It’s almost ironic to find an often synthesizer-heavy electro-rock/pop band like Metric, and lead singer Emily Haines, pleading “Hey! I’m not synthetica” on the title track of their new album, released in June 2012. On second thought, though, as the lyrics suggest, there’s a distinct difference between using synthetic sounds to express human emotions and becoming a manufactured and fabricated being, something made by someone else.
We’re all the time confined to fit the mold
But I won’t ever let them make a loser of my soul
It’s a concern Metric seems to take seriously in relation to the music business as well. Starting with the international release of Fantasies in 2009, Metric has taken complete control of producing and distributing their music through their label Metric Music International. In an interview with the National Post, guitarist Jimmy Shaw explained the magnitude of their decision, “We didn’t make a new record company, we eliminated the idea of the record company altogether.” They use that control to great effect with smart and forward-thinking online distribution and interaction with fans (including recently posting photos on Twitter of free tickets hidden around Manchester for fans to find).
So they don’t want to be a manufactured band whose identity is created and managed by a record label. Cool. Or is there more to the word synthetic than just meaning manufactured and, in a way, fake?
My dad worked in a nylon factory and my mom was a home economics teacher. Pretty much the only use of the word “synthetic” that ever crossed our dinner table was in talking about synthetic fibres. To me, synthetic meant one and only one thing: man-made (and possibly scratchy and delicate in the dryer).
As a young chemistry student I had to change my mind about that. I had to learn to think about any process where atoms and molecules react to form more complicated molecules as synthesis. The name holds whether the process is naturally occurring or artificially facilitated. If it joins things together, it’s a synthetic process.
This makes sense given that the word synthesis, first used in English in the early 17th century, comes from the Latin syntheticus, which was used to describe mixtures and compounds (and also apparently suits of clothing). Syntheticus, in term, came from the Greek syntithenai, from syn- (together) and -tithenai (to put or place).
To dig a little deeper, I took a sift through Google books to see what I could find: how and when was the word synthetic used? The first use I found was from Theophilus Gale’s 1669 The Court of the Gentiles Part 1, in which he attempts to link all classical literature and philosophy back to Hebrew roots. It’s a tome that Stephen Jones in his 1840 New Biographical Dictionary (of the “most eminent persons and remarkable characters in every age and nation”) could only describe as “large and laborious”. Gale wrote:
“As for the kinds of method, we have an account thereof given by Aristotle in his Ethics lib. 1 cap. 4. Discourse begun from Principes differ from such as tend to Principle. By discourses begun from Principes he denotes Synthetic method, which begins with Principes: by discourses tending to principes he intends Analytic method, which procedes from the end to Principes. This he seems to explain more fully in his Ethics. What is last in the Analysis, is first in the Genesis, i.e. the Principe, which is first in the Synthetic method, is last in the Analytic.” (p. 444)
Gale used the term synthetic to describe starting an argument from a generalized principle and working towards specific instances. Adam Ferguson clarified this use of the word in his 1769 Institutes of Moral Philosophy: For the use of students in the College of Edinburgh, in which he wrote, “Method in science is of two kids; analytic, and synthetic. Analytic method is that by which we proceed from observation of fact, to establish general rules. Synthetic method, is that by which we proceed from general rules to the particular applications” (p. 3). We might recognize this as the distinction between inductive and deductive reasoning.
The history of the word in philosophy is, of course, more complicated than that. Around the same time as Ferguson, Immanuel Kant introduced his concept of the analytic-synthetic distinction in his 1781 Critique of Pure Reason. Also working from Aristotle, he used the word in a way closer to the original meaning of bringing pieces together. Synthetic propositions were defined as bringing ideas together that are not contained in one another. For example, the statement “all children are young” is analytic. Being young is already contained within the word child. A synthetic statement might be “all children are curious.” While it may be true, the meaning curious isn’t already contained in the word child.
Even Sir Isaac Newton makes an appearance in the history of the word. He used it in his posthumously published explanation of his differential calculus: The Method of Fluxions (1786):
“And first it may not be amiss to take notice, that in the Science of Computation all the Operations are of two kinds, either Compositive or Resolutative. The Compositive or Synthetic Operations proceed necessarily and directly, in computing their several quæsita, and not tentatively or by way of trial. Such are Addition, Multiplication, Raising of Powers, and taking of Fluxions. But the Resolutative or Analytical Operations, as Subtraction, Division, Extraction of Roots, and finding of Fluents, are forced to proceed indirectly and tentatively, by long deductions, to arrive at their several quæsita; and suppose or require the contrary Synthetic Operations, to prove and confirm every step of the process.” (p. 277)
So, like Kant’s propositions, synthetic operations (including addition, multiplication and fluxions, or what we would call derivatives) compute something new by combining parts. Analytic operations (like subtraction, division and fluents, or what we would call integrals or antiderivatives) try to break down functions into their constitutive pieces. Resolving analytic operations is more challenging and tentative though (e.g., the recognition that an unknown constant term must always be added when taking an integral).
With the rise of chemistry in the 18th century, the term also started to be used in a more scientifically familiar way, to describe molecules built through reactions of other smaller pieces. William Owen’s A New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1764, a precurser to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica) included the following definition*:
“Synthetic, or synthetical, is, according to Dr. Shaw, a term given to that part of chemistry, which, after the analytical chemistry has taken bodies to pieces, or reduced them to principles, can, from these separated principles, either recompound the same body again, or, from the mixtures of the principles or one or more bodies in various manners, form a large set of new productions, which would have been unknown to the world but for this art: such productions are brandy, soap, glass, and the like” (p. 3138).
This is the use that I became familiar with as a late 20th century student, a time when industrially produced synthetic compounds had become major players in our economies and home environments. But as this little dip into it’s history shows, it’s a word that means so much more than fake.
Given the ambiguity in the lyrics of Metric’s song, I think they know that. My favourite thought is to interpret through Newton’s definition. The synthetic operations are direct and verifiable. To be not synthetic is to be complicated and difficult to pin down. Interpretation is indirect, tentative and ongoing. There is no doubt that this is a great description of the rich and diverse body of work that Metric has created over the past decade. If synthetic is simple and direct, they are definitely not synthetica.
* It’s interesting to note that even though the preface of the Britannica’s first edition derided Owen for breaking science up into small alphabetized entries (something they said was “repugnant to the very idea of science“), the original Britannica seems to borrowed this passage in its entirety. Owen was clearly ahead of his time in at least one area.