Parallel Processing

Parallel Processing

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading Foucault’s On the Order of Things, selections from The Essential Peirce, Hayden White’s Metahistory, and Eco’s Kant and the Platypus in a strange parallel fashion. It helps me to stay busy and avoid being crushed by all the emotional stuff. The strange thing about this particular behavioral quirk is that I tend find myself lost in convergences of the most peculiar sort.

Spending so much time in Ft. Smith Arkansas, I’ve been sightseeing a little too. There was an odd sort of convergence there too. In the upstairs display area of the Ft. Smith Museum there was another sort of “ah-ha” moment. On display were some matchboxes featuring Betty Boop and Popeye poised next to one of the first “flexi-disks” (cardboard coated with plastic to make cheap phonograph records)— Betty Co-ed!. It made me think about the parallel expansion of both audio and visual media across the 1930s. While I was certainly planning to mention the first unmediated access to the public by a U.S. president (FDR’s fireside chats), I had not thought about the proliferation of sound recordings, available to a general public rather than just a well-off elite, which occurred during the same time frame. I can’t remember the name of the process mentioned in the display—first patented in February 1931—which was used to coat the cardboard to produce the records. I need to go back to the display and jot it down. But by August (the month Betty Co-ed was released) it was a popular sensation. I tried looking in The Recording Angel by Evan Eisenberg, the best reference I have on that topic, but it wasn’t listed. However, Eisenberg had an interesting thing to say about parallel processing:

When it was disclosed that Jimmy Carter was in the habit of reading two or three books concurrently while listening to classical music, the vagaries of his administration might have been foretold. Later, Helmut Schmidt complained that his best ideas got lost in the background music of the Oval Office. It is a very subjective thing, but I think most people would agree that analytical work and the assimilation of information are hindered by music, unless the music is either simple or familiar. Creative work, on the other hand, can benefit from music in a number of ways. (80)

I’m not sure about this. I have noticed that I listen to a lot less music now that my work is primarily “analytical” compared to when it was creative. However, I always listened to music while working in the darkroom—an activity that really isn’t what I would call “creative”—it’s actually far more analytical than creative because you have to carefully work to discern fine differences in mood and tone in a print rather than “create” something that wasn’t there before. However, I do agree with Eisenberg’s assertion about Musak:

Musak is a quiet challenge to the sonic order of a free society, which is properly an equilibrium of diversities.

I cannot bring myself to tolerate“background music”—music should be challenging or not at all.

A quick web search for Eisenberg on the web didn’t turn up anything interesting, except earcandy. This site by a Ph.D. student has an interesting essay on sound recording in PDF which reminded me of the simultaneous rise of “High Fidelity” sound recording with the documentary photography tradition. The quest for “realism” in sound recording also lead to the ultimate ideal of disappearance of the equipment and its operators and the sound of itself, just as the presence of “personality” or expressiveness on the part of a documentary practitioner was deemed a liability. The quest for impartiality in sonic landscapes arose at the same time as the call for impartiality in human ones. An impossible ideal, to be sure, but a similar unit of measure—disappearance.