jukeboxes

The celestial jukebox was thus magical, in the anthropological sense. Like the Trobriand gardening spells cataloged in Bronislaw Malinowski’s Coral Gardens and their Magic (1935), the celestial jukebox conjured an ideal situation in which mediation was “costless”—free of the “drudgery, hazards and investments which actual technical activity inevitably requires” (Gell 1988, 9). “Yam roots will strike down into the soil with the swiftness of a green parrot in flight, and the foliage above will dance and weave like dolphins playing in the surf,” and anyone will be able to listen to their favorite song at any time in any place (Gell 1988, 9). Alfred Gell, making a case for the similarity between magic and technology, described magical statements like these as positing “an ideal standard, not to be approached in reality, towards which practical technical activity can nonetheless be organized” (Gell 1988, 8). Magic’s efficacy, then, was not a matter of occult operations, but the orienting power of idealized visions, which downplayed their practical challenges (see Elish and boyd 2017 on magical discourses in machine learning and artificial intelligence, and Singleton 2013 on this theme in relation to outer space and escape).

Theodor Adorno remarked in 1964 that “innumerable so-called utopian dreams […] have been fulfilled,” including the satellite dream of transcontinental communication, but “one is not happy about them. As they have been realized, the dreams themselves have assumed a peculiar character of sobriety, […] of boredom.” On unhappy holiday in the Swiss alps a decade earlier, Adorno watched the nightly transit of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, from the roof of his hotel, writing that the satellite

could not have been distinguished from a star, not from Venus, had it not been tottering on its course. That is what mankind’s victories are about. What they dominate the cosmos with, the realised dream, is dreamily shaken, ohnmächtig [powerless and unconscious], as though it sought to tumble. (qtd. in Benzer 2011, 222)

Integral to utopia, for Adorno, is not the magical promise of ideal futures, but rather the actual experience of disappointment in the gap between the orienting vision and the present experience. In his Introduction to the Sociology of Music, also published in 1962, year of Telstar and La Pénsee Sauvage, he aimed this critique at the original, terrestrial jukebox, which he saw, like satellites, as distracting novelties for the feeble-minded: “the jukebox in an empty pub will blare in order to lure ‘suckers’ with its false pretense of revelry in progress,” embodying “the ‘rip-off,’ a fraudulent promise of happiness which, instead of happiness, installs itself” (45).

“The fulfillment of utopia,” Adorno claimed, “consists in general only in a repetition of the ever-same,” a dispiriting stasis, like gaining access to a majority of the world’s music and listening only to a familiar Dave Matthews Band album, again and again (Adorno and Bloch [1964]1988, 2). Or, as David Byrne would sing 20 years later, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens” (Talking Heads 1979).