the process of reproducibility.  The original requires as much artifice as the copy.  Philosophies of sound reproduction that reference a prior authenticity that is neither reproduced nor reproducible are untenable since their point of reference – an authentic original untainted by reproduction – is at best a false idol".33  According to Sterne, the very idea of an original – a natural and authentic sound event that precedes and remains unaffected by the process and mechanisms of its technological reproduction – is itself a fabrication of sound recording.  Counter to the metaphysical structure that is attributed to Plato, copies are not debased versions that are derived from some pre-existing and pristine original.  Instead both original and copy are products of the process of reproducibility.

            In order to demonstrate his thesis, Sterne revisits Walter Benjamin's seminal essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", providing a reading that echoes Baudrillard's interpretation of this work.34 "At first blush", Sterne writes, "Benjamin appears to advance the 'loss of being' hypothesis since he coins the term aura as 'that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction'".35  Interpreted in this way, Benjamin would appear to be the perfect Platonist, positing supreme value in the aura of the original and lamenting its unfortunate destitution in mechanically reproduced copies.  But Sterne finds this reading to be inattentive to the text under consideration.  Specifically, he argues, it ignores a note that Benjamin included early in the essay: "Precisely because authenticity is not reproducible, the intensive penetration of certain (mechanical) processes of reproduction was instrumental in differentiating and grading authenticity".36 "In this formulation", Sterne writes, "the very construct of aura is, by and large, retroactive, something that is an artifact of reproducibility, rather than a side effect or an inherent quality of self-presence.  Aura is the object of a nostalgia that accompanies reproduction".37 

            In the field of sound reproduction, this situation is best exemplified by the concept "live".  "The common assumption" as Philip Auslander argues in his book-length analysis Liveness", is that the live event is 'real' and that mediatized events are secondary and somehow artificial reproductions of the real".38 Actually things are considerably more complicated.  Historically, the word "live" was first used as short-hand for "living" and served to distinguish recorded music from that performed by a "living musician."  "Later," as Sarah Thornton points out, "it referred to music itself and quickly accumulated connotations which took it beyond the denotative meaning of performance",39 eventually becoming the privileged term for designating and distinguishing "real music" from its reproduction.  As with "aura," "live" is not some original and eternal Platonic form that precedes the advent of recording technology.  It is a socially constructed artifact that is a byproduct of such reproducibility in music.  Practically speaking, "live music," especially as it is understood in rock and other popular forms, is not some immediate original sound that precedes a particular band's recording efforts.  Instead a band's live performance often endeavors as Jones argues, "to imitate its recording," providing a sound in the concert hall that is as close as possible to what was created for and heard on the recording.40 As Attali describes it, "concerts of popular music, tours by artists, are now all too often nothing more than copies of the records".41 Or as Sterne concludes in a phrase that sounds surprisingly close to Baudrillard, "reproduction precedes originality".42

            Although the name Baudrillard is not mentioned by either Eisenberg or Sterne, their analyses of sound recording clearly pull in the direction of and attempt to articulate something like "simulation".  This perceived intercourse is made explicit in Philip Auslander's Liveness, which marks explicit points of contact between Baudrillard's "three orders of simulacra" as presented in Symbolic Exchange and Death and the technology of sound recording.  "The historical progression of technologies of musical reproduction," Auslander writes, "exactly recapitulates the three order of simulacra and the three stages of the image Baudrillard identifies in the general movement from the dominance of reproduction to that of simulation".43  Auslander demonstrates this claim with three examples taken from the history of sound recording:

In terms of musical technologies, I would suggest that he player piano is a first-order simulacrum, a device that counterfeits a human performance but clearly is not human.  The second order is associated with an industrial economy in which the serial production of objects ultimately obliterates the unique object from which they were generated… The phonograph record is a second order simulacrum, a mass-produced object whose reference back to an original artifact has been rendered irrelevant…  The third stage of the image is what Baudrillard refers to as simulation proper, ‘the reigning scheme of the current phase that is controlled by the code’ ...In terms of the technologies of musical reproduction, the age of digital music technologies such as the compact disc [CD] is the age of simulation proper.44


            According to Auslander, the technologies of musical reproduction "exactly recapitulates" Baudrillard's three orders of simulacra.  What Baudrillard identifies as the first order, that of the counterfeit, is exemplified, Auslander argues, by the technology of the player piano.  The player piano, which was introduced in the mid-nineteenth century, is a mechanical device that, employing techniques originally developed for the construction of music boxes and the programmable loom of Joseph-Marie Jacquard, manipulates the keys of a specially designed piano by reading instructions recorded on a paper scroll.  As a result, the player piano counterfeits musical performance.  That is, individual keys on the piano keyboard are actuated as if depressed by the fingers of an accomplished pianist.  But the performer is obviously not present.  As a result, there is an unmistakable ghostly quality to the music that this device produces.  The second order is exemplified by the phonographic record, an industrial product that, as Eisenberg and Sterne point out, has little or no relationship to an original sonic event per se.  Practically speaking, the phonographic record does not record anything; it fabricates the original to which its recorded representation appears to refer and to reproduce.  As Baudrillard writes of the visual image, "above all, it is the reference principle of images [or recordings] which must be doubted, this strategy by means of which they always appear to refer to a real world, to real objects, and to reproduce something which is logically and chronologically anterior to themselves.  None of this is true.  As simulacra, images [or recordings] precede the real to the extent that they invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction".45 

            The third order, what Baudrillard designates with the word "simulation" is, on Auslander's account, exemplified by digital technology.  The point of contact here seems obvious.  Not only does Baudrillard position the binary code of digital information as the "divine form of simulation",46 but his consideration and development of the concept of simulation provides an incredibly precise characterization of some of the features of digital media, even if, as George Landow argues, Baudrillard has a tendency to misunderstand the nuances of the technology.47 Technically speaking, digital recordings are not records; they do not correspond to the customary metaphysical understanding of μίμησις [mimesis] and the copy.  An analog recording, by contrast, can, as Eric Rothenbuhler and John Durham Peters argue, be seen as a mimetic reproduction that "has a continuous physical relation to the original music recorded".48  Digital recording, however, "holds no analog of either the original recorded signal or the resulting playback".49 It consists in the numeric measurement of a waveform, the significance of which is arbitrarily constructed by convention and bears no intrinsic relationship to the music per se.  For this reason, there is, as Rothenbuhler and Peters conclude, "no music in a CD".50 There is only binary data – long sequences of “0”s and “1”s.  Additionally copies of a digital recording, which include both the "legitimate" versions sold to consumers on CD or through online commercial ventures like iTunes and the unofficial pirated ones traded on P2P networks, are not debased derivations of some pristine original.  Technically they are clones.  That is, "all are 'originals'; there is neither an originary referent nor a first in the series".51 This is, as Auslander argues, precisely what Baudrillard designates with the term simulation – “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality", where the "sovereign difference" that had at one time distinguished original from copy has itself disappeared.52

            Whereas Eisenberg and Sterne's investigations of sound recording clearly pull in the direction of Baudrillard's thought, Auslander makes the connection explicit, demonstrating the way in which Baudrillard's innovations explain developments in the history of sound recording and how recording technology appears to reproduce the three orders of simulacra that were described by Baudrillard.  At the same time, however, there are at least two difficulties with this particular procedure, both of which have the effect of complicating the relationship.  First, the historical trajectory that organizes "The Order of Simulacra" is a discursive convenience that Baudrillard himself complicates in successive works.  This is evident, for example, in Simulacra and Simulation, where "the precession of simulacra" is not necessarily deployed in terms of distinct historical epochs and technologies but is a trans-historical effect that explains movement and controversy within the history of representation and the representation of history.  This also applies to sound recording techniques and technologies.  As Steve Wurtzler points out:

…dominant sound recording practices for popular music arguable might be seen as following a three-stage trajectory: firstly, recording conceived as the documentation of a preexisting event; secondly, recording conceived as the construction of an event; and thirdly, recording conceived as the dismantling of any sense of an original event and the creation instead of a copy for which no original exists.53


For Wurtzler, there are three ways of thinking about and formalizing the process of sound recording.  These three stages, however, do not necessarily represent three different historical epochs or belong to three distinct technological objects.  They are instead applicable throughout the history of sound recording and may be used to describe different ways of understanding particular developments and implementations within the practices of audio recording. 

            Second, and most critically, Auslander argues that the historical development of sound reproduction technology "exactly recapitulates" the three orders of simulacra identified and described by Baudrillard.  "Exact recapitulation" connotes a form of perfect restatement or reproduction that is faithful to some original articulation.  It is, however, this very concept – the idea of a perfect and virtually flawless reproduction – that Baudrillard's own text questions and critiques.  Consequently, what Auslander writes about the "exact recapitulation" of Baudrillard's "Order" within the history of sound recording technology is already put in question by the very text to which he makes reference.  In showing how recording technology faithfully reproduces Baudrillard's three stages, Auslander employs the very concept of mimetic reproduction that is put in question by "The Order of Simulacra."


IV. Conclusion

As far as art is concerned, take music for example.  This is
something I don't know much about.54


            The writings of Baudrillard and the theories and practices of sound recording appear (already well in advance of this particular investigation) to be on something of a collision course.  Baudrillard, although he claims to know little about it, provides a conceptual apparatus and rich theoretical lexicon for explicating diverse developments in sound recording and music production.  Likewise theorists and practitioners of sound recording describe situations that obviously pull in the direction of Baudrillard's thought and exemplify many of his theoretical innovations.  Although this coordination is admittedly a nascent development in Baudrillard studies and audio scholarship, it is one that holds considerable promise for both.  Like a good audio mashup, which demonstrates connections and interactions that were not necessarily evident prior to the remixed concatenation, the mashing together of Baudrillard and sound recording has had the effect of making new and unanticipated possibilities manifest. 

            On the one hand, Baudrillard's writings provide sound recording with a theoretical orientation that can help explain current debates and controversies.  Mashups, for example, are a contentious issue that clearly have a polarizing effect.  "One could," Philip Gunderson suggests:

… look askance at mash-ups, viewing them as puerile, disrespectful mucking about with other people's property, but one could also celebrate that very puerility insofar as it is anti-oedipal – insofar as it short-circuits the culture industry's normally enforced boundaries between disparate genres of music.55


For opponents and critics, like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the mashup is definitely puerile and patently criminal.  It consists of an illegitimate fusion of copyrighted material that violates the proper relationship established between original and copy necessary for the existence of the music industry.  Popular mashups like DJ Danger Mouse's The Grey Album – a combination of music derived from the Beatles White Album and vocal performances from Jay-Z's Black Album – have been threatened with legal action and, as a result, all copies have been removed from circulation and destroyed.  For fans and advocates, however, mashups constitute a new and potentially revolutionary development in contemporary music.  According to McLeod mashups "follow the deconstructionist method" and "undermine, disrupt, and displace the arbitrary hierarchies of taste that rule popular music".56  Despite this positive spin, McLeod is careful not to idealize the mashup and, in qualifying his position, ends up deploying the same metaphysical structures and values that are used by opponents like the RIAA.

            Despite my appreciation for them, I do not mean to idealize mashups because, as a form of creativity, they can be quite limiting.  First, because they depend on the recognizability of the original, mashups are circumscribed to a relatively narrow repertoire of Top 40 pop songs.  Also, mashups pretty much demonstrate that Theodore Adorno, the notoriously cranky Frankfurt School critic of pop culture, was right about one key point.  In arguing for the superiority of European art music, Adorno claimed that pop songs were simplistic and merely made from easily interchangeable, modular components.  Yes, Adorno was a snob; but after hearing a half dozen mashups, it is difficult to deny his point.57

            For both opponents and advocates, the mashup is situated and understood by redeploying, often without any critical hesitation whatsoever, a metaphysics of representation that is at least as old as Plato.  Although articulating what appears to be diametrically opposed opinions, both sides of the debate rely on and leverage the same assumptions and values.  And in either case, whether the spin is negative or positive, the mashup is ultimately associated with that strange apocalyptic tone that is all-too-often attributed to postmodernism.  The mashup is, as McLeod concludes, "yet another sign of the end of the world, proof that our culture has withered and run out of ideas".58   Baudrillard can provide a way out of this intellectual cul-de-sac where both sides fundamentally agree in the course of their disagreement.  His texts, as we have discovered, offer entirely different ways to understand the history and practices of sound recording, the technologies of audio production and reproduction, and the various artifacts of simulation that now proliferate in contemporary culture.

            On the other hand, sound recording practices and techniques can provide a mechanism for critical engagement with Baudrillard's thinking.  Although Baudrillard does explicitly address audio fidelity, his faithfulness to this metaphysical concept of faithfulness effectively limits his understanding in a way that appears to be at odds with his own theoretical innovations.  As we have heard, the history and practices of audio recording provide sound opportunities to engage Baudrillard's thought in excess of the restricted interpretation he sometimes provides for it.  Such a transaction clearly and necessarily risks fidelity to the letter of Baudrillard's text.  This potentially unfaithful engagement, however, cannot be mere infidelity.  Infidelity, insofar as it is and remains the negative and dialectical opposite of fidelity, is not in and of itself sufficient.  In fact, examples of textual promiscuity are unfortunately all too common in the reading, or should I say misreading, of Baudrillard, whether these are espoused by other academics, university instructors, Hollywood directors, or the popular media.  What is needed, therefore, is a third alternative that is no longer limited to either fidelity or infidelity.  What is needed is a kind of excessive fidelity that is not afraid to risk the charge of infidelity in the course of exercising and proclaiming its faith.  What is needed is – in a word – blasphemy. 

            "Blasphemy," as Donna Haraway has argued, "is not apostasy".59 It is not a simple renunciation of faith, the mere opposite of faithfulness, or "a desire to shock and outrage".60  It is instead a careful and excessive form of faithfulness that is otherwise than "reverent worship and identification".61  Mashups, for example, are not the product of mere audio promiscuity and simple infidelity.  A good mashup does not just fool around with different sounds.  It is instead a highly calculated practice that is exceedingly attentive to its source material, often understanding different recordings in excess of and in spite of themselves.  Mashups, therefore, blaspheme popular music by transgressing established boundaries, undermining existing hierarchies, and intentionally violating often unquestioned orthodoxies.  "With mashups," McLeod writes, "Nirvana and Destiny's Child can sit comfortably at the same cafeteria table…"62

            Baudrillard exemplifies a similar strategy at the beginning of Simulacra and Simulation.  The first essay of the book, "The Precession of Simulacra," begins with a now-famous epigraph that is presented as a quotation from Ecclesiastes, a text that is included in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.  The quoted passage, as Baudrillard has pointed out,63 does not appear anywhere in the original and this fact has engendered considerable frustration and criticism.64  Despite complaints and arguments to the contrary, this is not "sloppy scholarship."  It is a deliberate and calculated transgression that is appropriately situated at the head of a text that investigates the "liquidation of all referentials".65  What Baudrillard does with this epigraph, then, is not simply misquote what is, for Christians in particular, the revealed word of God.  What he does goes beyond and is far worse than this kind of literal and literary infidelity.  In effect, his epigraph wrongly attributes words to the sacred text, which is, for both the Jewish and Christian traditions, a form of blasphemy.  But that is not all.  The epigraph is blasphemous not only because it is less than faithful to a book of faith, but also because it puts into question the very concept of faithful reproduction that structures the faith we already posit and assume to be operative in all practices of textual quotation and referentiality.  In making a fictional reference to a non-existent passage in Ecclesiastes, Baudrillard blasphemes not just the sacred text but the faith we already invest in the onto-theological system of fidelity that underlies both faith in the text and the faithful quotation of the text.  Following this example, then, our investigations of the collaborations and interactions that are possible between Baudrillard and recorded sound have been and need to be more than faithful to Baudrillard's writing.  Instead of seeking to maintain fidelity to the letter of his text – that kind of fidelity that is described in the text – our engagement with Baudrillard should, following his own example, deploy and engage in blasphemy.

David J. Gunkel Associate Professor of Communication at Northern Illinois University, where he teaches courses in the philosophy of technology, communication technology, and web programming and design.  He is the author of Hacking Cyberspace (Westview Press, 2001) and Thinking Otherwise: Philosophy, Communication, Technology (Purdue University Press, 2007).



1 An earlier version of this essay was presented at Engaging Baudrillard: An International Conference, which was held at Swansea University, Wales, U.K., September 4-6, 2006.  I am grateful to Paul Taylor who read and commented on an earlier draft, my co-panelists Diane Rubenstein and Gary Genosko, and the conference participants who responded to the presentation with excellent questions and insightful comments.


2 The presentation of this paper at Engaging Baudrillard began with an audio epigraph, Mark Vidler's "Girl Wants (To Say Goodbye) to Rock 'n' Roll" (2003), which is a mashup of music taken from the Velvet Underground's song "Rock 'n' Roll" (1970) and Christina Aguilara's vocals from "What a Girl Wants" (2000).  http://www.gohomeproductions.co.uk


3 Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by S. F. Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994:1.


4 Kembrew McLeod.  "Confessions of an Intellectual (Property): Danger Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Sonny Bono, and my Long and Winding Path as a Copyright Activist-Academic."  Popular music and society Volume 28, Number 1 (February 2005:85).  It could also be argued that Baudrillard himself engages in and exemplifies this practice, mashing together and remixing the texts of Karl Marx, Marshall McLuhan, Herbert Marcuse, Arthur C. Clark, Alfred Jarry, Georges Bataille, etc.


5 Attempts to write a genealogy of the audio mashup have resulted in competing and often incompatible accounts.  Kembrew McLeod, for example, traces the origin of the mashup to the "modernist collage aesthetic" in general and Pierre Schaeffer's musique concréte in particular (page 81).  William J. Levay ("The Art of Making Music in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: The Culture Industry Remixed." Unpublished paper, 2005. http://homepages.nyu.edu/~wjl245/the_culture_industry_ remixed.pdf ) argues that it all began with remixing, a practice which was introduced in Jamaica in the early 1960's.  Others, like Will Hermes ("Profile: Growing Popularity of Mash-ups, a Form of Sampling Music."  All Things Considered,  National Public Radio, USA, June 14, 2002) and Roberta Cruger ("The mashup revolution."  Salon.com http://dir.salon.com/story/ent/music/feature/2003/08/09/mashups_cruger/index1.html), have traced connections between the mashup, sampling, The Evolution Control Committee, and John Oswald's Plunderphonics.  And Wired magazine (July 2005) has endeavored to circumscribe all these practices, gathering them together in the context of a larger social development that they name "Cut and Paste Culture”.


6 Jean Baudrillard. "Vivisecting the 90's: An Interview with Jean Baudrillard" in Digital Delirium.  Edited by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997:49.


7  W. J. Thomas Mitchell. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987:164. 


8 Jacques Attali. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.


9 Mike Gane. Jean Baudrillard: In Radical Uncertainty. London: Pluto Press, 2000:60.


10 Jean Baudrillard. Seduction (c 1979) Translated by B. Singer. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990:30.


11 Jean Baudrillard. "The Year 2000 Will Not Take Place". Futur*Fall: Excursions into Post-Modernity.  Edited by Elizabeth A. Grosz et al. Sydney: Power Institute of Fine Arts, University of Sydney, 1986:21.


12 Jean Baudrillard. The Illusion of the End. Translated by Chris Turner. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995:5.


13 Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations With François L’Yvonnet. Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Routledge, 2004:65-66.


Editor’s note: Baudrillard also makes similar references to music and fidelity in Nicholas Zurbrugg, Art and Artefact, New York: SAGE, 1997:25; Mike Gane (Editor). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews, New York: Routledge, 1993:84; and in the first of his Cool Memories. New York: Verso, 1990:82


14 Jean Baudrillard. Cool memories II. Translated by Chris Turner. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996:32-33.


15 Jonathan Sterne. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005:218.


16 Plato. Republic. Translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987: 595 c-597e.


17 Pliny the Elder. Natural History (Volume IX). Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952: bk. 35, line 65.


18 For a history of the Victor trademark, see The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005:301-307.


19 Jean Baudrillard. Seduction (c 1979) Translated by B. Singer. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990:30.


20 Rex Butler. Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real. London: Sage, 1999:151.


21 Jean Baudrillard. The Illusion of the End. Translated by Chris Turner. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995:5.


22 Although Baudrillard associates the technology of the compact-disc (CD) with the concept of high-fidelity, the relationship is much more complicated and nuanced.  Recent innovations in consumer audio formats, like the CD and the MP3, do not necessarily provide for what Baudrillard understands and defines as "high-fidelity."  In fact, complaints concerning the sound quality of CD's and MP3's have been registered by audiophiles, sound technicians, and even recording artists.  Take for example the following comment offered by Bob Dylan to Jonathan Lethem in a recent Rolling Stone interview (21 August, 2006, http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/11216877/the_modern_times_of_bob_dylan_ a_legend_comes_to_grips_with_his_iconic_status.htm):

We all like records that are played on record players, but let's face it, those days are gon-n-n-e. You do the best you can, you fight that technology in all kinds of ways, but I don't know anybody who's made a record that sounds decent in the past twenty years, really. You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like – static. Even these songs probably sounded ten times better in the studio when we recorded 'em. CDs are small. There's no stature to it. I remember when that Napster guy came up across, it was like, 'Everybody's gettin' music for free.' I was like, 'Well, why not? It ain't worth nothing anyway'

Although it is tempting to write-off Dylan's complaint as a kind of neo-Luddite nostalgia, he has a point.  The sound quality of the CD format is intentionally limited.  This programmed limitation is not the result of some inherent technological restriction; it was a conscious marketing decision.  When Sony and Phillips cooperated on the development of the CD standard, they compromised fidelity for the sake of consumer convenience.  "While twenty-bit systems were standard for professional digital recording, the consumer CD format was set at sixteen-bits.  Why?  So that a ninety-minute recording [represented in particular by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony] could fit on a twelve-centimeter disc using then available laser technology" (See Eric Rothenbuhler and John Durham Peters. "Defining Phonography: An Experiment in Theory."  Musical Quarterly Volume 81, Number 2 (Summer 1997:250).  The situation gets considerably worse with the MP3, which not only employs a form of lousy data compression but can encode information at a bit-rate that is even lower than that utilized by CD technology.

23 Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations With François L’Yvonnet. Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Routledge, 2004:66.


24 Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Cool memories III. Translated by Emily Agar. New York: Verso, 1997:72.


25 Evan Eisenberg. The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005:89.


26 James Lastra. Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:85.


27 Thomas A. Edison. "The Phonograph and its Future."  North American Review 126, May-June 1878: 528.


28 In 1990, the pop duo Milli Vanilli was awarded the Best New Artist Grammy for 1989.  The award was rescinded, however, when it was revealed that the two "recording artists" did not actually perform the music that was recorded on their award-winning record.  This situation, which is, we should note, not uncommon in popular music, became a scandal, because it was assumed by both the public and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the institutional sponsor of the Grammy Awards) that a record records the performance of a musician.


See for example, Steve Wurtzler's "She Sang Live, But the Microphone was Turned Off: The Live, the Recorded, and the Subject of Representation,"  Sound Theory Sound Practice.  Edited by R. Altman. New York: Routledge, 1992.


29 Thomas A. Edison. "The Phonograph and its Future."  North American Review 126, May-June 1878:  528.


30 Steve Jones. Rock Formation: Music, Technology, and Mass Communication. London: Sage, 1992:129.


31 Evan Eisenberg. The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005:85-86.


32 Jean Baudrillard.  The Evil Demon of Images. Translated by Paul Patton and Paul Foss. Sydney: Power Publications, 1988:13.


33 Jonathan Sterne. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005:241.


34 Jean Baudrillard.  The Evil Demon of Images. Translated by Paul Patton and Paul Foss. Sydney: Power Publications, 1988:13.


35 Jonathan Sterne. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005:220.


36 Walter Benjamin. Illuminations. Translated by H. Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969:243.


37 Jonathan Sterne. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005:220.


38 Philip Auslander. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999:3.


39 Sarah Thornton. Club Culture: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1996:42.


40 Steve Jones. Rock Formation: Music, Technology, and Mass Communication. London: Sage, 1992:59.


41 Jacques Attali. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003:118.


42 Jonathan Sterne. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005:221.


43 Philip Auslander. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999:103.


44 Ibid.


45 Jean Baudrillard.  The Evil Demon of Images. Translated by Paul Patton and Paul Foss. Sydney: Power Publications, 1988:13.


46 Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant. London: Sage, 1993:69.


47 George Landow. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology.  Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992:20-21.


48 Eric Rothenbuhler and John Durham Peters. "Defining Phonography: An Experiment in Theory.  Musical Quarterly 81(2), Summer 1997:252.


49 Ibid.: 245.


50 Ibid.: 256.


51 Philip Auslander. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999:104.


52 Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by S. F. Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994:1-2.


53 Steve Wurtzler. "She Sang Live, But the Microphone was Turned Off: The Live, the Recorded, and the Subject of Representation,"  Sound Theory Sound Practice.  Edited by R. Altman. New York: Routledge, 1992:93.


54 Jean Baudrillard. "I Don't Belong to the Club, To the Seraglio". Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews.  Edited by Mike Gane. New York: Routledge, 1993:24.


55 Philip Gunderson. Danger Mouse's Grey Album, Mash-ups, and the Age of Composition. Postmodern Culture 15(1), September 2004: 6. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/postmodern_culture/toc/pmc15.1.html.


56 Kembrew McLeod.  "Confessions of an Intellectual (Property): Danger Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Sonny Bono, and my Long and Winding Path as a Copyright Activist-Academic."  Popular Music and Society, Volume 28, Number 1 (February 2005:83-84).


57 Ibid.: 86.


58 Ibid.


59 Donna Haraway. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.  New York: Routledge, 1991:149.


60 Douglas Kellner. "Introduction: Jean Baudrillard in the Fin-de-Millennium," Baudrillard: A Critical Reader.  Edited by Douglas Kellner. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1994:16.


61 Donna Haraway. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.  New York: Routledge, 1991:149.


62 Kembrew McLeod.  "Confessions of an Intellectual (Property): Danger Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Sonny Bono, and my Long and Winding Path as a Copyright Activist-Academic."  Popular Music and Society, Volume 28, Number 1 (February 2005:84).


63 Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations With François L’Yvonnet. Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Routledge, 2004:11.


64 See for example, David Detmer's "Challenging Simulacra and Simulation: Baudrillard in The Matrix,"  More Matrix and Philosophy: Revolutions and Reloaded Decoded.  Edited by William Irwin. Chicago: Open Court, 2005:98-99.


65 Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by S. F. Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994:2.

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