Some Ramblings on the Creeping Demise of Things

16 01 2013

HMV

I was quite dismissive on twitter of the demise of HMV but I stand by the fact that it was no surprise. Today’s news that Blockbuster is also to go into administration leads me to reflect more widely on things, physical, hold-in-your-hand things. I don’t really have a point to make here, these are just some various thoughts that I haven’t really organised or refined. Feel free to shout them down if they’re nonsensical.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that what I’m about to pontificate on is essentially of little or no importance compared to the 9,000 or so people whose jobs are at risk as a result of these two firms going into administration. This too on the back of the recent Jessops news. That’s what really matters.

That point made, I wasn’t sad to hear about HMV’s likely collapse because to me it has long been dead. It played a pretty significant role in my musical youth, I would often stop at the Pallasades store at the top of the ramp in Birmingham on my way to work at Pizza Hut and stop back in again with my tips on my way home. I used to love the ‘GREATEST EVER SALE’ that happened every year (though was dubious about how it could be greater each year than the last) with its 3 for £10 albums. If I was lucky and I’d made £20 in tips (and not spent it on beer and buckets of chicken wings in the pub) I could get six. The great thing being, after leafing through everything on the offer racks for some time, I would only ever find four or five that I really knew that I wanted. The fifth or the sixth would be a wild card or two. I certainly would have come later to records like Screamadelica and Harvest had it not been for this offer.

I also spent a lot of time in the flagship Oxford Street store when I was a student in London. They actually had a really great vinyl selection at the time. I also recall the first time I stumbled into the Jazz and Blues section on the very top floor. Cordoned off through a glass partition to keep the pop and rock lightweights at bay, it was like visiting a specialist indie shop within the country’s biggest music supermarket. The staff in there (I could probably safely say the guys in there as they were uniformly male) had genuine expertise, they could really tell you which of the myriad Son House or Howlin’ Wolf compilations was the one that you really wanted. People with knowledge should be treasured.

I went into HMV in the Bull Ring at Christmas. I left without buying anything. What music they had was shoe-horned in to the back of the store. Best-selling DVDs were stacked head-high on the floor everywhere you turned. I’m sure there was plenty of staff there whose knowledge should also be treasured, but there was nothing of interest in the store to ask them about. It was Christmas so it was busy, but it was clear that this store was already dead.

In a round about way, this brings me to the first point I want to make about things and that is their intrinsic relationship with people.

People

The thing about actual physical objects is that they rely on people in a large number of ways. Yes, CDs are mass-produced in largely automated factories, but they still have to be made and there are people who have to do that. There is something important about taking one thing, putting it together with something else and producing something new. With music this happens in a number of ways – there’s the actual physical production of the CD or record from the various raw materials but there’s also the combination of that physical object with the recorded sound itself. You can argue the recorded sound (or the words of a book) is what’s really important but there is something about the human role in making these into enduring objects, into things, that is important. You can also create something greater than the recorded sound alone – a record is for playing, but a gatefold sleeve or limited edition white vinyl may have greater meaning than the song alone. A chair is for sitting on, but how does it look in your room?

Once you have made a thing, you have to move it around. People have to do that too. A person has to choose how to display it, how to organise it relative other things (more on this later) and so on. There is skill and knowledge involved in all of this. Knowledge of how best to do it from a functional point of view of navigating the things, but also knowledge of what the things contain and therefore how they should logically be ordered. People interested in the things can pick them up, interact with them, feel them and, importantly, ask other people about them. People may see you picking them up and ask you about them.

Now I recognise that to produce an e-book or a new type of codec for a music file there are people involved, but it’s not the same as physically producing things. I also understand that the reason what I’m listening to on Spotify is pushed to facebook is so that people can interact with that in the same way they might if they were Keith Richards seeing Mick Jagger clutching a load of Blues LP’s on that fateful morning on Dartford station. But I do feel like there’s something missing versus a physical connection between a person and a thing bringing about a connection between someone else who relates to that thing.

Ownership

When you buy a thing, let’s stick to the theme and say it’s a CD from HMV (or even from Amazon for that matter) you take it away and it’s yours to do with as you please. Being overly concerned about your ability to possess things is probably not all that healthy a trait, but it is important to note that many of the substitutes for things are far less ownable. Much has been written about this in the wake of stories like that of a Norwegian woman whose Kindle was wiped for breaching Amazon’s terms and conditions so it’s ground that may not be worth covering again, but suffice it so say that whilst my children will inherit all of my CDs and records, they may well not inherit your iTunes library.

Relationship with other things

First and foremost, physical things take up space. If the number of things we possess declines then the space we have increases. That is potentially a large positive in an increasingly cramped world but let us take an example through to its conclusion just so we can understand the other implications. If you no longer buy or own books, you will no longer need a bookcase. Many bookcases are beautifully crafted, some are just from Ikea. Either way it is likely you have chosen your bookcase(s) to fit in a specific space in your house. It is likely you have positioned them relative to other furniture. It is likely you have sought to match them to other furniture – you may have sought to match other furniture to them. There will be gaps in homes which have for hundreds of years been filled with bookcases. Some homes may even have been designed with spaces for bookcases specifically in mind. Where you place other furniture, even how we build our homes may change as we have fewer physical objects. I am not placing any value judgement on this, I am simply trying to highlight that there is cultural significance to the demise of things beyond simply the thing itself. Things exist in a system in which they are intimately related not just to us as their owners or users but to the other things around them. Culture is liquid and something will expand to fill these gaps, but for now they will exist.

Display

I have heard it said that you should not trust someone whose TV is bigger than their bookcase. Even if you subscribe to such cultural elitism, this is no longer a particularly useful benchmark as many of the most avid readers now have all of their books, not on display but stored neatly in their Kindles. This too is significant. I’m sure I’m not alone in studying the spines of books and CDs in people’s homes and forming judgements on the basis of what I see. I’m sure I’m also not alone in knowing others do this and selecting which books or CDs I might choose to display more prominently in order that people draw the best conclusions about me that I can engineer. Our old friend Baudrillard would call this is the sign value of things – how they relate to one another with in a complex system and in so doing signify certain meanings – one record is not functionally better than an other, but it signifies something very different. But if our things are no longer on display and are no longer directly and physically related to one another then that sign value perhaps becomes harder to determine and harder to form judgements upon. That may well be a good thing, Baudrillard would certainly have thought so – but again, I like the discovery angle that is attached to other people’s things. Discovering new things, but also discovering things about the people who own them. I understand Baudrillard’s argument that this tangled system of objects is one of the things that ensares us into consumerism – but I like things, I like them in and of themselves but I like them as enduring cultural artefacts too.

I have rambled on long enough and as I warned at the outset, I’m not sure I’ve made a coherent point about anything, but I suppose that’s what blogging is all about, isn’t it?

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