Taking MIDIjunkies Into the Death
Here’s a sample of something that I’ve been scrambling to complete before a rapidly-approaching deadline. This is still definitely in progress, so your feedback is most welcome!
In this post, I discuss a pair of songs on Atari Teenage Riot’s album 1995: “Midijunkies” and “Into the Death.” “Midijunkies” uses an allusion to Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus to illustrate exactly ho neoliberal “control societies” control for biopolitical death. “Into the Death” suggests one way to jam these mechanisms of control.
The queer repetition, looping, and electric buzzing that, in classically liberal regimes, were illegible to hegemony, and thus opposites or alternatives to it, are, by the 1990s, registered as deviances that are always-already controlled for. Specifically, they’re preprogrammed right into MIDI interfaces, VSTs, sequencers, samplers, and all sorts of other electronic music media. MIDIS (and other electronic instruments) give easy access to biopolitical death, in the form of both (a) the black/queer critical strategies of repetition, looping, and electronic buzzing, and (b) the ability to use those strategies in ways that mimic biopolitical death. They give us access to intensities that are excessively high or excessively low, what is illegible and imperceptible to neoliberal hegemony, and thus might appear to undermine hegemony’s attempts to manage it. However, as ATR’s song “MIDIjunkies” warns, this is only a faux subversion: it fucks you up, not hegemony.
As Deleuze and Guattari argue in A Thousand Plateaus, drugs can induce a sort of faux-subversion of neoliberal logics of intensity (in Deleuze’s terms, “control society”). According to them, getting fucked up on drugs mimics the experience of radical critique—what they call “deterritorialization.” Drugs “change perception,” alter its speed and intensity, and thus can reorganize epistemic and perceptual frameworks (TP 282), making perceptible what was, in hegemonic regimes, imperceptible. Psychedelics do this, amphetamines do this, even alcohol and caffeine do this. However, they argue that in drug use, “the deterritorializations remain relative” (TP 285) because highs are finite and everybody comes down sometimes. Human physiology and drug chemistry are hard limits; drug use happens in “the context of a relative thresholds that restrict” drug use to the “imitation” of deterritorialization (TP 284). Drug addiction even further restricts the possibilities opened up by drug use: addicts go “down, instead of high…the causal line, creative line, or line of flight” opened by drug use “turns into a line of death and abolition” (TP 285). In other words, drugs fuck up junkies, not hegemony…The trick is that hegemony convinces these “junkies” that their dejection is actually transgressive, even though it is carefully accounted for and managed. Junkies deviate in ways that are already standardized and accounted for. These loosers fail in hegemony’s terms: losers might have shitty profiles full of losses and deficient in wins, but they still have a profile.
“MIDIjunkies” treats MIDIS as drugs in the DeleuzoGuattarian sense. MIDIs can be used in ways that make artists feel like they’re fucking shit up, subverting hegemony’s arche…but the do so in very carefully controlled and limited ways. So, for example, drum machines can be made to play a percussive “blast” (this is a technical term) faster than it would seem any human drummer could. So it seems like these electronic tools allow us to intensify repetition and noisiness beyond the limits of human perception or kinesthetic capacity. However, all hardware and software has limits: knobs only go up to 10, so to speak (and however you measure it, potentiometers do have mechanical and electrical limits). In DeleuzoGuattarian terms, MIDIS makeplanes of consistency within a plane of organization (i.e., the technological and mechanical limits of the MIDI program, the potentiometers on the control devices, etc.). The most prominent example of this is the song’s use of apparently unmetered sound. To the causal listener, the last part of the song—about 4 minutes in, after the bass drops out and all that’s left are various treble synths—might appear to abandon the song’s solid 4/4 and veer off into nonmetric noodling (the same nooodling, notably, that begins “Delete Yourself”). There is no regular bass or percussion pattern to follow, so casual listeners could easily loose the downbeat. This section seems to exemplify what Deleuze and Guattari call, “a liberation of time, Aion, a nonpulsed time for a floating music, as Boulez says, an electronic music in which forms give way to pure modifications of speed” (TP 267; emphasis mine).
But these sections are not unmetered. The noodling still falls into four-bar phrases: every four bars, the musical motive changes slightly. The song itself is only superficially non-metric. Moreover, most listeners were not casual—they were fervently dancing, pogoing up and down to the beat and keeping meter with their bodies (in lieu of the bass and percussion tracks doing it for them).[i]This apparent foray into the nonmetric shows that what appears as unregulated improvisation is in fact possible only because of a very tightly managed foundation. As the music in MIDIjunkies shows, this apparent transgression of metric arche isn’t, in fact, a transgression, because non-metricality, or the “liberation” of meter, is not in fact transgressive of neoliberal control. Liberation, as Foucault reminds us, is the transgression of sovereign, juridical power; it is not, however, subversive of biopower.
The real junkies here are the ones addicted to classically liberal concepts of death and resistance as negation—the ones who think “flowers in the dustbin” are actually oppositional, and not the compost fueling neoliberal biopower. Non-metrical music is an-archic, and like the Pistols, treats death or negation in a classically liberal framework. Because neoliberalism always-already co-opts death, randomness, and an-arche, these strategies do not challenge biopolitical hegemonies. Neoliberal regimes use biopolitical administration to regularize death; a normalized variable, death is not a form of distortion. The task, then, is to distort death. This is what ATR do on their song “Into the Death.” Here, they use the hyper-intensification of biopolitical or metric regulation to subvert neoliberal hegemony.
2. Into The Death
Drug users believed that drugs would grant them the plane, when in fact the plane must distill its own drugs (D&G TP 286).
Citing the refrain from MIDIjunkies (“MIDIjunkies gonna fuck you up!”), “Into the Death,” like Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus, frames critical practice as a matter of “distilling” death, making it too intense. If the MIDIS (drugs) themselves aren’t subversive, ATR has to intensify the techniques that MIDIs make possible, pushing them to the point where they’re not distorting sound so much as power. This happens when the sonic noise they produce introduces statistical “noise” into the biopolitical management of life and death. In “Into the Death” ATR attempt to distil black/queer/Ostie deathinto its most intensified form, what band leader Alec Empire calls “riot sounds.”[ii] By distorting death, ATR incite a riot in the management of life; in a sound wave as in a statistical distribution, alterations to the nadir will affect the shape and amplitude of the apex. In this section, I’ll explain what ATR mean by “riot sounds,” and then use “Into the Death” to illustrate how they work.
If an-arche is the negation of order, “rioting” is the intensification of it. Empire describes “riot sounds” as “functional music,” a sort of biohacking. “With the way we program the beats and use certain frequencies, it has this effect on your adrenaline” (AV Club interview), Empire explains. ATR use MIDIS and other biopolitical tools to produce abnormal, inappropriate effects and affects:
It’s the riot sounds, man…There’s something about distortion when it’s applied in a certain way… that creates these overtones, and it does something with the brain. It triggers certain senses that we can’t explain with normal music science, the way we know it maybe from Western European music.[iii]
ATR don’t reject management—they’re distorting sound waves in “certain way[s]” to hack into and distort brainwaves. Rioting is counter-hegemonic management. It takes the tools hegemony uses to invest in life, and applies them instead to death. It carefully, microscopically, and vigilantly intensifies death. So, for example, while neoliberal management strategies invest in promoting flexibility and adaptability, riotous, queer management strategies invest in the opposite—stringent, uncompromising order.
If, as Steven Shaviro argues, neoliberalism requires subjects to be infinitely flexible and adaptable, rigidity, precision, and exact quantization can undermine this demand. Neoliberalism uses biopolitical management to optimize flexibility. Musically, this flexibility is evident in Cages aleatory pieces or Reich’s process pieces: the overarching compositional forms are quite elastic and contextually-dependent. “Into the Death,” however, is formally and rhythmically quite rigid. The rigidity allows the MIDIS to distill their own drugs/distortions. Machines can be more precise than human perception; they can, as Ronald Bogue puts it, “accelerate (or decelerate) metrical regularities until they” appear to “collapse or run out of control” (97). “Blast drumming” is a particularly clear example of this intensification of metrical regularities. As Bogue explains, blast drumming is one “tactic of accelerating meters to the point of collapse.” It does this by
cut-time alteration of downbeat kick drum and offbeat snare, the accent being heard on the offbeat but felt on the downbeat…Often, a blast beat section will culminate in an unaccented kick drum roll, which obliterates any sense of an organized pulse and creates sensation of temporal dissolution” (99).
According to Bogue, blast drumming uses ultra-precise rhythmic patterns to create the illusion of metric an-arche. The meter, in this way, distills its own “drug,” its own distortions.
Blast drumming is a common feature of death metal, and ATR use it in “Into the Death.” This is not surprising, because in the same way “Delete Yourself” is based around the Pistols’ “God Save” riff, this song takes the main guitar riff from death metal band Slayer’s “Angel of Death.” Slayer’s song was written explicitly in reference to Nazi “Angel of Death” Joseph Mengele. ATR’s “Into the Death,” then, can be understood as a response not just to 90s neo-liberal neo-Nazis, but also to the paradigmatically boiopoliticalracism of the Third Reich. So how does ATR use blast drumming as a response to biopolitical racism, and what does this have to do with hyper-exact management? “Into the Death” uses drum machines to accelerate the blast beats in Slayer’s original beyond what a human drummer can perform. In the version on 1995, hyperaccelerated blast beats appear at: 1:02-1:04, 2:12-2:13, 2:17-2:18, 2:20-1, and at the very close at 3:12-13. The cluster of blasts in the middle of the song coincide with lyrics that critique classically liberal models of resistance. Elias says, “maybe we’ll sit down and talk about the revolution and stuff/But it doesn’t work like that,” the “but” emphasized with the 2:17-18 blast. Because ATR juxtapose them with this critique of traditional leftist ideas, we can interpret these blasts as an alternative model of critical political practice. But what’s critical and political about these blasts?
Bogue claims that blast-style intensified management produces Deleuzian bodies-without-organs—i.e., a complete scrambling or roll-back of organizational structures, an-arche.[iv]It has a different effect in “Into the Death.” “Into the Death” does not produce a body without organs, but a precisely-engineered political tool.[v] In ATR’s song, dissolution is not the point. The machines never actually devolve into chaos, even apparent chaos. The machines manage rhythm so precisely that it becomes, from the perspective of hegemony, unmanageable. Neoliberalism manages to optimize flexibility; ATR take these managerial techniques and instruments and make them work too perfectly, so they produce rigidity rather than flexibility. They don’t abandon arche, but articulate a counter-arche, a subjugated knowledge. They queer biopolitical management, managing for ends other than the “normal” ones.
How exactly is this hyper-exact management an intensification of black/queer/Ostie death? This is where the second form of “riot sounds” factor in. ATR remix or reroute the networks that regulate the distribution of life-intensity (privilege or death), so that management produces “abnormal” results. They intensify precisely what shouldn’t be intensified—bare life. Hegemony manages death to make sure it stays at a specific level of intensity (e.g., “equalized” in relation to other levels/chanels). Instead of plugging death into the intensification of privileged lives, which is what neoliberalism does, ATR reroutes the engines of intensification and plugs them into death. In the same way that riot sounds are made by rerouting sound signals through MIDIs, samplers, and drum machines, riots are made by rerouting investment from life to death. Rioting is an intentional bending of the circuits of power.
Image posted to Atari Teenage Riot’s twitter account; originally published in 1995.[vi]
In neoliberalism, the critical potential of queer/black/Ostie death doesn’t take the form of negation, of turning power down or off, but when it follows the command to, in ATR’s words, “TURNITUP!”[vii]If “life is like a video game with no chance to win,” then the only place to go, the only thing to do, is go into the death. You invest in your bare life, make it even more bare, even noisier, more repetitive. This intensification of death is what starts a riot. Overdriving death, turning death up, will affect and distort “life”: keeping with the signal metaphor, alterations to the nadir of a curve or sine wave will also affect its apex. If death is something controlled in order to better manage life, then inhabiting death queerly will fuck their algorithms, fuck their management of life.
In the musical-political moment immediately prior to the wholesale co-optation of black-queer-Ostie “death,” ATR explicitly thematize this sexual/racial/national assemblage’s relationship to biopolitical death, and how, as those the neoliberal state leaves to die, subjects in this assemblage can critique and subvert 90s neoliberalsm. For a while, this mutually-reinforcing queerness/blackness/death matrix could be turned against neoliberal hegemony. This is why they had to be co-opted; “death” can only be tolerated when it is put in service of privileged lives. So, just as some styles of gendered racial subalternity get fetishized as means to white bodily pleasure and receptivity (as in white hipness), formerly “queer” death was appropriated and homonationalized as an index of radical, alterna-boy cred (e.g., in Marilyn Manson, the convergence of goth/industrial with more mainstream metal, etc.).
[i]As Empire explains in his AV Club interview, “…And that was when we founded Atari Teenage Riot. That was in the beginning of 1992, when there were a lot of attacks from the Neo-Nazi movement on foreigners and immigrants and stuff.[i]
[iv]“What death metal musicians seek in this volume is a music of intensities, a continuum of sensation (percepts/affects) that converts the lived body into a dedifferentiated sonic body without organs” (Bogue 88).
[v]Even though we both agree that death is not nothingness or negation, but “zero intensity,” Bogue and I have different concepts of this null point. He understands death as “the catatonic body’s zero intensity…an ecstatic, disorganized body of fluxes and flows” (105). For Bogue, zero-intensity means dissolution and disorganization. In my view, death is always highly regulated and managed—it is the bare life that biopolitics has an interest in managing, even if indirectly. So, for me, zero-intensity is a carefully produced effect. Our differences can probably be attributed to our different source texts: him, Deleuze and death metal, me, Foucault and digital hardcore.
[vi]http://instagram.com/p/RNAzZKnxdP/ Last accessed 10/25/12 at 10:00am EDT.
[vii]“TURNITUP” is the only lyric n “Cyberpunk Is Dead.” This suggests a correlation, in ATR’s mind, between biopolitical (cyber-) death and intensification.