The Poetics of Techno-Melancholy, Part 1

The types of art that I find most engaging are those that include what I would call techno-melancholy or techno-dread. This aesthetic celebrates the possibilities of technology and the post-human-ness, which is a light, airy feeling, and is mitigated by a deep melancholy or fear of the vastnesses to which technology makes us privy. This vastness is a corpulent and ever-expanding waste land of code and data.

This aesthetic is also a catalyst for what I call the knowledge paradox, which means that part of knowing any given field or area of knowledge implies knowing what you do not know about that field. Accruing knowledge means that I also acquire anti-knowledge. This is the dark matter of anyone’s knowing, and it serves the ego to pretend that it does not exist, which sublimates the growing inadequacy that comes in tandem with knowledge to the culturally favorable status of mastery. Any work one does in getting acquainted with a field is mere surface scraping, superficial digging. Mastery is illusive and elusive. Technology is instrumental in servicing the knowledge paradox, but it does not do much to relieve the stresses created therein, except to offer capsules and headlines that aid in the breadth of one’s scrapings. These are like crumbs of dirt that get caught in one’s arm hairs.

Techno-melancholy mixes momentary deep satisfactions of access to and experience of things that heretofore I might not ever have discovered (let alone gained near-instant access to them) with the unfulfillable dream of also observing or engaging with the infoscape, the fat of the land. I would liken the old feeling of gaining knowledge of a field to climbing a mountain that was always enveloped in fog, save for the ridge or face upon which you happen to be climbing. In this way, the experience of the mountain’s vastness does not happen so quickly, as I have only the present moment’s discrete ridge to focus on along with the internal memory I am constructing of my experience in climbing.

As present piece and memory, the mountain’s totality is not revealed and feels more manageable. Technology’s addition to knowledge is more like climbing in the full sunlight of a clear day, in which the mountain is exposed for all of what it is, base to summit. In this instance, I have to cast my abilities as a climber in relation to the possibility of the mountain as a totality. In full exposure to a vast expanse of mountain, I am more inclined to succumb to the mountains stresses, as the illusion of progress often causes summit-thinking rather than focus on the singular task at hand. This can lead to premature defeat at the hands of the stress.

The tension of experiencing this kind of worldview, however, can fuel artistic productions that use the dialectic to edge us toward the sublime. In terms of my engagement, the kernels of techno-melancholy begin in Radiohead’s album OK Computer. This album uses concepts of avatar creation to revision the self in the midst of surveillance paranoia. Thinking and being, in the world of OK Computer, are not enough. The concepts of thinking ahead and being elsewhere become more important, which, when looking back, feels even more visionary and revelatory than the album did at the time.

The opening track “Airbag” is as good a place to start as any to reveal the techno-melancholic dialectic. The track uses the premise of self-mythologization as its premise, from the grandiosity of the opening guitar chords to the refrain “In an interstellar burst / I am back to save the universe.” This is not unlike the ubermenschen we create when we make our second self in Facebook, in our web presence.

The key into the dialectic and the feeling given off by the album is in the lyrics containing the song’s title: “In a fast German car / I’m amazed that I survived / An airbag saved my life.” The embodiedness of our speaker here does not matter as much as the technologies upon which his being is predicated, where the zero-sum game of existence is replaced by a technological waltz. One technology, the “fast German car,” needs another to offset the probability of disaster implied within car’s existence.

What really gives pause here is how the decision to live or not is mediated by the technological interplay. “Airbag” is decidedly ambivalent about how one should feel in the presence of technology transporting one literally in the vehicle and metaphorically by making us feel thought-ahead-for. Whether the speaker wanted to continue living or was attempting to commit suicide is irrelevant, the technologies’ accord make the speaker appear to be superhuman, so why not believe one is exactly that? That “Airbag” also was the vehicle for the Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP, which questions whether an airbag makes one less cautious behind the wheel, like the “How’s My Driving: Dial 1-800-Eat-Shit” bumper sticker, knowing that technology has thought ahead for potential human error.

Of course, Radiohead uses all kinds of technological artifice to create their techno-melancholic aesthetic (distorted guitars, computerized voices, computerized music) across the Kid A, Amnesiac, and IN RAINBOWS albums, pulling back some on Hail to the Thief and The King of Limbs, as if these more traditional rock-oriented albums are humanity checkers. The choice to use expand their use of technology has drawn criticism, citing Radiohead being not-music or being part of an altogether-new category of post-rock music. Technology is part of a dread- and paranoia-creating palette of musical options that appears to be at war with the ideal of the artist as genius creator. In fact, the criticism of Radiohead for their use of “synthetic” technologies is hilarious, considering rock music’s popularity is predicated on technology (electric guitars and amplification, both of which have ceased to be identified as technologies any longer because they are so taken for granted).

I see Radiohead’s music as having certain correspondences with newer bands like Battles and Animal Collective, both of which focus on obstructing the lyric elements in their music. The lyrics of a popular, each of these bands might argue, are distracting, using language to sway a listener’s attention away from the conceptual core of the song, rather than the lyrics being seen as part of the music. Lyrics help corporate media outlets to sell a song’s concept in a snippet, a sample, an iTunes preview, rather than forcing a listener to find a correspondence between the lyrics as part of the song in total.

On Merriweather Post Pavilion, I find Animal Collective to be experts at embracing divergent concepts in the music and lyrics, where the vocal fits in with the dreamy, pop-infused psychedelia, but the lyrics do not quite merge. My favorite example of this is the tune “Daily Routine,” which is the techno-melancholic answer to the Beatles’s “A Day in the Life” across forty-plus years. “Daily Routine” features tension in its slightly off-kilter organ music and the pounding synth drums. The lyrics are distorted and percussive echoing or echoed by the percussion and punctuated by the psychadelic organ, which sounds not unlike an alarm clock in the back of the lyrical dreamscape, populated by the narrator, his “kid,” and machines (presumably not only the machines used that make music but also seemingly the bicycle which transports narrator and kid).

Animal Collective and Battles, by using minimalism and deliberate obfuscation of lyrics, challenge the attention, and the pull of divergent forces on the attention is a large part of techno-melancholy that I will write more about in an upcoming post.

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