Burn, Baby, Burn

Curator's Note

The second half of the July 12, 1979 double-header between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers never happened. That night was Disco Demolition Night: White Sox management had invited local shock jock Steve Dahl to destroy a mass of disco records between the first and second games. Standing in center field in a military dress uniform and a combat helmet, Dahl exploded a large box containing thousands of discs brought to the stadium by fans. After the explosion, the crowd stormed the field, and amidst the ensuing chaos the Sox were forced to forfeit the second game.

The politics of disco and of the antidisco backlash are both well known, and Dahl’s reminiscence in this clip links those domestic dynamics to the ambient trauma of Vietnam and American imperialism more broadly. But the camera’s tight focus on the exploding box also foregrounds the politics of demolition itself in relation to objecthood and materiality, particularly the fragmented materiality of the records exploded that night, and it’s those fragments that I’m most intrigued by here. In focusing such close attention on Dahl’s demolition box as a kind of archival crucible, I want to suggest the possibility of a politics of media archeology by way of extreme specificity—an archeology not of lost technology, but of particular lost technological objects.

Approaching the demolition at this microscopic level opens up a range of questions that bear on the politics of the archive, temporality, and materiality. How might we conduct an archeology not of the cultural politics of disco, but of the cultural politics of discs—discs that are lost, splintered, burned, warped beyond recognition? Reconstructing the demolition, we are faced with an event paradoxically premised upon the destruction of its own most crucial and visible evidence. What would a catalog of these discs look like, and what trajectories of consumption, possession, and disposal might we see within it? Many of the fans in attendance presumably bought records for the sole purpose of contributing them to the demolition, records that were never even played: how do we figure such an action into the gestural, economic, political, and material dynamics of the demolition? Ultimately, what does it mean to imagine the politics of media archeology not though the broad strokes of emergence or obsolescence, but in terms of a flashing, momentary destruction, a starkly material end where objects leave the archive rather than enter it?

Comments

Matthew Stoddard's picture

war, materiality, value and sabotage

Paul, Thanks for starting this week with such an interesting post. Your approach to the sudden destruction of media objects provides a lot of potential lines of inquiry for thinking about a politics of media archaeology. (In my own area of research—film preservation and restoration—your example brings to mind tales of numerous fires in film archives, and in early cinemas.) As indicated in a somewhat glib manner by Dahl’s commentary, the history of warfare is certainly a rich arena for examining a politics of media archaeology vis-a-vis the destruction of media. It also appears to me that the ephemeral nature of acts like the disco demolition highlights some overlap between this sort of politics and the politics of performance art. In any case, one thing that seems crucial here is the nature of what is produced in tandem with what is destroyed. Again, an example from scholarship on film preservation/restoration: during the nitrate era, studios routinely destroyed reels of nitrate film in order to extract the silver from the film stock. Here, destruction entails a modulation of the materiality of the media object, which is also a production of value. In your video, one indication of this productive side of the destructive act is the roar of the crowd as the box of records explodes. This might invite an analysis wherein the material of the vinyl is put on a spectrum with the bodies/brains of those in the stadium (and watching on television)—Dahl’s comment about having pieces of vinyl shrapnel lodged in his body is a particularly vivid account of this material spectrum. I wonder how the production of value, and its associated politics, might be tracked across such a manifold materiality. Finally, in light of the recent revelations about the NSA’s spying programs, I’m interested in how this type of media destruction might also work as a subversive act. For instance, the destruction of data records as a way for huge amounts of people to confound and elude the state apparatus… which also calls attention to how the flashing and momentary ‘crashes’ often associated with new media might be thought in relation to these sudden destructions of older media.

Snowden Becker's picture

Destruction vs. Non-selection

Great stuff! Like Matthew, I’m coming at this with some of the perspective of the film preservationist/archivist, and find particularly powerful that moment where, as you put it, “objects leave the archive rather than enter it.” There’s a broad (and not always easy to parse) spectrum of agency and technological determinism in these moments, as well as varying levels of materiality to the objects themselves. Television archivists can cite the penciled lists on the insides of cardboard box lids which function as repositories of those moments. Show titles and episode numbers were written and crossed out as individual episodes were recorded, then recorded over, on costly early tape stock. Some kinescopes, film masters, or duplicates of those episodes did survive, but for the most part, each struck-through line represents a blank spot in broadcast history, a space left to be imperfectly filled by surrogates like scripts, stills, audio tracks, and oral histories. Digitizing whatever contents were left on the tape when the proverbial music stopped does nothing to capture the nature of that object as palimpsest. (Dan Einstein, TV preservationist at UCLA’s Film & Television Archive, is one person in particular whom I’ve heard discuss this phenomenon, but it’s also known among Dr. Who fans who are still lamenting the loss of 106 episodes, primarily from the 1960s, who note that at the time, “the medium was more valuable than content recorded on that medium.”) And the tale of distribution prints being systematically trashed for their silver, which Matthew cites, was thoughtfully revisited and interrogated recently by Caroline Frick in her book “Saving Cinema.” To the “destruction as material modulation and value production” point Matthew makes, Frick adds the observation that there were often contractual or legal imperatives driving this destruction (p. 66)—so both salvage and penalty avoidance must be considered as (interwoven, inextricable) parts of the economic dynamics of media destruction. And it probably goes without saying, but is still worth noting that audiovisual media are hardly the first to be subject to politically-, economically, or other-motivated and systematic destruction. We have Fahrenheit 451 and actuality footage of book-burnings, past and present, as well as publishers’ matter-of-fact records of remaindered copies being pulped, or Nicholson Baker’s scathing critiques of weeding in public library collections. Regardless of how that destructive event is presented or framed, it seems to have a unique power to shock. What’s funny about all of this, though, is that much of the work of an archive—and almost the entire function of archival appraisal, whatever its theoretical basis—involves the quieter, more passive, and more broadly impactful, but MUCH less spectacular process of non-selection. There’s far more stuff out there that just doesn’t make the cut for collection, let alone canonization, and very, very little in the literature that captures the (very frequent) moments when someone, somewhere is faced with something and decides, “no thanks—it’s not for us.” Through footage like this clip, we can revisit and renew the act of destruction as we lament it—but for the act of non-selection, we must do our ruing restrospectively, and without visual aids.

Paul Benzon's picture

Anti-Preservation

Thanks, Matt and Snowden, for these great comments — questions of preservation and archivization are a larger part of what intrigues me in the demolition, and the points of comparison and connection you both point out are really illuminating. The key difference in this case, I think, is the question of reproduction: while artifacts like the Dr. Who episodes Snowden mentions are presumably entirely gone, “blank spot[s] in broadcast history” with nothing to fill them, the records destroyed at the demolition are presumably all copies that exist elsewhere in other copies. I’d hazard that many of them were fairly common disco hits that the non-fans in attendance grabbed (perhaps from a local record shop, perhaps from a confused home collection) to have something disposable for purpose of participating in the event — in the longer clip I link to in my original post, Dahl mentions the Bee Gees by name, for example, and I can imagine thousands of copies of “YMCA,” released the year prior to the demolition, going into that box as well. The prospect of destroying a rare record that night, let alone a master, seems out of place here, counterintuitive (albeit in a fascinating way).

In that sense, Matthew is right that this event is of a piece with performance art in its ephemerality and the largely symbolic nature of Dahl’s intended “end” of disco. And yet that symbolic end is so profoundly material, producing a large pile of shrapnel destined for a Chicago landfill. On the other hand, how many of the thousands of fans who rushed the field might have grabbed pieces of that shrapnel as souvenirs, preserving them in hidden, personal memory collections? There’s also the fact that this event took place within the context of a baseball competition, bringing about the forfeit of the second game to be played. As per Major League rules, that game was recorded with a score of 9-0 in favor of the Tigers — another absent presence created by the demolition.

Matthew Stoddard's picture

pop and its afterlives

Paul, you make a very good point about the scarcity, or lack thereof, of these objects. In addition to the Dr. Who episodes Snowden mentioned, there is also the slowly fading, and perhaps irreplaceable, copy of the film A Message to Garcia, which Catherine Russell writes on in her post for this week. In this light, the disco demo opens onto a very complex economy of forces in which the destruction seems to be a (feeble?) reaction against the mass reproducibility of these records—a reproducibility that seems to guarantee their longevity in public consciousness (and on radio playlists in decades to come) over and against what was perceived to be their lack of artistic merit. Furthermore, one might argue, though I’m not sure its true, that it was a perceived lack of seriousness and timelessness in disco music, that is, its pop sensibility (versus the transcendence of modernism), that at one and the same time drove endless duplication and this gesture of destruction against that duplication. There is a strange circularity here in which something like “taste” also enters the picture, as well as, as Catherine points out, kitsch. Thanks again Paul.

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