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Rereading Jacques Attalis Bruits

Eric Drott

It has been nearly thirty years since Jacques Attalis Bruits first appeared
in English translation.1 In the decades since its publication the book has
come to occupy a vital place in music and sound studies. The broad appeal
of Bruits is due in part to the comparably broad sweep of Attalis intellectual ambitions. Over the course of 150-odd pages, the slim volume ranges
across centuries of music history, spans vernacular and literate music
genres, traverses the disciplinary boundaries that separate economics from
the study of cultural forms, and resituates music alongside noise within a
wider, socially-constructed continuum of sound. Small wonder the text
has proven so influential. There is something in Bruits for nearly everyone.
For writers on cultural production, the four musical economies sketched
by Attali (sacrifice, representation, repetition, composition) furnish a suggestive if somewhat crude point of departure for analyses of the social
organization of creative activity.2 For sound students, Bruits offers a temEarlier versions of this article were presented at the conference New Directions in Musical
Aesthetics (University of Texas at Austin, 26 February 2011), the 2011 meeting of the American
Musicological Society, and Manchester University (27 May 2013). I would like to thank Jim
Buhler, Chris Arneaud Clarke, Sumanth Gopinath, Benjamin Piekut, Holly Watkins, and
Marianne Wheeldon for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article. Unless otherwise noted
all translations are my own.
1. See Jacques Attali, Bruits: Essai sur leconomie politique de la musique (Paris, 1977);
hereafter abbreviated B. And see the second edition published in 2001; hereafter abbreviated B2.
See also the translation Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi
(Minneapolis, 1985); hereafter abbreviated N. I refer to the text as Bruits in this article to avoid
confusion between Attalis book and the phenomenon he describes.
2. See John Mowitt, The Sound of Music in the Era of Its Electronic Reproducibility, in
Music and Society, ed. Richard Leppert and Susan McClary (New York, 1987), pp. 17397;
Robert Burnett, The Global Jukebox: The International Music Industry (London, 1996), pp. 41
Critical Inquiry 41 (Summer 2015)
2015 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/15/4104-0003$10.00. All rights reserved.



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Eric Drott / Rereading Jacques Attalis Bruits

plate for how scholars might move beyond a long dominant ocularcentrism to apprehend society not through the eye but through the ear.3 For
media theorists and historians of music technology, Attalis attentiveness
to questions of mediation underlines the degree to which musics production, distribution, and reception is inflected by the material supports upon
which it relies and without which it could not exist.4 And for theorists of
improvisation, the privilege the text accords to open-ended, free-form
approaches to music making transforms this particular form of artistic
experimentalism into a model for humane social interaction.5
Few disciplines have drawn as much inspiration from Bruits as have
music studies. For historical musicologists in particular, Attalis insistence
that music be situated at the center of social history represented a clarion
call upon the books publication in 1985, made all the more resonant by

42; Andrew Leyshon, Time-Space (and Digital) Compression: Software Formats, Musical
Networks, and the Reorganisation of the Music Industry, Environment and Planning A 33, no. 1
(2001), pp. 4977; and Tim J. Anderson, Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar
American Recording (Minneapolis, 2006); Andrew Blake, Popular Music: The Age of Multimedia
(London, 2007).
3. See Michael Bull and Les Back, Into Sound, in The Auditory Culture Reader, ed. Bull
and Back (Oxford, 2003), pp. 118; Mark M. Smith, Introduction, in Hearing History: A
Reader, ed. Smith (Athens, Ga., 2004); Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the
Technology of Fear (Cambridge, Mass., 2010); Vincent Meelberg and Marcel Cobussen,
Reflections on Sonic Environments, Journal of Sonic Studies 1 (Oct. 2011), http://journal.; and The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne (New York,
2012). Noise studies have also drawn significantly from Bruits. See for instance Paul Hegarty
Noise/Music: A History (New York, 2007); Reverberations: The Philosophy, Aesthetics and Politics
of Noise, Michael Goddard, Benjamin Halligan, and Hegarty (London, 2012); and Greg Hainge,
Noise Matters: Towards an Ontology of Noise (London, 2013).
4. See Steve Jones, Rock Formation: Music, Technology and Mass Communication (London,
1992); Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (London, 1999); Steve
Waksman, Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience
(Cambridge, Mass., 1999); Sterne, The MP3 as Cultural Artifact, New Media and Society 8
(Oct. 2006): 82542; Caleb Kelly, Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction (Cambridge, Mass.,
2009); and Arved Ashby, Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction (Berkeley, 2010).
5. See Alan Durant, Improvisation in the Political Economy of Music, in Music and the
Politics of Culture, ed. Christopher Norris (New York, 1989), pp. 25282; John Corbett,
Ephemera Underscored: Writing Around Free Improvisation, in Jazz Among the Discourses,
ed. Krin Gabbard (Durham, N.C., 1995), pp. 21742; Ajay Heble, Landing on the Wrong Note:
Jazz, Dissonance, and Critical Practice (New York, 2000), pp. 20005; and David Borgo, Sync or
Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age (New York, 2007), pp. 8788.

E R I C D R O T T is associate professor of music theory at the University of Texas

at Austin. He is author of Music and the Elusive Revolution: Cultural Politics and
Political Culture in France, 1968 1981 (2011). He is currently working on a book
examining the ontologies of musical genre.




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musicologys stubborn attachment to ideals of aesthetic autonomy that

other disciplines had long since discarded. Yet it is not just the conjugation
of music history with social history that explains the fascination Bruits
holds for music scholars. It is also the manner in which these two spheres
are conjoined. In Bruits the relationship conventionally held to exist between musical and socioeconomic spheres is inverted. Music no longer
functions as a medium that passively registers the influence of extrinsic
forces but as an augur, its sonic patterns providing a presentiment of some
future socioeconomic order. Music is prophecy he declares at the opening of the book (N, p. 11).6 And in the chapters that follow he endeavors to
make good on this claim, most notably in his attempt to limn the contours
of an emerging society of composition toward the end of the book.7 Yet this
is only the most striking instance of a provocative gesture that Attali performs repeatedly in the pages of Bruits, as he turns the traditional Marxian
understanding of the relation between base and superstructure on its head.
Music, long seen as standing at a remove from political economy, is instead
placed squarely at its center.
For scholars persuaded of musics social efficacy, of its ability to act
upon and perhaps even change the world, Attalis Bruits has proven invaluable. This is most evident in connection to the new musicology. In the
years since its emergence in the late 1980s, this current in North American
music studies has frequently availed itself of Attalis text, from Susan McClarys postface to the English translation of Bruits to the present day.8
Consider, for instance, Lawrence Kramers introduction to the 2009 vol6. La musique est prophetie (B, p. 23).
7. Attalis identification of a utopian dimension in music calls to mind the work of
Theodor Adorno, another touchstone in music studies return to the social in recent decades.
For Adorno, however, it was necessary for the promesse de bonheur that music holds forth to
remain exactly thata promiseif it was to avoid degenerating into self-deceptive consolation,
a means of reconciliation with the benighted social reality whose negation was the proper
vocation of music. See, for instance, Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert
Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis, 1997), pp. 3233. In contrast to Adornos characteristic pessimism
Attali evinces what may seem a refreshingor perhaps naiveconfidence in the realizability of
musics utopian moment. But, as I argue below, this confidence may also be seen as a rhetorical
device whose purpose was to garner support for the ideological program Attali advanced in
league with the Parti socialiste.
8. McClary, Afterword: The Politics of Silence and Sound, in Attali, Noise, pp. 14958. See
also McClary, The Blasphemy of Talking Politics during Bach Year, in Music and Society, pp.
1362 and Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minneapolis, 1991); Robert Walser,
Rhythm, Rhyme and Rhetoric in the Music of Public Enemy, Ethnomusicology 39 (Spring
Summer 1995): 193217; Robert Fink, Beethoven Antihero: Sex, Violence, and the Aesthetics of
Failure, or Listening to the Ninth Symphony as Postmodern Sublime, in Beyond Structural
Listening: Postmodern Modes of Hearing, ed. Andrew DellAntonio (Berkeley, 2004), pp. 10953;
and Richard Leppert, Music Pushed to the Edge of Existence (Adorno, Listening, and the
Question of Hope), Cultural Critique 60 (Spring 2005): 92133.




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Eric Drott / Rereading Jacques Attalis Bruits

ume Musical Meaning and Human Values. To buttress his hypothesis that
music can serve as a force for what he terms transformative reflection,
Kramer refers readers to Bruits, promising that they will find there an
account of musics capacity to anticipate cultural and social change.9 It is
not hard to come by similar occasions where Attalis work has been called
upon to demonstrate musics precedence relative to socioeconomic processes. Writing in the late 1990s, Robert Fink questioned the utility of
crypto-Marxist analyses in elucidating classical musics declining stature,
maintaining that we are much more cautious now about questions of
priority in the base-superstructure relationship. Such skepticism was
warranted because postmodern analyses of cultural production
namely those presented in Bruitsrevealed that changes in the cultural
sphere often precede and presage transformations in the material
sphere.10 Nor is recourse to Attalis text restricted to self-identified new
musicologists. Lydia Goehr, writing from a very different disciplinary
standpoint, invokes Attalis text in defending the political value of musical
autonomy. Musics ability to bring about a better world, she contends,
derives from its ability to juxtapose an image of the world as it is with an
alternative vision of the world.11 How, exactly, does music accomplish this
feat? Goehr, like so many others, quotes Attalinamely his remark that
music is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future.12
What the foregoing indicates is the degree to which Attalis assertions
have become a commonplace within contemporary music studies, to the
point that they are regarded as self-evident. It is as if the citation of Bruits
suffices to prove the veracity of the proposition that musicand culture
more generallyhas some purchase on social relations.13 But what does
9. Lawrence Kramer, Introduction, in Musical Meaning and Human Values, ed. Keith
Chapin and Kramer (Bronx, 2009), pp. 2, 185 n. 2.
10. Fink, Elvis Everywhere: Musicology and Popular Music Studies at the Twilight of the
Canon, American Music 16 (Summer 1998): 143.
11. Lydia Goehr, Political Music and the Politics of Music, Journal of Aesthetics and Art
Criticism 52 (Winter 1994): 106.
12. Ibid.
13. This is not to say that the Anglo-American reception of Bruits has been universally
positive. Critical assessments of the book may be found in Douglas Collins, Ritual Sacrifice
and the Political Economy of Music, Perspectives of New Music 24 (AutumnWinter 1985): 14
23; Georgina Born, Modern Music Culture: On Shock, Pop, and Synthesis, New Formations,
no. 2 (Summer 1987): 5178; Caryl Flinn, Strains of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia, and Hollywood
Film Music (Princeton, N.J., 1992), esp. p. 175 n. 17; Goodman, Sonic Warfare, pp. 4953; and
Robin James, Neoliberal Noise: Attali, Foucault & the Biopolitics of Uncool, Culture, Theory
and Critique 55 (April 2014): 13858. Of particular interest are critiques addressing the books
key theses (the reversal of base/superstructure relations, repetition, the politics of noise). These
include the reservations Frederic Jameson voices vis-a`-vis the reciprocal interaction model






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one find when one, as so many authors instruct, consults Bruits for the
promised explanation of musics alleged ability to anticipate social and
cultural change? Surprisingly little. For all its suasive power, for all the
anecdotal evidence that Attali accumulates in its pages, the book never
fully spells out the mechanisms by which music performs this prophetic
function. To be sure, Bruits presents a compelling model of style change in
music, as the very elements that disturb a prevailing musical code (that is,
noise) come to serve as the basis for a new code. Analogous processes may
also be identified in the transition from one social order to another, as the
demands made by hitherto marginalized groups introduce noise that disrupts the monologic discourse of power. What remains unclear is how,
exactly, these two processes connect to one another. Equally unclear is why
transformations specific to music should prevail over transformations unfolding elsewhere in society. The closest Attali comes to providing support
for this claim is when he writes that music is ahead of the rest of society
because it explores in a given code the entire field of possibilities much
faster than material reality can.14 This is a tenuous thread on which to
hang such a far-reaching thesis. If musics priority results from the ease
with which it can combine and recombine itself, then by the same logic one
could claim an equally privileged role for mathematics, the visual arts, or
any other form of imaginative activity. Even if we were to concede that
musics fluidity and seeming immateriality make its combinatorial potential special in some way, this still leaves unanswered how we are to determine which configuration, out of the innumerable variety a musical code
is capable of generating, is the one that heralds the social order to come.
This article seeks to make sense of the logical gap that lies at the center
of Bruits by reading it against the backdrop of political debates taking place
in France at the time of its publication in 1977. Attalis position as one of the
leading intellectuals of the Parti socialiste, and his involvement in disputes
pitting the party against various rivalsabove all, the Parti communiste

of base/superstructure relations advanced by Attali (Fredric Jameson, Foreword, in Attali,

Noise, p. xi). See also Robert Finks critique of the treatment of repetition in Bruits, namely the
way in which Attali equates this phenomenon with obsession and, ultimately, the death drive;
Fink, Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice (Berkeley, 2005). And
see Jonathan Sternes claim that noise in contemporary capitalism no longer performs the
resistant functions that Attali ascribes to it, having been neutralized by technologies seeking less
its total eradication than its effective management (Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format
[Durham, N.C., 2012], p. 124). I will return to Sternes critique at the end of this article.
14. Elle est en avance sur le reste de la societe, parce quelle explore, dans un code donne,
tout le champ du possible, plus vite que la realite materielle ne peut le faire (B, p. 23); and see
N, p. 11. A similar claim is found in B, p. 12; and see N, p. 5.


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Eric Drott / Rereading Jacques Attalis Bruits

find expression in a number of arguments Attali advances in Bruits and in

key presuppositions that underlie his conception of musics relation to
society. Although consideration of such interparty quarrels may appear
to be of only narrow, historic interest, having little bearing on the uses to
which his work has been put within the Anglo-American academy, closer
scrutiny of the ideological prise de position enacted by the text would suggest otherwise, particularly considering how readily so many North American music scholars have subscribed to its core antimaterialist claims.
Conversely, resituating Bruits in relation to the ideological struggles out of
which it was born throws into relief what was at stake in these struggles and
what consequences have followed from the Socialists triumph over their
Communist adversaries in their dispute over leadership of the French left.
To disclose the latent political agenda hidden behind the books manifest
one, the first half of this article locates Bruits within the context of Attalis
contemporaneous writings on political economy, above all his 1976 text La
Parole et loutil, whose theses shed light on Attalis specific contribution to
the ideological reconstruction of the Parti socialiste during the 1970s. The
second half of the article turns to the model of socioeconomic change
sketched in Bruits, a model that has remained a mainstay of Attalis
thought to the present daya fact borne out by the heavily revised and
updated version of the book published in 2001, discussed toward the end of
this article. Taking heed of the particular context out of which Bruits was
born has profound implications for how we construe Attalis arguments.
What this context throws into relief, in other words, is a subtext that runs
just below the surface of Attalis book, a subtext that colors not only his
assertion that music possesses special prognostic capacities but alsoand
more importantlythe vision of the perfected world he prophesies by way
of its sonorous flux.

By the time Bruits was published in 1977 Jacques Attali was already a
prominent public figure in France, having served for the preceding three
years as one of Francois Mitterrands main economic advisors.15 Initially
recruited to help draft the socialist candidates platform during his second
bid for the presidency, Attali remained part of Mitterrands inner circle
15. See Cyril Auffret, Le Conseiller (Paris, 2009), pp. 4549. In addition to his association
with Mitterrand, Attali had gained visibility through the columns he penned for major
newspapers like Le Figaro and Le Monde, and his frequent appearances on such radio and
television interview programs as Jacques Chancels Radioscopie and Bernard Pivots
Apostrophes; see LArgent, le fric, 30 Jan. 1976, Apostrophes,, and
Ruses et pouvoir de lArgent, 11 Feb. 1977, Apostrophes,


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even after the latters loss to Valery Giscard dEstaing in the 1974 election.
This engagement with the Parti socialiste (PS) came at a time when the
party was undergoing a profound transformation, both ideologically and
institutionally. The modern Parti socialiste had been ushered into existence
in June 1971, when a number of political clubs and small parties of the
non-Communist left amalgamated with what remained of the old socialist
party, the Section Francaise de lInternational Ouvrier (SFIO). The fusion of
these splintered elements to form a new party was born of necessity. By the
end of the 1960s the SFIO, the party of Jean Jaure`s and Leon Blum, had all
but disqualified itself as a credible political force in France. The partys
declining support was due in part to its identification with the institutional
dysfunctions of the Fourth Republic, in part to the opportunism of party
leaders, but most of all to its role in conducting Frances colonial war in
Algeria under Prime Minister Guy Mollet in the mid-1950s.16 The new
institutions and electoral mechanisms put into place with the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958 further weakened the SFIO. By strengthening the office of the president relative to parliament, the new
constitution encouraged a polarization of the political field that rendered
increasingly untenable the SFIOs longstanding strategy of allying with
centrist groups to form third force parliamentary majorities eschewing
both the Gaullist Right and the Communist Left.17 In addition, the shifting
balance of power between president and parliament ill-suited the SFIO,
whose power base was rooted not in a centralized party apparatus, but was
spread across a number of fiefdoms controlled by local notables and municipal party machines.18 Taken together, these factors made the SFIO increasingly uncompetitive at a national level. By the end of the 1960s it was
clear that the only way for the Socialists to win power given the Fifth
Republics institutional constraints was through an alliance with the Parti
communiste francais (PCF), their historic fre`res-enemis.
So it was that one of Mitterrands first acts upon assuming leadership of
the renovated Parti socialiste was to establish an electoral pact with the
PCF. The fruit of these efforts was the creation of the Union de la gauche in
June 1972, a tactical alliance ratified by an accord on policies, the Programme commun de gouvernement, which the unified Left would pursue
16. See Jacques Moreau, Le Congre`s dEpinay-sur-Seine du parti socialiste, Vingtie`me
Sie`cle 65 (Jan.Mar. 2000): 82, and R. W. Johnson, The Long March of the French Left (New
York, 1981), p. 155.
17. Alistair M. Cole, Factionalism, the French Socialist Party, and the Fifth Republic: An
Explanation of Intra-Party Divisions, European Journal of Political Research 17 (Jan. 1989): 79.
18. David S. Bell and Byron Criddle, The French Socialist Party: Resurgence and Victory
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 24-32.




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Eric Drott / Rereading Jacques Attalis Bruits

should it come into power. The Union de la gauche improved the electoral
chances of both parties, though it also presented them with hazards. For
the PCF, the union had the effect of bolstering the partys main rival,
jeopardizing the primacy the Communists had enjoyed within the French
Left since the end of the Second World War. For the PS, the alliance risked
alienating potential supporters, particularly given the suspicion if not outright hostility the PCF elicited across the entire ideological spectrum, from
Gaullists on the right to Maoists, Trotskyists, and Situationists on the left.
Underlying this mistrust was a belief that compromise with the PCF was
tantamount to capitulation.19 Any concessions on the part of the PS could
be and were taken as signs that the new party had succumbed to the ideological hegemony of the Parti communiste. Hence the PS was compelled to
find some point(s) of policy or ideology where it visibly departed from its
ally, if it was to inoculate itself against charges that partnership with the
Parti communiste spelled its ineluctable ideological subordination.20
The most prominent marker the PS used to declare its ideological independence from the PCF was autogestion (self-management), an idea that
had first gained a foothold in French intellectual circles via the Socialisme
ou barbarie? group in the 1950s, but which gained wider currency after the
uprising of MayJune 1968.21 Identified with the so-called new or second
Left, the core concern of self-management revolved around the democratization of economic decision making, a necessary condition for and corollary to any fundamental transformation in economic relations. No small
part of the ideas appeal stemmed from its semiotic indeterminacy.22 In the
hands of different activists and intellectuals autogestion took on a range of
divergent meanings. For some it represented the relatively modest idea of
worker control within enterprises or production units; for others it represented a model of economic governance that offered a direct, democratic
alternative to the central planning of state socialism; for still others it represented a new form of sociality whose effects would extend beyond the
economic realm, transforming every dimension of human existence (including cultural production). Yet it was precisely because of its availability to so
19. See Michael Scott Christofferson, French Intellectuals against the Left: The AntiTotalitarian Moment of the 1970s (Oxford, 2004), pp. 1256.
20. The Parti communiste broke from the SFIO during the 1920 Tours Congress, the result
of a schism between supporters of the Third International and militants who balked at the
conditions Comintern leaders demanded of member parties; see Alain Bergounioux and Gerard
Grunberg, Les Socialistes francais et le pouvoir: lambition et le remords (Paris, 2005), pp. 7985.
21. See Hele`ne Hatzfeld, LAutogestion dans la recomposition dun champ politique de
gauche, in Autogestion: le dernier utopie? ed. Frank Georgi (Paris, 2003), pp. 17374.
22. See ibid., p. 173, and Serge Berstein, Les Usages Politiques de lautogestion, in
Autogestion, pp. 15960.





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many competing interpretations that autogestion itself became the stake in

various intra-party rivalries that roiled the PS during the 1970s, as different
factions struggled over the young partys ideological orientation.23
Like the discourse on autogestion, Attalis work in the mid- to late 1970s
participated in the Socialists efforts to carve out a distinctive ideological
niche. His economic writings in particular reflected a clear desire to go
beyond the Marxist vulgate promulgated by the PCF, even as Attali endeavored to maintain his anticapitalist bona fides. The founding document in this project of ideological self-positioning was the text Attali wrote
immediately before Bruits, his 1976 book La Parole et loutil (The Word and
the Tool).24 In many respects, La Parole et loutil was even more ambitious
than Bruits, proposing nothing less than a revisionist account of modern
economic theory. The key move Attali makes in this earlier text is to reinscribe established economic models within a framework structured
around two principal axes, those of energy and information. While Attali
treats the two determinants as intertwinedenergy must be structured to
be useful for productive activity, while information requires energy for its
transmission and circulationhe nonetheless assigns them circumscribed
roles within his economic model. Attali defines energy as a potential that
allows the displacement and/or modification of material.25 As such it provides the motive force for economic production, be it manifest in the living
labor of workers, fixed in the dead labor of capital, or held in reserve in the
form of natural resources. Information, by contrast, is cast as the form or
order that is discernible in all matter or energy.26 It is what gives energy its
direction and confers value and meaning upon the dumb quiddity of material objects. Much space is devoted in La Parole et loutil to showing how
these fundamental terms underlie traditional economic categories. Price,
for instance, is cast as a specific form of information, one that organizes
the allocation of available goods, savings, or labor, which is to say that it
allocates ordered energy and determines the behavior of economic actors.27 Commodity production, to take another example, is characterized
as the mobilization of energy for the purpose of transforming an object or
23. See Hatzfeld, LAutogestion dans la recomposition dun champ politique de gauche,
pp. 17980, and David Hanley, Keeping Left? Ceres and the French Socialist Party (Manchester,
1986), pp. 1067.
24. See Attali, La Parole et loutil (Paris, 1975); hereafter abbreviated PO.
25. On peut definir lenergie comme un potentiel qui permet le deplacement et (ou) la
modification de la matie`re (PO, p. 53).
26. LInformation est la forme ou lordre qui est detecte dans toute matie`re ou energie (PO, p. 51).
27. Les prix sont des informations qui organisent la repartition des biens disponibles, de
lepargne ou du travail, cest-a`-dire qui repartissent de lenergiinformee et determinent les
comportements des agents economiques. (PO, p. 77).






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Eric Drott / Rereading Jacques Attalis Bruits

group of objects into some other entity, the entire process guided by an
external source of information (see PO, p. 97). Here as elsewhere the surface phenomena of economic life give way at a deeper level to some configuration of these two basic determinants.
Subtending the energy/information dialectic sketched in La Parole et
loutil is a structural isomorphism between the two phenomena. Both energy and information, Attali observes, are inextricably bound up with the
level of entropy present within a given socioeconomic system. The relation
of entropy to energy is straightforward. When exploited, the energy stored
in a structure disperses, some of it being used for productive work, some of
it being lost as heat. If this process takes place within a closed system, then
this dispersal will increase the amount of entropy within the system, as the
second law of thermodynamics stipulates. In the case of information, the
relation to entropy is more roundabout, inspired by Claude Shannons
pioneering work in information theory. Shannon famously borrowed the
notion of entropy from thermodynamics in an effort to measure the
amount of information contained in messages, an undertaking motivated
by the interest that AT&T, his employer at Bell Laboratories, had in maximizing the efficient use of its existing network of telephone cables. Shannons solution to this problem was to conceive of information
probabilistically, in terms of the likelihood that any single message will be
transmitted out of the entire range of possible messages a code can generate. The more probable a message, the less information it conveys; the less
probable, the more information. Entropy is thus linked with information
insofar as the amount of information a message carries is proportional to
its improbabilitythat is, to its degree of randomness or unpredictability
with respect to some governing code.28
Attalis identification of entropy as the linchpin of the information/
energy dialectic is notable, not least because it provides the motor for
economic change within his historical model. The irreversible accumulation of entropy that results from the expenditure of energy for work imposes a certain direction on economic development as well as certain
constraints upon it; beyond the costs incurred as a result of environmental
degradation, the depletion of energy reserves places a fixed upper limit on
growth. To use Attalis information-theoretical language, the destructuring of chemical bonds that takes place when one burns coal, oil, or other
fossil fuels involves a transformation of in-formed energy (energie informee) into unformed energy; as its hitherto ordered elements become dis28. See Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication
(Urbana, Ill., 1949).


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ordered, an energy source is deprived of its capacity to carry out

productive work. Nonetheless, there exists the possibility of counteracting
this apparently irreversible tendency toward entropy. If energy consumption inevitably leads to an increase in the disorder of a system, information
can reverse this secular trend by making the adjustments necessary to
maintain a certain level of order. Unlike the consumption of energy, the
consumption of information has the effect of reducing entropy, a fact that
led certain researchers to describe it as a form of negative entropy (or
negentropy).29 Energy and information thus represent countervailing
forces: energy pushing inexorably toward greater disorder and information pulling in the opposite direction, toward greater order. It is the balance of these forces within a historic conjuncture that determines the
nature and direction of socioeconomic change.
Facilitating Attalis integration of information theory into his economic
thought were the inroads this new science had already made in French
intellectual circles by the mid-1970s. As Bernard Geoghegan has documented, a number of concepts, models, and techniques associated with
cybernetics and information theory first infiltrated French Theory
through the support that figures like Claude Levi-Strauss and Roman Jakobson had received from the Rockefeller Foundation during their wartime exile in the United States. As one of the main backers of the new
sciences of communication and control, the Rockefeller Foundation promoted work in this area because of its promise as a means whereby a more
rational and less conflictual postwar order might be established. Enlisted as
part of a Cold War strategy that sought to supplant Marxism as the lingua
franca of Western European intellectual life, cybernetics and information
theory took on a very different guise once assimilated into the structuralist
project spearheaded by Levi-Strauss and Jakobson.30 Cybernetic models
that imagined humans to be just another component of a complex control
system, indistinguishable from machines and other nonhuman actors,
found a distorted echo in the work of thinkers who bracketed off as irrelevant questions of individual agency and subjectivity.31 But if cybernetics
29. This idea was first advanced in Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings:
Cybernetics and Society (Boston, 1950), p. 21. It was developed further in the work of Michel
Serres, whose thought was key in shaping Attalis metaphoric extensions of information theory
to explain economic and musical processes; see for instance Michel Serres, Hermes: Literature,
Science, Philosophy ed. Josue V. Harari and David F. Bell (Baltimore, 1982), pp. 7375, 8182.
30. See Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, From Information Theory to French Theory:
Jakobson, Levi-Strauss, and the Cybernetic Apparatus, Critical Inquiry 38 (Autumn 2011): 96
31. See Celine Lafontaine, The Cybernetic Matrix of French Theory Theory Culture
Society 24 (Sept. 2007): 32.





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and information theory were so thoroughly absorbed into structuralism as

to be rendered virtually unrecognizable, they exercised a more overt influence on the human and natural sciences during a second phase of their
French reception. The key catalyst in this later popularization of cybernetic
thought in France was a small circle known as the Groupe de dix, which
counted among its members sociologists (Edgar Morin), biologists (Henri
Atlan), and political figures (Michel Rocard), as well as the young Jacques
Attali. Active during the first half of the 1970s, the Groupe de dix was inspired by Heinrich von Foersters work in second cybernetics, particularly his theories concerning self-organizing systems.32 The selfproduction and reproduction of various organismswhether biological,
social, or economicbecame a recurrent theme in the writings of various
members of the group. Attali was no exception, as his concern for the
negentropic properties of information makes clear. Moreover, the intellectual heritage that linked poststructural thinkers to American cybernetic
theory via their structuralist forebears facilitated Attalis subsequent appropriation of the work of Jean Baudrillard, Jean-Francois Lyotard and
others into La Parole et loutil and later publications. This shared parentage ensured that the framework elaborated in La Parole et loutil
would prove receptive to the various poststructural grafts it received in
Bruits and beyond.
The ink on the manuscript of La Parole et loutil had barely dried when
Attali began laying the groundwork for his next book. In 1976 Louis Dandrel, then director of France-Musique, invited Attali to produce a series of
radio programs exploring the relation between music and power (see B2, p.
9).33 Out of the hastily sketched notes Attali composed for these broadcasts
was born Bruits.34 That Attalis reflections on music should bear the im32. See Brigitte Chamak, Le Groupe des dix, ou les avatars des rapports entre science et
politique (Monaco, 1997), esp. pp. 2058. See also Frederique Jourdaa, La Plane`te Attali (Paris,
2010), pp. 14654.
33. See also Jourdaa, La Plane`te Attali p. 162.
34. An extensive publicity campaign accompanied the publication of Bruits. Apart from the
broadcasts on France-Musique, which functioned as an advance promotion for the book, Attali
was featured in a series of profiles and interviews in the press in the months following its
publication. See for instance Attali, Musique et societe: entretien avec Jacques Attali,
interview by Agathe Malet-Buisson, Magazine Litteraire 121 (Feb. 1977): 6063; A Propos de
Bruits : entretien avec Jacques Attali, interview by the editorial board, Presences de la Musique
13 (July 1977): 1415; and La Musique apre`s Mai 68, Panorama de la musique et des instruments
23 (MayJune 1978): 10-12. Attali was also invited to edit a special dossier on music in the
magazine Nouvelles litteraires, which appeared in print at roughly the same time as Bruits; see
Attali, Musique, argent, pouvoir, Nouvelles litteraires, no. 2571 (Feb. 1977): 1722. His work
was also the subject of a televised round-table discussion featuring Andre Glucksmann, Guy
Lardreau, Ivo Malec, and Michel Serres, in addition to the author himself; see LHomme en
question, 24 Apr. 1977, FR3,



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print of La Parole et loutil is therefore not at all striking, given how closely
the former followed on the heels of the latter. What is striking is the precise
way in which this influence manifested itself in Bruits. Recall that Attalis
efforts at locating a homology linking energy and information hinged on
his adoption of information theory and on the terminological slippage that
this theory afforded, between informational entropy on the one hand and
thermodynamic entropy on the other. Yet the adoption of this theory
afforded a second, no less important point of terminological slippage, one
that subtends the extended musical metaphor elaborated in Bruits. A core
concern of information theory, after all, revolves around the problem of
noise; the effect that external disturbances have upon the transmission of
information and how different communication systems can minimize the
effect of such interference. By conflating this specific conception of noise
with the more commonplace understanding of the term, Attali effects a
smooth if not entirely seamless transition from the economic concerns of
La Parole et loutil to the musical ones of Bruits. Indeed, it is hardly an
exaggeration to describe the later book as a rewriting of the earlier one,
with the figure of music taking over the role previously assigned to the
information/energy pair. Numerous parallels support this reading. Just as
information is capable of imposing order and thus forestalling the increase
of entropy, so too is music. In every network, as in every message, Attali
writes, music can create order.35 And just as the noise external to a system
is able to give rise to new forms of social organization via the principle of
order by noise (discussed below), so too is the noise external to a musical
code able to give rise to novel forms of sonic organization. Music, in short,
assumes an allegorical function in Bruits. Which means that Attalis statement that Bruits represents an attempt to theorize society through music
is not entirely accurate because music already stands in for something
other than itself in the text. And that something is the information/energy
dialectic outlined in La Parole et loutil.
That information theory proved crucial to Attalis conception of music
will come as little surprise to readers familiar with Bruits, considering that
Attali explicitly cites Shannons language of signal, noise, and code in describing music as a form of communication (see B, p. 66 and N, p. 33). Even
so, the broader significance that this theory holds for his reading of musics
relation to society only emerges when the historicity of Attalis model of
musical and social change is taken into account. Notable in this regard is
the asymmetry established between information and energy in La Parole et
35. Dans tout reseau, comme tout message la musique peut etre creatrice dordre (B, p.
66); and see N, p. 33.



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loutil and that is sustained throughout Bruits. Even though these two
terms stand in a dialectical relation, information clearly remains the privileged of the two, a means not just of offsetting the inefficiency, waste, and
disorder that energy consumption generates but also of fostering richer,
more complex forms of human interaction. Moreover, the key to social
liberation in Attalis model resides in the liberation of information.
Whereas capitalism impedes its circulation, drawing profit from its uneven distribution in society, socialismas conceived by Attaliinstead
seeks to decentralize its flow, thereby releasing its full creative potential
(see PO, p. 232). But above all, the valorization of information as a force for
social progressexplicit in La Parole et loutil, implicit in Bruitsclearly
responded to transformations then taking place in the French economy.
One sign of this economic restructuring was the changing composition of
the workforce during Frances postwar boom years. Particularly significant was the expansion of the strata variously referred to as the new middle
classes or nouvelle petite bourgeoisie, a catch-all category that included engineers, technicians, teachers, office workers, and other occupations engaged in intellectual as opposed to manual labor. This heterogeneous
group doubled in size from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, growing from
9 percent to 17 percent of the working population and, as a consequence,
occupied an increasingly important place within the social, economic, and
cultural life of France. By contrast, the industrial working class during the
same period remained more or less stagnant.36 While blue-collar workers
maintained their numerical preeminence well into the 1970s, by the time
Attali was writing Bruits the slow but steady decline of this group as a
percentage of the workforce was already underway. The different trajectories traced by these two groups during the postwar period goes some way
towards explaining why Attali would accord information so privileged a
role in his model of socioeconomic progress. Associated with the most
dynamic elements of French society, information seemed to hold out
better prospects for Frances march towards socialism than did energy,
the latter tainted by its association with the dumb, brute force of heavy
But there was also a strategic element at play in Attalis valorization of
the information sector, insofar as members of the new middle classes made
up a growing share of the Parti socialistes electorate during the 1970s. Even
as support for the party among blue-collar workers remained stable during
this period, comprising roughly a third of its vote, the backing it received
36. See Henri Mendras and Cole, Social Change in Modern France: Towards a Cultural
Anthropology of the Fifth Republic (Cambridge, 1991), p. 35.


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from professional, managerial, and white-collar employees increased

markedly, going from 28 percent in 1968 to 41 percent in 1978.37 This demographic remaking of the Parti socialiste points to an ulterior motive for
the prominence Attali grants information. That is, his privileging of information did not simply respond to changing economic realities but superimposed upon these realities a certain vision of social relations, one that
accorded with Attalis political interests as a member of the Parti socialiste
and his social interests as a public intellectual. By stressing the importance
of information, Attali implicitly stressed the importance of those groups
involved in its production, circulation, and manipulationin other
words, those groups identified with the nouvelle petite bourgeoisie. His prioritization of the information sector may therefore be read as a thinlyveiled overture to precisely those constituencies crucial to the Socialists
future electoral chances. But the elevation of mental over manual labor in
his economic theory had the added advantage of challenging the standard
Marxist narrative of sociohistorical change, a narrative that underpinned
the policies of the Parti communiste and constituted a significant part of its
electoral appeal. Whereas the Communists cast the working class as the
group charged with bringing the capitalist order to its inevitable end, Attalis narrative instead cast the new middle classes in this role. In this way
the social hierarchy that had hitherto set the proletariat both apart from
and above potential allies in the struggle against capitalist exploitation was
turned on its head. Information workers (the cornerstone of the socialist
coalition) displaced the industrial proletariat (the cornerstone of the communist coalition) as the presumptive subject of history.38
A similar point may be made with regard to Bruits. Just as the economic
framework expounded in La Parole et loutil was itself a stake in the ongoing contest between the Parti socialiste and the Parti communiste, so too did
Bruits participate in this internecine struggle over the leadership of the
French left. In this regard, the inversion of the base/superstructure relation
that Attali effects within his account of music history was not an innocent
or impartial gesture. Rather, his assertion that music does not reflect but
anticipates social change took direct aim at the view of culture prevalent
37. See Bell and Criddle, The French Socialist Party, p. 196. The increasingly middle-class
character of the party was even more pronounced among its militants and leadership. See
Patrick Hardouin, Les Caracteristiques sociologiques du parti socialiste, Revue Francaise de
Science Politique 28, no. 2 (1978): 2523. See also Hugues Portelli, Nouvelles Classes moyennes
et nouveau parti socialiste, in LUnivers politique des classes moyennes, ed. Georges Lavau,
Gerard Grunberg, and Nonna Mayer (Paris, 1983), p. 259.
38. This reversal was not lost on Communist critics of Bruits, who were critical of (among
other things) the near total absence of the working class from Attalis social history of music.
See Richard Crevier, Brouillages, France Nouvelle, 17 Jan. 1977, p. 38.



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within French communism, characterized as it was by a rigid, hidebound

materialism. At the same time, this inversion reproduced within the cultural sphere the same asymmetry between mental and manual labor found
in Attalis conception of the modern capitalist economy. His assertion of
the primacy of the superstructure over the base was tantamount to an
assertion of the primacy of those groups that work within and upon the
superstructure. All those whose work does not take place within the empyrean realm of ideas and information but within the grubby, terrestrial
realm of material production are demoted to a subordinate position
within this vision of the social world.
Echoing this asymmetry between mental and manual work is the different status accorded to composers and performers as political agents in
Bruits. Discussing how music enters commodity production under capitalism, Attali observes that this form of human activity sits uneasily with
the distinction between productive and unproductive labor. In Marxian
economic theory labor is only productive if it increases surplus-value,
which is only the case when individuals sell their labor in exchange for
wages. The same holds true for music. No less than with other forms of
economic activity, musical labor is productive only when musicians work
as wage earners employed in a profit-seeking enterprise. It is not difficult to
think of situations that might satisfy this condition: examples include fullor part-time orchestral performers, members of opera companies, studio
musicians, house bands in bars and nightclubs, Broadway musical performers, and so forth. In the majority of these cases, Attali remarks, it is the
performer, not the composer, who enters into the capitalist labor process:
The productive workers who create money are the performers, and
those who manufacture instruments and publish scores. By contrast,
when the composer receives royalties on a work that has been sold
and performed, he remains strangely detached from the wealth generated, since as an independent craftsman he is outside the capitalist
mode of production.39
Inasmuch as composers receive their income not from the sale of their
labor, but from the sale of the products of their labor, they remain unproductive in the sense that they do not contribute to the accumulation of
capital. Moreover, the fact that composers retain control of the means of
39. Les travailleurs productifs createurs dargent sont les interpre`tes, et ceux qui ont
produit les instruments et les partitions. Le compositeur, lui, lorsquil recoit des droits dauteur
sur luvre vendue et representee, reste etrangement exterieur a` la richesse quil implique
puisque, artisan independant, il est hors du mode de production capitaliste (B, pp. 7980); and
see N, p. 39.


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musical productionbrains, hands, pen, and manuscript papermeans

they are able to dispose of the products of their labor freely.
Clearly, the portrait that Attali paints of the fate of the composer under
capitalism ignores many complicating factors. Not least of these is the fact
that most composers subsidize their creative activities by working as wage
earners (usually as teachers or performers). Nor does it take into account
power relations within the music industry. The chokehold that publishers
and other intermediaries have exerted on distribution since the dawn of
the modern music industry has meant that most artists have never been in
a position to claw back the surplus value generated in production. This has
only ever been a privilege enjoyed by a vanishingly small number of superstar performers.40 But if one concedes these points and accepts for the sake
of argument Attalis contention that composers stand outside the capitalist mode of production, then a curious paradox emerges. On the one
hand, composers are themselves unproductive. On the other hand, the
works they turn out provide the basis for productive musical labor, the
scores that performers execute in exchanging their labor power for wages.
Thus, even if composers are located beyond the pale of capitalism, they
remain key to its functioning, at least within the musical sphere. For this
reason Attali identifies in the figure of the composerand in those occupational categories that perform analogous functions in other sectors of
the economya weak link in the late capitalist system of commodity production, a point vulnerable to attack. By furnishing the prototypes reproduced en masse by industry, workers of this sortwhat Attali refers to as
matriceursimpede capitalisms otherwise unchecked colonization of all
areas of economic and social life: the remuneration specific to authors has
considerably blocked the control of music by capital, protecting creativity and
permitting even today the relations of power to be reversed.41 For this
reason it is in the interest of those endeavoring to undermine capitalism to
extend composers unusual status to other segments of the workforce, to
other domains where the contributions made by creative workers are vital:
the study of music is essential: if the producers of matrices can in the
future gain the same rights as musical composers, and if payment on the
40. See Matt Stahl, Unfree Masters: Recording Artists and the Politics of Work (Durham,
N.C., 2013).
41. La remuneration specifique des auteurs a freine considerablement le controle de la
musique par le capitale, protege la creativite et permet meme aujourdhui aux rapports de
pouvoirs . . . de sinverser (B, pp. 8182). Massumi translates the term matriceur as molder,
which accurately conveys the sense that the actors in question produce the original matrices or
molds used in serialized mass production (N, p. 40). What this translation fails to capture,
however, is the musical connotations of the word matrice, which in French may also refer to a
master recording.




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basis of use by others is able to replace the monopolization [of research and
development], then the results of the economy of music will be able to
spread throughout society.42
A number of objections may be raised against Attalis identification of
composers and other cognate professions as the primary agents of political
change. Not only does it glorify rent-seeking behavior (hardly the most
progressive solution to the depredations of capitalism), but it also fails to
account for the possibility that this privileged category may simply constitute the latest incarnation of the labor aristocracy, a fraction more concerned with its material well-being than radical social change. But what is
crucial to note is that this analysis likewise elevates mental labor over manual labor, not only by treating intellectual production as a catalyst for
economic development, but also by casting it as a force that has the potential to disrupt and even undermine the capitalist mode of production.
Composers and performers assume here the roles that intellectual and
industrial workers occupy elsewhere. Like their blue-collar counterparts,
performers find themselves obliged to sell their labor power in order to
survive, which, according to Attali, narrows their margin of political maneuver. By contrast, composers, like other creative and intellectual workers, operate from a position of relative strength. Inasmuch as they exercise
some control over their work, and inasmuch as that work fuels commodity
production, they possess a form of leverage their blue-collar brothers and
sisters lack. As was the case in Attalis reading of economic relations, his
reading of musical relations turns on its head the hierarchy of social classes
to which the Parti communiste adhered. It is no longer the industrial working class (or their musical analogue, the performer) that is extolled as the
force that will one day topple capitalism; it is the new class of intellectual
and creative workers, exemplified by the composer, that is accorded this
particular honor.

Aestheticizing Crisis
So where does noise figure in all of this? Answering this question is more
challenging than might first appear, given the protean quality noise assumes in Bruits. It is helpful to bear in mind in this regard something that
has been lost in translation, namely that the original title of Attalis book is
Bruits with an sthat is to say noises, not noise in the singular. It is therefore to be expected that a wide range of meanings would accrue to this
42. Letude de la musique est essentielle: si les matriceurs . . . peuvent a` lavenir obtenir les
memes droits que les auteurs, et si le monopole est remplace par une remuneration sur lusage
par dautres, alors les resultats de leconomie de la musique pourront se generaliser (B, pp.
81-82); and see N, p. 40.


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signifier. In addition to the familiar definitions from music and communications as discussed above, Attali advances a number of less conventional, more imaginative interpretations of noise in the pages of Bruits. Of
these, six stand out:
1. Noise as an index of life. This is the conception with which Attali
begins his book, in setting the noise of life against the silence of death: Our
science has always desired to monitor, measure, abstract, and castrate the
senses, forgetting that life is noisy and that death alone is silent: noises of
work, noises of men, and noises of animals. Noises bought, sold, or forbidden. Nothing essential happens where noise isnt present.43
2. Noise as originary chaos, preceding the institution of social order.
With noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world. With music
power is born and its opposite: subversion.44
3. Noise as unformed energy. To be noted is the parallelism between the
treatment of noise in Bruits and energy in La Parole et loutila parallelism
that, while never explicitly drawn, is nonetheless clear. Just as commodities
are defined in the latter as an ordering of energy by means of information,
music in Bruits is described as noise given form by a code.45
4. Noise as violence. Noise is in itself violence: it disturbs, Attali remarks. To make noise is to interrupt a transmission, to disconnect, to
kill.46 It is this recoding of noise that allows Attali to map information
theory onto Rene Girards work on the social function of ritual sacrifice in
Bruits, one of the more striking moves he makes in the book.47 The regulated, institutionalized form that the sacrificial act assumes in traditional
societies circumscribes violence, staving off an escalating spiral of reprisal
and counterreprisal by redirecting these energies toward a designated
scapegoat. Similarly music, by imparting an order to noise, is able to cir-

43. Notre science a toujours voulu surveiller, compter, abstraire et castrer les sens, en
oubliant que la vie est bruyante et que seule la mort est silencieuse : bruits du travail, bruits des
hommes et bruits des betes. Bruits achetes, vendus ou interdits. Rien ne se passe dessentiel ou`
le bruit ne soit present (B, p. 7); and see N, p. 3. This construction of noise is clearly inspired
by Michel Serress work.
44. Avec le bruit est ne le desordre et son contraire: le monde. Avec la musique est ne le
pouvoir est son contraire: la subversion (B, p. 13); and see N, p. 6.
45. Un bruit mis en forme selon un code (B, p. 50); and see N, p. 25. Compare this to the
description of the commodity in La Parole et loutil as energie informee (PO, p. 97).
46. Le bruit est en soi violence: il derange. Faire du bruit, cest rompre une transmission,
debrancher, tuer (B, p. 53); and see N, p. 26.
47. See Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore, 1977). On
Attalis significant debt to Girard, see Collins, Ritual Sacrifice and the Political Economy of
Music, p. 19.







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cumscribe the metaphoric violence noise evokes: music is a simulacrum of

the channelization of noise and image of sacrifice.48
5. Noise as catalyst. Noise, as Paul Hegarty has observed, is a relational
concept, defined according to presumptions that vary according to historical, geographical, and cultural location.49 Whether or not some event
is identified as noise thus depends on the particular circumstances in
which it occurs. Noises status is not fixed: it can always be recoded as
musical, as something desirable, in the same way that music can always be
recoded as noise, as undesirable. The noisiness of noise is only ever contingent. As such, the transformation of inchoate, meaningless noise into
meaningful sound is an important force for music-historical change.
Subversion in musical production always comes back to the opposition of
a new syntax to one that is in place, from whose perspective it is a noise.50
Indeed, the relational and contingent status of noise means that it may be
construed as a potential source of information, one that prevailing codes
have yet to assimilate: noise creates meaning: . . . the interruption of a
message signifies the interdiction of the meaning broadcasted, censorship
and scarcity.51
6. Noise as catastrophe. Beyond a certain point noise may no longer
simply corrupt or distort communication but prevent it from taking place
at all. Under such conditions the prevalence of noise inhibits the operation
of existing codes, depriving them of their force. In a dialectical reversal, the
obliteration of determinate meaning via noise clears a space for the creation of radically new forms of value and significance: the very absence of
meaning, in pure noise or in the senseless repetition of a message . . .
liberates the imagination of the listener. The absence of meaning is thus the
presence of all meanings, absolute ambiguity, construction beyond meaning.52 Far from a purely destructive event, the drowning out of a code by
noise is capable of giving rise to a new code, a new form of social, economic, or musical organization. This is the principle of order from noise
that features prominently in Bruits and other works of Attalis, a key in48. La musique est simulacre de canalisation du bruit et image de sacrifice (B, p. 53); and
see N, p. 26.
49. Hegarty, Noise/Music, p. 3.
50. La subversion dans la production musicale revient a` opposer une syntaxe nouvelle a`
celle en place, a` etre, pour eux, un bruit (B, p. 69); and see N, p. 34.
51. Le bruit cree un sens: . . . parce que linterruption dun message signifie linterdiction
du sens diffuse, la censure et la rarete (B, p. 67); N, p. 33.
52. Labsence meme de sens, dans le bruit pur ou dans la repetition insensee dun message
. . . libe`re limagination de lauditeur. Labsence de sens est alors presence de tous les sens,
ambigute absolue, construction hors du sens. (B, pp. 6768); and see N, p 33. See also B, p. 243
and N, p. 122.






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sight of von Foersters second cybernetics as mediated by the Groupe de

The importance of this last way of construing noiseas the instigator of
crises out of which newer, more complex forms of organization issue
forthcannot be emphasized enough. The idea that noise might not only
be a disruptive but also a generative force provides Bruits with an explanatory model for large-scale historical transformations. That is, the creation
of order out of noise accounts for the cycle of destruction and reconstruction that drives the passage through the four historical regimes identified
in Bruits: from sacrifice, through representation and repetition, to the final
utopian regime of composition. This generative principle is to be distinguished from the more gradual evolution musical styles undergo within
each of these social orders, which involves the normalization of elements
alien to a given code. Initially resistant to interpretation, a noise may with
time lose its radical alterity and become just another sign within a system
of signification. But in subsuming this noise the code that invests it with
meaning undergoes a complementary transformation, increasing in complexity. This evolutionary process is quite different from the revolutionary
change effected by the principle of order from noise. Whereas the former
describes a process of reciprocal modification, as noise and code reshape
one another, the latter describes the dissolution of a code by the overwhelming force of noise, a noise that then serves as the basis for a new
order and a new code.
More significantly, the seductive image of transfigurative disruptionor rather, its idealization in the principle of order from noise
stands at the center of Attalis economic thought. It forms the basis of his
interpretation of the dynamic governing economic crises, including the
one France and the rest of the industrialized world experienced following
the oil shock of 1973, a period that coincided with Attalis formative years as
an economist. Adumbrated in La Parole et loutil, his fascination with the
redemptive potential of such crises was spelled out in an article that appeared in a special issue of Communications dedicated to the theme of crisis
just months before the publication of Bruits. Tellingly entitled LOrdre
par le bruit, Attalis article contended that it was not the breach of a stable
equilibrium or a disruption in a steady process of growth that defined
crisis, as neoclassical economists maintained.53 What appeared in their
theories as a disjunction, a break, was in fact regeneration, a phase characterized by the repair of antecedent malfunctions, the resorption of dis53. See Attali, LOrdre par le bruit: le concept de crise en theorie econimique,
Communications, no. 25 (1976): 86100.



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equilibria built up during the preceding period of growth.54 Crisis within

this account ceases to be something to be avoided or ameliorated, instead
becoming a crucible through which the corrupted society of the present
must pass if it is to be reborn along more just, equitable, and above all
libertarian lines. Delaying its onset or mitigating its effects will only keep
the crisis from discharging its appointed task of restructuring economic
relations. Countermeasures are pointless in any event, since the accumulated dysfunctions, disequilibria, and inefficiencies within an economic
system make such moments of creative destruction unavoidable. The ideological work performed by Attalis valorization of the cleansing power of
calamitous economic upheaval should not be discounted. As Francois
Cusset has noted in a trenchant discussion of the enthusiasm with which
cybernetics was greeted in late 1970s France, the application of models of
self-organizing systems to social processes tended to naturalize economic
disturbances, along with the suffering they entail.55 Economic downturns
were thus transformed into something individuals had no choice but to
endure in the hope that a better world would emerge once the tempest had
passed. Nobody in particular was responsible for its onset, nor could anybody hope to bring it to a premature end. Human agency was evacuated
from the scene of radical social change. If there was to be a revolution, it
would not be the product of collective political actiona supposition that
flatly contradicts the role Attali assigns knowledge workers as historic subjects elsewhere in his writings. Rather, revolution would be a product of
the systems inexorable logic working itself out.
The clearest example of catastrophic noise giving birth to a new order
comes toward the end of Bruits, in Attalis discussion of how the contemporary regime of repetition will eventually give way to the utopian regime
of composition. Under repetitionthe musical corollary to Fordist mass
productionthe driving force in the musical economy is sound recording.
The ascendancy of recordings over live performance signals the advent of
a new mode of accumulation, one that overcomes the declining rate of
profit associated with the production of unique, unrepeatable events, the
center of economic gravity in the preceding regime of representation. But
this increased profitability comes at the cost of robbing music of its use
value. Attalis thinking bears the clear imprint of Baudrillards roughly
contemporaneous writings on symbolic exchange, in particular the latters
contention that postwar capitalism had undergone a structural revolu54. Ibid., p. 88.
55. See Francois Cusset, La Decennie: le grand cauchemar des annees 1980 (Paris, 2006), p. 45.



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tion of value that uncoupled use value from exchange value.56 Detached
from the labor that is its point of origin and the social function that is its
ostensible finality, music like all other commodities approaches the condition of the pure sign. For Attali this displacement of utility by semiosis is
vividly expressed in the stockpiling of use-time that recordings encourage,
as individuals purchase more albums (and nowadays compact discs and
MP3s) than they have time to enjoy. Such behavior does not represent an
individual pathology or moral failing, however. It is a structural necessity,
since the output of the music industry exceeds the capacity of audiences to
keep pace. At a certain level, Attali writes, accumulation effectively
demands acquiescence to the possession, the stockpiling of use.57 The
rapid gains in productivity that mass production made possible would
have proven unsustainable if industry had been obliged to content itself
with producing services at the same tempo they are consumed.58 The
widening gap between the time needed to produce commodities and that
needed to use them makes the production of consumer demand vital if the
economic system is not to collapse in on itself. Consumers need to be
induced to buy more music than they want or need. But spurs to consumption are effective only to a point; and once the mechanisms stimulating
consumer demand cease being effective, then the result is what Attali refers
to as a crisis of proliferation, a situation where inordinate growth becomes malignant, a cancer that menaces social and economic well-being
(N, p. 130; and see B, p. 91).
The crisis of proliferation that Attali diagnoses might be mistaken for
the crisis of overproduction theorized by Karl Marx in the third volume of
Das Kapital, save for the fact that Attali supplements its basic framework
with additional glosses, some drawn from his earlier study of cybernetics
and information theory, others from his more recent encounter with the
work of Baudrillard and Girard.59 One consequence of this accretion of
disparate theoretical systems is to amplify the severity of the crisis Attali
describes. The mass production of commodities on the basis of some prototype floods the consumer market with more or less identical objects. In
the language of information theory the outcome of this process is an increase in redundancy and a corresponding decrease in the overall amount
56. Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Ian Hamilton Grant (London,
1993), p. 6.
57. A un certain niveau, laccumulation exige en effet daccepter de posseder, de stocker
de lusage (B, p. 248); and see N, p. 125.
58. La repetition permet une croissance explosive . . . . Elle eut ete vite freinee sils devaient
se contenter de produire les services au rythme ou` ils sont consommes (B, p. 248); and see N,
p. 125.
59. See Karl Marx, Capital, trans. David Fernback, vol. 3 of 3 vols. (New York, 1991).





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of information circulating within a social system. Considering that for

Attali information is key to the production and reproduction of social
order, its loss deprives a system of the one resource capable of counteracting the accumulation of entropy that is a byproduct of productive activity.
At the same time the mass replication of a small number of models effaces
distinctive social markers. While the resulting dedifferentiation of objects,
musics, and messages is camouflaged to a degree by mechanisms that work
to fabricate arbitrary, artificial distinctionsthe hit parade being Attalis
primary examplestrategies seeking to divert attention away from the
collapse of difference into identity never prove entirely successful. For
Attali, unlike Baudrillard, the triumph of exchange over use value is neither total nor absolute. What remains discernible, if only faintly, is the
persistence of uniformity in a music so multiform, repetition in a society
which speaks so much of change, silence in the midst of so many noises,
death in the heart of life.60 Yet it is precisely the failure of sales charts and
other simulacra of difference to furnish an adequate substitute for the
distinctions lost under the regime of repetition that poses a mortal danger
to society. It threatens a return to contagious violence, hitherto held in
check by sacrifice and its latter-day surrogates, including music. Here Attali draws on Girards claim that identity, not difference, is at the root of
interpersonal conflict. Insofar as mimesis of the others desire provokes
discord that always threatens to spin out of control, the steady degradation
of musics capacity to mark meaningful differences presents an existential
threat to modern, repetitive economies: the return to violence today isnt
therefore due to an excessive desire for differences, but, on the contrary, to
the serial production of mimetic rivalries, and the inability to redirect this
violence toward a sublimating activity.61
Buttressing Marxs theory of overproduction with concepts borrowed
from Baudrillard, Girard, and information theory not only allowed Attali
to magnify the crisis afflicting the regime of repetition, it also fixed the
general parameters of the postcrisis utopia of composition he envisaged.
Given the dangers that the erosion of difference posed to social peace, any
durable successor to the contemporary society of repetition needed to
reinstate the kind of significant distinctions that its predecessor expelled.
60. Luniformite dans une musique si multiforme, la repetition dans une societe qui parle
tant de changement, le silence au milieu de tant de bruits, la mort au cur de la vie (B, p. 240);
and see N, p. 120.
61. Le retour a` la violence aujourdhui nest donc pas du a` une excessive volonte de
differences mais, au contraire, a` la production en serie de rivalites mimetiques et a` labsence de
polarisation de cette violence vers une activite sublimante (B, p. 242); and see N, p. 121. See also
B, p. 91 and N, p. 45.



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But it would have to do more than simply restore a stable principle of

differentiation, particularly if it were to avoid erecting new hierarchies in
the place of older ones. Any chance of moving forward past repetition
instead of regressing to the earlier stage of representation required some
mechanism by which distinctions could be perpetually renewed, and
thereby kept from becoming entrenched. Autogestion presented one such
mechanism, but only on the condition that it was sufficiently radicalized.
Extending this ideal beyond the domain of economic relations, expanding
the principle of autonomy it embodied to encompass more than just matters of conception and decision making, Attalis transfiguration of autogestion into composition imagined a society in which every individual
would be the sovereign producer of her or his music, as well as the codes
governing it. As such, composition served as a figure for a broader and
more profound shift in social relations, characterized by the transformation of productive activity from a means to an end into an end unto itself:
Composing . . . is doing without having any other finality than the act of
doing, without trying to artificially recreate older codes in an effort to
reintegrate communication into them. It is the invention of new codes, of
the message at the same time as the language. It is to play for ones own
pleasure, which is the only way to create the conditions for a new form of
communication.62 Under such conditions noise would become at once
ubiquitous and unremarkable. The displacement of a shared, normative
code by a profusion of individualized ones not only reveals the radical
contingency of noise but also its immanent diversity. There are as many
noises as there are codes; and there are as many codes as there are individuals. No longer a disturbance to be suppressed, noise in this scenario becomes a resource to be exploited, an engine for the continual production
of difference.63
Because it is erected on such fluid, volatile foundations, the regime of
composition that Attali imagines in Bruits can never assume a fixed or
enduring form. Composition, Attali remarks, involves a perpetual call62. Composer, . . . cest faire sans autre finalite que lacte de faire, sans tenter de recreer
artificeillement les codes anciens pour y reinserer la communication. Cest inventer des codes
nouveaux, le message en meme temps que la langue. Cest jouer pour jouir soi-meme, ce qui
seul peut crer les conditions dune communication nouvelle (B, p. 267); and see N, p. 134.
63. Attali acknowledges that excess noise presents its own dangers to social cohesion: the
noise of others may be perceived as a cacophony, and each difference thereby created between
composition units may be felt as a nuisance (dune part, le bruit des autres peut rendre un
son de cacophonie, et chaque difference ainsi creee entre les unites de composition peut etre
ressentie comme une nuisance) (B, p. 290); and see N, p. 145. To regulate social interaction
Attali proposes an ethics grounded in tolerance and autonomy (N, p. 145; and see B p. 290).
His recourse to ethics (as opposed to politics) becomes more pronounced in later writings,
including the second edition of Bruits.




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ing into question of stabilityin other words, differences. It is inscribed

not in a repetitive world, but in the permanent fragility of meaning after
the disappearance of use and exchange.64 Such instability is the price to be
paid for the radical democratization of creative activity. If greater selfdetermination is to be obtained, if the diversity required to preempt an
outbreak of contagious violence is to be ensured, individuals must forego
a certain degree of security and embrace risk. Already in La Parole et loutil
the terms of this Faustian bargain are spelled out, above all in the sketch of
the relational society that ends the book, a forerunner to the regime of
composition later fleshed out in Bruits. If it is obvious that there can be no
freedom without security, Attali remarks in the earlier text, security established as the ultimate end becomes the end of freedom. Liberty must not be
the consciousness of necessity, but the acceptance of what is tragic about
the human condition. Man is mortal. To transfer this anxiety onto an
abstraction that one strives to maintain in a state of equilibrium is to
destroy man.65 Composition makes similar demands: fantastic insecurity opens before us once we leave the world of repetition behind.66 As was
the case with his valorization of information, there was a strategic dimension to the trade-off Attali proposed. Relinquishing certain social protections in exchange for greater self-determination offered a marked contrast
with the statism of the Parti communiste.67 Yet it was also symptomatic of a
broader shift taking place in France during the second half of the 1970s, one
that involved a redefinition of which grievances among the many leveled
against capitalism were to take precedence. In the years just after the uprising and general strike of MayJune 1968 business leaders and govern64. La composition est une perpetuelle remise en cause de la stabilite, cest-a`-dire des
differences. Elle ninscrit pas sur un monde repetitif mais sur la fragilite permanente du sens,
apre`s dispraition de lusage et de lechange (B, p. 293); and see N, p. 147.
65. Sil ny a pas evidemment de liberte sans securite, la securite ergee comme finalite
supreme devient la fin des libertes. La liberte ne doit pas etre en effet la necessite devenue
consciente, mais lacceptation du tragique de la condition humaine. Lhomme est mortel.
Transferer son angoisse sur une abstraction quon veut en equilibre, cest detruire lhomme
(PO, p. 244).
66. La sortie du monde repetitif ouvre sur une fantastique insecurite (B, p. 292); and see
N, p. 146.
67. This valorization of freedom over security became all the more attractive as a strategy of
distinction given criticisms of the PCFs totalitarian proclivities leveled by the Nouveaux
philosophes during the second half of the 1970s. These chargesfueled partly by fears that
recent victories of the Union de la Gauche in municipal elections might translate into similar
results nationallystrained relations between the PCF and the PS. The Socialists faced
increasing pressure to declare its commitment to liberal values and disavow the Communists
antidemocratic tendencies, even as the PCF, losing votes to their partner, sought to stake out a
dominant position with the Union de la gauche by adopting an increasingly hardline stance.
These tensions ultimately led to the demise of the Union in fall 1977. See Christofferson, French
Intellectuals against the Left, pp. 1845.




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ment officials attended primarily to what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello
have called social critiques of capitalism, that is critiques that centered on
the unjust exploitation of labor by capital. By the mid- to late 1970s, however, their efforts were redirected towards claims made on the basis of
artistic critiques, critiques that focused instead on the barriers to selfrealization imposed by the capitalist labor process, in addition to the alienation and loss of meaning engendered by the unyielding expansion of
commodity relations.68 It was capitalisms inability to satisfy individual
aspirations, not its unjust redistribution of social wealth from one class to
another, that came to be regarded as its principal failing. Yet it was precisely this displacement of social by artistic critique that enabled agents of
a nascent post-Fordist regime of accumulation to redirect the liberatory
impulses unleashed after 1968. Passed through the filter of human relations
specialists, industrial psychologists, and sociologists of work, the ills identified by artistic critiques of capitalismthe rationalization of the labor
process, the standardization of consumer goods, the persistence of undemocratic workplace hierarchiesbecame fodder for reforms whose
purpose was not to move beyond capitalism so much as make it operate
more smoothly.69 The various utopian schemes Attali proposed before,
during, and after Bruits (the relational society, composition, the polyorder of nonviolence, among others) participated in this reorientation of
political priorities. What these all promised deliverance from were ills of
the sort identified in artistic critique. Grievances stemming from the social
critique of capitalism, while nominally addressed, were clearly subordinate
for Attali. Freedom, not social justice, was the order of the day.
But before the regime of composition might be attained, the existing
regime of repetition must first come to an end. And the end that awaits this
order is rendered all the more calamitous insofar as the crisis of proliferation is, as we have seen, an amalgamation of three distinct crises, affecting
the production of commodities, meaning, and sociality respectively. What
is to be done in the face of these mutually reinforcing crises? Attali outlines
two possible responses. The first would marshal the resources at the states
disposal to close the gap between supply and demand by nationalizing
certain sectors of the culture industry, subsidizing production in others,
68. See Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory
Elliott (New York, 2005), chap. 3. For a succinct description of the social and artistic critiques of
capitalism, see pp. 3839.
69. See ibid., pp 1856. As the two authors observe, the first response to post-68 social
unrest by business and government officials took the form of interprofessional agreements that
offered broad classes of workers improved working conditions, job security, and material
remuneration (see pp. 1823). By contrast, the second phase substituted rewards based on
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and lowering barriers of access to cultural goods. Think of this as the

interventionist, Keynesian strategy for addressing the crisis of proliferation. The second response is less activist in orientation, allowing the crisis
to deepen and ultimately resolve itself through the providential action
whereby order emerges from noise. Think of this as a variant of the
Marxist-Leninist strategy of heightening the contradictions. But viewed
from another angle it could justifiably be understood as a laissez-faire
approach that affirms the virtues of Schumpeterian creative destruction.70
Either way, there is little doubt which of these two options Attali prefers.
Given his predilection in La Parole et loutil, Bruits, and other writings for
viewing crises as necessary, even beneficial events, it is to be expected that
he has little patience for policies that seek to offset their effects. Attali is
never more scathing in Bruits than when describing such interventionist
programs and the philosophy that underpins them. Instead of allowing the
regime of repetition to self-destruct, such approaches would perpetuate it.
But to the extent that they only address the material dimension of proliferation, not its symbolic and social dimensions, rearguard actions of this
kind are doomed to failure: Is it for socialism to delay the destruction of
commercial codes that capitalism is so adept at carrying out itself? Or
would it not be better to let the general obliteration of the old codes to
achieve fruition, so that the conditions for a new language might be born?
Even if such a reactionary socialism wanted to, it could not prevent this
extermination from continuing.71 If Attalis contempt for reactionary
socialism is scarcely in doubt, what is less clear is the precise target of his
criticisms. Or at least this is likely the case for Anglo-American readers of
Bruits. For contemporary French audiences the object of Attalis opprobrium would have been evident. Calls for the collective appropriation of
the means of cultural production, for increasing outlays for cultural affairs, for democratizing access to the artsall of this recalls the policies
advocated by the Parti communiste during the 1970s. And while the antiinterventionist stance Attali adopted seems to have had little bearing on
official socialist policy, it nonetheless represented his vision of the program
the PS should pursue.
There is no better illustration than this climatic passage of the way
Attalis text intervened inand was shaped in accordance withthe pe70. On the influence of Schumpeter on Attali, see Jourdaa, La Plane`te Attali p. 97.
71. Est-ce au socialisme a` retarder la destruction des codes marchands que le capitalisme
sait si bien accomplir lui-meme? Ou bien ne vaut-il pas mieux laisser saccomplir le broyage
general des codes anciens pour que naissent les conditions dune langue nouvelle? Meme sil le
voulait, un tel socialisme, reactionnaire, ne pourrait empecher quune telle extermination se
poursuive (B, p. 261); and see N, p. 131.



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culiar political dynamics of late 1970s France. A comparison of this passage

with the corresponding point in the substantially revised second edition of
the book published in 2001 only reinforces this impression. Where Attali
once outlined two possible strategies for addressing the crisis of proliferation stands a lacuna in the new edition. Where he once presented a stark
choice between prolonging the death throes of repetition and allowing its
ultimate demise is a gap in the argument. Bruits 2.0 elides this decisive
moment, and instead skips directly from the crisis of proliferation to the
utopia that lies on its far side. One reason for this pointed omission is that
the rivalry that once subtended and lent meaning to the alternatives Attali
presented had dissipated in the intervening quarter-century. As early as
1977 signs that the PCF was losing ground to the PS could be discerned.72
The subsequent collapse of the Parti communiste as an electoral force during the 1980sits irrelevance cemented by the dissolution of the USSR in
1991removed the only meaningful left-wing counterweight to the Parti
socialiste. But even if the decline of the PCF has been a significant factor in
the Socialists rightward drift over the past thirty years, the centrist makeover the party has pursued since the early years of the Mitterrand presidency has not been due to exogenous factors alone. Changes internal to the
PSin its discourses, organization, and social compositionhave also
loosened it from its traditional ideological moorings.73 Ever since the volteface of 1983, when the reflationary policies initially pursued under Mitterrrand were abandoned in favor of austerity measures, the party has steadily
scaled back its commitment to anything resembling an authentically socialist economic agenda.74 By the end of the millennium references to an
eventual rupture with capitalism had all but disappeared from the discourse of party leaders. Sanding off the rougher edges of a triumphant
neoliberal order would now suffice as far as the PS was concerned. Yes to
the market economy, no to the market society was how Prime Minister
Lionel Jospin summed up the partys stance by the end of the 1990s.75 Yet
72. See Bergounioux and Grunberg, Les Socialistes francais et le pouvoir, p. 269, and Yves
Santamaria, Histoire du parti communiste francais (Paris, 1999), p. 88.
73. See Remy Lefebvre and Frederic Sawicki, La Societe des socialistes: le ps aujourdhui
(Broissieux, 2006), chap. 6.
74. Attali was among those who counseled Mitterrand not to withdraw from the European
Monetary System, thus limiting the French governments ability to set exchange rates, a
necessary condition for pursuing its expansionist policies. See David R. Cameron, Exchange
Rate Politics in France, 19811983: The Regime-Defining Choices of the Mitterrand Presidency,
in The Mitterrand Era: Policy Alternatives and Political Mobilization in France, ed. Anthony Daly
(London, 1996), pp. 5682, and Jean-Gabriel Bliek and Alain Parguez, Mitterrands Turn to
Conservative Economics, Challenge 51 (Mar.Apr. 2008): 97109.
75. Lionel Jospin, Le discours de la reforme, Les Notes de la Fondation Jean Jaure`s 15
(Mar. 2000): 83.






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anticapitalism was not the only thing missing from the vocabulary of the
modern Parti socialiste. So too was the figure of the working class. Partly a
function of the professionalization of the partys cadres, the majority of
whom no longer entered its ranks via grassroots activism but through the
elite Ecole nationale dadministration, the PS has largely ceased to address
itself to this once-privileged social categorythat is, if it recognizes the
existence of such a thing as the working class at all. As Remy Sawicki and
Frederic Lefebvre have observed, society as conceived in contemporary
French socialism is not an arena in which the struggle between opposed
classes is waged. Rather it is conceived as an aggregation of atomized individuals, a space defined not by active contention but inert coexistence.76
Considering that Attali was not some passive observer of the PSs post1981 reorientation but one of its main catalysts, is it any wonder he excised
from Bruits 2.0 the pivotal choice he laid out for readers in the original? It
is not simply that the communist alternative that was still a vital force circa
1977 has been reduced to a spectral existence by 2001. Nor is the excision
wholly due to the fact that Attali, no less than his erstwhile socialist comrades, has long since squandered whatever credibility he once possessed as
a tribune of a future postcapitalist society. Above all, the omission of this
decisive moment in the second edition of Bruits reflects the fact that the
volume appeared at a moment when the prospect of any practicable program that might lead past capitalism had become difficult to fathom. The
problem is not that the capacity to imagine utopias has diminished under
the reign of capitalist realism, as Mark Fisher has argued.77 Rather, what
is lacking is a political project that might make these utopias a reality as
well as a collective political agency capable of undertaking such a project.
Thus, while Attali still holds out the promise of a better world to come in
the revised version of Bruitswhat he refers to in other recent writings as
a coming era of hyperdemocracythe concrete steps that will take us
from here to there are far from evident.78 On the one hand, he doubles
down on his wager that a vanguard group is taking shape, a privileged class
that will lead the way to a perfected society once it emerges from out of its
chrysalis. In certain respects these would-be world-historical agents are
nothing more than the latest avatars of a recurring protagonist in the
thought of Attali, who in La Parole et loutil assumed the guise of the
knowledge or relational worker and in the first edition of Bruits that of the
composer. But where he once defined such historical agents in socioeco76. See Sawicki and Lefebvre, La Societe des socialistes pp. 22532. See also Didier Eribon,
DUne Revolution conservatrice et de ses effets sur la gauche Francaise (Paris, 2007), pp. 7072.
77. See Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester, 2009).
78. Attali, Une Bre`ve Histoire de lavenir (Paris, 2006), pp. 36192.




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nomic terms, by virtue of the leading position they occupied within a

specific regime of accumulation, in his recent writings he defines them
primarily in ethical terms. In his 2006 book, A Brief History of the Future,
for instance, he describes the ideal-typical member of this valorized category (that of the transhuman) as someone who is altruistic, a citizen of
the planet, nomadic and sedentary at the same time, equal to his neighbor
in rights and obligations, hospitable and respectful of the world.79 On the
other hand, new information and communication technologiesabove
all the internet and social mediaare regarded as the means by which the
market economy will be brought to heel. Capable of surmounting the
scarcity associated with material goods, the putatively dematerialized information goods that digital technologies circulate hold out the prospect
of not only supplementing but eventually supplanting the market economy with one based on gift exchange. At the time Bruits 2.0 was published,
the clearest portent of this shift was to be found in the practice of online file
sharing (see B2, pp. 22630). To his credit, Attali recognized the likelihood
that some corporate entitybe it the record industry, internet service
providers, or an emergent sector of the information economymight yet
succeed in enclosing the virtual commons opened up by computer technologies, (re)commodifying the virtual goods that threaten to slip through
the markets grasp (see B2, pp. 2334). But even if the gift economy Attali
envisages were to become a reality, it is not at all certain this would be the
panacea he imagines it to be. That gift exchange does not preclude the
unequal distribution of resources in society, that it may give rise to and
sustain coercive power relationspoints that even a cursory reading of
Marcel Mauss should make plainseems to trouble Attali little if at all.80
What Attalis latest version of utopia registers is the degree to which the
libertarian socialism he once espoused has been shorn of its substantive, to
the point that little remains beyond a milder variant of the liberallibertarian doxa that prevails in France as elsewhere. It is liberte more than
fraternite or egalite that now defines Attalis vision of a better world: the
79. Altruiste, citoyen de la plane`te, nomade et sedentaire a` la fois, egal en droits et en
devoirs a` son voisin, hospitalier et respectueux du monde (Attali, Une bre`ve histoire de lavenir,
p. 367). In contrast to the valorized subjects who manifest this ethos of cosmopolitan generosity
are the abject others of Attalis model society, all those unable to realize themselves on account
of their immobility, passivity, and self-hatred: la plupart des gens prefereront toujours rester
passifs devant le spectacle du monde, accumulateurs dobjets, trouvant plaisir a` admirer et a`
collectionner les creations des autres. . . . Ceux-la` nauront pas su saccepter comme mediocres,
ni vaincre le pire ennemi de lhomme: La haine de soi (B2, p. 244).
80. At one point in the second edition of Bruits Attali acknowledges the limitations of gift
economies. But he maintains that the future regime of composition will somehow surmount
these limitations, without ever specifying how; see B2, p. 251.




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Eric Drott / Rereading Jacques Attalis Bruits

freedom of immaterial goods to multiply and circulate, the freedom embodied in the creative act, the (apparent) freedom that characterizes the
gift relation. The only unfreedom that haunts this image of the ideal society is freedom itself, which becomes an inescapable historical necessity on
par with G. W. F. Hegels world spirit: History flows in a single, stubborn,
and very particular direction, which no upheaval, however long-lasting,
can permanently deflect: from century to century, humankind has asserted
the primacy of individual freedom over all other values.81 We have no choice
but to become free. And in a twist that would be ironic were it not so
predictable, the carrot of libertys future triumph and the stick of its historical inevitability become the means by which Attali justifies a program
of deregulation and economic liberalization in the present day. To prepare
the ground for the society to come, it is vital not only to invest resources in
certain key sectors of the economy, but also to dismantle sclerotic structures (read social protections) that impede economic growth. It is not that
such measures will necessarily hasten the coming era of composition
and/or hyperdemocracy, but that failure to enact them will retard its eventual, ineluctable advent. The place occupied by a petit-bourgeois vision of
atrophied communism (N, p. 135) in his early writings has now been
taken over by a different yet homologous set of antagonists: a bloated
public sector, uncompetitive industries propped up by overly generous
government subsidies, and the statutory protections still enjoyed by certain segments of the French workforce. Now as then the social models
invoked by Attali are little more than foils for the liberalizing policies he
prescribes across the numerous media platforms at his disposal: in the
regular column he writes for LExpress, in the mass market books he continues to publish at an astonishing clip, or in the reports issued by the
succession of presidential commissions he has chaired, first under Nicolas
Sarkozy, now under Francois Hollande.82 A bargain that may have appeared reasonable, even desirable in the context of an interparty struggle
with the notably undemocratic institution that was the Parti communiste
francais assumes a very different ideological complexion in the context of
an ascendent neoliberal order. The trade-off between freedom and security first proposed in La Parole et loutil and subsequently reiterated in the
1977 edition of Bruits has been transformed in the interim into an apologia
81. Attali, Une Bre`ve Histoire de lavenir, p. xiii.
82. See Attali et al., Rapport de la commission pour la liberation de la croissance francaise: une
ambition pour dix ans (Paris, 2010),
104000541/0000.pdf and Pour une economie positive (Paris, 2013),



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for measures that would make an already precarious economic lifeworld

even more so.
Music is prophetic. Or so Attali tells us in Bruits. But like millenarian
proclamations of an end time that is always imminent but never arrives,
the future Attali predicts through the medium of music is forever just over
the horizon. This alone should force us to reassess his claims regarding
musics prophetic powers. So too should the books involvement in the
political mutations that France, the Parti socialiste, and Attali have all undergone since the 1970s, whose contours I have outlined in this article.
What, then, are we to make of Attalis theses in light of his participation in
the intramural struggles that set socialists against communists in late 1970s
France? In light of the allegorical dimension music acquires in the context
of this struggle? Or the vulgar antimaterialism Attali embraced in reaction
to the vulgar materialism espoused by the Parti communiste?
Acknowledging the degree to which the original edition of Bruits was
enmeshed in contemporary political debates concerning the Union de la
gauche underlines the performative character of Attalis prognostications.
The predictive claims to which music gives rise are presented in Attalis
text as apodictic statements, as pronouncements whose truth will be revealed in the fullness of time. But what is cast as an inevitability is in fact a
conditional. This is particularly evident with regard to the utopian regime
of composition that Attali describes at the end of Bruits. This image of a
truly democratic cultureitself a token of a truly democratic, postcapitalist economyis not so much a prophecy as a promise. This, Attali declares
to his readers in Bruits, is what the future may hold should the Parti socialiste accede to power. Neither their adversaries in the ruling center-right
majority nor their partners-cum-rivals on the left, the Communists, were
capable of turning this dream into a reality. Only Attali and his socialist
allies were able to do so. That Bruits appeared in print just a few months
prior to municipal elections in which the Union of the Left would enjoy
considerable gains only reinforced the surety of the promissory note Attali
tendered his readers.83
At the same time, recognizing the ideological work that Bruits performed in late-1970s France compels us to reflect upon the kind of ideological work it has also performedand continues to performin the
Anglo-American academy. There are several points to be made in this
regard. One concerns the very different horizon of political possibility that
has shaped the English-language reception of Bruits, especially compared
83. See Bell and Criddle, The French Socialist Party p. 92.


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Eric Drott / Rereading Jacques Attalis Bruits

to that which Attali and his French readers inhabited at the time of its
publication in 1977. As noted above, Bruits appeared in print just as the
French Left was on the cusp of sweeping into power for the first time since
the Fifth Republic was instituted some twenty years beforehand. By contrast, the English translation appeared in print in 1985, in the midst of the
Reagan and Thatcher counterrevolutions, when the backlash against the
gains won by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s was in full swing.
One ironic consequence of this has been the tendency of English-language
readers to diminish the power that Attali ascribed to music in the original
edition of Bruits. In the hands of North American scholars in particular,
Attalis conjectures regarding musics prophetic capacities lose much of
their force. Music is no longer understood to presage new forms of socioeconomic organization but to foreshadow changes in sensibility, ideology,
and structures of feeling. It would appear that the idea of a radical transformation of the economy, something still conceivable in France prior to
Mitterrands election in 1981, was all but unthinkable for American academics by the mid-1980s. Under these circumstances, the only thing that
changes in music seem capable of auguring are changes in other, relatively
autonomous areas of the superstructure. As such, the coming age of composition Attali foretells no longer represents the passage from capitalism to
socialism. Rather, in the hands of his Anglo-American readers it has
tended to mark little more than the advent of a freer, more liberal cultural
But why, exactly, has Bruits proved so alluring for English-language
music scholars? Part of the answer to this question lies in the particular
disciplinary history of North American musicology and the fact that Bruits
arrived at the exact moment when scholars were beginning to break free of
the positivist straitjacket that had constricted them for so long. But an
equally important part of Bruits allure is due to the comforting image it
paints of music and its place in the contemporary social world. Clearly the
claim that music is the herald of the future serves the professional interests of music scholars. Yet the same may also be said of the ideological
foundations upon which this claim rests. If the foregoing has indicated
anything, it is the degree to which Bruits was animated by the same class
politics that drove Attali and the Parti socialiste in their efforts to loosen
the grip that the PCFs workerism exerted over the imagination of the
French Left. Substituting the nouvelle petite bourgeoisie for the industrial
84. A clear example of this can be seen in McClarys afterword to Noise, where she reads
contemporaneous musical developments (new wave and punk in popular music, minimalism
and performance art in the classical sphere) as expressions of not simply a change in musical
taste but also of social climate (McClary, Afterword, pp. 158).


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proletariat as the principal catalyst of social history not only allowed a clear
distinction to be drawn vis-a`-vis the PCF; it also facilitated the Socialists
bid to win the support of this growing electoral bloc. And even though the
intended addressees of Bruits were not the Anglophone readers of Brian
Massumis translation, this does not mean that the latter would be deaf to
its appeals. Music scholars may not have been the ones the book hailed, but
there was nothing to prevent them from responding as if they were.
This is not to say that the books claims are altogether lacking validity or
value, or that the intense interest Bruits has generated in North America
and beyond is simply a matter of ideological mystification. Rather, it is to
say that this interest is overdetermined, partly by the identifications and
disidentifications the text puts into play, partly by the uses Attalis arguments have afforded scholars working in a political and intellectual context very different from that in which they were originally formulated. But
if the books more fruitful insights are to be put to continued critical work,
the broader discursive framework in which they are enmeshed must be
regarded with greater scrutiny than it has been given in the past, and with
a greater degree of reflexivity. It is by means of such a critical rereading of
Bruits that we can begin the arduous yet necessary task of rewriting certain
of its key concepts, most notably that of noise itself. This process is already
underway in the work of a handful of scholars. Jonathan Sterne, for instance, has recently observed how noises capacity to disturb has been
fundamentally altered by the development of what he refers to as perceptual technics, procedures that take into account the peculiarities of the
human auditory mechanism and integrate this knowledge into the design
of media systems capable of exploiting its manifold gaps and crevices. The
suppression of noise is made unnecessary to the extent that it is so readily
managed nowadays, secreted away beyond the limits of human hearing.
Once you can use signal to hide noise, the game is up, Sterne writes.
Noise ceases to matter as a perceptual category.85 More emphatically still,
Steve Goodman has highlighted the degree to which noise can serve the
arts of domination equally well as the arts of resistance. A vivid manifestation of this has been the development of technologies like long-range
acoustic devices (LRADs), whose use by police in crowd control counters
the noise of public discontent with a greater noise, disrupting the capacity
of protest to disrupt.86 Nor is it just noise in its familiar acoustical form that
has been put to work on behalf of a hegemonic neoliberal order. Noise
85. Sterne, MP3, p. 124.
86. See Goodman, Sonic Warfare, p. 11. See also Juliette Volcler, Le Son comme arme (Paris,




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Eric Drott / Rereading Jacques Attalis Bruits

understood in its informational sense, as an impediment to the transmission of a signal, has also demonstrated its utility. How else does the drive to
subject all areas of social life to the dictates of the market operate if not by
means of such a logic of interference? Transposed from the economic
sphere into spaces that once enjoyed a degree of relative autonomy, market
signals function as a noise whose strength threatens to drown out all other
logics, all other ordering principles, all other codes. The political valence of
noise, in short, cannot be assumed in advance. The same is true of the
codes against which noise is invariably opposed in Bruits. Even if for Attali
these are posed as the hegemonic other of a resistant noise, there is nothing
inevitable to this distribution of political functions. Indeed, the emergence
since the 1970s of a new spirit of capitalism, one that has absorbed many of
the claims lodged against it by artistic critique, effectively short-circuits the
dialectic Attali describes. The motor driving historical change in Bruits, the
process whereby the noise that destructures one order gives rise to another,
seizes up under the conditions that prevail nowadays. Noise is no longer
antagonistic to the existing regime of accumulation but instead provides
the raw material for its perpetual renewal.87 And once crisis has been so
thoroughly subsumed by capital, the providential action Attali identifies in
the principle of order from noise can scarcely be expected to effect systemic
change. Henceforth any disturbance that is to do more than just pry open
new opportunities for the extraction of surplus-value needs to participate
in the construction of some concrete alternative, in the composition of a
code whose sense can withstand the pervasive nonsense of the market.
Even if the terms of Attalis dialectic remain the same, the relation between
them need not: instead of order from noise, noise from order.

87. Robin James makes a similar point, writing that Deregulation is designed to produce
noisy irregularity, not to suppress or eliminate it (James, Neoliberal Noise, p.143).