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ESSAYS & REVIEWS

Loving the Alien


By ROBIN JAMES OCTOBER 22, 2012

Socialist economist Jacques Attali’s 1977 book Noise: A Political Economy of Music
(translated in 1984 by Brian Massumi) offered a structuralist “political image by imp kerr
economy of music.” In the U.S., this explicitly political analysis of music made
a splash in “new” or critical musicology, which was then in its infancy. (Attali
published a revised version of Bruits in 2001, which has not been translated into English.)

In Noise, Attali tried to account for the hypercommodification of music and our resulting alienation
from musical creativity and pleasure. His theory of “composition”—defined as “an activity that is an
end in itself, that creates its own code at the same time as the work”—offers a quasi-Marxist notion
of a musical utopia that would allow music makers to escape the alienation of their labor and
pleasure in commodities and enjoy the creative process unrestricted by predetermined rules or
outcomes.

In an interview with Fredric Jameson, Attali describes composition as what happens when “the
common people themselves in their creativity and narcissism, who seek their own pleasure and
satisfaction—yes, narcissism is the right word here—…want, in short, to liberate themselves.”

Attalian composition seems like a mishmash of different philosophical concepts: there’s a little bit of
Herbert Marcuse’s idea of “narcissistic” eros liberated from the performance principle (the
imperative to repress and sublimate desire in productive labor), Deleuze’s concept of the plane of
composition (macro-organizational rules emerge from the bottom-up, instead of being applied
from the top down), and a little bit of Kant’s categorical imperative (work and workers as ends in
themselves). It basically involves doing whatever you want for its own sake, with no predetermined
purpose or program restricting your creativity. And this is, in Attali’s mind, what liberation sounds
like.

Liberation from what, though? Attali explicitly frames composition as the liberation from late
industrial capitalism—that is, from mass reproduction. But now, in the 21st century, the so-called
developed world has already exited the age of mechanical mass reproduction and moved on to a
neoliberal service and information economy. So Attali’s notion of composition sounds overly
idealistic and dated at best, if not also philosophically and politically problematic. Writing in Mute,
Flint Michigan argues that “Attali has difficulty developing ‘composition’ … beyond individualist
dimensions.” If everyone is composing for him or herself, Attali’s project doesn’t leave much room
for collective resistance.

As unsatisfying as Noise’s political claims may be, its musical analysis is much more interesting—
even and especially for thinking about politics. According to Attali, radical upheavals in 20th century
Western art music foreshadow a more fundamental social transformation in which
“representation”—his term for the general epistemic paradigm that grounds both classical political
economy and tonal harmony—“gives way to statistics, macroeconomics, and probability,” or in other
words, to “repetition.”

Though Attali offers repetition as a neo-Marxist account of the regime of mechanical reproduction,
it may work better as a theory of the Foucauldian order of neoliberal biopolitics—that is, the
statistical maximization of life and minimization of risk or randomness. Foucault and Attali are
talking about the same thing—biopolitical neoliberalism. Foucault just does it in terms of power,
and Attali in terms of economic models.

As Foucault puts it in his 1976 lectures (collected as Society Must Be Defended), biopolitical
neoliberalism—“the power to ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die”—uses statistics to optimize the life of some
(privileged) groups, intensifying their access to “life” by deintensifying the access of others. For
example, in North Carolina, state employees with a low body mass index can opt for better health-
care coverage than “obese” employees, who are eligible for only the most basic plan. Quantitative
instruments, Foucault argues, manage the intensity of life to minimize unpredictable,
nonstandardizable phenomena, because these drain efficiency and impede optimization. If all a
population’s deviances can be standardized, then they can be co-opted as contributions to privileged
groups’ quality of life.

Take, for instance, yoga and Zumba—examples of what philosopher Sandra Bartky calls beauty-
industrial complexes. Abstracted from the South Asian and Afro-Caribbean contexts on which these
practices more or less draw, they can be presented as fitness regimes, easily incorporable upgrades
to (Westernized, generally feminine) bourgeois lifestyles. They’re about burning calories, raising
heart rates, increasing strength, inches of muscle gained or fat lost, and so on. Instead of talking
about cultural differences like Hindu vs. Western philosophical approaches to the body, we talk
about exercise and weight loss. Yoga and Zumba become middle-class women’s regimens for self-
improvement, segments of the service economy that cater to them.

For Foucault, biopolitical neoliberalism reduces everything to statistical data and then uses this data
to distribute “life” to the average and above average, and away from the below-average and the
nonstandardizable deviants. As he puts it in Society Must Be Defended, biopolitical neoliberalism is
“the power of regularization” that monitors “aleatory events.” In the case of yoga and Zumba, the
practices aren’t so much commodified as data-fied, to measure the degree to which they intensify
life. The point is to cultivate an above-average level of fitness and attractiveness—to exceed the
average without breaking the curve (e.g., by exercising to the point one’s body no longer conforms to
recognizable gender ideals).

Like Foucault, Attali treats the biopolitical management of risk as neoliberalism’s defining feature,
only he uses the term repetition. Though Attali sometimes frames repetition as copying or looping,
he puts more emphasis the “statistical organization of repetition.” A repetitive society uses statistics
to manage outliers—whatever can’t be controlled for, whatever breaks the curve. “The administrator
in a repetitive society” is tasked with “managing chance,” Attali argues. In a 1983 interview, Attali goes
further, arguing that “the aleatory can perfectly well be conceptualized in a profoundly systematic
way: indeed, in modern times it becomes the fundamental component of all theoretical systems.”

Attali connects this statistical management of chance to the administration of life. In the political
economy of repetition, he argues, “the study of the conditions of the replication of life has led to a
new scientific paradigm … Biology replaces mechanics.” By 1977, the “developed” economies of the
West were transitioning from a manufacturing economy to a service one. Instead of “making things,”
as Jack Donaghy would say, we work on ourselves, on our quality of life … or rather, less privileged
people get paid to work on more privileged people’s fingernails, hair, muscles, houses, diets,
children, psychological health, online dating profile picture, standardized test scores, and so on. In
Foucault’s terms, Western economies shi ed from the mechanical reproduction of commodities to
the biopolitical intensification (stockpiling) of life. In such societies, success is not measured by
having more stuff, but by having, as Rutger Hauer’s character in Blade Runner says, “more life.”

So while Attali says in Noise that the problem with repetition is “proliferation” and “an excess of life,”
he frames composition as a solution to a different problem: namely, “alienation” or “exteriority,” the
result of commodification and a feature of the society of mass/mechanical reproduction. His
concept of composition thus misses what is most innovative about his theory of repetition, the
move from mechanics to biology, from commodities to life-intensities.

Composition, then, is not a very compelling response to biopolitical neoliberalism. What’s a better
one? To figure this out, it helps to examine some Actual musical practices to theorize political
responses to neoliberalism as it plays out in current approaches to making and listening pop music.

To explain how administered repetition appears in music, Attali refers to the “management of
chance” in mid-20th century avant-garde art music. In John Cage’s work, Attali argues, “even if in
appearance everything is a possibility for him, on average his behavior obeys specifiable, abstract,
ineluctable functional laws.” These avant-garde compositions define a system within which chance
operations occur, but they do not allow for entirely asystematic events. It’s sort of like a Magic 8-Ball
toy: In any given shake, any one of the collected “answers” could appear, but you’ll never get a
response not already programmed into the toy.

A similar process of containment is at work with xenomania, Simon Reynolds’s term for hipsters’
taste for ever more exotic non-Western pop musics—their “appetite for the alien,” as he puts it.
Reynolds argues that the Internet, with its “infinite choice plus infinitesimal cost” has created a
context in which “nomadic eclecticism” is the “default mode for today’s music fan.” Here, the
Internet—both in the way its architecture manifests global power dynamics, and in the mp3 format
shuttled around on file-hosting sites—controls for “randomness.”

Though Reynolds claims that “all those Analogue Era deterrents and blockages have now been swept
aside by the torrential every-which-way data flows of Web 2.0,” the Internet is not a level playing
field. It, like everything else, is affected by Western hegemony. Xenomania is the flow of musical data
from (post)colony to Western metropolis, and the direction matters. (We don’t call it xenomania
when they appropriate us, do we?)

The Internet doesn’t make music into a global free-for-all; there is no actual randomness here.
Rather, it standardizes musical, cultural, and geographic deviations so that Westerners can more
easily and efficiently plunder the cultural resources of the so-called Third World. The mp3 format
makes the colonial expropriation of global pop particularly easy. Western DJs can plug an mp3 file
right into Traktor, Ableton, or ProTools—they don’t need the ethnomusicological expertise to deal
with sounds that aren’t immediately assimilable to Western musical rubrics, like quarter tones,
which don’t exist in Western music and which Westerners can’t generally recognize. As mp3s, songs
are predigested for these programs, which can quantize them to Western grids with the click of a
mouse. The mp3 is like a one-way musical Babel Fish. “Third World” musicians and audiences still
have to learn to navigate globalized Western pop, while xenomaniacal Westerners get a cheat code.

The need for this cheat code, or what Reynolds describes as the “thirst for fresh musical stimuli,” is
actually a specifically neoliberal imperative. For the neoliberal subject, the point of life is to “push it
to the limit,” closing in ever more narrowly on the point of diminishing returns. Philosopher
Shannon Winnubst calls this sort of neoliberal hunger game “the biopolitics of cool.” According to
Winnubst, the neoliberal subject has an insatiable appetite for more and more novel differences:
“difference…becomes a manifestation of cool rather than a repressed other.”

By transforming alterity this way, the neoliberal individual demonstrates its success: “I, too, can do
the hot new thing, and I can do it both better than you, and better than those people with whom it’s
originally associated.” Niche non-Western pop genres become supplements Western hipsters use to
demonstrate that they are “winning” at life, the avant-avant-garde. Xenomanical hipsters
instrumentalize non-Western music in order to show that they are always ahead of the curve.

Jeffery Nealon calls this “the logic of intensity”: Pleasure comes not from assimilating difference
(“eating the other,” as bell hooks puts it), but from optimizing one’s individual capacities. This logic
of intensity works like a synthesizer, regulating the frequency (the rate at which a sine wave cycles
from peak to peak, or valley to valley) and amplitude (the height and shape of a peak or valley) of an
audio signal. This is what Attali means when he claims in Noisethat “the synthesizer … can be seen as
the statistical instrument par excellence.”

Biopolitical neoliberalism monitors or “synthesizes” the intensity of life. In biopolitics, life’s


intensity, like a sine wave, closes in on a limit without ever reaching it. Politically, neoliberalism
maintains social stratifications by making sure privileged groups are on the edge of burnout (the
upper limit of intensity), while marginal groups are teetering on the brink of death (the lower limit).
Adjust the frequency beyond a certain point, and the sound wave becomes another pitch entirely.
Similarly, in order to prevent any upset in the overall, population-wide “balance” of privilege, the
intensity of each individual’s life needs to remain, like a sound wave, within the statistically defined
minimum and maximum appropriate to one’s social position.

Biopolitical neoliberalism manages populations like an audio equalizer manages different signals,
maintaining an optimal balance among all signals by keeping each individual one within a narrowly
defined range of intensity (e.g., so the treble and bass levels are consistently proportional). Upsetting
the balance of intensity, letting people experience life above and/or below their prescribed levels,
means distributing privilege and oppression in ways that undermine hegemony (patriarchy, white
supremacy, etc.).

***

Neoliberal approaches to music aren’t limited to hipsters. With the rise of electronic-dance-pop,
they have become mainstream. EDM-pop applies the statistical logic of biopolitical neoliberalism—
Attali’s repetition—to pop songwriting. Aesthetically, it takes experiences usually reserved for
privileged groups—that is, being so ahead of the curve you’re almost burned out—and uses this as a
model for musical pleasure. Songs are structured so that rhythmic and timbral intensity are pushed
to the upper limits of either/both our sensory wetware and the musical hard/so ware.

Riding the crest of burnout is associated with privilege. Hegemony reproduces itself by distributing
resources to privileged groups; thus, privileged people get to lead the most intense lives, lives of
maximized (individual and social) investment and maximized return. Experientially, privilege
means being so busy, overcommitted, and invested in your life that you’re always at risk of hitting
the point of diminishing returns. EDM-pop songs make that affective experience of privilege a
mass-market consumer product. This is why people like it: It mimics the feeling of winning.

So how, exactly, does EDM-pop create in sound the edge-of-burnout effect? This is where Attali’s
idea of repetition pays off. Conventional pop is organized harmonically: increasingly stronger
dissonances develop to a point of crisis; attenuated dissonance then assimilates back to consonance.
(This conforms to the “eating the other” model mentioned above). EDM-pop, by contrast, intensifies
repetition to the limit of aural perception; the climax or musical “money shot” comes when this
limit is reached or crossed.

For example, the repetitions of a musical event—a word, a drumbeat—will be exponentially


increased (eight notes, to sixteenths, to thirty-seconds). This is an intensification of frequency.
Amplitude can also be intensified by using effects and synth patches. For example, in gabber, a genre
of hardcore techno, the bass is modified so that it’s a square wave on the attack, instead of a regular,
curved sine wave. Most EDM-pop songs will combine both: There will be an increasingly dense
rhythmic texture, accompanied by pitches and timbres that, in Dan Barrow’s words, “soar.”

Since the subject of the New Inquiry’s music issue was failed utopias, let’s take two dystopian tracks as
our examples. First, LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” whose video parodies zombie apocalypse
stories. The main “soar” starts where the female vocalist enters with her “get up”s (around 4:25 in the
video), and ends when the chorus returns (around 4:55). The female vocalist’s part is a simple, clear
distillation of the logic of intensity. She says:

Get up, get down, put your hands up to the sound (x3)
Put your hands up to the sound, put your hands up to the sound
Get up, get up, get up, get up; Get up, get up, get up, get up
Get up, put your hands up to the sound, to the sound,
Put your hands up, put your hands up, put your hands up, put your
hands up

Ever smaller chunks of text are repeated at increasingly higher rates. Similarly, in the second half of
the line of “get ups,” you’ll hear a synth that rises in pitch, soaring us to the last “put your hands up.”
The same thing happens in Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” whose video is about dystopian post-
industrial Britain. The main “soar” begins right a er the repetitions of the titular line, “We found
love in a hopeless place” (1:44 in the video). The percussion lines become increasingly more rapid
(from eighth-note triplets to sixteenth notes), and several treble synths soar upward in pitch as their
timbres are modified. This all leads up to a big hit (2:00 in the video).

In both songs, rhythmic and timbral intensity are pushed to the limit. Riding the crest of auditory or
machinic burnout, these songs mimic, in music, the generalized affective experience of privilege in
neoliberalism. Listening to this music, people get to feel something like privilege, even and
especially if they’re not privileged. Yet at the same time, by tarrying with burnout or, more
important, zero intensity (what philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life”), EDM lets listeners
experience what feels like risk, indulgence, and excess but is actually very tightly and carefully
controlled. All excess, all deviance, is always already accounted for in the statistical, asymptotic logic
of the sine wave. Take the bass too low, for example, and it just sounds like percussive clicks, not a
pitch. As Attali argued, what seem superficially  like chance events are the products of careful
management, which ensures against the emergence of actual chance occurrences or
nonstandardizable deviances.

Neoliberal hegemony manages chance. No longer a matter of the alienation Attali sought to remedy,
it co-opts (standardizes) deviation rather than oppressing or repressing otherness. How, then, do you
resist it? Is there any room for real deviation, and if so, how do you put it into practice?

What counts as deviation depends on what level of intensity hegemony has assigned you in the first
place—what frequency range your life is tuned to sound. Producing—getting behind the glass, in
front of ProTools—is thus a more useful metaphor for resistance than Attali’s composing.
Production is also tends to be a more collective endeavor than composing, a collaboration of knob-
tweakers, engineer, and performers. Resistance involves a collective project of rejecting the presets,
digging into the advanced settings and modulating frequencies, tweaking amplitudes, and retuning
the mix.

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The Sonic Episteme TNI Vol. 9 Editorial Power Pop Spotivangelism


By ROBIN JAMES Note: On Music, By EN LIANG KHONG By WHITNEY ERIN BOESEL

To use sound as a tool for Utopia, and Failure Given China’s in uence in the Spotify claims to make
theorizing and realizing a By THE NEW INQUIRY global economy, why has music “social,” as if it hasn’t
more just world, we can’t We’re big enough fans of pop there been no Chinese Psy? always been. In the
merely reform Western music to know that meantime, it strips us of the
modernity; we must do sometimes the promise of sense of control that can
something else entirely happiness is not always come from listening
betrayed.

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