Sublime Human Capital: What You Buy, But I’m Not Selling

In this post I want to flesh out an idea I suggested in my CAA paper on neoliberalism’s 4D sonic episteme. Neoliberalism produces macro-level stability from micro-level variability/aleatory. So, individual subjects have to be flexible. If flexibility normalizes, then perhaps inflexibility, rigidity, hyperquantization, and other extremely disciplined practices might abnormalize. Or: if neoliberal logics of optimization encourage and require the recycling of noise into signal, then noise won’t critique or subvert neoliberal hegemony…but maybe extremely well-tuned signal will. Signal that’s tuned so well, it doesn’t require adjustment. It’s so hi-fi, there’s no noise to farm/extract surplus value from.

Nitzer Ebb’s “Getting Closer” critiques neoliberal logics of subjectivity and human capital. The lyrics target the “Look, I Overcame!” narrative by which subjects turn their damage into capital, and the music opposes aleatory noise to hyperquantization and absolute discipline/inflexibility.

Here’s a soundcloud stream of the track; I’ve inserted some comments to direct you to moments I’ll comment on below.

Getting Closer

Neoliberalism is a logic of (de)intensification–privilege and oppression are Zeno’s-paradox-style approaches to upper and lower asymptotes. Privileged subjects ride the crest of burnout (i.e., overdrive), whereas the precariat hovers on the bottom threshold. The idea of “one step, two steps, getting closer,” and of getting it “just right” (no more, no less, but at the maximum or minimum limit) evokes this idea of pushing ever more narrowly toward an asymptote (notably, we don’t know if it’s an upper or lower one). The point of getting closer is to reduce the amount of waste and feedback–to recycle noise into signal.

Musical Noise: what you buy, but I’m not selling

Industrial music is notoriously noisy. “Getting Closer” starts off fairly noisily. In the introduction there’s a lot of (at least superficially) asynchronous and non-metered sounds from the guitars and drum machines. But then right at 0:30 (my first comment), everything synchs up and “snaps to grid,” so to speak, and stays that way for the rest of the track; even the sections that repeat the intro material are more obviously metric and structured than the first iteration.
In fact, when the intro material is repeated, it’s under the vocals: “I know what you buy, but I’m not selling” (see my second and fourth comments). Noise is what neoliberal subjects desire: it’s the affect they want songs to induce in them. Like all good hipsters, they turn their liking for this damaged sound into the ground of their human/social capital– “my liking of this ugly, damaged thing shows that I am more avant-garde than dumb schlubs who don’t work hard enough to like anything but easy music.” So, NE knows that noise is what we want from them, but they’re not selling it to us. Instead, they’re giving us some slick, expertly played, produced, performed, timed, and mixed dance grooves. Whatever sounds might superficially appear as aleatory noise are actually the product of really careful sound engineering and musical performance. The song gets pretty dense at points, and there’s a whole lot going on at once. The track relies on the interweaving of several different rhythmic lines (technically, “hockett”). That interweaving requires expert balancing, both on the part of the performers and the audio engineers. Also, though some of the synths might be tuned noisily, that’s a precise tweak or modulation…a carefully managed effect. This is industrial music, after all. It’s about hyperdisciplined masculinities, hard bodies, rigor, inflexibility. Masculinities that refuse to submit to Thatcherism’s neoliberal restructuring–instead of going the “Full Monty” (think especially of Jack Halberstam’s read of this film), they don’t budge. Unlike the men in the film, NE’s narrator does not accede to neoliberal demands for his self-capitalization. Instead of becoming flexible, he becomes more rigid. I think there’s definitely more to be said about industrial masculinities as a response to neoliberal restructuring in the UK…but I’ll have to save that for later.

Sublime Human Capital: I’ve got to SAY that it HURTS

Conquest of aesthetically difficult material is a technique for re-masculinizing feminized affect/experience; Kant’s concept of sublimity is one prominent example of this (see especially Christine Battersby’s work on this topic). For Kant, the recognition of my reason’s ability to transcend my physical loss of mastery (e.g., at infinity, or at a ponderous mountain) can transform an experience of discomfort and dislike into a pleasurable experience. Basically, my discomfort is at my lack of mastery, and I must overcome this lack of mastery in order to experience the encounter as pleasurable.

Neoliberalism demands subjects use a similar technique to optimize their human capital: we have to turn damage into a resource, “noise” into “signal” (statistically speaking). We see this, for example, in “Look, I Overcame!” narratives, or in Gaga’s “Little Monsters”: in learning to accept my damage, I become a special snowflake that is different than everyone else, and this damage is a resource I can use to stand out, a quirk I can turn into social/human capital. We have to turn damage, our loss of mastery, into well-managed human capital.

Nitzer Ebb’s “Getting Closer” actually critiques the sublimity of noise, and the demand that we turn damage into capital. Remember, this is a hyperquantized dance mix. There’s no room for flexibility, for error, for sonic damage, for noise. Nothing grating or difficult. However, the chorus repeats “I’ve got to say that it hurts,” emphasizing “SAY” in the last repetition. So there’s the sense that the narrator has to act like he’s struggling when in fact he isn’t. We expect the performance of damage and its overcoming–that’s the human capital we want to buy. But he’s not selling, so he fakes it–he says it hurts–and wonders if we’ll call his bluff: “let them believe me/let them wonder if I lie.”

So, what he’s not selling human capital. His hyperdisciplined practices prevent him from generating noise; there’s no damage to overcome, nothing to capitalize on. He’s faking his damage. (Ok, so, I probably need to think more about white dudes “faking it” vis-a-vis neoliberal ‘jouissance’.)