revised intro for my chapter on new materialism

Back in 2014 I started working on this book chapter about feminist new materialism. I was trying to figure out what’s at stake in new materialist theorists’ widespread adoption of acoustic or acoustic-like metaphors: resonance, vibration, diffraction, etc. Here’s the intro/overview of the chapter as it currently stands.

In 2014, researchers at MIT published a paper about their visual microphone project, claiming it “allow[s] us to turn everyday objects—a glass of water, a potted plant, a box of tissues, or a bag of chips—into visual microphones” (Davis and Rubenstein, 1).[1] The visual microphone reads video recordings of vibrating objects and reconstructs the sounds that caused and/or resulted from that visible material vibration, sonifying contextually inaudible vibrations. As lead researcher Abe Davis explains,

We’re recovering sounds from objects. That gives us a lot of information about the sound that’s going on around the object, but it also gives us a lot of information about the object itself, because different objects are going to respond to sound in different ways.

The visual microphone (re)sonifies otherwise silent or silenced phenomena. And these recovered sounds, the long-silent “voice” of inanimate things or objects, give researchers unprecedented insight into the material properties of these things.

As MIT’s Larry Hardesty explains, the heart of the visual microphone is a set of “algorithms that amplify minuscule variations in video, making visible previously undetectable motions.”[2] Amplifying the visual noise in video images and processing it through a variety of filters, the visual microphone generates a database of noise, from which it then pulls out the profile of vibrations that would generate the most probable, “common sense” auditory signal.[3] It algorithmically generates lots and lots of visual noise, because the more visual data it can collect, the more successfully it can predict a legible audio signal. Instead of tuning noise out, it amplifies it so that the hidden ‘harmonics’ emerge from all the irrational noise. The noisy data is then statistically normalized to produce a frequency that then gets transduced, through speakers, for us to hear.[4]

The visual microphone is an instrument that uses statistical normalization to reveal the ‘voice’ or sonic potential of non-traditionally speaking/sonic phenomena. Recovering sounds from objects by attending to their material vibrations, the visual microphone embodies Jane Bennett’s description of new materialism as “giving voice to things.” To be somewhat overly general, new materialisms argue that the ontologies we’ve inherited from European modernity are pernicious because they obscure the ‘true’ nature of being behind human and humanist biases, the worst of which are subject-centrism and propositional or representational abstraction. In contrast to modernity’s static, hierarchical divisions of the world into subjects and objects, humans and non-humans, and, even, hierarchically-ordered chord functions, new materialisms posit relatively flat ontologies of networked assemblages (See Cole & Frost 2010).

Some strands of new materialism ground these ontologies in concepts of vibration, sound, and music. For example, defining “vibration” as “the specific relation of ‘movement and rest’ that obtains between its parts” (Bennett 22), Bennett echoes the idea that acoustic waves are patterned rhythms of condensation and rarefaction. Similarly, Elizabeth Grosz argues that “‘In the beginning’ is chaos, the whirling, unpredictable movement of forces, vibratory oscillations that constitute the universe” (CTA 5; emphasis mine). Although he doesn’t explicitly identify himself with new materialism, Steve Goodwin’s “ontology of vibrational force” has a lot in common with them (including Deleuze-centrism); “concerned primarily with the texturhythms of matter, the patterned physicality of a musical beat or pulse…the question of vibrational rhythm shoots right to the core of an ontology of things” (SW 83). In this chapter, I argue that what is “new” materialist ontologies such as Grosz’s, Bennett’s, and Barad’s (and related ones like Goodman’s) ground their theories in the figure or concept of acoustic resonance–rhythmic patterns that interact via phase relationships–and are thus constituents of the sonic episteme.

Like the rest of the constituents I discuss in this book, new materialism uses acoustic resonance to both domesticate noise and enact a politics of exception. In this respect, new materialist ontologies most closely resemble the political ontologies I studied in the previous chapter: both claim to overcome silencing and achieve universal envoicement–to include those conventionally excluded as irrational noise–and use that claim of overcoming to produce an exceptional group (of people, of theories). Positing that everything vibrates, or rather, that everything is vibration, new materialisms claim to eliminate the ontological and metaphysical differences between human and non-human, animate and inanimate matter, subjects and objects. They identify philosophical practice of conceptual abstraction (e.g., “representationalism”) as the root or cause of these differences, and in turn position themselves as a new, better philosophical method, one that deals in things, not abstractions. This attempted disavowal of abstraction is how new materialisms enact a politics of exception. To show how this works, I rely on two metaphilosophical concepts from critical philosophers of race: Charles Mills’s concept of ideal theory and Sara Ahmed’s concept of new materialism’s “founding gesture.”

Though new materialism claims to overcome philosophy’s reliance on conceptual abstraction, it doesn’t.[5] It replaces representational abstractions with vibrational ones, and it uses these vibrational abstractions to practice a kind of ideal theory. For example, Stephen Zepke argues that Grosz’s methodological “silence about ‘actual art’” (551) leads her to “convert ‘art’ into a biological concept and process almost completely detached from actual artworks” (549).[6] In other words, because she refers only to other philosophers’ (Deleuze, Darwin, Uexkull) theories of art, music, and the like, these terms function as idealized models uninformed by and ungrounded in the concrete materiality of specific artworks, artistic media, and art practices. According to media theorist Jussi Parikka, to the extent that they are grounded only in (other) theory and not also in the analysis of media practices, objects, and technologies, all new materialisms risk doubling down on the very thing they claim to avoid: idealized abstraction. For example, the concept of the “object” or “things” or “thing-power” are the fundamental unit of analysis in many new materialist theories, and these concepts limit or frame what counts as matter and materiality, often to the exclusion of “non-solids,” “the processual,” and other forms of materiality common to “contemporary media culture” (Parikka 99). When it comes to theorizing art and media, new materialist thinkers tend to abstract away from actual artworks and practices, and, as I show in this chapter, the same is true for their approach to acoustic resonance (which is also an artistic medium).[7] In new materialist theory, acoustic resonance is an idealized abstraction that obscures ongoing relations of domination.

This means that some of new materialism’s leading theorists practice it as a kind of ideal theory. According to philosopher Charles Mills, ideal theory uses a particular kind of theoretical abstraction: the “ideal-as-idealized model” (Mills 167). Unlike an “ideal-as-descriptive model,” which “purports to be descriptive of P’s crucial aspects (its essential nature) and how it actually works (its basic dynamic)” (Mills 168), an ideal-as-idealized model is “an exemplar, of what an ideal P should be like” (Mills 167) in a perfect world. In other words, idealized models figure how things ought to work in a perfect world. The problem is, of course, that the world isn’t actually perfect, and its imperfections are disproportionately distributed to oppressed groups. Because it overlooks and does not account for either these imperfections or their disproportionate distribution, ideal theory is thus a social ontology that “abstract[s] away from relations of structural domination, exploitation, coercion, and oppression” (Mills 168).[8] For example, standard liberal ideals of formal equality before the law (what Marx calls “political emancipation”)[9] abstract away from the way histories of inequity differentially situate people with respect to one another and to resources.

The new materialist theories I study in this chapter use two interrelated forms of idealizing abstraction. I’ve already mentioned the first kind: “resonance” as an idealized model of an ideal social ontology. As I argue below, Grosz, Bennett, and Barad think that switching the foundation of their ontologies from representational abstractions to material relations eliminates the ultimate cause and foundation of classically liberal identity-based systems of domination: abstraction. However, in their work, acoustic resonance is an idealized model of a different basic idea than the one naturalized by the verbal and visual ontologies they critique. Unlike “an idealized social ontology of the modern type…[which] will typically assume the abstract and undifferentiated equal atomic individuals of classical liberalism (Mills 168), the idealized social ontology of the new materialist type assumes the universally inclusive and thus noisy interactivity of deregulated neoliberal markets and post-identity biopolitical populations. For example, as Weheliye argues, “these discourses also presume that we have now entered a stage in human development where all subjects have been granted equal access to western humanity and that this is, indeed, what we all want to overcome” (HV 10). Thus, their resonant, vibratory, and diffractive ontologies are “new” because they leave old problems in the past. This abstracts away from ongoing, if differently-structured, relations of domination.

The second kind of idealizing abstraction is found in what Sara Ahmed calls new materialism’s “founding gesture.” The gesture is performed by the adjective “new,” which situates “new materialism” as progressing past something old or conventional. For Ahmed, this gesture is a pointing to that is also a rejection; it “evoke[s] a position that is not held by the speaker…a position that is not explicitly attributed to somebody as a way of making a counter-claim.” (Ahmed 25).[10] In the case of new materialism, the position in question is is a kind of “feminism or poststructuralism” that “ha[s] reduced ‘everything’ to language, signification and culture” (Ahmed 25). Representationalism is the status quo that the “new” departs from, moving beyond representationalism and towards biology and physics.[11] In this chapter, I expand Ahmed’s analysis of this gesture, focusing not so much on its rejection or countering, but its crafting of a trajectory. The adjective “new” posits a superseded past, an “old.” I’m interested in this gesture of supersession, of having overcome and moved beyond.

Grosz, Bennett, and Barad perform this gesture as a variation on what sound studies scholar Jonathan Sterne calls the “audiovisual litany” (Sterne Audible Past 15). The audiovisual litany is a conceptual gesture that favorably opposes sound and sonic phenomena to what it posits as an occularcentric status quo: Western culture is occularcentric, but the gaze is bad, so luckily sound and listening fix all that’s bad about it.[12] According to Grosz, Bennett, and Barad, philosophical occularcentrism and representationalism are the “old” that resonance, vibration, and diffraction supercede. They rehearse the audiovisual litany to mark their departure from “old” conceptual abstraction and the “newness” of their materialism.[13] One of my primary arguments in this chapter is that the audiovisual litany is a crucial component of new materialism’s founding gesture because it distinguishes the “old,” rejected style of theorizing from the “new,” contrary style.

Supercession is the part of new materialism’s founding gesture that renders some styles of theorizing as exception. Framing the newness of resonance, vibration, and diffraction as the supercession of visual representationalism, new materialist theory creates a conceptual framework in which theories of resonance are “new” if and only if they have moved beyond European modernity’s purported occularcentrism and representationalism. Black studies and Africana philosophy–and even a good amount of modern European philosophy, as Veit Erlmann shows in Reason and Resonance–include longstanding traditions of theorizing about and through various ideas of resonance and vibration, often in explicitly non-ideal ways. However, if these theoretical practices don’t explicitly thematize themselves as having overcome Western post/modern visual representationalism, they don’t count as “new” because they’re not performing the disidentificatory gesture that grounds and founds new materialist theory. For example, as Leong argues, “the framing of the new materialisms as inherently more ethical generates, and is generated by, a disavowal or misreading of race as a stagnant analytical framework” (Leong). Classifying theories that continue to pay attention to ongoing white supremacy as “stagnant” and “exhausted” (Leong) rather than “new” and adaptable, new materialisms use a single gesture to both abstract away from ongoing oppression and situate theories that treat vibration, diffraction, and resonance as descriptive models of an unjust society as insufficiently flexible and new–i.e., as exception. As Zakiyyah Jackson explains, new materialism’s “gestures toward the “post” or the “beyond” effectively ignore praxes of humanity and critiques produced by black people” (215) because those praxes and critiques don’t situate themselves as the supercession or overcoming of traditional Euro-Western modernity. As a result, “potentially transformative expressions of humanity are…cast ‘out of the world’ and…rendered void or made to accord with Man’s patterned logics by acts of presupposition” (Jackson 215)–theory by black people is rendered exception (“cast out”) or normalized (“made to accord” with large-scale patterns of domination). Thus, Jackson concludes, this gesture of overcoming ironically reinstitutes the very thing it claims to supercede: stratifying theory into “new” and not-new, new materialist “appeals to move ‘beyond’…may actually reintroduce the Eurocentric transcendentalism this movement purports to disrupt” (Jackson 215). Failing to account for the stratifications it produces among different theoretical practices, new materialism begins from an idealized sociointellectual ontology that abstracts away from relations of domination within philosophy (e.g., it is acceptable to overlook work by and about black people, work on hard sciences topics is more valued and prestigious than humanities work informed by cultural studies, etc.).

To be absolutely clear: the object of my critique is not the claim that we need to study the physical dimensions of things, that matter is important. I generally agree with that idea, and I think Barad’s account of intra-activity is largely correct, but for different reasons than she does, reasons that are beyond the scope of this particular book.[14] New materialist arguments about anthropocentrism, correlationism, or human-subject-centrism are also outside the focus of my critique because they don’t bear on my analysis of the sonic episteme. This chapter limits its focus to the more narrow claim that to the extent new materialism (a) uses acoustic resonance as an idealized ontological model, and (b) uses acoustic resonance as a counter-claim against a supposedly occularcentric and representationalist tradition in European philosophy, new materialist theory is a constituent of the sonic episteme, and, like all constituents of the sonic episteme, enacts a politics of exception. Like the political ontologies I discussed in the previous chapter, feminist new materialisms position themselves as having overcome past commitments to some aspect of European modernity, such as purity or subject/object metaphysics and its epistemic skeptical melancholy. Feminist new materialism’s founding gesture produces theories that don’t appear to progress through and past troublesome aspects of European modernity as exception.

I begin this chapter by diving deep into Grosz, Bennett, and Barad; I show how their concepts of resonance, vibration, and diffraction fit my definition of acoustic resonance, and how they use variations on the audiovisual litany to demonstrate new materialism’s departure from philosophy’s old bad habits of thinking. Before I get into the details of my argument that this founding gesture enacts a politics of exception, I consider how recent feminist music scholars have approached the same problem Grosz, Bennett, and Barad identify with traditional philosophical representationalism–the skeptical melancholy that follows from abstracting away from concrete, material existence. Because Grosz, Bennett, and Barad turn away from representationalism and toward sound to solve this problem, comparing their work to sound studies and musicological approaches–approaches that don’t perform this turn toward sound because they’re already there–to this same problem highlights the underlying political stakes that motivate new materialism’s desire to overcome past commitments to representationalism.

These stakes, I argue, consist in philosophy’s status with respect to neoliberal biopolitics. First, as data-driven statistical normalization becomes the dominant mode and type of abstraction, philosophy, with its old-fashioned theoretical and conceptual abstractions, is pressured to make itself over to keep up with the times and prove its continued relevance.  For example, the rise of big data and advances in AI led many (from magazines like Wired and The New Scientist to individual bloggers) to speculate about “the end of theory.”[15] New materialism’s turn to acoustic resonance is an attempt to remake philosophy so that its methods and types of abstractions are compatible with the statistical and probabilistic abstractions used across elite institutions. Second, new materialism’s turn toward hard sciences like biology and physics has the effect of aligning philosophy with the most prestigious and well-funded fields in the 21st century academy. Much like analytic philosophy in the 20th century, which allied itself with the hard sciences against the rest of the humanities,[16] just as these humanities fields began to incorporate both feminist, queer, and critical race theory and scholars from those underrperesented groups, new materialism appears to be a turn toward hard science and all the prestige (which is not unrelated to its whiteness and cis-maleness) that comes with it. As scholars like Leong and Jackson emphasize, this turn toward hard science for inspiration is a turn away from a long tradition of scholarship by black intellectuals that already addresses many of new materialism’s main concerns. Adopting acoustic resonance as its primary figure and method of theoretical abstraction, new materialism brings philosophy in accord with neoliberal biopolitics.

As in the last chapter, the final part of this chapter considers black feminist approaches to resonance, vibration, and diffraction. I argue that Christina Sharpe’s concept of “wake” and Ashon Crawley’s notions of breath and resonance model the same sorts of relations as new materialist ideas of resonance, vibration, and diffraction. However, they neither abstract away from ongoing relations of domination, nor do they articulate a gesture of supercession; rather, they build their accounts of wake and breath from black expressive traditions. “Wake” and “breath” do the same conceptual work as new materialist notions of resonance, vibration, and diffraction, but lack the political baggage that comes with ideal theory and with the sonic episteme. I conclude by showing how Beyonce’s 2016 visual song “Hold Up” puts ideas of wake and breath in practice.

[1] Davis, Abe and Rubenstein, Michael et. al. “The Visual Microphone: Passive Recovery of Sound from Video” Last accessed 1/4/2017.

[2] Hardesty, Larry. “Extracting Audio from Visual Information” in MIT News 4 August 2014 Last accessed 10/13/14.

[3] “An input sound (the signal we want to recover) consists of fluctuations in air pressure at the surface of some object. These fluctuations cause the object to move, resulting in a pattern of displacement over time that we film with a camera. We then process the recorded video with our algorithm to recover an output sound” (Davis and Rubenstein, 2).

[4] “We combine these motion signals through a sequence of averaging and alignment operations to produce a single global motion signal for the object” (Davis and Rubenstein, 2).

[5] Leong makes a similar claim: “Because materiality is figured as an impersonal force of the real, it runs the risk of becoming a transcendental signified that merely replaces language or culture as an organizing principle.”

[6] Zepke, Stephen. Reviewed Works: Chaos, Territory, Art by Elizabeth Grosz. Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 47, No. 4 (2010), pp. 549-551.

[7] Parikka proposes a different foundation for materialist theory, one “grounded analysis of contemporary culture” (Parikka 99), including actual artworks and cultural objects, their material construction, their production, use, and disposal, and so on. Because it forces us to work with descriptive models rather than just idealized ones, this method gives us access to what traditional new materialism obscures (and even renders exception): the “materialism of dirt and bad matter…which is not only about ‘‘thing-power’’ but about things de-powering…bad encounters that reduce the vitalities of material assemblages in such encounters” (Parikka 98-9). Parikka’s work would be a good place to begin developing an account of what a non-ideal materialist ontology might look like.

[8] Mills emphasizes that it’s entirely possible to “abstract without idealizing” (Mills 168); for example, he cites patriarchy and white supremacy as conceptual abstractions that do not presuppose idealized social ontologies. Descriptive models are also abstractions, but because matter and material relations embody historical and current power relations, it is more difficult to abstract away from relations of subordination and systems of domination.

[9] Marx, Karl. On the Jewish Question TKTK.

[10] Ahmed, Sara. “Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the ‘New Materialism’” In TKTK. Leong describes this rhetorical move less as a gesture and more as an attitude, a “dissatisfaction with the linguistic and cultural paradigms of post-structuralism.”

[11] As Leong explains, new materialism begins from the idea that “the linguistic and cultural turns of the last half century have resulted in both an intellectual and a political poverty….This assessment of inadequacy repeats across much of the recent new materialist scholarship, condensing the cultural turn into a discursive reductionism that rebuffs the empirical for the ideal, or the material for the symbolic.”

[12] As Sterne defines it, “the audiovisual litany…idealizes hearing (and, by extension, speech) as manifesting a kind of pure interiority. It alternately denigrates and elevates vision: as a fallen sense, vision takes us out of the world. But it also bathes us in the clear light of reason” (Sterne Audible Past 15). Sterne stresses that the aims to establish the moral and metaphysical superiority of hearing over seeing: “It is essentially a restatement of the longstanding spirit /letter distinction in Christian spiritualism. The spirit is living and life-giving—it leads to salvation. The letter is dead and inert—it leads to damnation. Spirit and letter have sensory analogues: hearing leads a soul to spirit, sight leads a soul to the letter” (Sterne AP 16).

[13] Asking “What would it mean if compression replaced representation as the core axis of inquiry in media and aesthetic theory?” (127),” Alexander Galloway and Jason LaRiviere make a similar move with their argument that philosophers should reconceive abstraction not as re-presentation but as “lossy compression.” Lossy compression deletes the “meta-” part of traditional philosophical metaphysics, focusing us on immanence instead of transcendence: We need more compression in philosophy, not less. And through the compression of philosophy—the deletion of data via processes of immanence, opacity, obfuscation, and encryption—will arrive the new techniques of the generic” (143). Galloway and LaRiviere turn to acoustic concepts to ‘save’ philosophy from all its past representationalist sins–that’s the parallel with new materialist feminisms.

[14] Briefly, I think there are similarities between Barad’s ontology and Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist ontology, which I think adequately accounts for the relationship between materiality or facticity, on the one hand, and humanity’s collective and individual relations with it. Both stress material dependence and interconnection, and the importance of “situation.” I have no particular interest in the correlationism debate, so Beauvoir’s focus on the subject isn’t objectionable to me as it would be for new materialists. However, because Beauvoir’s ontology begins from material and historical relations of domination, I prefer her non-ideal approach to Barad’s approach. For more on the relationship between Beauvoir and new materialism see Hekman, Susan. “Simone de Beauvoir and the beginnings of the feminine subject” in Feminist Theory Volume: 16 issue: 2, page(s): 137-151.


[16] Writing in 2014, analytic philosopher Alex Rosenberg ties the humanities’ decline to its deep investment in race and gender theory: