Not only Fast and Wide?

Looking at the collection of ideas that fall under the rubric "sampling" we discern a spectrum of possibilities ranging from computer game piracy to literary allusion. Several of these can be investigated with one eye on the ideas of compression, in particular explanatory, expressional and technique compression. Allied to these forms of compression and their relationship to sampling in general are some notions of naivete and competence, efficiency of effort and depths of understanding.

In the midst of our orgiastic desire for more stimulation, we are running up against all sorts of Shannon-esque bandwidth limitations. Psychological experiments show that perceptual speed is increasing, there are people who are capable of intelligently and coherently reacting to MTV video clips. Not only fast, but wide; the increase of inputs, perceptual in all forms moving away from the purely visual or aural, we are learning to perceive with our entire bodies, whether it's the Bhutto dance studies of Techla Schiphorst or the whole body experiences of skydivers. We are becoming Fast and Wide. However there is another technique being used: compression. Language is, in Barlow's words, "what we call...a very 'lossy' compression scheme."[1] This is not limited to purely verbal or written language, in the mediation of ideas all techniques lose vast amounts of information. The fact that we manage to transfer any information at all has a lot to do with the trigger phenomena of our minds, that we need just a trace of some thing in order to reconstruct the complex whole. This compression of experience and knowledge is a way that we move beyond being just fast and wide.
The varied usage of these techniques goes by many names; citation in academic journals, sampling or musique concrète in sound work, found footage in the moving image, collage in the stationary image, allusion in literature. There are new fields arising - the theoretical poetry of the TJs (Theory Jockeys), the reused scientism and found data of the pseudoscientists. Overlap between the fields is more the rule than the exception. The degrees of quotation vary. In general, one could say that the field ranges from allusion, where no direct reference is given, sometimes only specific nuances are used that will pass over most people's heads, via citation, a technique of giving reference to sources, to quotation, where parts of a previous work are taken wholesale and reproduced in a new work. The extreme in this direction is probably wholesale piracy, where entire works are passed off as the original, or plagiarism where entire works are claimed to be the work of another. This is nothing but a quantitative change, but as we all know, enough purely quantitative change can lead to qualitative change. At some point we leave the region of "sound" activity behind; the placement of this boundary is a very interesting problem.
Of course the spectrum between these points is broad, and we contend that it is not even purely a matter of degree, more or less sampling, but that there are more dimensions of variation taking place here. The aim of this essay is to attempt to tease apart some of the threads in the tangled carpet of "sampling" culture. Shades of difference across various sampling/citational/reference communities, different forms of credit giving and taking, different ideas of what is okay and what is not. Although we start by looking at various such communities and find that there are common bonds running through them all, looking more closely at the carpet should bring into focus some of the stronger variations in what might appears at this second glance to be a whole. Binding together, teasing apart, this should be an interesting floor covering.
So much has already been said about the use of sampling in sound work. Whether the DIY aesthetic with home made tape loops in machines rescued from flea markets or the hi-tech digital reuse of sound that has become a fixed part of our landscape such as the piped top-40 stations in shopping malls, more words are almost unnecessary. But sound sampling somehow forms a nexus of the ideas that we can address here, so it is worth looking at at least some of the ideas in this context first.
The use of more referential than quotational aspect is of particular interest here. The "yeah" or "c'mon" of classic rock music is not only highly unoriginal, it is a necessary part of the rock experience, the usage of this simple syllable links to some primitive but learnt zone in the minds of the listeners. The emotional buttons that such megastars as (don't cringe) Bryan Adams manage to push with the simple placements of such syllables gives credit to the idea that there are some assemblages attached to emotional centres in our minds that can be easily hit by those skilled in the craft. In some sense they are hitting some button on an emotional sampler built into our psyche and with a simple dextrous tap are setting off a chain reaction of allied emotions. A wonderful (or is it wonderfully tragic) example is seen in the teen overreaction to the various boygroups that plague the airwaves. While Frank Sinatra's publicity people started out by hiring young women to scream at his concerts, they soon found that it was unnecessary to hire them any more. Once the sample had been set up in a susceptible part of the population, it became quite simple for "Ol' Blue Eyes" to set off this sample with whatever it was that he had. It is now a truism that the performers who are playing to this audience need no longer be able to play any instrument or sing or whatever, they (merely) have to develop whatever the little cues there are for setting off these reactions.
It is in this process of compactified information flow that I am interested. The ways in which entire emotional states can be transferred from one person to another, the construction of psychological states in a listener, reader or viewer, the ways that certain compact forms for such transferrals can be constructed or derived. In some sense the sample is the quintessential reference. Snippets taken from specific works, in particular the hooks, the kiss scenes, the irreducible atoms of that piece, these are enough to ignite a stream of association that generates the entire work and the concomitant emotional states.

Compression in sampling relates to snippets that have transcended their mere musical or other origins and have become a part of the "canon," the collective memory of society. Thus such sampling/citation sits beyond some idea of copyright infringement in a similar way to the existence of the word "xeroxing" becoming a part of language without any necessary reference to the original technology or company that started it. As elements pass into the collective cultural subconcious, the right of copyright holders to their claim diminishes. This avoids the question of experts, competence, naivete. It is no longer necessary to defer to the experts explicitly because the context of the reference is explicit in the cultural context. The phrase "are you experienced" has passed into a social vocabulary above the single (copyrighted) song from which it emanates. In this sense compression in this form has much more to do with (literary) allusion that to quotation or sampling.
Citation is as old as language. Mythologies are networked collections of individual myths that contain cross-referenced characters and situations, a meshwork that probably developed in parallel over a longer period of time, the citations between the various myths developing and strengthening their bonds. The mediaeval claims of monks and scholars to be "dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants" was based upon these scholars acknowledging their own contributions as relatively trivial against the mountains of knowledge and understanding they themselves received from their forebears. With a simple reference, years of work and pages of explanation and extrapolation can be simply included in later works. The shiny face of science (writ large) is often attacked as presenting an unbelievable glossy facade of continual progress, development building upon theory upon hypotheses upon experimental results; the very shiny model of a modern Bacon scientist. This facade, polishing over untold years of misdirected research, countless false hypotheses and a vast amount of work that goes unrecognised for political, personal or institutional reasons, is blatantly false. But it can be explained by the simple desire to bring the student of science up to speed in a given field without them having to recap the entire history of that field. The desire is to pass on the knowledge and understanding to the student or other interested party in the most comprehensible and compact form. Mathematicians refer to "God's Book" which contains the shortest, clearest and best proofs of each and every mathematical theorem. The false attempts, the misguided theories, the failed explanations are (usually) left to rot in the gloom. This rationalisation is most extreme in the sciences, but must appear in all other fields in order to ensure that e.g. it takes less than two millenia to become a christian theologian.
The gift economy that is intrinsic in a citational community is most interesting. In the words of Martin Schoenert, "No one has ever paid a royalty fee for using Schur's Lemma."[2] In academic circles being cited, or even quoted, is a complement of the highest order, the virility of an academic is measured not only in the number of publications, but also in terms of the number of citations those papers receive. In general copies of papers are given to interested parties for free.[3] In the process of this free exchange of information, the continual refinement of results and explanations, the explanatory power of the field increases massively, owing to the continuing process of generalisation, though the amount that is needed to be read does not always increase, and often decreases in the process. Compression.
In this usually academic environment, there are several parallel and mutually reinforcing procedures taking place. As the theory is being thickened, as the original results are being increased in their validity, the process of even thinking about these ideas is being refined. This happens as a result of the results that can be derived for certain classes of these ideas, more importantly, the community involved in this research or investigation begins to develop a special language of their own to talk about the relevant concepts. This process of codification acts mainly to increase the accuracy of discussion; rather than repeatedly explaining a whole idea or class of examples or situations, simple words are developed to refer to them. This is a form of compression that arises in certain situations, principally research-based, but also other areas where knowledge is expanding. Even the introduction of definitions and new language in the education process is related to this process, although the language is no longer dynamic. The interaction of ideas is necessary in this evolutionary process, the citation and reworking of proofs and theorems, lemmas borrowed, language developed. Iterative decentralised solution-seeking.
An interesting aspect of the citation economy is that whole volumes of preceding work can be conveniently ignored or briefly skimmed over when citing certain works. I do not need to understand the depths of statistical mechanics and thermodynamics in order to use some of the ideas of reversible processes that derive from this research, nor do I need to grasp the history of the attempts to solve polynomial equations in order to appreciate or do group theory. This becomes somewhat more difficult when I attempt to read some Deleuzoguattarian text with no prior reading or understanding of their obvious and not so obvious mentors, but at least in principle it is possible. Like a disk jockey, the ultimate consumer, jumping across musical styles to rub hardrock riffs up against classical melodrama or ragga resonance, it becomes possible to use the results of the competent use of (musical) instruments and tools without having to be able to play or use them oneself. This concious naivete has many adherents, dating at least back to Thomas Edison with his "I know nothing about musical notation and have never tried to learn. I am glad that I don't know. I try to form my own opinions." Although we like to maintain that such an attitude is laudable, there is this danger in this naivete that the "uneducated" has no natural defences against attack and infection by those skilled at the concious manipulation of sound (or other) material, the Bryan Adamses or Stock/Aitken/Waterman-s of the world. Like the west German children who grew up to be more asthmatic and allergic than there genetically equivalent east German cousins due to the lack of exposure to immune system educational opportunities, our emotional immune systems can become overly weakened by such hardline naivete.
Naivete comes hand in glove with some kind of arrogant self-confidence, when Edison says that he is glad that he cannot read music [4], he is also dethroning those who can do so. In a world such as ours populated with experts in everything from composting toilets to stock options pricing, a degree of iconoclasticism is fundamental. This is not to say that Art Brut is the only way into the future, that the representation of alien landings by psychiatric out-patients is a direct conduit to the truth of our society. Equivalently, the ease with which sound bites can be collated and made to sound good does not make a musician of every one of us (though sometimes I'm still not sure why not). The fact that stock market prices follow (more or less provably) a random walk does not mean that I can do as well as a well-read and up-to-date broker, although she can (in theory) do no better than a coin-tossing robot. This is a highly competitive environment where "The market is so hard to outguess because so many people are out there doing the guessing."[5] In such situations, where it can be assumed that almost everyone has the same high information levels, possessing this information is no guarantee of success, whilst not possessing it can be a guarantee of failure. There are only so many hours in the day, and just as it is still valuable to leave the wage bargaining to the union representatives who have the time and nerves for it (they have the right knowledge and skills in a competitive situation), it is often more efficient to accept naivete for what it is and to let the experts do the grunt work. This wastage of energy on courses that have been tried and found wanting by each and every such false start is one of the tragic results of the trust in naivete.
On the other hand, and most importantly, naivete allows a fresh and unblemished look at what is actually happening, outside the expectations that one learns in the process of becoming competent. Pentatonic scales are learnt, an untrained ear can actually determine nuances without feeling like what is being played is in fact wrong. By not being blinkered by what has come before, new opportunities for insight become available. This is similar to the technique of introducing random or other non-forecastable aspects into composition and other creation processes, the unexpected becomes allowed.[6] This bind between naivete and knowledge is unsolvable. The more you know, the more you know you don't know. A little bit of knowledge is a dongerous thing. Two truisms that aren's quite true.
It would seem that sampling is becoming the sine qua non of this era. Patchwork careers, constant travel and a revival of nomadism, mix-and-match Ikea homes and lifestyles. It is no longer the case that anyone has a "core competence," a calling or even much of a degree of real independence from mass society. I sample my thoughts, opinions and facts from friends, books, radio, the net, my own intellectual internal random walk. Actually having read, heard and seen the canon is no longer an option.


[1] Janos Sugar "Interview with John Perry Barlow," ZKP2.
[2] Notwithstanding the habit of e.g. Y. Fong to give all his theorems a price based upon the amount of funding that went into the project that produced those results.
[3] Although the institutional libraries must pay for the journals that referee and publish these papers.
This observation sits in contrast to those such as Richard Barbrook in "Holy Fools" who place the credit for the gift economy of the net at the feet of the '68-generation, the hippies, yippies and the New Left. The overwhelmingly academic nature of the net and the gift economy in which it grew and developed must have played as much of a role as the alternative culture community.
[4] Gerhard Hofer, a mathematician, has been known to reply to those who say "I could never do maths at high school" with a short "and I can't read."
[5] "Capital Ideas," Peter L. Bernstein, p 134.
[6] John Entwhistle claims that as a result of his classical musical training, he was unable to compose interestingly, "I always knew what was supposed to come next."

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