The Ministry of First-Order Expression

Disquiet responds to Jaron Lanier's cranky-old-man view of artistic originality and its supposed disappearance in the welter of Web 2.0 herd technologies. Lanier pens a theory that could have been a wall label in the Third Reich's degenerate art exhibition: "The distinction between first-order expression and derivative expression is lost on true believers in the hive. First-order expression is when someone presents a whole, a whole that integrates its own worldview and aesthetic. It is something genuinely new in the world. Second-order expression is made of fragmentary reactions to first order-expression."

In response to that comes Disquiet's calm, sane voice, as heard in this excerpt:

--Technology opens a window into habits of the past. Technology may perversely magnify some human traits (witness the crowd mentality of message boards, and the double-edged sword that is online anonymity), but it also, in many cases, simply makes them more apparent. Prince borrowed sped-up vocals from Parliament-Funkadelic and Béla Bartók based his compositions on folk melodies and Bob Dylan purloined lyrics and melodies from the blues and the Beach Boys loved Chuck Berry just a little too self-evidently — these are not isolated incidents, but mere drops in the example pool of how musicians who are seen as exemplars of originality in fact used pre-existing culture in pursuit of their own voice. Every bands starts out as a cover band.

--Go beyond the (newly Balkanized) pop charts, and there is a vast expanse of music built from randomness, from shards of sound, from an exploration of silence (digitally enabled silence), from interactive technologies, and, yes, from pre-existing source material (not just from recorded music, aka samples, but from data turned into sound). We are not at the end of musical history, nor is it in sight. Enchanted by new tools, we may be basking for the moment in that very newness, but only to make sense of them, to adopt them into our practice. We may as a culture simply be covering the past as we give those tools a test ride.

See also Daniel Albright on Poulenc and Surrealist Music: giants of second-order expression have been around for a while. Jungle drum and bass is an example of a new (now old) kind of pop music that was developed by faceless scenesters rather than first-order ubermenschen.