Transmission: Sound, Affect, and Joy Division/New Order

This post is a very, very initial attempt to sketch a theory of “transmission.” I develop this idea of transmission in conversation with Jasbir Puar, Joy Division, and Bauhaus. Transmission is an sound-based concept, an attempt to theorize from “the sonic” (as problematic a term as that may be). Transmission is an alternative to forms or modes of relationality that are grounded in the visual (e.g., intersection(ality)). Transmission is a way of understanding how we learn what might be called “affects” or “interpretive horizons” or “corporeal schemas.”

Again, this is a first sketch. I may well post a revision later. BUT, I do want to get this out before I have to leave this project for a bit to focus on another one. Because it is so raw, I welcome your feedback, questions, and suggestions.


Though her book Terrorist Assemblages is, eponymously, about “assemblage,” I want to re-read Jasbir Puar’s account of assemblages as a theory of transmission. “Transmission” is my term for the modes of relation “characterized by tendencies and degrees, adjusted through tweaking and modulation rather than norming” (116; emphasis mine). Norming is accomplished via the positive and negative reinforcement of normal and abnormal behaviors, respectively. As Butler has famously and clearly established, norms require and compel repetition: norms are “normative” because we are compelled to repeat them.  Tweaking and modulation assume patterns of repetition; they don’t compel repetition so much as alter the frequency or contours of that repetition. When one modulates a pitch, one alters the frequency of sound emitted; quite literally, sound waves are either faster or slower, and the peaks and valleys of the pitch sine wave pass more or less quickly (it’s called a “frequency” because it’s a measure of how “frequently” a single peak-valley pattern occurs in a given amount of time). One can tweak a sound in a number of ways–synthesizers allow for all sorts of “effects” to be put on a sound: you can arpeggiate it, bend the pitch, compress it…the options are seemingly limitless. So again, “disciplinary” regimes require and compel repetition. For example, repeated exposure to tonal harmony and the diatonic scale discipline (and thus “normalize”) one’s ears to hear Western systems of musical organization as intuitively meaningful. Tweaking and modulation, on the other hand, intervene in established patterns of repetition produce a specific audio profile. In tonality, “modulation” is more or less a key change, a shift from one harmonic profile (e.g., A major) to another (like E major). (Hence perhaps Andrew Goodwin’s comment in his essay in On Record that timber is more important than functional tonality. Timbre is an audio profile–it’s how a sound “feels,” its “grain.”)  Profiles measure things like frequency and intensity; to the recursiveness of repetition, the sort of 2D-linear folding back upon oneself (like a da capo), profiles add the exponentiality of 3D (depth) and even 4D (time). More simply, profiles aren’t linear measures of repetition, they are multi-dimensional accounts of intensity. Hence the gesture to 4D art: time-based media are not just spatial, but spatio-temporal.

Puar argues that transmissions are perceived at the level of affect.  Profiles are perceived and measured affectively (not by how one looks, but by how one “seems”). Affects are what gets tweaked or modulated, and tweaking and modulation is accomplished via affective transmission. As Puar explains,
a focus on affect reveals how actual bodies can be in multiple places and temporalities simultaneously, not (only) tethered through nostalgia or memory but folded and braided into intensifications…To extend Axel’s formulation, the homeland is not represented only as a demographic, a geographical place, nor primarily though history, memory, or even trauma, but is cohered through sensation, vibrations, echoes, speed, feedback loops, recursive folds and feelings” (171; emphasis mine). 

Nostalgia and memory are merely linear–they are two dimensional accounts of time (past-present-future on a single continuum). A braided intensification, however, is exponential rather than linear (I realize I’m using “exponential” somewhat loosely here, but bear with me…).  Braided intensification is multidimensional, spatio-temporal, at least 4D. Affects are both emitted and perceived in many registers at once; they are transmitted as intensities, “vibrations, [and] echoes.” So here Puar suggests we think of affective transmission like we think of the transmission of sound frequencies. Notably, these things that get transmitted–vibrations, echoes, feedback loops, etc.–are formal properties. They are not meanings or content, but compositional features of a transmission: the rate at which something occurs, its volume or intensity, etc. Transmission is about formal relationships, not about content or meaning.  

This emphasis on formal patterns is another thing that distinguishes “transmission” from “the visual.” I don’t have time to fully establish this claim here (so you’ll just have to believe me for now, and wait for me to publish the full argument), but I think I am warranted in claiming that we Westerners generally (emphasis on generally, I realize there are exceptions) frame/understand/conceive of “the visual” in terms of a signifier-signified “representational” logic: the appearance “represents” some inner “meaning” or “content.” This logic that I’m calling “visual” is what Ranciere would call the “aesthetic regime of the arts;” a Greenbergian Modernism isn’t too different–it just collapses content into form (the form is the content). Not only is transmission about affect, the “seeming” Puar opposes to “seeing,” it is further distinguished from the visual by its emphasis on form/patterns/profile rather than content. (One more thing to think about elsewhere/later: “receiving” is the compliment to “transmitting”– interesting that “receptivity” is the capacity to be affected, isn’t it?).
So, in sum, I read Puar as suggesting a notion of “transmision” that includes the following features:

1. seeming rather than seeing
2. intensification rather than linear increase
3. 4D rather than 2D
4. Form rather than content
5. Modulation and tweaking rather than normalizing

Transmitting “Transmission’s” Affect

Both Joy Division’s original song “Transmission,” and Bauhaus/Peter Murphy’s cover of “Transmission” demonstrate a general logic of “transmission.” As the practice of covering a song suggests, this logic of transmission is a form of tweaking or modulation. I am particularly interested in (and not completely finished thinking through) what Bauhaus/Murphy appropriate from Joy Division. In order to cover the song, Murphy deems it necessary to also dance and comport himself like Ian Curtis (Joy Division’s frontman). So, in Murphy’s cover, the “music” and the “affect” are intertwined: Murphy’s cover suggests that the dancing, Curtis’s “seeming” or affective profile, are part and parcel of the song itself, and covering the song means performing both the music and the affective profile.

“Transmission” is Joy Division’s first single on Factory. Joy Division’s original version, like Puar’s text, considers “transmission” to be an alternative to the visual. Its lyrical content defines “transmission” as a specific mode of non-visual communication or comportment.

The first verse explicitly contrasts the transmission of sound with vision:

    Listen to the silence, let it ring on
    Eyes dark, grey lenses, frightened of the sun
    We would have a fine time living in the night
    Left to blind destruction, waiting for our sight

What does one do when left to blind destruction, waiting for sight?  According to the chorus, the appropriate course of action is: “dance, dance, dance, dance dance to the radio” in the absence of vision. (It seems that initial invocation of silence isn’t to be taken too seriously–maybe people are silent, but the radio seems to be working just fine.) Transmission is not sight or seeing–it has somethign todo with listening and with dancing, with the interaction between sound and bodily affect/comportment.  A later verse declares that “No language, just sound, that’s all we need now.” This contrast between language and sound suggests that “sound” is not about content or meaning, because that’s what language is (i.e., sounds attached to specific meanings). So the verses are all about sound and listening as opposed to seeing, and the choruses are all about dancing. So the lyrics of the song privilege sound and sensibility (i.e., bodiy comportment, dancing) over the visual. (The instrumental track reinforces the idea that transmission is about form rather than content. The bass and guitar lines are mainly repeated sequences of the same pitch; the song is not about chord progressions, but about the rate at which a single note is repeated.) While the verse attends to sound, the chorus points us toward affect. It is this affect that Curtis, the lead singer, demonstrates in his own iconic dancing. Let’s look at several Joy Division performances:

Here is their Peel Sessions performance of “Transmission”:

 Pay particular attention to Ian Curtis’s iconic dancing; it’s most evident from 1:57 on.  There are better examples of it in this video at 1:38, 2:58 and 3:15:

You can also see it here, in their performance of “She’s Lost Control”:

It is precisely this affective dimension of the song that gets “transmitted” to/in Peter Murphy’s cover of “Transmission.” Murphy performs this both solo, and with his band Bahuaus. Murphy and Curtis were roughly contemporaries back in the 70s. Though Curtis’s dancing is now iconic, Murphy was actually trained as a dancer. So given both the (in)famous character of Curtis’s rather signature dancing style, and Murphy’s tendency to pay attention to dancing, it is not surprising that Murphy would pick up on Curtis’s dancing. But what I would argue is that it is precisely Curtis’s dancing that is the thing being “covered” here; one cannot properly cover the song without also doing the dance.

Murphy often covers the song, and he pretty much always makes the dance a part of the performance. Here are a ton of examples:

This one is probably the best quality, both in terms of frequency of dance performance, and pure audio quality:

This one is also pretty high-quality, though he doesn’t start dancing until about 0:43:

Here is a closer-up focus on Murphy:

Here, look at 0:22-25. This one is pretty close-up and clear:

Here is another one; the dancing is mainly at the beginning:

I think it’s important to include all these examples of all these different performances because it establishes that Murphy includes the dance as a part of the general performance of the song–it’s just as much a part of the song as the lyrics and the singing, or the bass riff.  Murphy’s performance of “Transmission” treats Curtis’s dancing as an integral part of the song itself–the sound of the song includes the affective profile of Curtis’s dancing.  The music and the affective profile are in a relationship of “braided intensification”: they exponentially augment each other, working together to create that “sense” of Joy-Division-ness. So we can say that the sound and the affect are in a relationship of mutual “transmission,” both in the original, and as it is in turn “transmitted” to Murphy. Receiving it as a “transmission,” and then transmitting it back out again, Murphy doesn’t repeat either the music or the dancing–he tweaks and modifies it.

This tweaking and modulation is even more evident in Ministry’s “Blue Monday”-inspired song “Everyday is Halloween.” “Blue Monday” is, of course, the monumental, iconic, historical, very very very important 1983 single from New Order. New Order is, of course, the surviving members of Joy Division–everyone minus Curtis, who committed suicide. I’m not going to embed the videos for these two songs; you can find “Blue Monday” here, and “Everyday is Halloween” here. Ministry’s song is identifiably inspired by “Blue Monday,” but not as directly related as a cover would be. In fact, the greater distance between the two songs is evidence of tweaking and modulation–Ministry reworked “Blue Monday” in their own terms, put it in a new context or “profile.” But the relationships are pretty obvious. The rhythm sections (drum machines, drums, and bass riffs) are really actually quite similar, especially the sixteenth-note patterns in the drum machines in both songs. The arpeggiated bass lines are also noticeably similar. It’s pretty evident to even a not very careful listener that the Ministry song is inspired by “Blue Monday”–it’s not the same song, it’s not a cover, and it’s not even a remix. “Everyday is Halloween” is the Chicago goth version of Manchester post-punk. This point is perhaps most clear by Ministry singer Al Jourgensen’s fake British accent–something that is mainly absent from the rest of the Ministry discography, but very evident on this track. Here too bodily affect–this time in the form of accent–is braided together with other, more strictly, musical elements of a song. It is both affect and sound that get transmitted from New Order to Ministry. (There is a similar sort of “transmission” in early Green Day songs–Billie Joe Armstrong sings with a Rotten/Strummer-like fake British accent.)

So, in sum, these various “transmissions” of Joy Division/New Order help clarify what sort of relationship a “transmission” is. It is one of “braided intensification” between sound and affect–or, more generally, of “braided intensification” across sensory/perceptory registers. It is a relationship of tweaking and modulation; it’s not norming, but is rather deviation (or, as Ministry might suggest, it’s a sort of deviance that shows how effed-up everyone else is– “I’m not the one who’s so absurd,” remember.) Transmission is also a relationship about form above (and perhaps in exclusion of) meaning or content. This privileging of form over content is often realized as an emhasis on “seeming” rather than “signifying.” In order to “seem” like Joy Division/New Order, one must perform not only their music, but their affective profile (dancing, accent). However, one can’t just repeat it; one is obliged to modify it, to “modulate” it.

Again, this is very, very rough, and I will certainly need to revise it and flesh it out. To that end, I very much welcome your feedback!