Deconstructive Surgery: Self, Sampling and the Question of Authorship


Derick Rhodes
ENCR 481

In his essay "The Death of the Author," Roland Barthes describes the evaporation of authorial ego in the modern era:

"Once a fact is recounted - for transitive purposes, and no longer to act directly upon reality, i.e., exclusive of any function except that exercise of the symbol itself - this gap appears, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins." (Adams 1131)
Barthes finds that the death of the author, and the emergence of a "voice" which has lost "its origin," are simultaneous events in the beginning of "writing." As in the similarly deconstructive texts of Derrida and Foucault, he explores the position of "the voice" as it is transformed by a new, singularly functional existence. This discursive strategy, which allows for the appearance of a vague, ominous "gap" between the origin and realization of "writing," reveals a seemingly endless range of possibilities to which the concept of "authorship" can be applied.

The act of sampling, in its most simple form, is the "exercise of the symbol," or the recounting of pre-existing symbols beyond their original contexts. Through the process of transference from one context to another, however, the sampled "voice" not only loses the privilege of having an identifiable point of contextual origin, but the sample itself necessarily becomes the only viable referent which can act in the re-shaping of its own, independently resurrected, identity. Once a "voice" is excerpted from one context and projected into another "for transitive purposes," it necessarily discusses only itself.

In the digital age, the range of possibilities in the application and interpretation of sampling techniques involves a multiplicity of technological, social and environmental factors as varied and complex as the workings of language itself. The success of our media (in the broadest sense of the word), economy, and communications systems solely depends on the success or failure of various sampling techniques. What would once have been an unreadable mix of unattached referents, a series of chaotically clipped narratives and self-referential allusions, through the gradual integration of sampled forms, becomes an evening of entertainment or work. An example of this would be the two-hour block of program-free commercials that airs on one of Germany's national television stations nightly.

The immense subjectivity which accompanies the mutation of contextuality and origin, though it may initially undermine the intentions of the creative artist, later becomes a principle ingredient in the formation of the future of his or her works. This implies that, in the age of sampling, no work is allowed the easy death of closure. Instead, works are endlessly mutated and sampled, constantly appearing and fading on different levels of an exterior discourse.

"When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work," Eliot once wrote, "it is constantly amalgamating disparate the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes" (247). Sampling technology, as accessible as it is today, allows artists and others to join "disparate experience" with unprecendented ease and comfort, to the extent that the act of transforming, or "recounting," media is something most Americans participate in, knowingly or not, at numerous moments in the course of a day. Whether jumping from one source to another on a computer network, rewinding a rented movie to review a particular scene, or simply switching radio stations on a car stereo, we have become masters of sampling our media.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Eliot never had the opportunity to sit in the midst of the "modern" American family through the course of an evening of television viewing:

Here we have a wonderful look at father, sitting lackadaisically in his easy chair. It is, perhaps, 9pm somewhere in lovely eastern New Jersey, and the big game is about to begin! The calm children , sitting at his feet, are waiting for mother to bring the tray of lemonade from the kitchen. Just look at their little eyes! When she arrives, and the family is complete, the amalga mating is set to begin. Father, already committed to the big game, also suggests intermittent bursts of "Predator Night," of the Discovery Channel. Mother casts her vote for a dramatic Movie of the Week, and also mentions the Home Shopping Network as an exciting option. The children, immaculate in their new playclothes, politely ask for their favorite re-runs: "Who's the Boss?", "The Brady Bunch", and "Full House ." And so the viewing, in which exciting new wholes are formed from the disparate experiences of predators, citizens, athletes, housewives, cartoon characters and police officers, begins the family realizing the ultimate goal of their poetical aspirations.
(Rhodes, "of the Shopping Network")
In his work Man in the Holocene, Max Frisch relies on a similar amalgamation of sources in creating the textual world of his senile character, Herr Geiser. Frisch, through Geiser, includes segments of the twelve-volume German Brockhaus Encyclopedia, a two-volume Swiss lexicon, a travel guide, popular science books, and a geographical manual in his text. The interwoven texts (or "voices") and diagrams which compose Geiser's world, while perhaps indirectly illuminating the condition of the main character, create a sense of ambiguity in our understanding of the relationship between narrator, author and text which is analogous to the complex situation of the poetical television family. In Perspectives on Max Frisch, Gerhard Probst explores the repetition of Geiser's activity as it relates to the structural composition of music. He points out that "musical structure in literature goes with the episodic, the non-causal, and thematic " (171). Similarly, as the example of the poetical television family depicts, each entity composes its own world of information through a compilation of sources which are, ultimately, sampled.

Herr Geiser assimilates the information which defines his reality, like the modern family in its channel surfing, as a series of disconnected sequences, "episodic" in form. The epitome of this style of structure is the television sit-com, with its equally spaced and delivered bursts of comedy, segmented by commercials for fast food, automobiles and shampoo. The sit-com is a perfect model because it refers almost exclusively to the time and space in which it is transpiring...nothing beyond its boundaries can intrude and everything in its past is disposable.

The relationship which develops between subject and object through these types of experiences, from the perspective of Barthes', serves as a catalyst in the demise of their separate functions. In the early stages of this relationship, the creative act of rearrangement, shared mysteriously by a given media and its enactor, cannot be reduced, attributed or justified without the inclusion of both parties. As the line between subject and object fades, however, so that the two participants become one, distinctions between the once separated worlds of art, information and self are irreversibly blurred.

In Simulations, Jean Baudrillard elaborates on the conditions of life in the simulated world, in which sampling technology, and the mentality it generates, have full control. "Everywhere, in whatever political, biological, psychological, media domain," he writes, "where the distinction between poles can no longer be maintained, one enters into simulation, and hence into absolute manipulation---not passivity, but the non-distinction of active and passive" (57-58). Like the emergence of the "gap" in Barthes, Baudrillard catches a glimpse of the rapidly vanishing distinction "between poles" as that which creates the merger of the active and passive modes. His simulated world, or "simulacra," is characterized by "absolute manipulation" because its components are perpetually removed from contextualization.

The history of sampling as an artform is intrinsically linked to the arrival of modern, mass-marketed advertising, in every sense of the word. As advertising itself, whether in the form of government propaganda during the Cold War or as the "scandalous" Jordache Jeans commercials of the 1980's, finds its birth in the recent history of western politics and the culture of capitalism, likewise, popular sampling largely emerges as a vehicle for the exploitation of consumer possibilities.

The intentions of the artists responsible for early experiments with sampling, then, primarily involved socio- political motivations of some sort. William Burroughs, in his early experiments with manual cut and paste audio and textual compositions, certainly falls into this category. His deconstructive intentions, perhaps radical and vague at the time, seem amazingly clear, even predictable, from the perspective of our current cultural situation. Likewise, the work of Brian Gysin and John Cage in the 1950's, which largely consisted of an assortment of collage-like audio compositions, essentially involved the realization of a new critical and creative tool for exploring culture.

Early German sound pioneers such as the industrial bands Einsturzende Neubauten, Kraftwerk and Deutsches Amerikan Freundschaft, however, which primitively incorporated manipulations of samples into their sound collages in the early eighties, were perhaps the first artists to move beyond the merely reproductive rearrangements of their predecessors. Along with Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, who sampled frequently in their early experimental (mostly ambient) compositions in the U.K., and the San Francisco group Negativland, the German bands realized that samples could be, either digitally or manually, easily transformed far beyond their "original" sound.

In a recent interview with the journal 9X2, Negativland's Mark Hosler describes the theoretical complexity which has increasingly surrounded the activities of his band (which he qualifies, curiously, as a "totally intuitive, natural thing") as it has evolved over 15 years:

We're making media that's about media about media. It's a sort of hall of mirrors that is eventually a dead end...If the only thing you can do is make culture that's about the culture, can you actually make culture? (29)
Mr. Hosler's words express the nature of Baudrillard's "simulacra" from the perspective of an artist who knowingly interacts with the "hall of mirrors" of a culture lost in a perpetual state of self-deconstruction. The concept of "making media that's abo ut media about media" is central to the discourse of a sampling "culture." It is, inevitably, a "culture" that simultaneously creates and destroys everything it touches. He continues:
Beavis and Butthead is one of the most popular shows on TV, and I tune into it and find myself laughing at them because you're laughing at the kind of stupid person that enjoys watching MTV.But of course you are laughing at them and the type of audience that would watch MTV except that YOU ARE WATCHING MTV...and you've just been had. I think Beavis and Butthead is the greatest mind fuck; it's a total mindfuck. The people it's mercilessly mocking really love it, and the people who think they are smarter than that and kind of hip and cool know how exploitative the media is, they like it too! (30)
Understanding the "language" of sampling, as with any discourse of its complexity, means recognizing the underlying forms and genres of its application. The four part discussion which follows, then, is historically based on a collection of the primary strategies which have come to govern sampling practices. Each section is accompanied by an "original" composition of isolated samples, and samples combined with non-sampled material (both instrumental and non-instrumental) in order to facilitate the arrival and identification of the terminological and theoretical tools which a truly concise discussion of sampling requires. Perhaps the most important discovery this exercise realizes is the notion that, in the "simulacra," we are ultimately unable to recognize the difference between sampled and "original" sounds.

I. The World According to Limbaugh, or, Sampler Man

Politicians have mastered the art of sound-bite delivery in the last few decades. In the context of a given two minute campaign commercial, an uninspiring manipulation and delivery of combined sounds and images can cost a candidate hundreds of thousands of votes. The competence of an audio editor in the task of digitally "recounting" a pre- recorded bit of speech (in an optimally patriotic manner, of course) takes precedence over the viability of the candidate's promises and plans without question. The success of such political celebrities as Rush Limbaugh largely depends on their ability to become effective sampling machines in a culture which expects to have its thinking shaped through soundbites. Mr. Limbaugh's arrival on the scene corresponds to such phenomena as the popular books-on-tape experience. An example of this type of development is the new company called A+ Audio Guide, which is to be a division of Time- Warner's AudioBooks. The promotion for this new line of products reads:

A+ Audio is the innovative audio study guide series which will help you to better understand, appreciate, and (most importantly?) enjoy great works of literature. With a dramatic presentation by acclaimed actors that gives voice to the printed word, you'll experience classic works as never before. Additional information, both on the tape and in the companion study booklet, provides you with invaluable perspective, including background about the author's social and historical environment, thematic analysis, recommendations for further review, and a critical overview. Welcome to A+ Audio.
As A+ Audio is set to give "voice to the printed" words of "great" literature, forming "critical overview" in the presentation of a text, likewise, Limbaugh contextualizes (often unseen) footage of political activity as he "recounts" it. This level of re collective sampling, solely for the purpose of contextual manipulation, forms the basis of the more complex types of sampling which follow.

In the spirit of Burroughs, Limbaugh can be "recounted" in the manner of the sound-bite terminology which he relies on for fuel. From the first half of his "book" on tape titled See, I Told You So, the deconstructed Limbaugh comes across as slightly intoxicated and more than a little bit confused (1). Technologically speaking, the first example is the most accessible and inexpensive of the four, as it is the type of deconstructive surgery that anyone with a cassette deck can realize in the comfort of their own environment. It reads:

"My wit and wisdom are like lies available nowhere else. Just surrender yourself! In other words, there's nothing on my radio program especially for children, need I remind you? I don't pretend to be a prophet. Yet, this statem ent is much more relevant now than it was when I first made it. Now before we precede any further, know that this is what it's all about: chaos and instability. Well let's set the record straight right here: The killing of cops is the liberal's forte. Me so horny. Me God. I have been so horny. That, God forbid, might offend. What's wrong with stealing? I'm motivated by hate and bigotry. The 1980's, we now understand, should, and will ultimately be, remembered as the decade of fraud and deceit. Ta dee da. Try this folks, try empty, insincere rhetoric."
The exaggerated contextual manipulation in this instance recreates a (hopefully) more subtle form of re-enactment. This lo-fi, updated Burroughsian cut-up functions as a representative of the initial impulse toward the realization of a language of sampling: resequencing. It evokes a line from Arthur Kroker's project Spasm, which addresses the "mediascape" of potential sampling material. "Life becomes a mediascape," Kroker writes, "where every fragment of the cultural archive, and our subjectivity with it, can be resequenced at will, reconstituted into an endless combinatorial of media effects" (66). Kroker recognizes the availablity of culture as a sampled "archive," in which the act of resequencing reconstitues our "subjectivity" endlessly.

II. The Sampled Voice Trapped in Organic Structure

The second section of this discussion involves an unusual juxtaposition of acoustically generated sound, in the form of a guitar composition, with random, intermittent sampling bursts. The majority of sampling which is incorporated into musical comp ositions, at this point, takes place on the British/European Dance music scene. As in the examples generated by Kroker and Gibson on the "Spasm" CD, most recorded sampling in music today consists of the repetition of four or five phrases, which are often digitally manipulated or rearranged, over rapid techno beats generated by an artist's drum machine, sequencer or computer workstation.

Various forms of self-sampling, in which a vocalist might sing a few lines to be sampled and then repeated, have become increasingly popular, especially in the genre of rap music. The world of advertising, just recently, has discovered the consumer appeal of this type of repetitive sampling. In a recent Microsoft television advertisement, for example, as a group of children sing "the world will never be the same again," in the background, a sensitive voice announces that, "The stuff we make is pow erful, listen, it makes you powerful, take it, gather up ideas, wonderful," which is sampled in bits (such as "we make is powerful") and reintroduced in pieces to the song (2) repetitively.

It was the emergence of rave culture in the United Kingdom in the late 1980's, and the popularity of live DJ's which the movement provoked (which also, coincidentally, provoked a dramatic rise in the popularity of illegal substances with long-lasting effects), along with the emphasis on the role of the DJ in rap music, which spawned a massive demand for lengthy, sample-filled, trance techno music as well as danceable re-mixes of standard recordings. The english electronic band Depeche Mode, another pioneering group in the sampling field, has responded to this trend by often releasing up to eight drastically different re-mixes for each of its singles.

The following composition is an attempt to explore sampling outside of the range of the familiar territory of electronic music. It represents the frictional space "between poles," beginning with a sample of Burroughs, who is joined quickly with a sample from a work by Richard James (known as the Aphex Twin), a composer known for mutilating samples light years beyond recognition. As the two voices merge into a distinctionless whole, playing updated versions of Herr Geiser and the poetical television family, the instrumental comes to life (3). A noteworthy characteristic of this composition is that, though an acoustic guitar is the only instrument involved, one of the acoustic tracks has been manipulated to resemble a synthesized sound, forming a bridge between sampled and non-sampled sounds.

III. Madonna Revealed

The sample used in this section is from a Music Television special titled "Madonna - No Bull, the Making of Take a Bow." It consists of a brief excerpt from an interview with Madonna conducted by MTV news anchor Kurt Loder which reads:

MTV: ...Madonna, she's really sweet, she's user friendly...
MADONNA: I'm sweet and I'm a bitch, you know what I mean? And that's always been the way it is, I'm a human being.
This excerpted exchange, reproduced initially as a straightforward sample (4), is further manipulated in three distinctly different sampling exercises. Each successive enactment of the sample in this section reveals a new level of digital manipulation (through relatively commonplace modes of processing) and, as a result, generates a new model for the exponentially escalating discourse of sampling language to engage.

In the second example, the voices of Loder and Madonna are boosted with the aid of a slight digital delay and the addition of a chorus effect. Although this technological massage alters the sample, as each word is regenerated alongside itself, the sample basically exists in its original form. The listener can recognize, with his or her modern ears, that a simple echo effect has been added, but that the basic ordering and structure of the sample (5) has not been manipulated.

The third interpretation, however, marks the beginnings of true manipulation. In this example, the first half of the sample is played through a digital processor, where it is forced to repeat itself endlessly, and the source is paused. The sampling itself does not occur until the first half of the sample, having been momentarily spun, crunched and stretched silly, has been thoroughly washed in a digital delay. The second half of the sample (6) is then released, allowed to begin its life simply, as a straightforward sample, only to end up as a pile of words coincidentally sounding very much like "You know what Madonna wants." (6)

This segment demonstrates the sort of complexity that characterizes the act of sampling in its later stages. Madonna's voice, out of the wreckage of processing, though it remains her voice, is saying something which it has not actually said, even though the ordering of her words is her own. This interpretation raises a number of issues. For example, does the mass-scale inclusion of the sampled voice, which speaks without context or reference, allow the listener to begin to listen without context or reference? Does it imply that, without a centralizing contextuality, we are all, in theory, saying the same things at the same time, which includes everything that can be said? Can we assume that, as sampling technology further dictates our language, we will become capable of assimilating different sounds and words only as minute variables in the construction of a single, all-encompassing sound? Are we unknowingly participating in the construction of a language based on advertising lingo? Will masters of self-sampling, ultimately dictate social, economic and political development simply because they have perfected the art of deconstructive surgery? The final interpretation in this section reveals a great deal about these important issues.

In this last example, the only intelligible word that breaks through is Loder's "Madonna," at the beginning (7). What follows is a radical digital manipulation of the interview's sounds, such that the final product, still composed entirely of sounds generated by the original sample, resembles the noise of a simulated generator of some sort revving into action. The end of this sample bears no real relation to the beginning, or to the interview, or even to what might be considered a commonly experienced type of noise. In relation to the first step of processing, which was essentially an excerpted reproducti on, this interpretation represents a full-circle return (without the knowledge of its history) to an original voice. The structure of this type of evolution bears a striking resemblance Baudrillard's idea of the image in "successive phases" (11).

In the most straightforward form of interpretation, the sample from Madonna's interview "reflects a basic reality" in a new context. In the second interpretation, the reflected reality is perverted by the manipulative action of digital processing. In the third segment, in which a phrase which never actually occurred is generated, the sample "masks the absence of a basic reality" (11). Finally, the outcome of the fourth experiment bears no relation to the initial basic reality, or to any "reality" for that matter, and, in Baudrillard's words, becomes "its own pure simulacrum" (11). The recognizable difference between "simulacrum" and "basic reality," at this point in the sampling process, becomes impossible to determine. As a result, the line of questioning shifts to address the apparent inadequacy of our current language of sampling to express this difference. Is the impossibility of expressing the concept of our current cultural amalgamation of "simulacra" with "basic realities" something which sampling, or any discourse, can overcome? Is there a point at which "the hall of mirrors that is eventually a dead end," perpetuated by sampling, ceases to exist?

The final composition in this discussion, titled"5 Minutes, 52 Seconds and Counting..." represents an attempt at contextualizing the translation that accompanies the transformation of our modern selves and media from one "basic reality" to the next. This composition incorporates each of the types of sampling dissected in the three previous segments, and communicates the type of multiplicity which numerous forms of sampling (generated at various rates and with varying levels of distortion and manipulation), when compiled in one space, creates. Included in this structure are samples of samples, samples of the "basic realities" of actual industrial work, and even self-generating samples. The combination of these generates a unique landscape (8), a new whole, which is nearly impossible to contextualize. It is an example in which the "author" himself sacrifices his knowledge of original context. This factor suggests that the application of a discourse beyond that which relies on structuralist contextuality, a revised discursive strategy that allows for the incorporation of some sense of a central, concrete subject, becomes essential.

In her essay "From One Identity to Another," Julia Kristeva argues that "a definite subject is present as soon as there is consciousness of signification" (1163). She finds this "subject" in the issue of "enunciation," as it "takes shape within the gap opened up between signifier and signified that admits both structure and interplay within" (1164). The final composition, simply because the "gap" itself is as much the "subject" as anything else, seems particularly suited to this type of discourse. This composition's structure, a series of deconstructed structures, insists on a unification of "structure" and "interplay" that demands that the "gap" between contextuality and origin, as expressed by Barthes, becomes "opened up."

In conclusion, we find that sampling applications are both deconstructive and regenerative activities. As such, they dictate that the role of "authorship" must exist only to be perpetually destroyed and recreated. The redefintion of "self," then, in a culture defined by sampling, also occurs perpetually.