The Biopolitics of Vibratory Resonance

I’m speaking at the University of Cardiff on November 30th. This is the text of my talk; the intro is printed below.


Traditionally, in Anglo-American and Continental philosophy, music is addressed as the object of philosophical analysis: it is either a case study for developing broader, generalizable ideas about ontology, metaphysics, or ethics, or it’s the thing that we apply philosophical methods and concepts to. It’s the philosophy of music, remember. But in the last several decades philosophers in these traditions have increasingly taken “music” as a model for philosophical analysis–there’s a whole wing of Deleuze studies dedicated to this; new materialisms constantly refer to things like vibration, resonance, and other wave behaviors like diffraction; and continental figures like Nancy and Cavarero use ideas of listening and voice to build non-propositional and extra-representational methods of philosophical analysis. This is philosophy through music. Even though philosophy hasn’t had a lot of interaction or involvement with the newish but established field of sound studies, this shift from of to through correlates to one of the basic methodological approaches in sound studies, which uses close listening as the basis upon which theoretical insights are built. Sound or music aren’t just things we theorize about, but the medium or model for theorizing.


And this isn’t entirely new: Plato’s divided line exhibits the same geometric ratios or proportions he attributes to harmonious sound–musical harmony is his model for the True. And Nietzsche’s attention to the “gait and stride of [philosophers’] thoughts” (GS section 282) analyzes texts for their rhythm not their propositional content. But as we enter the middle part of the 21st century, philosophers are increasingly turning to concepts of sound, vibration, and resonance as a way to rescue philosophy from supposedly hidebound, hierarchical methods of abstraction stuck in European modernity. Today I will discuss this “resonant turn,” which I call the sonic episteme, and argue why it’s both bad and dangerous. It’s bad because it’s an instance of what sound studies scholar Jonathan Sterne calls “the audiovisual litany,” which is basically an argumentative fallacy that presents the difference between two ideas as the physiological and physical difference between vision and hearing. It’s bad because it’s conceptually flawed. The sonic episteme is dangerous because it naturalizes the mathematical relationships that neoliberal biopolitics uses to govern society behind supposedly objective, non-quantitative terms. In other words, it’s dangerous because it makes current manifestations of white supremacist patriarchy seem normal, natural, and unproblematic.


First, I’ll talk about the bad part, then I’ll talk about the dangerous part.