love and the mechanical sublime

In Adelaide over the weekend, I used Harry Potter as an excuse to experience the Capri Theatre first-hand. The Capri is a majestic, massively high-ceilinged theatre, with wooden floors, and two tiers of plush velvet seats. It is also home to the SA branch of the Theatre Organ Society, and boasts the most incredible theatre organ I’ve ever seen – a modern mechanical marvel featuring 20-foot high pipes, automatic flapping vent things (excuse my ignorance on the details) that kind of act as selective amplifiers, and a battery of percussion instruments (from glockenspiels to snare drums and canastas) mounted on the walls. They’re played via switches and pedals on the organ itself, which – you better believe it – rises from underneath the stage to thunderous, delighted applause from the audience. (A history and lots of photos here).

I’m not satisfied yet that I know what’s going on when we love obsolete mechanical technologies (and, come to think of it, old things, and lost and found things) so much. I could follow a well-trodden cultural studies line, and argue that the ubiquity of the digital (that is, technological plenty, for those who have it) means that cultural capital can only be accumulated by performing your knowledge and mastery of the rare and forgotten as well as the new and undiscovered (that is, technological scarcity). I think maybe part of it is that digital culture, and digital technologies, are so slippery, transparent, and uniformly inscrutable – when they do break, or die, or become outdated, they just sit there like deactivated clones, blank and silent, with their blank little screens. Maybe loving the way that you can see and touch and hear and feel the moving parts of clocks, and cars, and spanners, and pianos, is not only about about their enhanced presence as things, but also something to do with bodies.

8 thoughts to “love and the mechanical sublime”

  1. The affectivities of cars has been one of my concerns!

    Although, with some of the technolgies you are discussing I think there may be rituals of reclamation based around relations of investment that contradict the brutal march of planned obsolescence, also going on in the car enthusiast circles, ie age-based scarcity becomes valued, rather than market-based scarcity. So they are counter-market-based identities, and the investment is determined ‘purely’ by interest-excitement affect. (Which then produces the sign of counter-market identity)

  2. Nice!

    That is definitely the case with the retro desires around old electronic or digital technologies – Commodore 64s, Casios, gaming consoles, whatever…

    But what about old cars, Glen? From the little i know from people who love doing up old cars, there’s a hierarchy of authenticity that’s really complex, not only to do with age, but to do with rarity, make, model, whatever (requiring a historical knowledge of the automotive industry) and *surely* to do with pre-electronic engines and stuff – the thing I hear people say a lot is that newer cars are shithouse because you can’t get in and do stuff with the electronics, whereas with older mechanical engines you have total control over the whole “body”, so to speak…

    Would love the benefit of some of your knowledge, if you don’t mind giving it away for free 😉

  3. bah, that stuff about (hi)techonology and cars is empty rhetoric! here is an infamous Wired article on it:

    The difference between hi-tech cars and low-tech cars from an extreme Virilio-esque perspective is meaningless. Both ends of the spectrum involve the singularity of assisted auto-mobility for humans powered by oil-based energy, and that is what matters. Any difference in the technology is superficial, that is to say, cultural.

  4. I bow somewhat reluctantly to your (enormously) superior car-enthusiasts’ knowledge.

    But I’m going to chew it over – I know there have always been intense confrontations within, say, music (sub)cultures (particularly among musicians) about the mastery of technology vs. automation vs. creativity vs. authenticity ever since the invention of the pianoforte…the ‘digital’ is just another permutation. That’s one way to look at it. The other way to look at it is to say that even though they are both ways to create soundwaves that are read as expressions of human creativity but that are at a remove from the human voice, there *is* something that matters (at least to the intimate user and/or enthusiast) about the difference between mechanical and digital technologies for making music.

    p.s. what’s your opinion of automatic transmission, then?

  5. There are certainly similar tensions at play in enthusiast car cultures! My response above was a bit tongue in cheek. Culture is not ‘superficial’, that is my whole thesis!

    Hmmm, it depends what you are interested in. Like, I would ask in what context was the piano used? I would be interested in the conjunctive social event enabled by the technology of the piano. This would also require architectural technologies perhaps (a ‘piano room’), social machinery (that produces the family, the club, the whatever?) and so on. What technology serves this function now, that is, to produce a similar conjunctural event? Mobile phones or iPods or something? Technology the enables conjunctive social events? That would include booze! Music-bsaed conjunctive social events? History is too long for cultural studies, I think?

    The history of enabled mass-mobility is recent enough for me to engage with it in such a way that doesn’t require too much work!! Otherwise I wouldn’t bother running that line of argument for my thesis.

  6. Oh, auto for the city! I should’ve got an auto, but manual is regarded with esteem amongst enthusiast circles, ie for my fieldwork. Gives greater illusion of control.

  7. Dunno about cars – that is weird (and I am one too, a bit)

    But that particular theatre organ is a triumphant assertion that music is made and lives in a physical universe. It is just SCALE. I think the digital repudiation of the complex interaction with the body to make music is dangerous, and the overwhelming experience of the Mighty Organ is a pointer to the reason.

    They fire the calliope up at Scienceworks in Melbourne every now and again, if you are in town on the right weekend. Not the conference, obviously, because you will be/ will have been when you read this, busy as the proverbial bee.

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