April 9, 2013
Notes from Tuned City:
Apparatus of Capture: Resonance, sustain, drone. The encounter must be sustained, drawn out, for it to “take hold”, to bed down, to adequately function as a means or mechanism of subjectification.
The sustained tone becomes a kind of memory: storage and stasis.
Ultimately the sustained tone must be held in the mind as a kind of pointer that establishes itself as the precondition for a sense of resolve or resolution upon reconnecting with the tone or upon its resurfacing. The sustenance of tone in architecture and infrastructure supports and expediates the tone becoming sustained in the mind, makes it more likely to “take” in the subject.
Rhythmanalysis (RA) is a good starting point for the identification and analysis of tone. While RA concerns itself with a broad field of events and durations that necessarily encompass the fleeting, its focus is—in being removed from a focus upon sustain—to easily distracted. In providing an analytical framework for a taxonomy of regulatory durations RA provides an entry point, a means to begin identifying events or encounters of more sustained and fundamental durations.
Infrastructure is the instrument of sustain, of capture and resonant extension, of tonal regrounding and recentring (towards “an international tonal centre”). Infrastructure allows for the establishment of tones that appear “natural” and spontaneous to the subject. This is due to a kind of infrastructural tenacity, the resilience of harmonci structures and their relative subtlety. Their effectiveness in establishing a horizon or threshold that cannot be simply described according to amplitude but according to harmonic structures and organisations that impose a “natural” order of things. The infrastructural determination of a perceptual threshold and regulatory (harmonic) structure can be recognised in the structure of LaMonte Young’s Dream Chord (18/17/16/12).
Resonance is a function of power. As much as the excitation of a resonant capacity is a means of connection, the nature of this connection is ambiguous. The resonant connection may be considered always productive but not necessarily positive. The violence of resonance is recognised in its opposition to reason (Erlmann: 2010).
March 18, 2013
It was very nice to have this book arrive today. This collection features my Non-cochlear sound: On affect and exteriority essay and some fantastic essays from the following brilliant people: Marie Thompson, Ian Biddle, Patricia Clough, Eldritch Priest, Richard Elliot, John Mowitt, Clara Latham, Dean Lockwood, Paul Hegarty, Anahid Kassabian & Freya Jarman.
The book is published by Bloomsbury and can be purchased from your local not-for-profit, worker’s co-operative, radical and community bookshop.
Sound, Music, Affect features brand new essays that bring together the burgeoning developments in sound studies and affect studies.
The first section sets out key methodological and theoretical concerns, focussing on the relationships between affective models and sound. The second section deals with particular musical case studies, exploring how reference to affect theory might change or reshape some of the ways we are able to make sense of musical materials. The third section examines the politics and practice of sonic disruption: from the notion of noise as ‘prophecy’, to the appropriation of ‘bad vibes’ for pleasurable aesthetic and affective experiences. And the final section engages with some of the ways in which affect can help us understand the politics of chill, relaxation and intimacy as sonic encounters.
The result is a rich and multifaceted consideration of sound, music and the affective, from scholars with backgrounds in cultural theory, history, literary studies, media studies, architecture, philosophy and musicology.
| Tags: Affect, Deleuze, Infraesthetics, Intensity, non-cochlear sound, Sound Object, sound-itself
February 14, 2013
Below is an outline of the workshop I’ll be leading in Brussels (22nd – 28th March) at Tuned City 2013.
This workshop explores the subliminal influence of acoustic space upon citizens. Participants will explore the city as a material practice of ideology. Forming a roving pedestrian laboratory, through the use and construction of open tools and methodologies, the frequencies at which the city insinuates itself into the mind will be logged and mapped. This workshop will focus specifically upon the existence of an international “tone of prime unity” posited by R. Murray Schafer:
In the Indian anahata and in the Western Music of the Spheres, man has constantly
sought some prime unity, some central sound against which all other vibrations may be
measured […] It is, however, only in the electronic age that international tonal
centers have been achieved; in countries operating on an alternating current of 60
cycles, it is this sound which now provides the resonant frequency, for it will be
heard (together with its harmonics) in the operation of all electrical devices from
lights and amplifiers and generators (1994, 98-9).
Schafer’s tone of prime unity describes the determination of a collective sonic unconscious through the acoustical impressions of electricity. Schafer optimistically interprets this as the foundation of a community of listening subjects bound by fundamentals established by the ‘electric revolution’ (Schafer: 1994, 89-99). This workshop begins with a more ambiguous interpretation of Schafer’s discovery of the “tone of prime unity”, understanding it to be an example of the influential capacity of acoustic space, its ability to subliminally inform and individuate.
This workshop will make use of the following methods:
- Pedestrian Research: A mongrel, undisciplined practice combining philosophy and computing in the pursuit of a concrete epidemeology of concepts on foot.
- Archaeoacoustics: the decoding and study of acoustical events and utterances impressed upon physical artifacts and substrates.
November 1, 2012
On Friday 23rd November I’ll be giving a workshop and lecture at the University of Sussex as part of the Bridging Sound event. This promises to be a great event, bringing together a really great bunch of people:
Oeyvind Brandtsegg http://flyndresang.no/
Rupert Cox http://www.humanities.manchester.ac.uk/chimera/staff/members/cox/
Angus Carlyle http://www.lcc.arts.ac.uk/research/research-staff-profiles/dr-angus-carlyle/
Salomé Voegelin http://www.salomevoegelin.net
Michael Bull http://www.sussex.ac.uk/profiles/119032
This event launches an interdisciplinary research forum dealing with 21st century
soundscapes and auditory environments, which have become an exciting focus for artistic,
technological, and sociological research. Our urban surroundings and the sites we
frequent for work, leisure, consumption and transportation offer scaffolds for new kinds
of acoustic architectures. Sonic designs employ and mix platforms ranging from public
address systems to intimate messaging. Roles of artists, urban planners, commercial
stakeholders, state authorities, and “local bodies” are mobilised by the steadily
expanding, yet never-quite-real estate inhabited by sound. Bridging Sound promotes and
debates this burgeoning area of contemporary practice. It convenes practitioners and
theorists from a range of disciplines to investigate figuratively, metaphorically and
theoretically the intersections between sound, architecture and culture.
A two day event consisting of an internal workshop on Friday followed at 4pm by a series
of public lectures and presentations which continue all day Saturday.
I’ll be giving a lecture entitled ‘There’s No I in Immanence’ alongside Salomé Voegelin. I’m particularly excited about this as my own thinking is very much opposed to a lot of Salomé’s. For this reason we’ve decided to make the most of our differences, and so my own lecture is intended to highlight some of the main points where I disagree with Salomé, in the hope that some productive discussion will arise from the tension (between the texts, hopefully not the two of us). The talk is still being assembled, I’ll post it here once its in some kind of coherent form. Below is a provisional abstract:
There’s No I in Immanence: Auditory Proxemics and Individuality
The metaphysics of presence, the audio-visual litany, the ideology of immanence; these overlapping positions continue to hold ground in discourse on sonic practice and experience. All assert as a component of the nature of sound a pre-critical immediacy. Contrary to the above positions it will be argued that immanent sonic presence constitutes a dissolution of the spatiality or distance constitutive of alterity and listening subjects. Immanence qleaves two possible outcomes for the listening subject: solipsism or annihilation. Contrary to the immanent dissolution of critical distance, the auditory components of proxemic theory (Hall, 1990) describe the role of sound in establishing intimate, personal, interpersonal and public territories. The taxonomy of personal spaces and interpersonal distances proposed in Hall’s proxemic theory were conceived as a means of redesigning urban and shared space. If it is to be capable of contributing to this social and civic project, sound and sonic practice needs to be understood in terms of its implication in the establishment of critical distances and territories. It is argued that while immanence constitutes a dissolution of the critical distances delimiting interpersonal spaces, it simultaneously grounds proxemic theory in what lies beyond it, in an impersonal space (too close and too saturated to accommodate the I of the listening subject) that both underpins and undermines the possibility of personal space.
| Tags: Acoustic Ecology, Architecture, Auditory Space, Immanence, Soundscape
July 24, 2012
Matter and Media
This argument is concerned less with media than with matter, specifically the matter with(in) media. The title of the present edition can be read as a question: what’s the matter with media? Against the interpretation of this question as being concerned with a “crisis” within media studies regarding an elusive object of study, it is herein read as stating the terms of a perennial problem, terms held in a productive tension.1 This problem is the relationship and interdependence of matter and media, their dependencies, interactions and independence. While the title’s preposition presents the terms in relation it also suggests that a difference persists; it is this difference that I wish to briefly explore. A distinction is proposed between the terms matter and media, the precedent for which can be found in the work of Marshall McLuhan. This argument claims that, despite McLuhan’s insistence that media be understood as `the extensions of man’, we can identify in his work a number of openings onto that which underpins and eventually undermines both media and that which it is thought to extend. It is in the concepts of `pure information’ and `matters of indifference’ that we find these openings, suggesting that, rather than extensions of man, media are often best understood as epistemic openings onto exteriority. In what follows these two concepts will be explored with reference to recent artistic research carried out by myself, Martin Howse and Jonathan Kemp.2
For McLuhan, `the “content” of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium’ (1971, 16). Here McLuhan makes a distinction between—symbolic—content and the medium through which it is transmitted from sender to receiver. This distinction can be mapped onto that already posited between matter and media. Making clear the reductive mappings or structural equivalences that will—initially at least—help to outline the relationship between matter and media with which we are presently concerned, the key terms of the present argument can organised in a table of distinctions:
|Pure Information||Cultural Technique|
According to this initial distinction, the coupling of matter and media is not evenly balanced; as with any such list of oppositions the above table presents a hierarchical structure privileging one side over the other. In exploring the relationship between matter and media—and the terms with which they are structurally equivalent—an emphasis is placed upon the former term. The reason for this emphasis—which serves to isolate the real term—is that in our experience and consumption of media it is matter that ordinarily constitutes the `low other’, being occluded in support of the symbolic efficacy of media. The occlusion of matter and medium is necessary for clear communication, a condition for the veridical transmission of content. To hear the medium in which a message is encoded is to begin listening to noise, to the meaningless yet affective substrate that must silently underpin the symbolic. In becoming audible this clamorous silence undermines the symbolic, the voicing of a meaningless substrate that has nothing to say but says it nonetheless. The process of undermining media indexes and uncovers a substrate anterior and indifferent to `cultural techniques’ of media (Siegert, 2007, 30).3
The undermining of media reveals what McLuhan calls a medium’s `character’. This character defines what a medium is capable of doing; this character also describes the medium’s affective capacity, its capacity to affect and be affected, to impress and retain a range of impressions. In this sense the character of the medium to which content blinds us is a specifically functional—rather than symbolic or representational—issue, being concerned with the difference made within and between assemblages. This functional orientation is primarily concerned with a medium’s capacity to influence and inform, to establish connections and break them, to impress and erase. (See Deleuze and Guattari: 2004, 257). This functionalism describes deterministic capacity, as for McLuhan the character of a medium is to be discerned in how it `shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action’ (1971, 16). The medium is neither passive nor innocent but influential, informing behaviour, patterns of consumption, the speed and nature of communication as much as—if not more than—the content it carries. A technical medium, in its exploitation of natural capacities is as much discovery as invention. The aims of invention necessarily become complicit with the capacities of the natural materials it unearths and draws upon, materials indifferent to invention, to media, and so hold in reserve unforseen and unrealised potentials. A medium has a particular capacity for establishing connections and communications, limited relations, actions and associations, transmitting certain types of signals and content. For McLuhan the message transmitted is secondary to the effect of the medium itself upon spatio-temporal relations between senders and receivers, an emphasis that foregrounds the affective capacity of medium as material. It is this capacity for the deformation of spatio-temporal relations that characterises McLuhan’s description of electric light as `pure information’ (1971, 15).
The decision to focus upon the matter implicated within media brings into question the effects of a medium anterior to its medial organisation through cultural techniques. These effects can be described according to medium specific capacities, capable not only of relaying symbolic content—or `messages’—but also productive of information in a `pure’ sense. The concept of `pure information’, rather than implying a metalanguage or formal essence, informs a functional and deterministic paradigm seeking to ground media and its symbolic correlates within a materialist continuum of thought. The concept of pure information is taken from McLuhan, for whom electric light formed the best example: `The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name’ (1971, 15). Here we see that the `medium without a message’, the medium itself, is considered synonymous with pure information. It is this ability to think of a medium devoid of message or meaning that asserts the anteriority or primacy of matter as a necessary precondition of media. This position does not abandon the symbolic but seeks to better understand its preconditions according to a materialist paradigm. What makes the medium itself `pure’ is, for McLuhan, an absence of referential of coded content that ascribes primacy to the material and affective capacities of the medium itself. The concept of pure information identifies the capacity of a medium to inform, not only through the transmission of encoded content but according to spatio-temporal differences in relations and interactions that are made anterior to the interpretation of symbolic content. For a medium to be capable of not only relaying information but producing it in a `pure’ sense is to say that the medium is capable of producing difference, differences in relations, behaviours, physical, physiological and emotional states, differences that take effect not only in the active consumers of content but the inhuman components of technical assemblages.
The equation of electric light and pure information was explored in Spectral Influence, a research residency conducted by myself during the winter of 2011 at Acces Space (Sheffield, UK).4 In accordance with McLuhan’s functional concerns for a medium’s capacity to control the `scale and form of human association and action’ (1972, 16), Spectral Influence was concerned with the use of public street-lighting to perform spatio-temporal deformations through the production of electromagnetic islands. Through the use of electric light, an area of a city is illuminated to a level closer to the given—or ‘natural’—spectral state of a location on the other side of the globe than that to which it is immediately connected, residing just outside the perimeter of the artificially illuminated area.5 Of equal concern was the metabolic modulations and distortions performed by electric light’s interruption of circadian rhythms historically regulated by the sun. A simple homemade spectrograph and ad-hoc software formed the technical components of a programme of pedestrian research. Wandering the city at night in small groups, the spectra of Sheffield’s nocturnal and artificial illumination were documented and analysed to form the basis for cross references with research carried out within the field of light therapy. The information gathered formed a database used in further speculation on the subliminal influence of electric light upon the movements, physiological and emotional states of citizens. The physiological implications of ubiquitous electric lighting are well documented, based upon the knowledge that ambient light regulates `processes other than vision, such as hormone secretion, body temperature, and sleep, but also alertness and cognition. These nonclassical responses [also called “non–image-forming” or “nonvisual” responses] to light are mediated through a nonclassical photoreception system, which is maximally sensitive to blue light (around 480 nm), as opposed to the classical photopic luminance visual pathways, maximally sensitive to green light (around 550 nm)’ (Vandewalle: 2010, 1). Here the affective capacity of light itself is emphasised rather than occluded through implication in symbolic content and signage or its apparent neutrality when at the service of vision, illuminating objects. Where the medium of light is understood according to this infraesthetic functionalism it remains the invisible medium of vision yet its affective capacity becomes known. It is this a-referential and intensive function that characterises light itself as pure information rather than sign or mnemonic trigger. Where light itself, the ordinarily invisible medium of sight, is studied as an affective medium independent of the content with which it may be encoded, it `ceases to be a light cast upon objects to become a pure phosphorescence of things in themselves (Deleuze: 2004b, 350). In light of McLuhan’s concept of pure information, the phrase `to inform’ is not restricted to the transcendental or epistemological, but describes a medium’s capacity to make an impression upon and within a material state, to affect difference within and between `assemblages’. In summary, pure information describes the functional, ‘pre-symbolic’ or affective capacity of a medium `without any content to restrict its transforming and informing power’ (McLuhan: 1971, 62).6 In its capacity to illuminate architectures and `external’ environments as well as influencing `internal’ metabolic function, the combined effects of electric light exercise an `extimate’ influence. This pervasive medium informs domains ascribed to interiority—psychological and physiological states—and exteriority—geology, architecture, environment—according to experience or the `manifest image’.7 As an example of the conditioning of external domains, the development and near ubiquitous application of street-lighting has contributed to what the architectural group Fabric | ch refer to as a `second day’, contributing to an `elimination of time and space factors in human association’ (McLuhan: 1971, 16), displacing behaviours and interactions associated with nighttime prior to its widespread use.8 It is these extimate, compound and complex effects of light-itself—as an independent medium—that characterise what McLuhan refers to as pure information.9
A matter of indifference
The undermining of media unearths a `matter of indifference’, a material substrate indifferent to its implication within media and cultural techniques (McLuhan: 1971, 16). It is in McLuhan’s brief reference to the medium itself as a matter of indifference that we find a window onto a material continuum in excess of its medial organisation, stretching beyond the anthropic horizon of McLuhan’s project. Both the indifference and independence of a medium with regard to media contribute to an undermining of the anthropic orientation of McLuhan’s own project, forcing openings onto inhuman exteriority. Opening onto this exteriority, the medium constitutes an interface with nature more than an extension of man, the terminal point at which matter folds into media.
What McLuhan identifies as `indifference’ due to its independence should not be confused with homogeneity. This indifference is perhaps not as banal as it sounds, as it is to be thought as indifferent only insofar as it is an indifference to media, to the symbolic and the domain of representations. What McLuhan identifies as indifference is so only according to the `external illusion of representation’ according to which `groundlessness should lack differences, when in fact it swarms with them’(Deleuze: 2004a, 347). In contrast to this groundlessness that appears indifferent from the perspective of representaiton, `each well-grounded image or claim is called a representation’ and `to ground is always to ground representation’ (Deleuze, 2004a, 342-3). Here the indifference of matter and medium is identified with the groundlessness that appears meaningless and indifferent from the perspective of representation. Consequently media are to be identified with the grounded, with representation, signs and the symbolic. The equation of apparent indifference and groundlessness asserts that neither should be thought to lack the capacity for the production of difference already identified in the concept of pure information above. What McLuhan identifies as indifferent is not, therefore, homogeneous but the medium of `total change’ (McLuhan: 1971, 62). It is in this sense that the undermining of media is also an ungrounding. In light of this correlation or equivalence the material substrates of contemporary media are better thought in terms of intensive difference rather than indifference, an in-difference that remains productive in its undermining of media. This in-difference is made evident in `negative’ yet nonetheless productive processes of decay and corruption, through active decomposition or undermining, in those instances where the substrate makes itself heard despite having nothing to say. Undermining and ungrounding name productive processes that reveal the ‘elementary conditions of 21st century computation’, processes executed under the name of decrystallisation in the work of Jonathan Kemp.10 Within workshops initiated by Kemp, cycles of decrystallization and recrystallization—roughyl equivalent to the concepts of ungrounding and grounding, deterritorialization and reterritorialization—are explored in three stages:
- Attempting to recover minerals and metals (including copper, gold
and silver) from abandoned computers through execution of various
volatile and chemical processes.
- The re-crystallisation of these minerals in novel arrays using
raw/renditioned mineral assemblies including piezoelectrics,
positive feedback, colloidal dispersions.
- The re-purposing and embedding of components and structures within
wider geological and geophysical systems.
Kemp’s workshops bear a disclaimer: `Participants take part at own risk: workshops include high heat and highly toxic processes – some safety gear provided and experiments conducted outside so gas masks not essential’. This disclaimer is included here for its underpinning of the fact that the act of decrystallisation is not simply metaphorical but an active process, physically and chemically loosening the elementary conditions of media from within the components and assemblages in which they are organised, `crystallised’, and recognised as the instruments of media and so-called `immaterial labour’. The recovery, recrystallisation and re-purposing of elements from discarded computers directly indicates the in-difference of matter to the media within which it is implicated, being able to resurface in new forms and assemblages. The physical disorganisation and decomposition of media reveals the elements of a patient and persistent substrate capable of being recycled and reused in countless forms and techniques.
As the causes of a loosening or slackening of that which pins matter to media the processes of decrystallisation and undermining make evident an increased or persistent mobility of matter beneath the surface of media. Where undermining is not actively pursued it inevitably occurs naturally through processes of decay and corruption. However described or executed, the undermining of media reveals what Martin Howse describes as the `being substrate of contemporary digital technology’.11 The medium as a matter of in-difference is indexed in decay and decomposition according to material durations indifferent to their semantic implication. The aesthetics of digital media tends to refer to this insistence of the in-different substrate, the surfacing of material durations that corrupt or `rupture’ encoded signs and signals, as `glitches’. The aestheticization of the glitch has, unfortunately, limited it to the superficial margins of aesthetics, where it fails to retain a functional or ontological link to any meaningful sense of contingency. We find a more thorough attempt to engage with the infraesthetic and potentially incompatible durations of the material substrate to media in work that risks crashing, such as Howse’s Earth Codes project in which `crashing is the price to pay for booting straight from the earth’.12
Describing the respective indifference of matter and media, the Earth Codes projects explores how `substrate interfaces with code, yet this set of symbolic, linguistic and logical operations denies the being-substrate, just as the carrier of any signal is erased by the receiver’.13 Countering this position, Howse has produced various strategies and techniques for unearthing the contingencies of contemporary media through shifting the site of execution from apparent indifference to a `direct’ confrontation with matter, a shift most evident in the Earthboot project:
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Earthboot boots straight from the earth itself, exploring the being-substrate of
contemporary digital technology; the material basis of 21st century computation.
Earthboot revives the use of underground flows of electricity or telluric currents
which were first exploited as generators of power within the telegraphic
communications apparatus of the 19th century.
The laptop, or PC, literally boots up directly from the specially designed,
earthboot USB device pushed into the earth, running code which is totally dependent
on small fluctuations in electric current within the local terrain.
A prototype has been constructed based on the ATMEGA32u4 which emulates a USB mass
storage device, sampling earth voltages and converting these directly into
instructions for an earthbooting computer. Preliminary tests for earthboot have
proved successful using code based on the LUFA mass storage example.
To undermine media is to undermine their characterisation as the apparatus of immaterial labour, not their importance within contemporary society. While a certain `primacy of the base’ is asserted as a necessity for a materialist media theory, this assertion does not devalue that which appears atop this foundation but seeks to reconnect with reciprocities and contingencies between the two. As the inescapable complement or conjoined twin of contemporary media it is the medium which is understood to provide a window onto exteriority, revealing something of that which resides beyond anthropic horizons, providing the conditions of an epistemic extension through an opening onto ontological difference.
Deleuze, G. (2004a). Difference and Repetition, London and New York: Continuum.
Deleuze, G. (2004b). The Logic of Sense. London and New York: Continuum.
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2004). A Thousand Plateaus. London and New York: Continuum.
McLuhan, M. (1971). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. London: Sphere Books.
Siegert, B. (2007). “Cacography or Communication? Cultural Techniques in German Media Studies”. Grey Room Vol. 29, 26–47.
Vandewalle, G., 2010. “Spectral quality of light modulates emotional brain responses in humans”. PNAS. Vol. 107, Iss. 45, 19549-19554.
1 This particular ‘problem’ is not to considered negative, being instead derived from the Deleuzian `problematic’ which indicates a productive field of elements that force thought. For a discussion of the object-or lack thereof-in media studies see Horn (2007).
3 The term substrate identifies the elementary conditions of media and the `physical materiality of signs’, the material capacities or `affordances’ exploited in fabrication and impressed with content (Siegert, 2007, 42).
5 A similar idea was explored by Fabric | ch in RealRoom(s) (2005) and Tower of Atmospheric Relations (2008).
6 Emphasis added.
7 On the concept of extimacy see Jacques-Alain Miller, `Extimity’: http://www.lacan.com/symptom/?p=36. The research undertaken during the Spectral Influence project built upon the extensive work carried out by Fabric | ch and Phillipe Rahm architects.
8 On the artificial production of a `second day’ see: http://blog.fabric.ch/index.php?/archives/1694-Arctic-Opening-Fenetre-Arctique-follow-up-pictures.html
9 The purity that McLuhan ascribes to the real term in the matter-media coupling, the `meaningless’ medium, has a particularly Deleuzian feel, which is most evident in the statement that `the message of electric light is total change. It is pure information without any content to restrict its transforming and informing power’ (McLuhan: 1971, 62). This `total change’ bares similarities to the `virtuality’ of the Deleuzian concept of pure difference.
Comments (0) | Tags: Affect, Deleuze, Materialism, McLuhan, org2blog
June 21, 2012
My article ‘Any Place Whatever: Schizophonic Dislocation and the Sound of Space in General‘ has just been published by Interference: A Journal of Audio Culture.
Distinct from the tendency for field recording to be understood as a veridical act of documentation—faithfully recording the sonic specificities of a given place—there exists a complementary tendency towards abstraction, emerging from the ‘schizophonic’ dislocation implicated within phonographic practices. This tendency emphasises the mutability of space in general rather than the identifiable specifics of place. This ‘lack’ of specificity is understood to expose an underlying productivity or generative capacity only accounted for in a more abstract notion of space. This paper focuses on the extent to which field recording practices are heard to occupy a point of tension between the identifiable fixity of the site-specific and the generative mutability of space in general, a point of tension that is audibly manifest in the work of artists such as Francisco López and Asher Thal-Nir.
The rest of the article can be read here.
May 26, 2012
John Cage showed that in framing ‘nothing’ everything is revealed; the world is sucked into the work and signed off as ones own. As Lucier said of Cage, he was willing to pursue such indeterminate contributions to the act of composition well beyond the point of boredom. Beyond however boring Cage’s infamous framing of noise and ‘non-sound’ may now appear, this is primarily an aesthetic complaint, and Cage largely fought his battles elsewhere. Nevertheless, the sense of stalled catharsis, the aura of banality, stagnation and boredom that clings to performances of 4’33”—beyond kitschy repetitions that have so successfully withered any power this piece may once have had for listeners—comes not from the extent to which it presents ‘nothing’ to the listener. In attempting to frame everything and anything, in opening the door and letting it all in, 4’33” presents too much, it is overcrowded, saturated, a “botched attempt”. The work is flooded, lacking the intrigue and allure that draws one into even the most restrained of minimalist gestures. What is required is just a little more resistance: not nothing, but almost.
On a train up to Edinburgh I checked to see why the music hadn’t started playing. I had recently purchased copy of Richard Chartier’s Of Surfaces, an album that, if you’re not paying close attention, sounds like almost nothing. The low rumbles, faint crackles and gentle yet piercing high pitch buzzes easily blur with the background noise of the train carriage. The sounds of Chartier’s composition seem to seep in and out of the train carriage’s ambiance, existing in an ambiguous space somewhere between what I think I’m supposed to be listening to and that background noise that I would ordinarily block out in this kind of listening situation: sitting in transit within the banal non-places of privatised ‘public’ transport, wearing headphones in an attempt to shut out the conversations of others and the repeated listing of “hot and cold snacks, beverages and magazines” that are available to buy in the buffet car.
Of Surfaces becomes a magnet for exteriority, drawing the sounds of what remains outside the work within, situating the elements of the composition within an ambiguous listening space that is easily—although not entirely—confused with background noise. The relative ‘simplicity’ of these sounds grants them an enhanced mobility, allowing them to slip outside of the work itself into the environment in which listening takes place. These are sounds that do not easily signify, nor do they entirely seem bound to the work itself. The sounds appear slippery and easily confused, leaking from headphonic interiority into the world without. While the work stands up to more focused or isolated listening situations, such as listening to this piece through headphones in the quiet of my flat as I write these words, it is these fluid and ambiguous qualities that extend the work’s appeal and power beyond itself. The work takes place through its ability to seep into the sounds of everyday surroundings, to fold background noise and the incidental into the audile re-composition of the work.
This enfolding of exteriority within the work establishes what Michael Fried called ‘theatricality’, a label with which he derided minimalist works—such as Robert Morris’s mirrored cubes—for drawing the viewer’s attention not only to the work but to the viewer’s relation to it, to their own presence within the space and the space within which the viewing experience or situation takes place. This contextual and relational orientation, in detracting from the autonomous consistency of the work itself, establishes a theatricality in which the work is only one ‘actor’. It is this theatricality, the way in which space is pulled into the function of minimalist works through the space left open within the work, that can be heard in Of Surfaces. What the sound work gains—expanding upon the possibilities of sculptural and installation based work—is an enhanced portability, being able to be transported on computers, ipods, mobile phones and so on, allowing the work to take place anywhere, pulling sonic elements from any given listening situation into the composition of the piece.
In framing nothing Cage pulled in too much. Chartier’s minimal degree of resistance to this oversaturation establishes a more subtle theatre, perfectly suited to the banality of the everyday, to non-places such as the interior of a Virgin ‘Pendolino’, wherein one cannot be entirely certain where the composition ends and the world ordinarily shut out through headphone use begins. The work thereby presents an ambiguous augmentation of the everyday through a minimal degree of resistance to it.
Comments (0) | Tags: John Cage, Richard Chartier, Silence
May 21, 2012
Three experimental approaches to the production and analysis of “sound geographies”:
In this study, Sabine did not employ an air-driven organ pipe as his source of sound; he instead used an electrically druven tuning fork. The detector—usually hiw own ears—was, in this case, a telephone receiver or earpiece. The tuning fork was placed at the centre of the room and covered with an amplifying resonator. The receiver was rigged to a complicated mechanism that was just two waltzing mice short of a Rube Goldberg machine. A falling weight caused the pole on which the receiver was mounted to rotate; at the same time, the rotary motion caused the receiver to be gradually pulled from the end to the center of the pole. The result was that the receiver traveled in a continuous spiral path through the room at a constant height. The telephonic receiver generated an electrical current that represented the variations in sound intensity it encountered as it spiraled through space. That current was then fed to a sensitive “Einthoven string dynamometer,” where it set up vibrations of varying amplitude in a silvered string. Sabine rigged a motion picture camera to photograph the image of the vibrating string onto a strip of film and the constantly changing intensity of vibration could then be read off the developed image on that film. Sabine mapped those intensities back onto the spiral path traversed by the receiver, to create by a point-by-point plot of the relative sound intensity in the room. Finally, by connecting locations of equal intensity, Sabine created the contour map illustrated [below].1
For some time I have been involved in an ongoing research into the area of sound and architecture and how different sonic events can condition bodies of inhabitants and buildings they occupy. For the most part this has focused primarily in two fields of research that both relate to each other and act as separate entities, that being the activation of structures and the acoustic recording of materials that make up structures [...] [into the floor of an isolated room I] added six large frequency inducers (vibration exciters) to the underside of the floor which were connected to a floor which connected to a control mixer. After the room was reassembled, the instrument was complete and I had a kind of tectonic sound machine which spectators could walk on a feel through their bodies [...] Part of this piece also involved the use of a fine powder material spread on top of the floor panels to visualize the waveforms travelling throughout the floors …2
Create standing waves in space caused by constructuve and destructive interference patterns among sine waves from loud speakers. With single sine wave oscillators, amplifiers, and pairs of loudspeakers, design sound geographies for dances consisting of troughs and crests of soft and loud sound that form in outward-arching, symmetrically mirrored hyperbolic cuurves between the loudspeakers, the size and number of which are determined by the frequencies of the sine waves and the distances between the loudspeakers. Add loudspeakers, creating additional sets of hyperbolas, some of which intersect. When necessary, clear pathways for dancers by slightly changing the frequencies of the sine waves, shifting the location of the hyperbolas.3
- Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933, 67-8. [↩]
- Mark Bain, ‘Sonic Architecture’ in ArchiSound, 6-7. [↩]
- Alvin Lucier, Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas (1973-4) in Reflections: Interviews, Scores, Writings: 1965-1994, 344. [↩]
February 20, 2012
This is the first draft of an new essay that will appear here temporarily. This text will continue to change over the next couple of weeks as I attempt to refine it and provide some kind of decent ending. Comments are greatly appreciated.
Non-cochlear Sounds: On Affect and Exteriority
This essay considers the notion of the sonic affect: what it is, what it can be and what it does. The definition of affectivity is ordinarily bound to subjective feelings—to what I will refer to as the affirmation of interiority—yet there remain alternative conceptions of the ontological status of affects that claim their autonomy from the necessity of subjective affirmation. It is this autonomy that—albeit at the price of a degree of abstraction—allows for a broader consideration of sound in the arts and aesthetics more generally, while at the same time augmenting the efficacy of an affective politics by freeing up the affect from the affirmation of subjective interiority which serves only the ideology of individualism. Notions of interiority, immediacy, immanence and individuality tend to dominate discourse on sonic experience and affectivity—normally opposed to the supposedly more removed criticality of vision and visual culture.1 Yet such assertions do little more than undermine and disempower the creative, critical and political potentials of sonic practice; autonomy is thereby invoked in support of an affective theory capable of thinking the exteriority normally ascribed to vision according to what Jonathan Sterne has called he `audio-visual litany’ (Sterne 2003, 19-29). While the political implications of a theory of autonomous affects and affective exteriority are of concern to this argument, the constraints of space require that these concerns be left to linger in the background of the present argument, to be developed at a later date. The emphasis of the present argument is to be placed not so much on the subject of sonic affects as sonic affects themselves, on the possibility of a praxical scission whereby affect is excised from the necessity of affirmation. Accordingly, emphasis is placed upon experimental and specifically artistic praxes that, in exploring the possibility of such a scission, focus upon the nature of sonic events, the exploration of sound in excess of the ear and signals in excess of sound. An emphasis is placed upon the excess of signals beyond their audibility or perceptibility as we will consider signals to be synonymous with affects, or—for reasons that are clarified below—structurally equivalent within the Deleuzian ontological framework that is assumed as a basis for the following argument.
The notion of `sound itself’ is repeatedly returned to throughout this text—with reference to the canonical work of Alvin Lucier and John Cage—as, although appearing somewhat antiquated after the critique of sonic and aesthetic experience according to its social construction, this notion remains a somewhat persistent problematic, receiving significant attention in a number of recent publications.2. The term problematic, as it is used herein, should not be thought to denote negativity—in the sense of something that needs to be fixed—as the term problematic is here used in the Deleuzian sense of something which forces thought and provokes responses or creative `solutions’. is used here in. For a concise explanation of the Deleuzian concept of the problematic see Toscano (2006, 2).) Most important for the present argument is the importance that `sound itself’ holds in Christoph Cox’s recent call for a sonic materialism sympathetic to contemporary developments in philosophical realism (Cox 2011).3 In advancing a theoretical background to the experimental conditions of a sonic realism, sound and signal are subsumed within the more general term affect. The assertion of a structural equivalence between these terms is carried out in order to map the terms of the present argument onto the work of others who have extensively explored and expressed a theory of affects, arguing for their independence from the necessity of their subjective affirmation. More specifically, a notion of sound-itself is to be developed and aligned with—or rendered structurally equivalent to—arguments for an `autonomy of affects’, towards the establishment of a theory of sonic materialism.4) The move towards a sonic materialism or realism is considered pressing for a number of reasons—beyond simply wishing to keep up with philosophical trends. Firstly, such a move appears necessary if—echoing Seth Kim-Cohen—we are to move beyond the `dead end’ of phenomenology (Kim-Cohen: 2009, xix). Stating this point more carefully, a sonic realism is required if we are to move away from what Jonathan Sterne has identified as the onto-theological debates regarding the `inherent’ interiority and immediacy of sonic experience in contrast to the supposedly discrete, externalising criticality of vision (Sterne 2003 & 2011). A consequence of this critical move is that a step is taken beyond the sufficiency of perception, of that which appears given, in providing an ontology of sound and an account of the conditions of sonic experience. The second point that necessitates a move towards sonic realism is—as has been outlined by Christoph Cox—the insufficiency of certain critical approaches, developed under the broad scope of the linguistic turn, in accounting for the importance of sound practices and sonic experimentalism whose function exceeds the critical capacity of analytical methods bound to signification. In moving towards a theory of sonic realism or materialism it is not suggested that we undertake a futile attempt to abandon representation towards an immediate expression of the real, but that there is much to be said of that remaining in excess of the ontological sufficiency of the symbolic, and that we need not pass over it in silence.5
Where we are concerned with the extent to which affect can be excised from affirmation, excess becomes a key issue insofar as there is to be anything left of the affect to speak of once the necessity of its being felt is removed. Rather than signifying impoverishment due to its excision from symbolic and subjective sufficiency, this excessive remainder is considered characteristic of affect, the feature which can be considered to distinguish it from emotion, identifying it as ontologically independent of its being felt. It is in dealing with the excess of sonic matters beyond their symbolic and subjective affirmation that a turn towards a theory of autonomous affects is to be assumed in developing a theory of sonic materialism. As this is not simply a metaphysical argument, consideration is also given to the experimental methods and aesthetic implications of what can be considered a step `outside’, from affirmation to exteriority. In arguing for a sonic materialism that builds upon excessive and autonomous theories of affects, an attempt is made to move beyond the narcissistic circuit of auto-affective affirmation—that is both synthetically underwritten and socially constructed—towards an ethics of exteriority.
The Affective Affirmation of Interiority
Towards providing an account of sonic realism it is necessary—due to the stated equivalence between sound and affect—that a case be made for the severance of affect from the necessity of affirmation, and therefore sound from the necessity of its being heard. Affirmation here refers to the subjective `capture’ of affects towards an affirmation of interiority or the somatic consistency of the subject (Shaviro 2010, 3). Insofar as affect is thought as being necessarily relative or bound to feeling it cannot be thought in terms other than those of affirmation, even where this affirmation is considered negative. Whether `negative’ or `positive’, the affect remains productive yet reduced to a unit of feeling, bound to the affirmation of interiority, somatic consistency and the experiential individuality of the subject. The nature of this capture that defines affects as strictly relative to a receptive subject is concisely outlined by Steve Shaviro for whom `emotion is affect captured by a subject, or tamed and reduced to the extent that it becomes commensurate with that subject’ (Shaviro: 2010, 3-4). Emotion is here considered affirmative of the subject in which it is produced, yet also as being selectively and reductively derived from an affective impulse that persists in excess of its partial capture. Insofar as affects are to be thought independently of their being felt and sounds independently of their being heard, excess becomes a key issue in defining that remaining outside the subjective interiority that, according to common sense, affect is thought to affirm. The necessity of this excess is pinpointed in Shaviro’s statement that `behind every emotion there is always a certain surplus of affect (2010, 3-4).
Mapping Shaviro’s terms onto those used throughout this argument, emotion resides on the side of subjective affirmation while affect itself constitutes something akin to the carrier of this affirmation while remaining distinct from it. It is this distinction that locates affect—according to the structure of both Shaviro’s argument and my own—on the side of autonomy, of that which is radically other than or without the self in which it is rendered as feeling or emotion. With reference to this distinction we are able to clarify exactly what is meant by affirmation, aligning or asserting its structural equivalence with emotion. It is emotion understood as the subjective capture of affects which defines the nature of affirmation, the way in which affect is taken to affirm interiority and the experiential individuality of the receptive subject who renders affect as emotion. Counterpoint to affirmation, autonomy is herein taken as naming pre- or a-subjective exteriority, that which remains in excess of both perception and affirmation. Considered from the point of its excess, its being unbound from affirmation, the affect need not be felt in order to be thought of as ontologically coherent. Where we stress the equivalence of sound, signal and affect—the former two terms referring to differing relational states of an object belonging to the broader ontological category or class of affects—the consequence of ontological excess means that the sound-affect need not be heard in order to be defined as such. Considering sound as the sometimes silent signal of nonetheless affective efficacy we move through an art-historical continuum of experimental practice from sound as the object of music to signal as the object of sound, to that which may remain imperceptible yet nonetheless efficacious, inaudible yet functional. Clarifying the ontological status of sound-affects in light of the claim that excess is to be considered characteristic of affects in general requires that, in applying this requirement of excess to the specifics of sound, the sound-affect itself be identified as silent, residing—at least in part—beyond the ear.
The Autonomy of Affects
Equivalence has been claimed between sound, signal and affect, the terms of this equivalence being primarily derived from the work of Deleuze and Guattari for whom `harmonies of tone or colour, are affects of music or painting’ (2003, 164). In the instance of its being of art—as opposed to another equally productive situation—the affect remains `independent of the viewer or hearer [...] independent of the creator’ and—as an addition to Deleuze and Guattari’s list—independent of art (Deleuze and Guattari: 2003, 164). According to this formulation the affect holds an existence independent of its reception; so as not to make undue claims for art as the privileged site of affective production, it must be made clear that the relationship between affect and art does not fully account for the production or ontological status of affects insofar as the excess considered characteristic of affects applies equally to their artistic and more general emotional implication, thereby defining their existence as irreducible to their appearance by way of either. If, following Deleuze and Guattari, we are to consider artistic productions in the terms of a bloc or `compound of percepts and affects’, it is art that is composed of affects as much as affects being of art (Deleuze and Guattari: 2003, 164). Sound constitutes the affective matter of which music is considered a compound, of which it is composed. In distancing these statements from what we might call Modernistic disciplinary isolationism and the concern for internal consistency—as we find in Greenberg’s definition of Modernist painting, for example—it should be made clear that these claims of autonomy and independence are not made on behalf of the art object or work, as if elevating it from all—social, cultural, economic, etc.—context, but the affect implicated in yet remaining in excess of both art and aesthetics (see Greenberg 1995, 85-93). Rather than professing the autonomy of art, the autonomy of affects undermines such claims in attempting to account for work that takes as its object its materially transcendent conditions, orienting itself towards its outsides—towards its external contingencies. The independence claimed for affects does not, therefore, claim art’s immunity from the productive contingencies of the subjective and socially conditioned selectivity of viewer, hearer or creator, but rather—asserting affective excess—states that these latter conditions do not account for the totality of the perceived or an affective remainder that persists beyond perception. The ontological excess of the affect with regard to what is felt is summarised concisely by Deleuze and Guattari:
Percepts are no longer perceptions; they are independent of a state of those who experience them. Affects are no longer feelings or affections; they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them. Sensations, percepts, and affects are beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived (Deleuze and Guattari: 2003, 164).
This statement outlines the extent to which, if we are to assume this `autonomy of affects’, we assume a notion of the affect counter to common sense, according to which it is necessarily bound to feeling. Consequently it becomes necessary to clarify the means or method whereby we arrive at a notion of autonomous affects, severed from the affirmation of interiority, a method by which we arrive at an alternative notion of sound as that which claims synonymity or equivalence with affects.
In claiming the equivalence of sound and affect, as well as their independence from affirmation, we must ask how we move from a definition of sound in the terms of experiential, aesthetic and `qualitative extension’ to one of sound as autonomous affective `intensity’.6 This question can be stated more simply as asking what remains of the affect excised from the necessity of affirmation, of its being felt? The question of remains is key, as where we follow the Deleuzian path towards a definition affects the process to be taken is one of `prodigious simplification’ (Deleuze and Guattari: 2004, 380); what is lost in this process of subtractive rarefaction, of what Alvin Lucier refers to as `cutting things down to their simplest form’ (1995, 232)? Less shed in its entirety than diminished—within an experimental framework and ontological perspective—is the centrality of aesthetic experience or qualitative extension, the point of subjective synthesis that constitutes the conditions of perception. This remainder presents a peculiar kind of non-phenomenological sonority that persists in inaudibility, in silence: the inaudible interior of sound-itself, reduced to the bare minimum of constitutive relations, which remains in excessive exteriority with regard to both objective source and listening subject. It is this sense of a persistent and excessive—i.e. inaudible—sonority that we need if we are to think affects beyond their conservative limitation to anthropic experience and in the Deleuzian sense of an autonomy of affects. Affects are in this sense primarily functional and informative, the agents of qualitative, sensory appearances that remain irreducible to them.
Clarifying some Deleuzian jargon, qualitative extension can be—for present purposes—thought as being synonymous with external appearances, with the pinning of percept to perception, affect to affection, the affect’s being `for us’ rather than `in itself’. Qualitative extension, due to its necessary relationality, is that which occludes knowledge of affective excess and autonomy. It is the necessity of this subjective, relational extension that is shed, stripped away or cut down in a process of `prodigious simplification’. The necessity of anthropic relational extension is in this sense understood as providing an obstacle to the autonomous definition of affects, and so a step must be taken beyond given experiences if we are to conceive of the affect itself, of affects as `beings whose validity lies in themselves’ (Deleuze and Guattari: 2003, 164). This abstract methodology of stripping away qualitative extension towards affective autonomy can be clarified with a further reference to Deleuze, but this requires positing and clarifying a further structural equivalence between the terms affect and intensity.7 Before diving into yet another exposition of terms, we can consider the extent to which ontological equivalence of affective autonomy and intensive quantity can be expressed aesthetically, specifically with reference to a process of compositional simplification or reduction whereby intensive quantity may be mobilised independently of qualitiative or experiential extensity.8
The process of reduction or simplification that leads towards an autonomy of affects has aesthetic consequences that are manifest in the explicitly experimental practices of a number of artists and musicians. For Deleuze and Guattari this `prodigious simplification’ appears most clearly in the work of La Monte Young, whose extreme durational works are often comprised of simple tones, sonorities that have shed or never possessed complex overtones, the harmonics or timbre that allows a note or frequency to be identified as of a banjo, voice or particular individual, thereby becoming referential and diverting attention from the intensive quantities of the sound-itself to the image of its somatic origins. Despite Young being an excellent example, for my present purposes a better example is found in the equally canonical work of John Cage and Alvin Lucier.9 Approaching the notion of affective autonomy and its importance within experimental practice by way of Deleuze and Guattari’s abstract schema of `prodigious simplification’ could, if left to the example they make of La Monte Young, suggest an aesthetics of the pure and simple tone as that which veridically manifests `unspoilt’ duration. This would, of course, be too simple, and would also fail to recognise that Deleuze and Guattari `are not at all arguing for an aesthetics of qualities, as if the pure quality (color, sound, etc.) held the secret of a becoming without measure [...] A functionalist conception on the other hand, only considers the function a quality fulfils in a specific assemblage, or in passing from one assemblage to another’ (2004, 275). We might better refer to the `functionalist conception’ of sound that this passage suggests as an infraesthetic functionalism insofar as its focus lies with interactions between and within assemblages—such as those composed of oscillators, bass drums, human bodies and ping-pong balls in Lucier’s work—with the intensity and affective capacity underpinning sonorous quality. Beyond an aesthetic orientation concerned with the experience of pure qualities, how is this simplification realised, if not just in the reduction of sound to simple tones? How do we conceive of the process of simplification in practical terms? At the most basic level we can, of course, conceive of this simplification as composition using only simple tones, filtration or, in a more abstract sense, composition by way of subtractive synthesis, yet here we remain bound to the appearance of simplicity rather than its infraesthetic function. Where a `bloc’ or `compound of affects’ is taken as describing a complex waveform, its reduction towards `prodigious simplicity’ may realise its complex being as the sum of simple parts, that is, its quantitative composition in terms of degrees of phase and magnitudes of frequencies. Simplification may be manifest in an aesthetically or strictly qualitatively simple sound—such as those heard in the work of Young, Ryoji Ikeda, or Toshiya Tsunoda’s `Bottle + Signal 121Hz.’—or perhaps less obviously through the selective exploitation of the affective capacities of fundamentals and partials that are the functionally deployed, simple components of compounds or complex waveforms. The process of simplification, understood in these terms as being not exclusively aesthetic but also functional and affective, can be understood to have been deployed as a practical methodology within what is now a canonical experimental tradition, and in particular within the work of Alvin Lucier.
Before moving on to a discussion of Lucier’s work and the aforementioned equivalence of affect and intensity, it should be clarified how the above attests to how the ontological equivalence of affective autonomy and intensive quantity can arrived at through—while not remaining limited to—aesthetic terms, and specifically how this is achieved by way of simpification. Explicitly linking the method of simplification to the mobilisation of affective intensity, Deleuze an Guattari state that `to grasp or capture intensity, sonic matter must be molecularized, simplified in order that it might be able to `move’ more freely (2004, 378-9). Through aesthetic and compositional simplification such as the shedding of overtones, the sound affect is thought to be mobilised with a degree of—if not absolute—independence from representation insofar as it lacks a clear timbral indication of its origins, expressing only intensive quantities such as duration, frequency and amplitude. It is in this sense that a sound may move independently of representation, drawing attention to intensity by way of affective capacity. In more functional and explicitly affective terms this simplification, as described above, `captures intensity’ through the exploitation of resonant frequencies, through the mobilisation of the simple yet resonant components of an otherwise complex sound.10
Affect and Intensive Quantity
Affect and intensity are considered structurally equivalent, as both are understood according to common sense to be bound to affirmative experience, yet both are identified by Deleuze as persisting in excess of that which is empirically given, constituting the conditions of experience. It is for this reason that we must state the nature of this equivalence a little more precisely, so as not to confuse the matter with common sense which binds affect to the necessity of its being felt. The affect excised from the necessity of affirmation—whereby it may be thought independently of experience—is in the same gesture excised from what in Deleuzian jargon we would call its `qualitative extension’. What remains of the affect after this critical excision is—again using the terminology of Deleuzian ontology—intensive quantity.11 Distinct from the formal appearance or experiential qualities of a unified sound object, intensive quantity refers to the magnitudes constituting the affect’s own `internal’ composition: degrees of phase, bandwidths and magnitudes of frequencies. These magnitudes define what we might call affective capacities, the capacity to affect and be affected that are dependent upon degrees, strengths or amounts of force. It is in this sense that the autonomous affect is considered structurally equivalent to intensity or a set, bloc or compound of intensive quantities not necessarily manifest in experience yet nonetheless real. This quantitative definition of intensity is carried out in order to clarify what might be left to speak of where affect is excised from affirmation, and therefore—due to the equivalence posited above—sound from the necessity of its being heard. The intensive quantities that define affects considered as independent beings rather than necessarily the objects of experience can be considered in the terms of affective capacities, such as the capacity to move or be moved. With this in mind, we find concise summary of this point in Robert Pasnau’s statement that `the more a definition of sound is linked to motion and vibration, the more it becomes defined in quantitative rather than qualitative terms’ (2000, 31). It is precisely such a linking of sound to movement and vibration that is carried out where sound is identified with a notion of affects that, insofar as they are considered within the structure of Deleuzian ontology, occupy a position of excess and independence with regard to feeling and perception, thereby maintaining their ontological status as sonic events beyond the ear, at degrees of movement, vibration or frequency in excess of audition. It is this quantitative definition of sound that forms the grounds for claiming its being equivalent to the more general term and ontological category of affective intensity, as well as detailing what remains to be said of affect excised from affirmation.
Perhaps the most exemplary instances of an intensive notion of sonority affectively deployed—in accordance with the definition of these terms outlined above—can be found throughout the work of Alvin Lucier. Lucier’s work is of great significance to the present argument for the manner in which it meticulously and tenaciously investigates the elementary conditions of sonic experience without recourse to the binary oppositions of Sterne’s `audio-visual litany’ which pit sight against sound. It is the explicitly experimental approach to both sound and music taken by Lucier that allows him to concisely and often poetically circumvent grossly simplified assertions of sound being the privileged site of an internal, precritical, immediate and superiorly embodied experience.12 Drawing attention to this circumvention, or rather the irreducibility of Lucier’s work to the affirmation of interiority, to which the above qualities contribute, Douglas Kahn has highlighted the irreducibility of the spatial dimension of Lucier’s practice to immersion, an experiential quality frequently taken to be a particular privilege of sound.13 Kahn describes how the understanding of `Lucier’s architectural dimension needs to be extended from immersion to include propagation’ (2009, 26). The distal orientation arising from emphasising propagation is also manifest in Lucier’s understanding of sound in terms other than those limited to the durational, whereby `long’ is conceived both spatially and temporally: `I think of sounds in terms of wavelengths [...] I’m dealing with lengths of sound, its physical dimensions’ (Lucier:1995, 44).14 Where immersion places the listening subject at the centre of the sonic event, the equal importance of propagation to Lucier’s work understands the sound event itself as being at the centre of the sonic event, with listening subjects decentralised, ushered and propelled, along with the sound itself `into another room’, `out the front door [...] and down the freeway’ (Kahn: 2009, 26). Sound-itself features as a central and primarily affective agent in Lucier’s work; in the understanding of sound in terms wavelengths we can identify a deployment of sound according to its intensive quantities: its being in terms of vibration and movement, its capacity to propagate, move and be moved. This is also particularly evident in Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas (1973-74). An edited version of Lucier’s prose score for the piece is as follows:
Create standing waves in space caused by constructive and destructive interference patterns among sine waves from loudspeakers. With single sine wave oscillators, amplifiers and pairs of loudspeakers, design sound geographies for dancers consisting of troughs and crests [...] the size and number of which are determined by the frequencies of the sine waves and the distances between the loudspeakers. When necessary, clear pathways for dancers by slightly changing the frequencies of the sine waves, shifting the location of the hyperbolas [...] Sing within intervals, beating upper pitches at one speed, lower ones at another, creating double rhythms (Lucier: 1995, 344).15
Still and Moving Lines … calls for the construction of a structural yet shifting `sound environment’ constructed through the use of sine waves or `pure wave oscillators’ (Lucier: 1995, 212-6), a sonic terrain or `geography’ that is not metaphorical but physical, a `soundscape’ not evocative of the pastoral but productive of invisible peaks and troughs that nonetheless propel or inhibit movement. Performers occupy and find their way through the sound field established at the outset of Still and Moving Lines … wherein the voice meets the `pure wave’ on a synthetic plane that is primarily spatial in nature yet nonetheless ephemeral and necessarily durational. A kind of wave field synthesis is performed, yet one opposed to the replication or modelling of space in favour of a kind of vibrational burrowing or parasitic occupation of intervals and harmonic structures.16 Both the voice and the body of the performer find a place between the waves within this piece, yet while the score calls for singing, the voice need not be heard. Recounting the rehearsal of this piece Lucier describes how:
Joan [La Barbara] was finding a place for herself in which she felt comfortable. And I was never sure whether that was in a crest or a trough. She would be receiving constant sine tones from the loudspeakers, and what she did when she sang was to beat against these tones, alleviating the constancy of the sound waves. She said she felt as if she were pushing the wave away from herself [...] By trying to alleviate the constant pressure, she probably added to it, but her effort gave the illusion of pushing it away [...] One of the things we decided was that her voice should be inaudible; she should use it to move sounds, not to create them. In Paris she stood for twenty-five or thirty minutes and sang, mostly inaudibly, but nobody in the audience budged because they knew she was doing something, even if they didn’t know she was singing (Lucier: 1995, 162).
Particularly interesting here is the use of voice, as the affective capacities deployed in the movement of sounds are far from the usual auto-affective associations of voice as an affirmation of internal and immediate self-presence.17 The voice is used in the dispersal as opposed to the audible creation of sound, as a means of hollowing out a space within a saturated environment; the voice is here an additive producer of silence as much as sound. Whether the voice is heard or not, by either La Barbara or the audience is of secondary importance to its functional and affective capacity for spatial production, its inaudible distortion of a field of otherwise `pure waves’. Through its use of voice this piece makes particularly clear the ambiguous affectivity of sound, that its affective capacity is not always an affirmation of interiority. The emphasis placed upon the intensive quantities and autonomous affective capacities of sound, rather than leading to auto-affective affirmation and contributing to a pervasive ideology of individualism, can orientate both sound and its listening subjects towards their outsides, towards their external contingencies, emphasising here as much as elsewhere. The equivalence of affect and intensity shows how the notion of intensity is not so easily aligned with one of an interiority that is necessarily affirmative `for us’, insofar as it accounts for a kind of excessive process of becoming over the apparent.18 This appears contrary to the ideology of immanence according to which one is always on the inside of sonority, insofar as it effects an enveloping field of vibrations which includes the listening subject within it19. Yet the `inside’ of sonority remains the inaudible territory of sound itself, as that which we call and experience as sound is necessarily manifest as qualitative extension `for us’.
Having stated the terms of the claimed equivalence between affect and intensity above, we are now in a position to state the relationship between affect and extensity that underpins the abstract methodology of accounting for affective autonomy through a process of simplification or the shedding of qualitative extension. Deleuze writes that `though experience shows us intensities already developed in extensions, already covered over by qualities, we must conceive, precisely as a condition of experience, of pure intensities enveloped in a depth, in an intensive spatium that preexists every quality and every extension’ (Deleuze: 2004b, 97). While experience is conceived as occluding intensity it is not thought to be necessarily or absolutely qualitative—beyond the modalities bound to recognition and intentional objectivity. We must, therefore, conceive of an abstract and non-qualitative, i.e. intensive, empiricism, an `absolute’ or `transcendental’ empiricism. This is what reductive simplification aims at and what is implicated in the statement that `intensity is simultaneously the imperceptible and that which can only be sensed [...] it is that which gives to be sensed and defines the proper limits of sensibility’ (Deleuze, 2004, 290). In claiming the equivalence of affect and intensity we can read the above passage as making an equal claim for `pure affects’ as the preexisting conditions of experience. It is this `depth’ or `intensive spatium’ that names the noumenal realm from which the conditions of experience are drawn ahead of their synthetic actualisation; it is the noumenal to which we turn in a movement from the experience of qualitative extensity to the autonomy and imperceptibility of intensive quantity, from affects bound to affirmation to their independence and indifference with regard to their experiential extension. Here we make a distinction between two categories that while distinct are not considered entirely discrete, with each being complicit in the other: on one side we have the qualitative, experiential and affirmative, on the other the intensive, quantitative and autonomous; in locating the affect as residing in the latter we perform a transposition of its ontological status from the necessarily subjective to the immanent yet indifferent real. Identifying the sound-affect as residing within the real, beyond that which is subjectively determined and synthetically produced, we return once again to a notion of `sound itself’, insofar as the acoustical real need not appeal to the ear, nor ever be heard. Having returned in this argument to the notion of sound-itself popular amongst leading proponents of the mid twentieth century North American experimental scene, it becomes necessary to disambiguate the equation of sound-itself with affective autonomy. Clarifying both the terminology used and the experimental context from which this term is explicitly derived it should be stated that the matter of primary concern is thought less in the terms of objects than things; less according to the approximation of Husserlian intentional objects that concerned the experimental practice of Pierre Schaeffer than the notion of sound-itself that can be identified most clearly in the work of John Cage and Lucier. For Schaeffer, sonorority comprised pure appearance, the object of a universal perceptual synthesis not to be confused with the physical domain of signals. This latter domain is more the territory of Cage and Lucier, who both developed praxical notions of sound in excess of audition, providing an experimental precursor for contemporary attempts at outlining a theory of sonic materialism. Experimenting with physical signals and their affective capacities beyond the ear, this work shared an `object’ with science while ignoring its methods. In taking sound not only or `purely’ as the intentional object of auditory experience, but as physical thing in excess of its perception, this thing—the sonic event whether heard, unheard or inaudible—is neither reducible to nor dependent upon its being heard for its ontological status, thereby falling outside the horizon of Schaeffer’s experimental objectivity. It is in this sense that the Schaefferian object does not suffice insofar as the objective autonomy that it claims is claimed for perception, for the intentional objects of experience. In siding with the notion of sound-itself this argument is aligned with a history of experimental practice, the ontological and aesthetic positions of which are plugged into an ethics of exteriority capable of thinking affect beyond auto-affection.
Seth Kim-Cohen has—following the conceptual and contextual turn ushered in with Duchamp’s non-retinal art—outlined a theory of non-cochlear sonic art, the importance of which is to be found in its primary aim of diverting the sonic arts from a well trodden `phenomenological cul-de-sac’, from the dead-end argument of the in-itself, the essentialising logic of which is capable only of futile attempts at describing what the thing is in-itself (Kim-Cohen: 2009, xix). Seeking to avoid the shortcomings of a critical route blocked by the in-itself, Kim-Cohen—seeking context and connections within the history of conceptual art—attempts the production of a framework whereby sonic practices might avoid the phenomenological traps primarily associated with Schaefferian objectivity, instead embracing the relational logic and discursive contingencies of the linguistic turn. Yet Kim-Cohen’s argument betrays numerous symptoms indicating the persistence of a traumatic object occupying a spot that cannot be itched; despite this persistent agitation Kim-Cohen would rather that we pass over the in-itself in silence—or turn a blind eye—a kind of avoidance tactic that only maintains it as the persistent site of agitation that has drawn out Kim-Cohen’s critique. Despite the conceptual sufficiency at the heart of Kim-Cohen’s polemic, I fully endorse his call for a sonic praxis that steps beyond phenomenological sufficiency and the assumption of ear and audition as simply given; I, however, wish to take this step must be taken in the opposite direction. Accordingly, this argument does not constitute a negation of Kim-Cohen’s position but rather a `transcendental’ complement and undermining, an attempt to begin accounting for its conditions.20 Where Kim-Cohen’s notion of the non-cochlear firmly positions virtuous sonic practice within the context of conceptual art, the step that I wish to take towards a theory inclusive of affectivity requires that we move towards—rather than simply passing over in silence—the conditions and material contingencies of a conceptual practice. This move, rather than being counter-conceptual, intends to reposition conceptual practice within a materialist continuum, opening conceptual practice onto its conditions through an experimental practice that explores relations between the concept and the material. Where it is treated as sufficient, the turn towards the conceptual appears equally as isolating a gesture as that associated with phenomenological sufficiency or intentional objectivity; both positions restrict significance to the strictly anthropic, whether that be primarily of experience or meaning—insofar as they might be opposed. To critically approach the problem of the in-itself—which herein is considered equivalent to affective intensity—does not require the abandonment of relations in favour of objective essentialism, but rather argues that to pass over in silence that which persists in excess of its subjective capture or representation is to ignore the conditions of the conceptual, positing its existence as simply given. Neither must attempts to engage the in-itself in terms of affective autonomy be understood as restricting what can be said of sound to auto-affective affirmation, as a disavowal of difference and alterity. This solipsistic isolationism occurs where the real is identified as intentional, as an object of experience—universal or otherwise—and so in thinking affective autonomy as anterior to and in excess of both experience and representation, the problem of the in-itself attains an exteriority capable of thinking alterity beyond the anthropic terms of linguistic and conceptual correlationism.21 It is precisely the nature of such a non-anthropic alterity or exteriority that can be seen to have been engaged in the history of experimental practice, in work exploring the conditions of the conceptual, the relationship between the elements of nature and the elements of thought—between Idea and concept—revealing the latter to be of the former in place of any dichotomy, as was John Cage’s concern22.
For Cage, experimental practice entailed a turn, the first step of which was necessarily psychological, in attempting to orientate thought beyond that which appears given to it, a turn towards nature and a turn towards the in-itself. Cage—in a passage, the sentiment of which might appeal to Kim-Cohen’s linguistically defined view of human nature—states that `this turning is psychological and seems at first to be a giving up of everything that belongs to humanity’ (2009, 8). That which `belongs to humanity’ in Kim-Cohen’s argument is in many ways resolutely conceptual or rather linguistic in nature, entailing—with specific reference to composition—the musical control and organisation of sound, executed through symbolic discretion and according to representation. Stated crudely, the definition of experimental music to which Cage was devoted would concern itself with the referent of such systems of musical organisation—sonic matter or sound-itself, that which is mobilised and organised in the composition of music—but also with the extent to which systems of representation such as musical scores were not limited to representation, but productive of affects, catalytic elements whose various signs did not represent sounds to be recalled but presented affective capacities beyond the possibility of any sonification. At a more general level, the experimental turn—identified by Cage as beginning in the 1940s with the introduction of magnetic tape into musical practice—lead away from `everything that belongs to humanity [...] to the world of nature, where gradually or suddenly, one sees that humanity and nature, not separate, are in this world together’ (Cage: 2009, 8). It is due to this concern for opening creative practice up that which is thought beyond the horizon of humanity, an attempt to realise a continuum between thought and nature, that I believe we find stronger, richer accounts of non-cochlear sound in the history of experimental practice than we do in that of strictly conceptual practice, as the former does not exclude the latter from its concerns, nor that which resides outside it: its materially transcendent conditions and inhuman others. Here we can pinpoint the difference between Kim-Cohen’s notion of non-cochlear sound and my own. While we are both concerned with sound beyond the ear, for Kim-Cohen non-cochlear sonic art concerns itself with the discursive impact of sonic practice, with an order of sound effects—i.e. the effects of sound and sonic practice upon language. My interest in the non-cochlear—remaining open to the conceptual—resides in its ability to account for sound affects beyond the ear, for what Cage refers to as `non-sounds’: the affectivity of sonic events both unintentional and unheard, sounds that may percuss membranes other the ear drum and find a resonance in a body other than the body. Presenting this extra-somatic affectivity, Cage’s experimental practice expresses how `non-sounds [...] received by other sets than the ear, operate in the same manner’ (Cage: 2009, 14). The notion of the non-cochlear that I present here is aligned with this particular understanding of non-sound as a model of clamorous silence populated by inaudible yet affective signals, signals that are taken as structurally equivalent to autonomous and infraesthetic affects. It is in this Cagean sense of a extrasomatic affectivity that sound’s independence from the necessity of its being heard is to be understood, as its independence from the necessity of its being heard `by us’, suggesting a non-anthropic audition or a peculiar scientism of signals. Sound is thereby understood as being independent of its synthetic reproduction by the body but not necessarily all bodies or `sets other than the ear’. The affect thereby remains a relational event yet this relation is not necessarily manifest for us but, rather, for any body, taking steps towards an inhuman, `absolute’ or `transcendental’ empiricism and a consequent ethics of exteriority.
Opening onto a larger vibrational continuum of sonic affects, both non-sound and the non-cochlear can be utilised in accounting for the inaudible conditions of the heard. Insofar as a sound is necessarily listened to, what is heard is not in-itself, yet sound-itself is posited as a necessary anteriority to the synthetic production of what is heard. In itself sound is set apart from audition, and so from the perspective whereby sound must be heard to be defined as such—according to which there can be no sound apart from the ear, no affect apart from affirmation—sound-itself is not sound but rather a kind of non-sound or clamourous silence. Non-sound thereby presents a kind of `immanent transcendence’ insofar as it is that which is affective within sound yet goes unheard, thereby remaining external to it; it is that which resonates with sets other than the ear, or fails to resonate at all.23
Bryant, L., Srnicek, N., Harman, G. (eds.) (2011), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne: re.press.
Cage, J., (2009), Silence: Lectures and Writings. London: Marion Boyars.
Cox, C., (2011), `Beyond Representation and Signification’. Journal of Visual Culture, 10 (2), 145-161.
Derrida, J., (1997), Of Grammatology. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press.
Derrida, J., (2005), Writing and Difference. London and New York: Routledge.
Gilles, D., (2004), Difference and Repetition. London and New York: Continuum.
Gilles, D., (2004b), Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974. Los Angeles and New York: Semiotext(e).
Gilles, D., and Guattari, F., (2003), What is Philosophy?. London and New York: Verso.
Gilles, D., and Guattari, F., (2004), A Thousand Plateaus. London and New York: Continuum.
Greenberg, C., (1995), The Collected Essays and Criticism vol. 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Kahn, D., (2009), `Alvin Lucier: I am Sitting in a Room, Immersed and Propagated’. OASE, 78, 24-37.
Kim-Cohen, S., (2009), In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-cochlear Sound Art. London and New York: Continuum.
Lucier, A., (1995), Reflections: Interviews, Scores, Writings, 1965-1994. Köln: MusikTexte.
Massumi, B., (2002), Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Meillassoux, Q., (2009), After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. London and New York: Continuum.
Pasnau, R., (2000), `Sensible Qualities: The Case of Sound’. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 38, 27-40.
Shaviro, S., (2010), `Post Cinematic Affect: On Grace Jones, Boarding Gate and Southland Tales’. Film-Philosophy, 14 (1), 1-102.
Sterne, J., (2003), The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Sterne, J., (2011), `The Theology of Sound: A Critique of Aurality’. The Canadian Journal of Communication, 36 (2), 207-225.
Toscano, A., (2006), Philosophy and Individuation Between Kant and Deleuze. Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Voegelin, S., (2010), Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art, London and New York: Continuum.
- This bias is what Jonathan Sterne has referred to as the `audio-visual litany’ (2003, 19-29). Sterne presents extensive critique of this position—the ahistorical opposition of sight and sound—in The Audible Past (2003) and `The Theology of Sound: A Critique of Aurality’ (2011). A recent example of the affirmation of the audio-visual litany—to which the present argument is opposed—or the ahistorical characterisation of the nature of sound can be found in Salomé Voegelin’s Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (2010). [↩]
- Kim-Cohen (2009), Voegelin (2010), Cox (2011 [↩]
- Here I refer to the philosophical movement formerly known as Speculative Realism, also `continental realism’ in Levi Bryant et al. (2011). [↩]
- Such arguments for an `autonomy of affects’ can be found in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (2003), Brian Massumi (2002) and Steven Shaviro (2010 [↩]
- According to the analytical methods favoured by Kim-Cohen, for example, the importance of many approaches to sonic matters are rendered meaningless insofar as meaning resides within a symbolic domain that experimental practices and sonic realism partially elude. [↩]
- The terms qualitative extension and intensity are returned to in more detail below. [↩]
- The equation of affect and intensity is also carried out by Brian Massumi; despite this precedence its is necessary to state the reason for this equation more explicitly herein. See Massumi, 2002, 27. [↩]
- For a detailed discussion of the concepts of qualitative extension and intensity see Deleuze 2004, 289-303. [↩]
- More contemporary examples—of what I have begun referring to as infraesthetic functionalism, or infraesthetics—could be made of the work of artists such as Jacob Kirkegaard, Toshiya Tsunoda, Kanta Horio and Christine Sun Kim, yet the limited length of a single article makes it more feasible to make reference to work and historical contexts that the reader may already be familiar with. [↩]
- It could also be said that this functional orientation towards the affective capacities of sound at the expense of its aesthetic qualities is what gives much experimental practice as certain `lo-fi’ appearance, as its concerns reside elsewhere, beyond appearance, with interactions between assemblages that are technical, organic or otherwise. [↩]
- Deleuze refers to intensity in quantitative terms as intensity is not considered an object of qualitative perception or experience, being a term used to describe the imperceptible dynamics that are considered the conditions of experiential qualities. See Deleuze 2004, 290-7. [↩]
- These `innate’ qualities of sound being readily opposed vision, or a `hegemony of the visual’, to which the opposite qualities are ascribed (Cox 2011, 157). [↩]
- Examples of immersion being claimed as a privilege of auditory experience against the discretion of the visual can be found in Voegelin (2010) and in Marshall McLuhan’s concept of acoustic space. [↩]
- This understanding of sound is considered `distal’ due to the decentralised listening subject and existence of sound as a physical event beyond its perception, rather than in a sense strictly concomitant with the distal theories of sound presented by authors such as Pasnau and Casey O’Callaghan. The spatial and durational understanding of length in Lucier’s approach to sound is also pointed out by Douglas Kahn (2009). [↩]
- The full score for Still and Moving Lines affords greater complexity, but for present purposes this summary will suffice. [↩]
- Wave field synthesis is a technique used in the creation of virtual acoustic environments and complex sound spatialisation and acoustical modeling. [↩]
- This is, of course, the target of Derrida’s famous critique of the `metaphysics of presence’, according to which `the logos can be infinite and self-present, it can be produced as auto-affection, only through the voice: an order of the signifier by which the subject takes from itself into itself, does not borrow from outside of itself the signifier that it emits and that affects it at the same time [...] ‘ (Derrida: 1997, 98.) It should be pointed out, however, that the critique of the of voice according to the auto-affective capacities thought to expel the exteriority of writing does not constitute the sum of Derrida’s thinking on the voice. See, for example, Derrida (2005), Writing and Difference, 292-316. Regrettably there is insufficient space for a discussion of the gender politics implicated within this piece and its performance. [↩]
- Even where the discussion of affective intensity is restricted to somatic terms, as we find it in Brian Massumi’s work, it is not taken to indicate an affirmation of interiority, but rather the extent to which the body is `radically open’ to the influence of external signals and events (Massumi, 2002, 29). [↩]
- I use the phrase `ideology of immanence’ here as a generalisation of Sterne’s audio-visual litany. [↩]
- This complement or undermining is considered transcendental in the sense of a transcendental materialism rather than idealism. [↩]
- The term correlationism is taken from the work of Quentin Meillassoux and can be crudely summarised as naming philosophical positions wherein reality is only insofar as it is perceived, held or rendered in the mind (Meillassoux 2009). [↩]
- For Deleuze `the Ideas as concrete universal stands opposed to concepts of the understanding’ (2004, 220), and so the relationship between Ideas as `the ultimate elements of nature’ (Ibid., 205) and concepts is that of `a profound complicity between nature and mind’ (Idem.). [↩]
- A not dissimilar argument for non-being, as `not being’ without negation, can be found in Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, 76-7. [↩]
January 28, 2012
Discussing the soundtrack to last year’s riots, protests and demos, specifically the noted shift from recognisable protest music and `right-on reggae’ to a wholly more ambiguous soundtrack comprised of Grime and chart rap, Mark Fisher notes what can crudely be referred to as an `affective turn’ in the politics of opposition, in the popular opposition to the scale and ideological agenda behind the coalition’s cuts.1 What foregrounded the affective dimension of this popular and public opposition was the absence of a coherent and considered political message, people `failing’ to rally beneath a united and recognised banner, channelling a wholly more ambiguous and generalised current of anger, frustration and rage. The foregrounding of an affective dimension in certain popular movements is also noted by Jodi Dean with specific reference to OWS, who notes that some critics have characterised OWS as `acting out an affective politics suited best for social media’, lacking the direction of more organised and collectively coherent movement. This critique is aimed specifically at the affective orientation of much of the discourse surrounding current movements, focusing heavily upon emotional connections, anger and disaffection; it is, as Dean points out, the emphasis that affective discourse places upon the individual that is seen to disempower or undermine the coherence, validity and efficacy of popular politics:
A problem is perceived–a bad vibe–and either the therapist or the victim (or victim’s defender) now wants to focus on the feelings around this problem. Therapeutization–the means to turn class conflict into personal conflict, or to hide class conflict underneath an ideology of individualism. It’s like the opposite of consciousness-raising. Instead of connecting people to the world, the world is reduced to the interior life of one or two people.
The affective turn in recent politics thereby becomes auto-affective and in remaining bound to an individual’s feelings and emotions undermines the possibility of its breaking out into collective action and mobilisation. Yet, referring back to Fisher’s article, it is where this affective orientation is inscribed into the social circuits of musical use and sonorous production that it perhaps begins to break out of the ideology of individualism through tapping into a transpersonal or `machinic’ dimension of affective signals that never find a voice yet remain expressive and hopefully inch towards efficacy. What is important to express here is that much of this affective content is inscribed in the use of music as much as its composition. As little of the Grime and Dancehall that Fisher and Dan Hancox catalogued towards a playlist of the riots and uprisings expresses in explicitly linguistic and lyrical content the sentiments of political activism, it is in the use of music and sound as a carrier of affects at the point of both playback and composition that its importance lies.2 Where music is deployed as a more affective than symbolic force in resistance, its significance becomes obscure and ambiguous from the perspective and expectations of symbolic coherence. This noted lack of coherence and communicable message marks, as Fisher points out, a certain exhaustion of recognised channels of musical resistance: the protest song seems worn out, lacklustre, its own disempowerment, apparent obsolescence and displacement in pop culture a symptom compounding the apathy and estrangement that has characterised much of the still fairly recent discourse on youth and `political engagement’.
Despite the incoherence—if not the absence—of any message in the turn towards an affective understanding of music’s political implication, a degree of meaning remains: meaning or message in the medium, an attachment and entwining of sentiment and the material underpinnings or matter of expression that no-doubt contributed to the ambiguity of what was being channelled. The affective excess that characterised so much of the expressive content of 2011′s uprisings and demonstrations displays a certain decline in the faith of symbolic efficacy, in the power of the word or recognised discursive channels and forms to effect change. It is, of course, unsurprising that those who feel themselves to be without voice, those who remain unheard, should turn from the voice as the primary site of political exchange, shifting from the voice and language as the primary means of expression towards more abstract and purely affective sonorities.
What Fisher highlights—more than Dean—in describing the political implications of affects is a shift from the efficacy of `desublimating’ narratives or a symbolic testimony of dissent—e.g. protest song—to an affective undercurrent in musical expression that remains poorly understood and therefore both confused and obscure. Yet the reference to an undercurrent here requires some clarification, as the playback of Rihana and Nikki Minaj at student protests shows a undercurrent operative at the surface, insofar as this music is utterly pop, operating at the surface or forefront of popular culture and removed from anything resembling Hebdige’s subcultural cool. In the use of this music its affective capacity is mobilised, and so where we speak of an affective undercurrent it is not to be understood in terms of style but something more obscure and ambiguous, something operative inbetween and beyond genre, whether they are historically or traditionally associated with dissent or not. The `horizontal’ indiscretions of sonorous affectivity prove momentarily problematic to classification—as protest music—and understanding—of those who expect coherence and demand the use of recognised channels. Again stating that this is to be taken as distinct from style, this affective impetus is not to associated in either Adornian or Attalian terms as political mobilisation by means of avant-garde aesthetics or—at least where the use of Rihana is concerned—reorganisation and distribution of the means and ownership of musical production (no doubt that Rihana track came from a torrent). Affective implication of music in recent political mobilisation has not taken the form of a collective awakening to the transgressive truth or aesthetics of noise as an alternative to the exhaustion of the protest song. That the mobilisation of an affective current through musical use should prove problematic to classification and understanding must in part come from the extent to which the genres from which this affective current was excised are already over-codified, classified and commodified in terms of genre, style and so on. As the material underpinning music that is already classified, filed and marketed with precision, the affect as politically mobilised agent operates and originates from within music wholly unresistant to the market, commodification or popularisation, yet nonetheless existing in excess of the stylistic systems and markets in which it is implicated. The affective signal as a material instance able to be excised and mobilised politically constitutes a parasitic matter or channel in excess of its stylistic implication, a `nested exteriority’ at work within yet indifferent to the codification of genre and the meaning of style.3 The signal is considered in the terms of both excess and exteriority insofar as it constitutes the material conditions of both music and its stylistic classification, it is that matter which can be encoded, inscribed and deployed any number of ways across countless genres yet is reducible to no single instance. The signal is that of, through or in complicity with which music is composed, yet also that which remains outside, in excess of, or extimate to music and so its primarily affective political implication takes a form apparently obscure from a political and aesthetic perspective that expects formal coherence—genre or stylistic specificity.
While style, of course, remains an important factor in the choice of music played, the political implication of affective signals—more than political expression of signs—is perhaps best understood in terms akin to Eyal Weizman’s `political plastic’, referring—according to crude summary—to the mobilisation of ideology and the performance of interpellation beyond the voice, beyond the symbolic, through material practice and political implication in plasticity. If political plastic recognises and describes ideological operations in excess of the strictly symbolic—operative through design, composition and fabrication—and interpellation therefore being exercised—beyond the classic Althusserian example—in excess of the voice or the spoken word—whether uttered in song or from the mouthes of the police—then, sticking with sound, we have a model of ideological operations more akin to a kind of `unsound’ interpellation, exercised through what Steve Goodman calls the `the politics of frequency’.4 An affective turn in politics open—beyond its being bound to emotion, as in both Fisher and Dean’s articles—to an autonomy of affects, of affective signals, excised from their stylistic implication within or without the recognised forms of protest music, mobilises an affective element that perhaps, through its ontological excess, shows potential of escaping the ideology of individualism without having to submit to calls for a more clearly defined and categorised mode of expression in the easily identified—and therefore easily ignored—form of the protest song.5 In the apparent obscurity and ambiguity of music’s political implication according to its affective capacity ahead of its symbolic efficacy, we can perhaps locate a generalised and autonomous theory of affects and thereby an affective politics capable of thinking exteriority.
- See Mark Fisher, `Autonomy in the UK’ in The Wire 355, January 2012. [↩]
- All references to Grime are made on the back of Fisher and Hancox’s work, as I’m almost entirely ignorant of this music. [↩]
- This phrase can be found littered throughout the work of Reza Negarestani [↩]
- more on this to come … [↩]
- As Goodman discusses, this is already underway in the forms of `sonic warfare’ initiated by the more experimental outings of the ISA. [↩]