Precious Bodily Fluids

Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture – Philip Auslander, 1999


Auslander presents a cohesive, complex argument, with acknowledged debts to Jean Baudrillard and Walter Benjamin, regarding the notions of liveness/performance, meditization/recording, and authenticity/inauthenticity. He begins at the juncture of television and theater, demonstrating the way that television’s rise led to theater’s imitation of television tropes, even as television has often mimicked theater. The mass distribution of television (mediatization) renders the idea of an authentic original history, quite literally in the Benjaminian scheme. But Auslander goes on to make a case study of rock, blossoming forth out of rock and roll. Whereas rock and roll was defined by its liveness, rock is defined by mediatization, wherein the recording stands as the preeminent marker. Recordings can be mass-produced, unlike performances. (Although so-called “live recordings” are often made, the term is something of a non sequitur, Auslander points out. Throughout history, there was never such a thing as “live,” since the very term only originated once there was a counterpoint to it: the recording. Now, “live recordings” only beg the question. They remain recordings of events that were live but, once recorded, lose their aura and cease to be live.) In rock, the recording is the index of authenticity, which, although mass produced, is the yardstick against which the trace of the aura is measured: live performances. However, lest we fall into thinking that live performances retain the aura, as Benjamin might have it, Auslander insists that live performances now regularly and repeatedly validate themselves by reference to the recording or to the music video. (Even the music video, however, is derivative. Despite seemingly adding to the experience of a sonic recording, it ultimately detracts from it and is likewise measured against the ultimate in authenticity: the sound recording.) A kind of infinite regress is active here, almost an antithesis (!) of Hegelian history: we can go back, back, back in time and see how every “original” was in fact a mediatized copy of a previous original, and on and on. Auslander deftly notes the way that MTV arguably (from a paranoid, Baudrillardian point of view) “created” the Milli Vanilli debacle in 1989 in which the pop duo was caught on stage (live) lip-synching their music (recording). Auslander first points out that this revelation didn’t bother the younger generation, whose rejection of the rock ideology already understood inauthenticity when they saw it and had ceased to value liveness for itself. He also notes that, despite plenty of rumors before the incident that Milli Vanilli didn’t sing their own music, the episode had legal and industrial ramifications about how bands advertise their concerts and how Grammy awards started to be distributed. The Grammys revoked Milli Vanilli’s award and, within a couple years, gave its prime award to Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album. Auslander shows how the era of Unplugged (in which many rock and pop acts participated) was MTV’s own compensatory reaction (after having sponsored Milli Vanilli’s 1988 tour!) to reestablish a dyad or dialectic that clearly separated the authentic from the inauthentic and restored the balance of capital. Although a side note, Auslander’s observation that Bob Dylan’s participation in the Unplugged movement functions as a rather ironic twist on his controversial plugging-in some twenty years earlier serves to strengthen his point. Finally, Auslander demonstrates that there exists in an unlikely arena a kind of haven for liveness, one in which the freedom of performance goes almost unregulated, that of the legal. A case study of the lawsuit against George Harrison illustrates how the transcription of a performance into a published document creates an Achilles’ heel, legally speaking, a weak spot that would not exist had the live event remained strictly live. One can easily point out the main weakness to Auslander’s study: its situatedness just before the boom of online and digital production within the cultural economy that has further complicated the relationship between liveness and mediatization. For example, Auslander argues that live performances in rock/pop music exist for the support of the audio recordings. Now that music “piracy” is such a ubiquitous phenomenon, it may be more likely that an album/record exists more to support the performer’s tour. What are the ramifications of this argument on film/television/visual media? The issue of piracy dominates, but these media don’t carry the element of liveness that music (at least theoretically) carries. Perhaps another solution exists, but the most visible are the on-screen warnings prefacing a film or (sometimes) TV show, discouraging the viewer from redistributing on moral and capitalistic bases.

This entry was published on August 28, 2013 at 10:31 am. It’s filed under Book Summaries and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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