Against “Ordinaryism” as an alternative to Accelerationism

Recently Robert Jackson wrote an essay that considered “ordinaryism” as a possible alternative to neoliberal accelerationism. He argues:

Our provocation towards, what I call ‘ordinaryism’ is less of a tactical move, not a hostile polemic, certainly not a threat, than it is a sympathetic twin operating alongside accelerationism’s endorsement of universal self-mastery. The philosophical fate of the human creature, tends to re-assert self-mastery from time to time, until it runs out of steam, or submits to itself that the best “science” undercuts its own majestic foundations, leading to critical revisions. Ordinaryism is not intended to trump accelerationism, than it is presented as an alternative to think about the ignorance of limitations within human finitude and of human creatures, which constitute the very presence of the ordinary. Ordinaryism doesn’t advocate a traditional ‘ordinary’, natural, ‘way of life’ against future mastery – nothing of the sort – rather, it seeks to expose the hidden wound of human mastery which becomes unavoidable.

I have a forthcoming article on, among other things, Spandau Ballet, which I think shows some of the problems with something like ‘ordinaryism’ or ‘normcore.’ Here is a full copy of the unedited proofs of the article, which will come out sometime this summer in Culture, Theory and Critique. I’ve re-printed a relevant excerpt below:

Regimes of ‘True’: ‘True’ is uncool in two different ways: one is sonic, and one is political. Its sonic uncool is primarily economic, whereas its political uncool is primarily aesthetic. Comparing the two types of uncool, I argue that uncool can be an effective alternative to the biopolitical dimensions of neoliberal hegemony only insofar as it targets populations, as the first (sonic) example does. The second (political) example shows that, as an individualized ethos, uncool actually reinforces the biopolitics of cool.

First, ‘True’ is sonically uncool – it’s so sonically moderate that it can’t be profitably loudened. The economics just don’t work out. As recent research in audio engineering suggests, the original mix is so precisely and carefully normalized (in the general sense, not the technical audio sense) that it cannot be profitably deregulated (‘dynamically processed’ in audio engineering jargon). In their study of the limits of ‘loudness’, specifically music listener’s tolerance of ‘distortion’ and ‘potentially fatiguing sound’ (that is, just the sort of ‘noise’ or ‘difference’ prized by cool), Tomas and Furdek (2007: 1) chose to use a 30-second sample from ‘True’ as the audio track for the control and, in remixed form, the variables. They were studying ‘the perceptibility of aggressive digital audio broadcast processing’ and its effect on audio quality (2007: 1). In contemporary audio engineering, it is common practice to push sounds to their limit – to maximize the ratio between a carrier signal’s frequency deviation (how much the signal speeds up and/or slows down as it is broadcast) and its amplitude (how much power it has, its voltage) (Devine 2013; Hinkes-Jones 2013). ‘Today’s music is louder than ever’, the authors note, because the technique called dynamic processing makes it easy for audio engineers to ‘push the loudness envelope as far as it goes’ (Tomas and Furdek 2007: 1). Dynamic processing is an automated system for constantly monitoring and re-balancing audio signals (like an FM radio signal). All broadcast signal needs processing, just as all recorded music needs mixing – the act of broadcast or recording introduce noise into signal, and processing deals with that noise so that the resulting mix sounds better. In this case, ‘better’ means loud. ‘In many markets, broadcasters believe that being louder than the competing stations will make listeners stop on their station when tuning across the dial’ (Tomas and Furdek 2007: 2). So, loudness is an aesthetic preference. ‘True’ is economically uncool because the cost of achieving this aesthetic ideal outweighs the benefits.

Tomas and Furdek chose ‘True’ for their study because ‘it is difficult to process dynamically’ (2007: 2; emphasis mine). In other words, it’s hard to make ‘True’ loud, to push its mix to this limit. In a sense, the original is so narrowly mixed, so ‘spectrally sparse’ (2) that generating a sufficiently ‘loud’ imbalance between frequency and amplitude introduces obvious glitches and distortions into the mix. Pushing ‘True’ to its loudest limit actually creates diminishing returns: it won’t sound attractively loud, just odd or damaged (i.e. distastefully over-compressed). It produces unfavorable frequencies that can’t be brought in line with more favorable ones.  

Insofar as this taste for sonic loudness is a version of cool-hunting (pushing audio signals to their limit), ‘True’ is uncool because it can’t be profitably loudened. Strategically or practically, this uncoolness is the result of excessive regulation and regularity (Clayton 2004). The original mix and mastering had to be careful and precise – sparse spectra means less room for error: inexactness would be more obvious. Its refined normalization (a very precise mix) undermines attempts to intensify irregularity. Working in the early 1980s, neither the band nor the record’s producers could have anticipated postmillennial audio engineering technologies and conventions. They wouldn’t have known this specific type of loudness would be ‘cool’ (i.e. a profitable transgression), so ‘True’’s sonic uncoolness isn’t an intentional result of an explicit, subjective choice. However, ‘True’’s immunity to distortion anticipates later, more explicitly critical uses of uncool. Writing in 2004, Jace Clayton notes shifts away from distortion in various musical subcultures including crunk and grime: ‘think about Lil Jon’’s clean synth lines, squeaky clean, narcotically clean, as clean as synthetic drugs in a plastic pill case – crunk is HEAVY, but without distortion… the new hardcore embraces cleanliness like never before’. Here Clayton argues that underground music aesthetics use ‘cleanliness’ as a way to distinguish themselves from a mainstream aesthetic that emphasizes distortion. 

In ‘True’, what’s normalized is the mix: an overall balance is maintained by regulating relationships among individual tracks, not individual tracks in isolation. Dynamic processing deregulates these relationships. Just as ‘the phenomena addressed by biopolitics are, essentially, aleatory events that occur within a population that exists over a period of time’ (Foucault 2003: 246), the sonic phenomena addressed by loudness and dynamic processing are, essentially, aleatory events that occur within a mix that exists over a period of time (i.e. dynamic processes). ‘True’’s sonic regularity is biopolitically uncool because it intervenes on the same level that biopolitics does – the mix, the ‘milieu’ (Foucault 2003: 245), or the population.

Given contemporary tastes for ‘loudness’, ‘True’ sounds sonically uncool. It is aesthetically uncool because the economics can’t be made to work. But why might the song’s original audiences, like those aforementioned critics, have heard it not just as bad or distasteful, but as uncool? To answer this, we have to return to the gendered and racialized dimensions of those critiques. This will also help me distinguish between an individualized politics of uncool, uncool as taste-entrepreneurship, and a biopolitics of uncool, uncool as means of counter-productivity.

The biopolitics of cool is a system in which elites, by investing in ‘cool’ ventures (i.e. their own human capital), rise to the top of the population. A rejection of the mainstream by those who would otherwise be identified with it, cool targets mainly white (cis/hetero) men.  Because white supremacist patriarchy normalizes and centers white masculinity, ‘cool’ subjects establish their exceptional status as men by feminizing mainstream averageness.  For example, a website dedicated to (implicitly white) fraternity culture describes Carly Rae Jepson’s 2012 megahit ‘Call Me Maybe’ as ‘so excruciatingly mediocre’ that ‘I would rather… ge[t] an electric charge run through my dick than hear “Call Me Maybe” one more time’ (stufffratpeoplelike 2011). Responding to the prospect of hearing ‘Call Me Maybe’ yet another time, the author is reacting not so much to the song itself as to its pervasiveness; it’s excruciatingly mediocre because it was an excessively successful hit record. Arguing that this mediocrity is more intensely damaging than the torture of male genitalia, this post equates mediocrity – the failure to be cool and cutting-edge – with emasculation. This is why the above-cited critiques of ‘True’ and Hard can use the language of failed gender performance to describe these records’ aesthetic and political faults: their uncoolness reads as a deficiency in masculinity. This begs the question: is uncool available only to already-privileged subjects? For example, though a white man’s deficiency in masculine cool reads as uncool, would a (white or non-white) woman’s or non-white man’s deficient masculinity be read this way? In white supremacist patriarchy, could women and non-white men ever appear too normal?

But before I fully engage that question, I want to clarify the racial stakes of cool and uncool. The biopolitics of cool, like all practices of hipness, feeds on the ‘difference’ of racially non-white and culturally non-Western people (see Monson 1995).  As I discuss in my New Inquiry article, this difference can give white appropriators the ‘edge’ they seek. White cool is racist, but uncool is not necessarily less racist. One way to be uncool is to practice inefficient or unfashionable forms of cultural and racial appropriation. For example, ‘True’ invokes racist logics of cultural appropriation in the line about ‘listening to Marvin [Gaye]’ – this is a sort of Northern Soul-style reference to classic Motown. But this specific type of racial/cultural appropriation wasn’t transgressive by the early 1980s, when hip hop was the hot new black/Latin/Caribbean thing for whites (like Mick Jones in B.A.D., or Blondie’s rapping on ‘Rapture’) to appropriate. This new type of hipster racism was edgier and more avant-garde than the older style of hipster racism, whose edginess had been blunted by widespread appropriation. So part of being cool is being racist in the ‘right’ ways, and ‘True’ is uncool because it isn’t fashionably racist… it’s just predictably racist. So, perhaps then-contemporary audiences and critics rejected records like ‘True’ because they sounded too normal, too average, too… uncool. The song was judged aesthetically uncool because it couldn’t be made to boost the listener’s ‘cool’ human capital.

This helps clarify the difference between uncool and hipster irony. Hipster irony is a version of cool: it appropriates cultural objects and practices, using their perceived otherness, difference, or aesthetic badness to intensify the hipster’s eccentricity. This eccentricity is the source of the hipster’s human capital – they stand above and beyond the merely average. Uncool may also appropriate and revalue, but that revaluation doesn’t translate into a profit – it doesn’t generate enough surplus value. Hipster irony intensifies one’s human capital, but uncool is a bad investment. For example, just as ‘True’ can’t be loudened without introducing perceptible errors, Spandau Ballet’s appropriation of (Marvin Gaye’s) black masculinity isn’t transgressive enough to overcome the feminizing effects of mainstream pop success – they still get derided as ‘foppish’. So, hipster irony and uncool may bear a superficial resemblance, but they are fundamentally different: with respect to human capital, hipster irony profitably intensifies edginess, whereas uncool brings diminishing returns. Or, hipster irony is aesthetically uncool and economically cool, whereas the uncool I’m theorizing in this article is aesthetically uncool because it is economically uncool.

But back to the question: is uncool a form of privilege? Is it a good investment for individual subjects and hegemonic institutions? As a venture of the individual subject (i.e. an investment in his/her human capital), uncool is an option only to those already privileged enough to be potentially ‘cool’ subjects. Uncool is the effect of refusing or failing to do the work of cool-making, the refusal or failure to rise above the mainstream norm. The queer white masculinity attributed to New Romantic bands like Spandau Ballet differs significantly from the (generally non-white) queerness then frequently attributed to disco, which was also hugely popular and commercially profitable in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Disco’s queerness was such a threat they infamously burned disco records in Comiskey Park; uncool may be distastefully queer, but it’s not threatening enough to start a white riot of sorts. This suggests that uncool registers as an individual’s failure to embody the identity white patriarchy demands of him, not as generalized threat to hegemonic white patriarchy itself. In other words, uncool is the refusal or failure to be sufficiently entrepreneurial as an individual subject.

As ‘True’’s uncool racism suggests, though uncool may be an alternative to entrepreneurial cool-hunting, it could intensify broader structures of white supremacist patriarchy. Individual-level changes may have little effect on macro-level processes. Like deregulatory practice, which is ‘free’ at the individual level and organized at the institutional one, ‘uncool’ allows individuals to opt out of norms and institutions while simultaneously reaffirming those norms and institutions as such. A genuine alternative to the biopolitics of cool, one that addresses these norms and institutions, will work on and through populations, not just individuals.