Now and then
In our supposed age of distractibility, there is a tendency to valorize the ability to focus on a single thing as a feat of strength and endurance, a way to assert one’s “executive function” in the face of a world increasingly oriented toward overriding it. But at what point does the effort to pay attention become too reflexive?
It often happens that I will be in an art museum standing in front of some painting long enough that I begin congratulating myself for “really seeing it” rather than consuming it in a “culinary” fashion (to use one of Adorno’s favored terms of opprobrium) as if there were a certain amount of juice to be squeezed from it and no more. But for much of that time, my mind will not have been preoccupied with any analytical dissection of the painter’s achievement or technique or any of the work’s compositional subtleties but will have been wandering hypnogogically down paths of association that have nothing to do with what I am looking at. Sometimes it seems like that is the point: The artwork holds my interest without my becoming interested in it, so I can sidle into some quasi-Kantian state of aesthetic free play. The more my mind drifts, the more I recognize that I’ve lapsed into a state of pure receptivity while receiving nothing in particular. But sometimes I feel like I am putting on a show of rapt absorption for other people in the gallery, as if my feat of attention should upstage the art that otherwise would command theirs.
I was thinking of this because of this post by Adam Kotsko, which contemplates the “the collapse of a certain regime of attention” that is presupposed by various modes of “high” art: “the expectation — though not always the reality — of a passive, endlessly attentive audience.” But as Kotsko points out, it is not as though immersive and time-consuming forms of entertainment have disappeared. What it means to pay attention has changed:
What the user is supposed to do with this sustained attention is obviously different from the classically modern demand to cultivate subjective inwardness, above all in the expectation of audience participation (in the form of contributing content, rating others’ content, and, well, playing the game)
Kotsko notes that Western classical music — the quintessential art form for the “classically modern” way of paying attention — is “an outlier among world musical traditions is in its near-total prohibition of audience participation,” as though its intent was to train listeners in how to resist collectivity and build out instead a transcendent space of “subjective inwardness” that doesn’t depend on other people but can model an experience of pure autonomy. The struggle to pay attention then reflects the effort required to vanish from the shared world and create that interiority, which is necessarily characterized by its pure inconsideration. “Paying attention” becomes the strenuous attempt to assure yourself that you are doing nothing that anyone else could make use of.
Whereas paying attention, under contemporary conditions, often means performing attention for an audience and in turn securing their attention and approval. It is less qualitative than quantitative. Paying attention means multiplying aggregate attention; it means increasing a work’s measurable circulation. It means establishing points of contact and exchange between people (e.g. “fan culture”) rather than transcending them. It doesn’t prohibit audience participation; it compels it. We know we are “paying attention” when we are participating in some way, with others validating this by noticing. With the “classical modern” form, people knew they were attentive to the degree that they lost sight of other people and absorbed in a work as a proxy for being absorbed with oneself. (This is all basically a restatement of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”)
The changed implications of attentiveness are obvious in the difference between looking at a Van Gogh painting and entering an immersive Van Gogh experience. The “classical modern” attention to the painting presumes we want to transcend our location in space-time and achieve a pure view that also confirms our own incontingency — that our subjectivity isn’t contextual or relational but some sort of singular essence. The immersive experience presumes we attend to something by being inside it with others who notice us noticing things.
The change in what attention means may also play out in how “generative AI” tools are assimilated into social practice. They may be deployed to support the new ways of paying attention through participation, letting us “interact” with works rather than passively appreciate them on their own terms, making that older ideal of appreciation and “subjective inwardness” even more remote from own own experience. Why silently and privately contemplate the mystery of a painting when you can seem to just ask it what it means? Why not pay attention to a work of art by tweaking it according to your whims instead of subordinating oneself to its putative unknowability? Why not test its supposed inexhaustability by putting it through some permutations?
“Now and Then,” a song assembled from old demos and studio ephemera and released as being by the Beatles, seems to me to belong to the same universe of kitsch content as Immersive Van Gogh. As this New York Times Magazine piece by Peter C. Baker notes, it is billed as the “last” Beatles song as though that could make us overlook how the techniques used to make it strongly imply that an infinite number of new Beatles songs could be produced, as long as the legal controllers of the Beatles brand consent to market them that way. It would be no technical challenge at this point to develop an LLM from everything Lennon and McCartney ever played or said and prompt it to generate new melodies and lyrics. Whether these will count as “real” Beatles songs will depend on whatever convention regarding authenticity happens to prevail, and economic incentives and legal structures will play strongly in that. The quality of the simulation won’t matter. People believed Klaatu were the Beatles.
Baker argues that the financial success of “Now and Then” points to a future where “generative AI” is used mainly for the simulation and extension of already existing intellectual property: “While the current legacy-I.P. production boom is focused on fictional characters, there’s no reason to think it won’t, in the future, take the form of beloved real-life entertainers being endlessly re-presented to us with help from new tools.” This will be lucrative as long as the aura that once attached to artworks is thoroughly vitiated, and consumers don’t fetishize the specific details about who or what really made something and why it took a specific, unique form.
One way to help that process along is for consumers to be more invested in their own participation or in their parasocial relation to a performer and other members of a particular community than in any singular display of craft or talent. Generative AI can help further the fan-fictionalization of cultural consumption across the board. What matters then is not the integrity of specific Beatles songs so much as admittance to the expanded field of the Beatles Entertainment Universe.
In assessing “Now and Then” Baker contrasts the “eerily inert” finished product with Lennon’s original demo, which strikes him as “movingly alive,” evoking “an aura of possibility that fits with the song’s themes.” He is speaking from the old paradigm of paying attention, in which a work’s possibilities are interesting only because they are implied and not realized, because they are fodder for contemplation with respect to the final choices that an artist made (or didn’t have a chance to make). He prefers the demo because it retains Lennon’s aura; the finished product feels dead to him because it blatantly reappropriates and dismantles that aura.
But in that reappropriation is implied permission for the audience to do their own reappropriating, once they are sold access to the necessary tools. The way to pay attention to the Beatles at that point will be to re-create their catalog along whatever lines the technology suggests. Why not remake “What Goes On” but with Lennon singing instead of Ringo? Expand “Mean Mr. Mustard” into a longer song. Put Beatle harmonies on the songs of other performers. Whatever you want. If being a Beatles fan is to remain a living possibility, and not a mode of historical reenactment of the era of AM radio and 45s, it may require this sort of participatory travesty.
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