Mon Jan 12th, 2009 at 05:00:18 AM EST
Stereophile Magazine is notorious for its reviews of achingly expensive hifi. Exhibit A for would-be owners of sonic exotica is the ClearAudio Statement turntable. For a mere $125,000 you can buy a precision-machined 770 pound contraption, bolted together from wood, ceramic and aluminium, which you can use to play your favourite warped and crackly vinyl. It uses the same motors as the Mars Rovers, which presumably makes it useful for anyone who wants to play their music in a low density atmosphere.
As conspicuous consumption goes, the name isn't even trying to be ironic. But it's not really about the money. Stereophile's reviews follow a fixed format: "I was unconvinced that Very Expensive Product X would do anything at all, but having tried it the results are truly astonishing. Although I still have one or two lingering criticisms (which are so trivial I honestly hesitate to mention them, even in passing, although of course in the interests of journalistic integrity nonetheless I find myself forced to) the music pouring from my vinyl now sounds so very much better than it used to that I don't believe I'll be able to listen to anything inferior ever again."
too good not to be straight on the front page - afew
What makes this entertaining is that the same hyperbole is used for every single product, whether it's a monstrous turntable or something more exotic - like these Shakti Stones.
SHAKTI Noise Reduction Technology (NRT) absorbs and dissipates Electromagnetic Interference (EMI). Automotive Computers (ECUs) and audio/video components self generate a radiated EMI field that degrades signal transfer functions. The word SHAKTI means "energy." Through an energy conversion, inductive coupling process, the "antenna-like" circuits within SHAKTI attract and then resistively convert EMI to non-interfering heat. This increases horsepower and speeds up 0 to 60 times in automotive engines and improves resolution in high definition audio/video systems. No electrical connection is required because all interactions take place through radiated field mutual coupling. One need only place SHAKTI units in near proximity to the CPU or audio component to obtain discernible performance improvements.
These remarkable items not only make audio sound better, they also improve car acceleration by an impressive 2-3 horsepower - although as the website says:
`Customer perception during beta testing of SHAKTI units was filled with testimonials that the improvement felt much greater than the measured 2 to 3 horsepower dyno runs showed.'
Which is nice - only a very special kind of horsepower can feel better than other kinds of horsepower, and from that point of view Shakti Stones seem to be delivering on their promises. This may explain why one hifi reviewer bought eight of them for his system - although he hasn't told anyone if this has improved his 0-60 times. (Perhaps a low density atmosphere would help?)
But it doesn't end there. For a while a company called Silver Rock were selling a knob - i.e. a piece of machined wood - for $500. Replacing the mundane metal knobs on your amplifier's volume control with this miracle of varnish and lacquer - actual wood included - promised rapturous changes in musical performance. Inexplicably, the product seems to have been withdrawn - perhaps because when the entire Internet started linking to the page, the retailers discovered that yes, there really is such a thing as bad publicity. Steeping into the breech, you can still pay CHF 320 (about 200) for a set of three turned wooden ovoids which will supposedly `get rid of the metallic sound' of a cheap CD player.
By decoupling horizontally and providing a "excellent sounding" vertical interface medium (in this aspect similar to optimal spikes) they have an exceptional effect on audio equipment placed atop of them, be it CD-players, transformers, speakers and amps. The have an extremely positive effect on transparency, natural timbres, ambience reproduction and dynamics: the gain in coherency and focus is simply astonishing.
The point is proved on the website by connecting a cheap and nasty bargain-bucket CD player to a monstrously expensive amplifier and speaker combination. It's always good to see value for money, and turning a $100 CD player into one with a much more expensive sound is certainly impressive.
No round-up of hifi exotica can avoid a mention of Peter Belt's unique website, where he claims to be to be able to transform the sound of HiFi by adorning it with tiny pieces of foil and rubbing components with special creams. Because his commercial products aren't cheap, and he has the best interests of his customers at heart, he generously offers the following free advice:
Place a plain piece of paper under any ONE of the four feet of a piece of equipment. This applies to any piece of equipment, even if it is not an item of audio equipment. Listen to some music for a short time, then remove the piece of paper and see if you can listen to the same music with the same pleasure - without the plain piece of paper in position !!
Pin back ONE of the four corners of all curtains in the listening room with a safety pin.. Listen to some music for a short time, then remove the safety pins and see if you can listen to the same music with the same pleasure - without the corner of the curtain pinned back !!
If you have a vase of flowers or a pot in a plant pot in the listening room, stand the vase or the plant pot on a plain piece of BLUE paper. Listen to some music for a short time, then remove the piece of Blue paper and see if you can listen to the same music with the same pleasure - without the piece of Blue paper in position !!
(Note - punctuation and capitalisation retained from the original.)
It's easy - and indeed it's fun - to mock. But something interesting is happening here. HiFi demonstrates it in one of its purest forms, but it's hardly exclusive to the HiFi market. I'm sure audiophiles genuinely enjoy music, but they seem to part company with the rest of us when ever-more exotic combinations of expensive and unlikely hardware don't seem to have anything much to do with the sound. Audiophiles are dismissive of double blind testing, and it's no surprise that when double blind tests are attempted they inevitably score poorly. They're also prone to laugh-out-loud inconsistencies. One Stereophile reviewer enjoys recording the sound of his system onto cheap CDRs, which he sends out to readers so they can share the awe for themselves.
The phenomenon doesn't have a name yet, but if it did it would be something like consumer narcissicism. This isn't a perfect definition, because the sense of specialness isn't as arbitrary as it is in clinical narcissism. Instead, it seems to be less of a pathology and more about esoteric perceptions of manna and mojo. With both high end and low end hifi, the hardware becomes a fetishised extension of the owner's self image - a personal totem for the living room.
There's more that could be said here, especially about the psychology of projecting near-perfect isolation and freedom from corruption and external influences into a personal fetish. But instead of taking that detour, it's more useful to note that what seems to be happening is that spending money on exotica allows hifi owners to persuade themselves that they're equally exotic and significant - unique individuals gifted with a rare sensitivity far beyond the norm, and the rare spending power needed to bring it to its fullest expression.
It's not so much about music - especially considering that most of these unique individuals are in their fifties and over, with diminishing hearing. It's more about trying to possess mojo in an unusually concrete and solid form. And the hardware isn't just a positional marker of status, because the process is as much for internal as external consumption.
In narrative terms, the hardware gives the buyer an excuse to tell a story about themselves which starts with `I am the kind of person who...', and then segues into self-flattery and egotism. With hifi, this is amusing to outsiders, but largely harmless; in resource terms, exotic hifi hardware barely registers on the let's-rape-and-pillage-Gaia scale. Elsewhere it's very much more destructive, because this sleight of mind is so heavily conditioned and ubiquitous that it becomes the unconscious default for economics, marketing and politics.
Think `I'm the kind of person who...' and watch the ads. The Mac brand is based on fostering evangelical buyer narcissism. Apple set out to do this deliberately, and succeeded. But whole mythologies have been created around computer hardware and software by playing on these feelings - the Open Source movement couldn't exist without them - to the point where objective effectiveness starts to become less important than the experience of distinction and participation associated with owning and using the right tools.
The tools become signifiers of self-image. They may or may not be useful objectively. But `Being the kind of person who...' uses one tool, as opposed to a different tool, assumes a personal importance which is hard to justify dispassionately.
Of course it's not just toys for boys. L'Oreal's `Because you're worth it' slogan has been pilloried in public (but check out those comments...) The beauty market couldn't exist without consumer narcissicism. Nor could the shoe market.
This is narrative in action, and lifestyle marketing is based entirely on this kind of semantic and psychological anxiety-inducing flattery. It's hard to think of a significant non-essential product which isn't sold or marketed on the suggested basis of a fanciful, if not downright silly, self-labelling.
More subtle kinds of identity narcissism can span entire industries. Book publishing and fine art are founded on this - writing skill and aesthetic ability are built on the excellent sense of self-regard required to be a true connoisseur of art and literature. No one needs a $125 million painting, any more than they need a $125,000 turntable. But the option to buy is always good, by definition.
Mainstream economic theory runs into a problem here. Serious People like to tell us that consumers are rational actors, and that there's a rational value called `utility', which seems to be defined as the thing which consumers are rational about.
But most consumer activity is - clearly - not about rational choices. Survival essentials can, at a stretch, be reduced to pure utility. But a walk around any food store should be enough to make it clear that consumer choice is as much about satisfying narcissistic cravings for self-identification as for providing protein and carbs. Hence, sinful chocolates jostle with virtuous weight loss yoghurts, and every supermarket has an upmarket connoisseur range, traditionally signified by black packaging with gold or silver trim.
Only the utilities provide true utility, perhaps because water, sewage treatment and energy are so ubiquitous and so difficult to brand that there's no obvious way to turn them into fetishistic statements. If someone could make advertising flow out of the cold tap, it's a sure bet that they would.
Everywhere else, packaging and branding provide anthropological motivation. The less successful brands, or perhaps those aimed at less successful consumers, suggest instant gratification and the satisfaction of more or less plausible needs. (`Buy our shower gel - improve your reproductive potential')
The more ambitious marketers try to craft a mythology of identification, converting identity politics into a driver of consumer behaviour. If you want to `Be part of it' you can buy a `Product like no other', promoted by creative talent which wraps the nonsense in a glossy finish which makes it look respectable rather than ridiculous - as long as you're asleep and dreaming, and happy not to make any effort to wake up and wonder what the fuck is going on around you.
Capitalism is inherently pre-rational. It's atavistic, totemic, even shamanistic - but most of all, it's irrational and unconscious. Capitalism sells the illusion of mojo, marketing practical items as tribal power fetishes. The possession of these items confers magical powers of seductiveness, effectiveness, creativity and potency on their owner.
There's no difference between the so-called savage with a magically-charged weapon, and the so-called salesman with his streamlined BMW or Porsche. The sense of participation mystique with a numinous world of extended consciousness and personal power is the same in both cases. And in practice car ads - in fact all ads - deliberately emphasise the pristine unreality of the experience in an attempt to suggest the limitless dreamlike potential mojo of ownership.
We don't parse the economic world as savage, because we live in it, and we're indoctrinated from birth in a tribal narrative of enlightenment and rationality. But rational utility carries an awareness of consequences which is utterly lacking from this semi-mysticised world view. And historically, while the Enlightenment attacked religiosity, it didn't, and never has, challenged the political and tribal foundations of economics. So while religion is sometimes viewed skeptically, mojo economics has never been challenged or questioned in the same way.
Consensus economics barely acknowledges physical consequences because it has never been a calculus of resources. It has always been a social game which externalizes these atavistic perceptions of mojo and power.
Since these happen within a dream-like world of self-identification and delusion, rational consequences are deprecated - all that matters is the personal experience of mojo and the ability to persuade self and others that one's 'brand' has power, either through explicit display of power objects or through the marketing of personal charisma and persuasiveness.
Because mojo and charisma are synonymous, it's possible to swap charisma for cash. Entire industries - from personal training, to motivational speaking, to some of the arts - become possible with this relationship.
This is why if you visit a distilled environment like Second Life, everyone seems to be sleeping the deep sleep of the hypnotized and possessed. In a very literal sense, identity narcissism is a kind of possession - it eats identity to the extent where it defines the limits of thinking, feeling, desire and hope.
Real freedom comes from defining your own options - not in a `Be who you are' way, but with a conscious and rational balancing of original creative imagination with the demands of reality. Consumerism offers neither. Buying choices at a discount isn't freedom, it's a kind of psychological sharecropping - the collars and chains aren't physical, but they define and control behaviour just as if they were. The urge to buy an entry ticket to a brand narrative feels like freedom, and it's defined as freedom, but in reality it's a perfect opposite.
The lie is revealed by the way in which dissidents - individuals who aren't pathologically miserly, but are willingly to live frugally and don't try to `express themselves' through their spending or accumulation or lifestyle choices - are so rare in affluent cultures that they're invisible and almost unknown.
What does this mean for politics and democracy? More about that in Part 2...