On Format


On the heels of Jonathan Sterne’s recent talk here at UO about FORMAT, I feel grossly underqualifed and inadequate to talk this concept from a sound studies perspective. But, alas, an assignment is an assignment.


I’ve been working on a paper recently on how we got to the point, in our Hi-Fi 3d television society, where we could enjoy the poor video aesthetics of YouTube. As sound studies luminaries like Jonathan, Jacques Attali, and Martin Scherzinger (one of these things is not like the other…) have argued, sound aesthetics is often a gateway into changes in other sensory aesthetic domains. I think this is no exception in thinking about YouTube: I want to suggest that the way we can absorb, and view as palpable, the poor video quality of YouTube is because Napster and other free sound services were able to deliver a pleasurable experience within a system of economic trade-offs (I can enjoy for free if I get over the poor sound). This creates an alternative aesthetic pathway for online content to follow, whereby it is not measured by the cultural logic of high-definition.

Formalism gives us an interesting gateway into the suggestion, particularly Mukarovsky’s semiotic model of aesthetic norm violation. Mukarovsky suggested that we extract literature from its cultural and social embeddedness and analyze it as an object in its own right. He does so by teasing apart the multiple ‘functions’ of literature and art, and focusing on the aesthetic function. Here, aesthetic does not refer to an elitist categorization of transcendence. Instead, it is an inherent quality of all things; it is not a metaphysical category in the Kantian tradition, but a functional one in the sense of Jakobsonian  functional linguistics. The aesthetic ‘function’ foregrounds the object as the subject; it does not affect reality but reflects it. It is a social fact that arises from discourses of pleasure that address the aesthetic function.

But, as Mukarovsky knew, the norm was not static. “Every norm changes by virtue of the fact that it is constantly being re-applied, and it must adjust itself to new circumstance which arise as a result of these new applications… Thus, the work of art always disturbs (sometimes slightly, sometimes considerably) an aesthetic norm which is valid for a given moment of artisitic development” (35).

What does all this mean? There was a process by which mp3’s were enjoyable. Then, there was the opportunity to get those mp3’s for free, with a sacrifice of file integrity and acoustic quality. It was this move that created a separate aesthetic track for ‘online media’, one that separated the online audio from the world of vinyl/record players and eventually blu-ray/3d hdtv. The way we can swallow the poor quality of youtube videos is because their format exists in an aesthetic relationship OUTSIDE of video, because of the systematic norm violation that occurred in audio aesthetics.

Well, there’s also a problem, and it comes from the fact that I’m using a formalist theoretical framework: the understanding of file formats in this way compresses the various dimensions of an object into a single sign economy of aesthetics. We lose sight of the fact that the mp3, as it sat on Napster, was a multi-faceted, multivalent system. We quickly elide the aesthetics of the music and the aesthetics of the medium. In other words, and this is the direction that the work in progress is going, we must account for the pleasure of the music in discourse with the quality—the potential for pleasure—of the file type.

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