Introduction to The Sonic Episteme, v 2.2

I have a full draft of the whole book, and I’ve just finished revising the introduction to reflect all the changes and additions I made over the summer. It has a more nuanced version of the argument, and a full outline of the chapters. You can read a full copy here.  Below is the introduction to the introduction.

  1. The Sonic Hypothesis & The Sonic Episteme

Michel Foucault began his book about European Modernity’s episteme with an analysis of a painting about the gaze (Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas). “Episteme” is his term for the implicit, taken-for-granted ideas, methods, and logics that tie a group of intellectual, scientific, economic, and political practices together as their common denominator. These “rules of formation, which were never formulated in their own right, …are to be found only in widely differing theories, concepts, and objects of study” (OoT xii). According to Foucault, Velazquez’s painting reveals those unstated rules. Using techniques like mirroring, portrait painting, surface/depth and signifier/signified interpretative play, and vanishing-point perspective, Las Meninas makes the sovereign’s gaze explicit as such: painting the spectator(s)–the king and queen of Spain–reflection in a mirror, it represents the fourth wall. Those techniques and that fourth wall are a two-dimensional system of visual representation, and that two-dimensional system explicitly formulates what “unknown to themselves, the naturalists, economists, and grammarians employed the same rules to define the objects proper to their own study, to form their concepts, to build their theories” (OoT ix). The rules that were implicit in Modernity’s episteme were explicit in 17th century painting and theories of painting. Foucualt could use the latter as a metaphor for or illustration of the former because they both adopt the same method of abstraction.

17th century painting is an appealing and effective model for this episteme because it naturalizes the ontological foundations of the power relations that structured European Modernity, such as the subject/object distinction or the disinterested spectator/view from nowhere. This is why “the prevailing [image] of modernity as an ocular era” (Erlmann 15) exists, even if, as Veit Erlmann argues, it’s a misperception and misreading of Modern philosophy. We tell ourselves Western modernity was “homogeneous[ly]…ocularcentric,” (Erlmann 15) because that story makes particular configurations of privilege and domination seem just, inevitable, and right. For example, visual/verbal-versus-oral oppositions often underwrite essentializing West/non-West binaries: “they” are different from “us” because they aren’t ocularcentric like we are. Similarly, Laura Mulvey’s idea of  “the male gaze” works because narrative cinema’s fourth wall and (classically) liberal patriarchy’s proceduralism both obscure the conditions of their production in similar fashion: the camera’s gaze obscures the fact that the film is a film just as liberal ideas of equality before the law obscure histories of white supremacy and patriarchy. There’s a “visual hypothesis” about Western modernity’s episteme in the same way there’s a “repressive hypothesis” about 19th and 20th century Western sexuality: the story we tell ourselves about the way things work is inaccurate but nevertheless plausible because while it may get facts wrong it gets power relations right. These hypotheses are, to riff on Charles Mills’s description of white supremacy, “cognitive dysfunctions that are socially functional” (Racial Contract 18).

Many early 21st century theories that call themselves some variation on “neo-” or “post-” [some aspect of Western modernity]–like neoliberalism or post-identity politics or new materialist posthumanism–mark their departure from Western modernity by appealing to a sonic hypothesis. Because traditional methods of philosophical abstraction are (purportedly) visual, these “new” theories adopt acoustic resonance as their method of philosophical abstraction and model for whatever concept they are developing, e.g., of the market, society, materiality, society, even the universe itself. In the same way that the visual hypothesis naturalized a sociohistorically specific notion of painting by taking it as the model for philosophical abstraction, the sonic hypothesis naturalizes a sociohistorically specific notion of sound by taking it as the model for philosophical abstraction. Theories of neoliberal political economy, post-identity biopolitics, new materialist posthumanism, “new algorithmic identities” and algorithmic culture, even popular accounts of string theory, all these theories and discourses appeal to some notion of acoustic resonance, conceived as a ratio expressing a frequency, oscillating patterns of variable intensity, or a metaphor that translates the quantitative relations expressed in normalized statistical distributions into non-quantitative terms.

Sometimes this appeal is explicit, sometimes it’s implicit but easy to infer. For example, in his 1977 book Noise, economist and social theorist Jacques Attali argues that “the laws of acoustics. . . displa[y] all of the characteristics of the technocracy managing the great machines of the repetitive [i.e. neoliberal] economy” (113). He thinks the tools and techniques economists use to represent deregulated, financialized markets follow the same laws or principles that govern the physics of sound–in other words, he thinks they all express the same underlying mathematical relationships. And, as I discuss more extensively in chapter one, there’s evidence he’s correct. For example, neoliberal economists like Milton Friedman think the deregulated, entrepreneurial market is “a system of proportional representation” (Capitalism & Freedom, 15) that expresses human behavior in statistically-calculated ratios such as probabilities and cost:benefit calculus. These ratios are also the basic mathematical tool we commonly use to measure sound waves (e.g., pitch is a ratio of cycles per second, decibels are ratios that compare the intensity of a particular sound to what is generally agreed to be the maximum intensity average human ears can perceive). But unlike the ancient Greeks, who measured sounds in terms of geometric proportion–the geometric proportions of a string (unfretted, fretted at midpoint, fretted at the ⅓ point, etc.), neoliberals measure things/markets as statistical proportions (i.e., probabilities). Friedman’s proportions are ratios that express the average or normal frequency of a variable, and these ratios display the same characteristics 21st century scientists and musicians use to measure the physical properties of sound. To be clear, they’re not identical, but they’re similar enough that acoustic resonance is a passable metaphor for the math behind neoliberal market logics.

This same system of proportional representation–in particular, the proportional representation of public opinion proffered by polling and, more contemporarily, big data–is the foundation of the “postdemocratic” political ontology philosopher Jacques Ranciere critiques in his book Disagreement. That’s why he calls postdemocracy “the perfect realization of the empty virtue Plato called sophrosune” (Disagreement 106). Plato explicitly models sophrosyne (generally translated as moderation) on contemporary-to-him understandings of musical harmony as geometric proportion. Organizing society according to statistically-calculated frequency ratios, probabilities, and forecasts, postdemocracy updates Plato’s original idea of sophorosyne with 20th and 21st century math…and here we are back at Attali’s claim that the laws of acoustics look a lot like the principles of neoliberal social order and political ontology.

The sonic hypothesis isn’t limited to political philosophy. Some of the foundational theorists of new materialism either explicitly model their ontologies on acoustically resonant sound, or implicitly do so by appealing to concepts of vibration and dynamic patterning, which are also fundamental concepts in contemporary acoustics. For example, Elizabeth Grosz’s Deleuzo-Darwinian ontology treats “vibrations, waves, oscillations, resonances” (CTA 33) as the fundamental elements of existence, and Jane Bennet’s “vibrant” materialism argues that everything is matter, all matter vibrates, and vibration is a dynamic patterning of differential intensities: “what philosopher Brian Massumi describes as the ‘pressing crowd of incipiencies and tendencies’ that is matter’ (57; emphasis mine). Though Bennett never explicitly makes the connection to sound, her concept of matter as dynamically patterned waves of pressure makes matter sound a lot like, well, sound, which contemporary scientists understand as dynamically patterned waves of pressure.

From neoliberalism to new materialism and beyond, acoustically resonant sound is the “rule” theorists “to define the objects proper to their own study, to form their concepts, to build their theories” (OoT ix). This rule defines what an abstraction is and how philosophical abstraction works. The sonic hypothesis passes a sociohistorically local concept of sound off as the nature of sound as such and uses this as a model for philosophical abstraction because this naturalizes existing relations of domination. It thus forms the foundation of a sonic episteme, which, like Modernity’s purported visuality, is a cognitive dysfunction that’s socially functional.

How exactly does a society organized by neoliberal biopolitics function? The “neo-” prefixes is a strong clue: it indicates (supposed) progress past some traditional structure, practice, or limit. Neoliberal political economy and post-identity politics upgrade Modernity’s political and social systems to work more efficiently in evolving technological and political contexts. For example, neoliberal market logics are re-shaping fundamental political values and concepts. As Willie Osterman argues, because cost:benefit calculus has become neoliberalism’s dominant economic metaphor, we understand society as composed of “terms of service instead of social contracts.” Similarly, as John Cheney-Lippold has shown, advances in technology have changed both how we determine someone’s social identity (their race, gender, etc.) and, more fundamentally, what social identity categories are and how they work. Given these shifting contexts, the traditional ways of producing and managing social inequity will be less efficient and effective; neoliberal biopolitics upgrades the way white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy works so that it is compatible with concepts and tools grounded in probabilistic statistics and normalized statistical distributions.


First, instead of strictly regulating purity (which takes a lot of resources), laws and institutions include deregulated differences, often under the banner of “diversity.” I call this first step the domestication of noise because it turns what was formerly a problem (in the Du Boisian “how does it feel to be a problem?” sense) into a resource. Just as statistical distributions can reveal predictable patterns in what otherwise appear like chance occurrences, the domestication of noise finds order in what traditionally seems like irrational chaos. Second, as clusters of “normal” and “abnormal” performances emerge from this deregulated activity, irreparably abnormal performance appears to threaten the safety and stability of the normals, so abnormality becomes the basis for unequal (i.e., unjust) treatment. Because neoliberal biopolitics makes exceptions to rules and norms about how people deserve to be treated on the basis of abnormal performance, I call this second move the politics of exception.

The infamous Bush-era education program No Child Left Behind is an example of the domestication of noise and the politics of exception. Instead of segregating public schools explicitly on the basis of race and policing the purity of white schools, NCLB uses nominally inclusive performance-based measures to dole out both resources and penalties on what are effectively racial lines. Especially because it relies on the statistical distribution of test scores, NCLB is a great example of neoliberal, post-identity social functionality in general. Including everyone on the same quantitative, statistically-measured spectrum kills two birds with one stone: (1) it serves as evidence that identity-based social exclusion is over, obsolete, a thing we “neo-”s are “post-” because we’re all on the same playing field, and (2) provides the mechanism for producing white supremacist patriarchy without relying explicitly on identity-based social exclusion.

The sonic episteme uses acoustic resonance to translate the quantitative relations measured by normalized statistical distributions into non-quantitatve–i.e., philosophical–terms. As I will explain more thoroughly later in the introduction, statistical normalization is the central tool or method neoliberal biopolitics uses to keep white supremacist patriarchy functioning. Just as the ancient Greeks used the concept of (geometrically proportional) harmony to rationalize social inequality (e.g., Plato’s myth of the metals, or gendered variations on sophrosyne, both of which I discuss in the book), this particular notion of sound as acoustic resonance is a commonly cited, illuminating, and accurate model or metaphor because it embodies the material, conceptual, and social structures and relationships that organize a biopolitically neoliberal, post-identity society. In other words, the theories that are constituents of the sonic episteme adopt the same method of abstraction that neoliberal biopolitics uses. The sonic episteme hides the sociohistorical contingencies and political consequences of this method of abstraction behind a supposedly objective and depoliticized concept of sound.

Because sound is one of Modernity’s “others,” appealing to sound can appear both revolutionary (turning Modernity on its head) and recuperative (recovering what Modernity excluded). This is a new variation on one of philosophy’s oldest tricks: from Socrates’ appeal to Diotima to Nietzsche’s appropriation of femininity, philosophy commonly turns appropriates its (foreign, feminine) Others in order to fill in what conventional methods of theorizing abstract away. Constituents of the sonic episteme commonly use a version of what Jonathan Sterne calls “the audiovisual litany” (AP 15), which favorably contrast sound’s fullness and material intimacy to sight’s abstraction and alienation. Though the audiovisual litany conventionally treats sound as an exemplar of the full immediacy privileged by the metaphysics of presence (Sterne 17), the neo- and post-theories that constitute the sonic episteme use the litany to position sound as overcoming both the metaphysics of presence and its deconstruction–in other words, resonance replaces Modernist and post-modern philosophical methods. Theorists from Julian Henriques to Adrianna Cavarero use sound and acoustic resonance to mark the “neo-”ness or “post-”ness of their theory or practice. Henriques, for example, argues that sound strikes a “critical attack that…literally strikes at the heart of the predominantly ocularcentric character specific to Western metaphysics” (Henriques SB xxix). In the sonic episteme, the epistemic and discursive shift from vision to sound is the same movement that’s represented by the “neo-” in neoliberalism and the “post-” in post-identity. So, the sonic episteme consists in theories that both that adopt acoustic resonance as a model for philosophical abstraction and use the audiovisual litany to assert their surpassing and evolution beyond conventional Western philosophical practices.

I’m not arguing for the sonic episteme. I’m showing that it exists in order to critically theorize it. I am arguing that because acoustic resonance is a plausible metaphor for the mathematical techniques and tools neoliberal market logics and biopolitical statistics use to organize society, theories that adopt it as a model for philosophical abstraction run the risk of contributing to and naturalizing those methods of organization. That’s a problem because neoliberal biopolitics organizes society to intensify the race/gender/sexuality/class/ability-based systems of domination it inherits from classical liberalism. Using acoustic resonance as a model for philosophical concepts or practices doesn’t fix the epistemic and political problems with Western post/modernity, it just upgrades our concepts and methods to work better with their 21st century variations. Because it makes it easy to naturalize 21st century racial patriarchy, the sonic episteme is, as the well-known Adorno/Foucault meme would put it, possibly bad and definitely dangerous.

The sonic episteme is certainly dangerous, but thankfully it’s not the only way to theorize with and through sound. There are other concepts of sound out there for us to work with. Sound, and even resonance, can be a productive model for theorizing if and only if it models intellectual and social practices that are designed to avoid and/or oppose the systemic relations of domination that Western Philosophy-capital-P institutionalizes and justifies. This is easy to do if we look to the way people oppressed by those systems of domination think about and use sound. The three middle chapters in the book–the chapters on political ontology, materialist ontology, and subjectivity–do this. Looking to both theories of sound and resonance in black studies and musical practices by black women artists, I show that it’s possible to use sound to theorize political ontology, vibratory resonance, and subjectivity without appealing to acoustic resonance and the neoliberal biopolitics that comes with it. Unlike the sonic episteme, which claims to overcome and progress past Western post/modernity, these “phonographies” (to use Alexander Weheliye’s term) articulate ideas, aesthetics, and relationships that exist “in the red,” i.e., in the frequencies perceptually coded out of Philosophy-capital-P’s spectrum. Phonographies study patterns of living that model what Weheliye calls “habeas viscus,” Devonya Havis calls “sounding,” Katherine McKittrick calls “demonic calculus,” Ashon Crawley calls “choreosonics,” and Cristina Sharpe calls “wake” — these all refer to phenomena that behave like acoustic resonance (e.g., they’re rhythmic, oscillatory patterns) and/or the math it models, but they are calibrated to the epistemic, ontological, aesthetic, and political practices black people have used to build alternative realities amid white supremacist patriarchal domination.

As a method of theoretical analysis, phonography focuses our attention on dimensions of verbal, visual, and musical texts that conventional methods of philosophical abstraction–including ideas of “the music itself” or “just the notes”–dispose of, such as citation patterns (McKittrick) or resonances between academic and pop culture texts (Weheliye 2005). Whereas the sonic episteme takes what Philosophy traditionally disposes of–resonance–and uses it to re-invest and revive Philosophy so it can succeed in neoliberal, biopolitical institutions, phonographies don’t reappropriate this discarded material for Philosophy. Instead, phonographies are “nondisciplinary” (Weheliye 2005 200) or “undisciplined” (Sharpe 13) practices that divest white supremacist patriarchal models for transmitting knowledge, privilege, personhood, and property, such as the academic discipline. This is why the sonic episteme perceptually codes phonographic noise out of the lines of Philosophy’s transmission–the cost of laboring on phonographic noise to domesticate it into something that contributes to the esteem and elite status of Philosophy-capital-P isn’t worth the benefit. To use sound as a tool for theorizing and realizing a more just world, we can’t just reform Philosophy, but must do something else entirely. Phonography is one model for this “something else”; certainly there are others.