Philosophical Reflections on a Broken Record
Primal Scream, Martin Heidegger and other useful things
An upsetting thing happened the other day. I was the proud new owner of Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR (2000) on used vinyl, and as I was removing the price sticker, the record flew out of the sleeve, banged into the rim of a trash can . . . and chipped. This long-playing disk was marred before I had even listened to it. I was shaken, and I began to think.
My mind went to Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). In “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1950), he discusses the nature of things, and makes the famous example of peasant shoes. They’re “mere things” in that they have matter and form and just are, in themselves and separate from us. They are, however, also something more because they’re equipment that’s useful for a purpose beyond anything present to the senses. Furthermore, they’ve been fashioned by human hands, making them also a work of art. Thus, their being encompasses and represents the way of life of a peasant spending days laboring in the fields and returning home exhausted at night.
The peasant woman, however, just wears her shoes. It’s the character of equipment, as opposed to a painting of peasant shoes such as Vincent Van Gogh’s (Heidegger’s example), that it disappears into its function while we are using it and is most fully what it is at such times:
“Only here are they what they are. They are all the more genuinely so, the less the peasant woman thinks about the shoes while she is at work, or looks at them at all, or is even aware of them.”¹
The peasant woman doesn’t give a second thought to her shoes. Similarly, I don’t pay much attention to the electricity in the walls, the mechanisms of my turntable, the stylus at the end of its arm, or a record as I place it on the turntable, at least insofar as I am focused on using these things for the purpose of playing music as opposed to engaging with the nature of the album qua work of art (admiring the cover art, blissing out to a guitar solo, etc.). That’s true most times, but there are other times.
According to Heidegger, we tend to notice equipment when it’s broken.² In Being and Time (1927), he often uses the example of a hammer, so let’s think about that. When you use a hammer to drive in nails, you just use it. You only stop and pay attention if the head is loose, the handle has a splinter, you hit your thumb, and so on. When failing, an object of no note suddenly presents itself to us — like a stereo remote whose battery has died — offending us with its audacity. Why isn’t the darn thing being what it is, i.e., useful?!
My chipped record is a broken hammer. The chip bites near enough to the grooves that I have to place the needle carefully so it doesn’t fall into the gap, meaning I usually start the music a few seconds into the first track. The experience of placing a record on the turntable, ritualistic and mindful yet requiring little thought, has been complicated. Even the record as work of art has been damaged because the chip mars its appearance, highlighting it as mere plastic. When it first broke, I stood and stared at it like it was a cow tool, incomprehensible. No longer an effortless conduit for experience, the disk has become a crude object about which I must concern myself.
Notwithstanding my grumbling, I’ve enjoyed listening to XTRMNTR while writing this. I’m not a big fan of Primal Scream, but a couple disks have made it into my collection, less for their music than for their interesting subject matter. The other is slated for a post when I can find the time. Instead of philosophy, that one intersects pop art, fashion and celebrity — all things for which I doubt Heidegger had any use.
 Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001), 32. Translated by Albert Hofstadter.
 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (State University of New York Press, 1996), 70. Translated by Joan Stambaugh.
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