More outtakes from my article on Attali, music, & neoliberalism
I’m editing down an article on Jacques Attali, Foucault, music, & neoliberalism. I’ve posted some outtakes before, and here are some more. They’re somewhat disjointed, as outtakes tend to be, but they’re generally about Attali’s theory of subjectivity.
“Composer” as deregulated prosumer
The obsolesce of commodities and the commodity form makes commodity fetishism a decreasingly salient and compelling form of subjectivity and intersubjectivity. “The mass repetition and distribution of uniform models, interchangeable with money, totally obstructs communication by way of object-related differences” (Noise 121). Commodity fetishism is this latter form of communication: I use differences among consumer goods or brands to communicate my social status and affiliations. But now that commodities, the “C,” are out of the M-M loop, we use other methods and media for identity formation and social intercourse. The economy thus becomes, as Attali puts it, the means and medium for “the production of the consumers themselves” (131); this echoes Read’s claim that “subjectivity itself becomes productive” (33). This self-production takes a specific form. We are, as Foucault puts it, “entrepreneurs of ourselves.”
This shift from producing goods to producing consumers is the reason why “we don’t,” in the words of 30 Rock character Jack Donaghey, “make thingsanymore.” Instead, as Attali argues, there is “a new kind of consumer good, necessarily implied by the very rules of competitive exchange—success” (Noise, 68). Business help us produce and “cultivat[e]” (Noise 118) ourselves as successful enterprises. The larger economy is structured to assist each individual in the quest to entrepreneurially exploit oneself as human capital—hence the explosion in service industries like beauty, health, and recreation.[i]Businesses are invested in helping us invest in ourselves because it’s not just we individuals, but the businesses themselves that profit. Facebook, for example, feeds on our narcissism and our sociality—its users aren’t its clients, but nor are they its employees. They are, rather, “prosumers” or producer-consumers.[ii]
The “prosumer” model is not a new, 21st-century Web 2.0 phenomenon. Its roots, as Attali argues, lie in 19th century music publishing, which produced not just sheet music and pianos, but also “a rapidly expanding market of amateur interpreters” (Noise 69). In using consumer technology and mass media, these “amateur interpreters” produce themselves as musicians and as music fans; in so doing they generate even more surplus value—in the form of human capital or “use time”—than is generated just in the sale of pianos and sheet music. This prosumer ethos continues into the twentieth century, when, as the slogan would have it, home taping threatened to “kill” music.[iii]As a teenager in the early 1990s, I made mix tapes by recording songs off the radio on to cassette tapes, basically circumventing the exchange of music as a commodity. Somewhat similarly, musicians used samples from other records as the foundation of their own tracks. About 30 years before the music industry actually did this (e.g., with social listening, games like Rock Band, and shows like American Idol), Attali argued that it could save itself from the threat of “amateur interpretation” only by “reinsert[ing] this consumer labor into the laws of commercial exchange” (Noise 100); “the consumer…will thus become a producer” (Noise 144). In Noise, then, Attali identifies the “prosumer” business model about 30 years before it entered mainstream consciousness. The prosumer, remember, isn’t producing goods so much as him or herself as human capital. It doesn’t matter so much what kind of music (or music fan-objects like playlists or YouTube video mixes) one makes, but how the process of composing makes oneself. With the prosumer, we have passed from the society of the spectacle into the consumer-producer as “spectacle of himself” (Noise 144).
Attali’s composing subject is the neoliberal, entrepreneurial subject par excellence. It’s not surprising, then, that composition is a fundamentally deregulatory practice. “Composition necessitates the destruction of all codes” (Noise 45) because only in a deregulated marketplace of ideas and affects can subjects optimize their creative capacities. It does this by using the very same deregulatory processes found in neoliberal free-marketism and mid-century avant-garde composition. For example, Attali describes composition in terms comparable to Steve Reich’s “Music as a Gradual Process.” For Attali, composing involves “inventing new codes, inventing the message at the same time as the language” (Noise 143), or, in different terms, composing “creates its own code at the same time as the work” (Noise 135). For Reich, “the distinctive thing about musical processes is that they determine all the note-to-note(sound-to-sound) details and the over all form simultaneously. (Think of a round or infinite canon.)”[iv]In both accounts, the macro-level code emerges from generative, micro-level processes.
These generative processes appear to be random because the composer is not directly choosing each individual musical event—the process is, as Riech puts it, “impersonal” (MGP). However, in this style of deregulated composition, “musical processes can give one a direct contact with the impersonal and also a kind of complete control…by running this material through the process I completely control all that results” (Reich MGP). Reich’s musical processes—like swinging a microphone over a speaker to generate feedback, or setting two identical tape players to play the same looped recording in and out of phase—articulate the background conditions within which individual sonic events arise. Reich’s (and Cage’s, and the serialists’) musical processes are the background conditions that allow for deregulated sonic production. As “program producers” (40), Reichean and Attalian composers are de/regulators; what they compose or arrange is the ‘code within which’ sounds are generated. In this way, Cage and Reich’s role in the relations of musical production is analogous to the role of commercial and governmental institutions in neoliberal political economy: just as “the bulk of commodity production then shifts to the production of tools allowing people to create the conditions for taking pleasure in the act of composing” (Noise 145; emphasis mine), the bulk of musical production shifts to the production of musical processes and instruments (instead of ‘works’). “Composition, nourished on the death of codes” (Noise 36), does not subvert neoliberal deregulation—it is a model for optimally deregulated subjectivity and musical-political economy.
But repetition doesn’t generate surplus value by extracting it from alienated labor. Rather, it outsources the production of surplus value to individual subjects, who then generate surplus value by cultivating and curating their own human capital. Neoliberalism wantsand incites privileged subjects to intensify their erotic investments—to “work hard/play hard,” as pop musicians like Ne-Yo and Wiz Kalifa say. Attalian composition is a practice of erotic intensification and human capitalization. It is not opposed to neoliberal governmentality, but consistent with it.
[i] As Attali argues, “repetition entails the development of service activities whose function it is to produce the consumer” (Noise 103; emphasis mine).
[ii] It is possible to read Attali as anticipating Facebook’s business model. He argues that “in order to accumulate a profit, it becomes necessary to sell stockpileable sign production, not simply its spectacle” (88). Social media stockpileable sign production: users’ status updates, photos, tweets, pins, are all stockpiled “signs” or “data,” which Facebook then turns around and sells to, say, marketing firms.