“This is increasingly emerging as the central human right of advanced capitalist society: the right not to be ‘harassed’, that is, to be kept at a safe distance from others.”
— Slavoj Žižek, Against Human Rights
We can thank people like Bob Moog for his eponymous synthesizers, Tsutomu Katoh for his Korg brand of musical instruments, Gershon Kingsley for his musicianship, and all of them collectively for introducing our common musical associations with the term “analog” into our everyday vocabulary. When the word comes up, we can bring to mind music that is the soundtrack to an antique electronic future—one that rushed into our sensorium with the advent of the telephone, but whose sheen is still undiminished after all these years.
This musical context of the term refers to the production of media that is directly analogous to another condition or occurrence in the natural world, in this case the shaped production of a noise through the controlled interaction of electricity and set circuit paths. Digital technology differs from analog because it does not posses the same direct reversibility to an original set of conditions. Unlike analog, it is not traceable back to a necessary original condition. It exists without a negative. No matter how we may program digital to function in lieu of analog in our cameras, musical instruments, and tape machines, the important precondition necessary for digital
Digital came to prominence because it was able to quickly and portably fill the needs formerly met and defined by analog technology. As such, it has become the go-to form of production and recording. A seamless integration of multi-track recording and electronic production on the home computer has been worked into almost every dilettante’s life, alongside going to the gym for mandated maintenance of the corpus and sending graphomaniacal solipsisms to one’s Twitter feed. The blueprint provided by the analog forebears to digital is now less necessary for the unique abilities of digital to shine in their own right. Enabling digital technology to organize and emulate our material lives has increased our insincerity regarding the conscionable 1:1 avowal of our actions and the outcomes of those actions. It is for this reason that the debate between the analog and the digital is a political debate more than a simple aesthetic debate. Digital encompasses the ability to propose a new, total, closed system of meaning that does not need to refer back to a standard origin.
There are aesthetic differences to be drawn between the art that can be created by the two types of technology, but one must keep the political differences that can be discerned at the front of all arguments. This is because, more than affecting the production of individually separated works of art or culture or their qualitative appeal, the debate separating the merits of analog versus those of digital are conceptual, and their concepts affect every aspect of our lives in global society.
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a work of fiction that tells the story of the 20th century, a century of people’s accelerating attempts to escape and obscure the lines binding them to analogy. It is a story that spans the globe, and one whose tendrils ensnare several different global class systems.
The 900-page novel is divided into 5 books: The Part about the Critics, The Part about Amalfitano, The Part about Fate, The Part about the Crimes, and The Part about Archimboldi. There are only two sections we need touch on to connect Bolaño’s book to the idea that the relationship between analog and digital is one of enabling the disavowal of consequence.
The Part about the Critics follows the escapades of a small society of academic specialists in the oeuvre of a Prussian who writes under the name Benno Von Archimboldi. The reader is taken through their bourgeois genteel Europe of personal achievement, petty academic intrigue, and tepid love affairs.
The Part about the Crimes is the story of a fictional town in the northern Mexican state of Sonora on the border with the United States. It contains the events that most of the book centers around—the serial murders of women living in and around the town of Santa Teresa, a town given over wholly to the activities of narcos and the massive ‘maquiladora’ factory parks.
Bolaño does not stop at describing the obvious interconnectedness of the lives of the characters, each of which traces a coincidental connection to the described lives and horrors in other parts of the world or in another epoch. He does not merely demonstrate a shared capability for violence in the first and second worlds by offering the professors’ beating of a foreign cab driver in contrast to the grim large-scale industry of poverty and murder in the Mexican factory town of Santa Teresa. Bolaño goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the characters’ lives are not connected to a shared tragedy by chance alone. The coincidence of chance connections are easily dismissed as novelty stories. Bolaño does the work to show that that which connects each disparate set of characters across social and economic borders is at the root of their respective societies.
Bolaño’s story demonstrates the point, similar to that made by philosopher and Lacanian scholar Slavoj Zizek in his book In Defense of Lost Causes, that both the first world of lettered achievement and the second world of tradition married to dehumanizing industry require one another to sustain global capitalism. The factory owner takes his profits from the information society denizen who buys his products. The first world consumer requires the cheap goods made “over there” to maintain her way of life. this connection is glossed over during the course of daily life in each separated arrondissement. It is the fact that the connection between each society becomes obscure that is important to bear in mind. Each culture perceives itself as the only legitimately mandated system. To each society the other, when conceived of at all, is perceived as a kind of anachronism strengthening the first society’s way of life before finally going away. As Zizek notes, capitalism functions in these gaps of understanding between each differing societal organization’s knowledge of the other one.
The heart of Bolaño’s critique in 2666 is this: On all sides of the story, the reader is shown people who must step forward to recognize the origins of their way of life if the violence at its core is to be stopped. The diffuse, disparate, and desperate nature of global capitalism has a sheltering and obfuscating digital effect marked by the introduction of false analogs that prevent the acknowledgment of the origins, consequences, or resolutions of our plights. There is a voluntary excess inherent in the system that allows this gap in understanding, making these changes in perspective true only in its enactment. The enactment and making true of this excess is the expenditure that joins the world of global capital under a single system and enforces the separation of its disparate parts. The system of global capitalism requires the ignorance generated by the separation of its parts to maintain the frenzied, excessive activity of its cycle.
In an early passage in The Part about the Critics, Bolaño alludes to the nature of this excess at work. The literary critics are at table with a former rural cultural events promoter. The promoter relates a story of his face-to-face meeting with Archimboldi, the writer who is the object of the critics’ study. During that meeting, the cultural events promoter told the critics, another guest, a widowed baroness, had dominated the conversation with a story from her trip to Argentina where she and her husband had been the guests of a wealthy rancher. Because her husband had been a great cavalryman, a series of races was staged between the baron, the rancher’s son, and the gauchos of the estate. The result was that the baron won all three races. Afterwards, a gaucho boy had pulled the baroness aside and told her that, because the ranchers had known her husband would lose the first race, it had been arranged that the second and third would be secretly forfeited to him. Disbelieving the boy, the baroness asked him, if that were true, then why had her husband won all three races? Her question was met only with a murderous stare.
Archimboldi himself then provided the answer. At the last moment, the rancher’s son, in a fit of demonstrable luxurious excess and sacrifice, had decided to throw the first race in addition to the following two. The capital of his assured victory, of his demonstrable superiority on horseback, was squandered in secret. It was given away as a kind of unspoken sacrifice, a contract whose terms are known only to one, in order to bestow on the ranchers a sense of power and superiority over their guests that is hidden in magnanimity. It was a making real of their position of advantage over the Europeans, but it was done in the language of their vantage point’s interpretation of capital. What did they actually have in relation to the visiting Europeans but an excess of human life, of visceral skill, their own personal dignity, to expend on bettering their position? At that expenditure they not only gain a winking unity amongst themselves, but also the power of a secret and shared enmity. The problem with this brand of compensation is that it requires ever more sleight of hand to continue to make it appear self-sustaining and true, to make it culture.
Had the baroness stayed longer to speak to the boy, whom Bolaño described as having “the eyes of a bird of prey,” and “the eyes of a clumsy young butcher” any longer, that product of the injury of sacrifice that is enmity, Archimboldi pointed out, would have been expressed, literally and corporally, with an act of violent sacrifice even larger than the thrown horse races. It would have been one that, with the disposal of both the baroness’ and the boy’s lives would have both created and justified a state of honor. The boy was less sophisticated than his elders, and so certainly would have killed her.
The police go as far as to arrest Klaus Haas, a cold, distant, immigrant psychopath (and computer programmer) and, in conjunction with the civic and business leaders in the community, present him as a scapegoat for the killings of women in the city of Santa Teresa. Nobody contests that he is a rapist and a murderer and obviously inhuman, but, incarcerated, he is also incapable of being responsible for the serial killings that go on and on without surcease in the outside world. He is the foil Bolaño uses to alert the reader metaphorically to the nature of this thing that resides in the engine room of capital. Bolaño chooses Haas to convey this message because he is a monster not bound by the accelerating story without continuity that is capital’s social narrative. Bolaño’s monster can see and tell us what others given wholly over to convention do not. That thing is this: He is a monster, but he is nowhere near as terrible as that blind, murderous excess which the maquiladora calls to itself.
In his moments of delusion after his arrest, Haas rants to the other prisoners:
“…a giant is coming and the giant is going to kill you. A giant? asked the rancher. You heard me right, motherfucker, said Haas. A giant. A big man, very big, and he’s going to kill you and everybody else. You crazy-ass gringo son of a bitch, said the rancher. For a moment no one said anything and the rancher seemed to fall asleep again. A little while later, however, Haas called out to say he heard footsteps. The giant was coming. He was covered in blood from head to toe and he was coming now.”
To return to the discussion of analog versus digital, we have established that what is analog is built on the direct relationship of one condition to another. Digital technology required analog only to get its start, to provide the early templates of its behavior, but is not any longer bound to such a model.
Bolaño has written the necessarily long description in prose of the accelerating nature of the unpayable debts the human race took on in the 20th Century. It is his point that there is something to which we have lost the ability to directly relate in the present day. Our attitudes defining our relation to labor, to luxury, and to human life are informed by this divide. His critics live in the comfort of their critical pursuit of an elusive author, traveling freely across Europe with full access to the luxuries manufactured in border worlds like the maquiladora, places whose ruthlessness is exiled beyond accountability to the fringes of states.
The denizens of the border world Bolaño creates face a world literally and corporally defined by industry, where access to the goods and genteel stability manufactured there for use in other parts of the world is limited or somehow mitigated by the interference of sinecure, family, or fear. The commingled interests of narco-traffic and the manufacture of goods for the first world, the extortion involved in border crossings, and the murders of women loom collectively large as the hidden axle around which all life turns.
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