I’m honored and excited to be giving one of the plenary talks at the upcoming Sound, Music, & Affect conference at Stony Brook.
Here is the full text of my talk.
IASPM attendees will notice that this is a more fully fleshed-out version of the talk I gave there.
Here is a preview of what it’s about:
Waves of Moderation: the sound of sophrosyne in ancient Greek and neoliberal times
“The ear serves as the organ of balance, readily ‘making sense’ of things and recognising resonances and proportions between the frequencies of sound waves–as with an octave, for example. The eye can make very accurate alignments, but has no way of telling the proportional relationships between the frequencies of light” (Henriques, Sonic Bodies, xxix)
For those of you who aren’t pop music scholars and/or Pixies fans, the title of this paper puns on the Pixies’s song “Waves of Mutilation”. I use the concept of waves–both this image of a cresting wave, taken from Ludacris’s 2012 video for “The Rest of My Life,” and the idea of algorithmic wave-functions—to unpack one way neoliberalism’s market logics get translated to and manifest as affects and modes of affective production. Sophrosyne—often translated as moderation or self-mastery—is a (maybe the) switchpoint between waves and affects. Sophrosyne can translate between algorithms and affects because it is a type of affective self-relation modeled on acoustic harmony—that is, on sound waves. So, the soniclogic of sophrosyne is central to its role in neoliberal epistemologies, structures of subjectivity, and values or ideals.
But before I dive into that argument, I want to situate it for you in terms of both my larger project and, more importantly, the themes of this conference: sound, music, and affect.
As a philosopher, I have two interrelated questions about sound and affect: (1) Why are affect and sound studies popular and trendy now? What set of epistemological, institutional, political, and other conditions exist such that both sound, on the one hand, and affect, on the other, have risen to prominence (alongside digital studies) as the new vanguard subfields across the humanities…excepting mainstream analytic philosophy, of course? (This exception is worth further consideration, but not something I can address here.) (2) Why is the slippage between sound and affect so common in scholarship in both areas? For example, sound studies scholar Julian Henriques argues “Sounding…is not a thought but a feeling” (Sonic Bodies xvii), and affect theorists repeatedly use terms like “vibes” or “attunement” in their work. Stony Brook’s own Eduardo Mendieta just published a paper that uses sound as a framework to discuss racialized “affect” and “the viscera of racism” (1). What about “sound” makes it such an attractive tool for theorizing affect?
The Foucaultian-Nietzschean genealogist in me knows there is no one reason for the rise of affect and sound studies. Lots of big and small factors coalesced so that these constellations of sound and affect gained traction as sites of intellectual productivity. I can’t give a comprehensive genealogy of sound and affect studies, nor is that my aim. Rather, I think the rise of sound and affect studies is a symptom of something broader and more fundamental, which I call neoliberalism’s sonic, acoustic episteme.
The neoliberalism of the early 21st century West has upgraded the regime of the gaze to the regime of acoustics, panopticism to algorithmic sorting of metadata into signal and noise (to use Nate Silver’s terms), a metaphysics of subjects and objects to one of vibes, that is, as Julian Henriques puts it, of “dynamic patterning propagated through a medium” (xvii). As this quote from Henriques suggests, neolibearlism’s understanding of sonic is very specific. This is not the proportional theory of Ancient Greece, or what Attali calls the “combinatoric” or “representational” theory of the Moderns, but an acousticand algorithmic theory of sound. This acoustic episteme grounds our metaphysics, our ontology, our ethics, and our aesthetics. We think, perceive, and feel acoustically—that’s one reason why sound studies make sense nowmore than they did fifteen or thirty years ago. Because we think, perceive, and feel acoustically, we care about vibes, about affect understood as non-propositional, non-representational implicit knowledge (what Adriana Cavarero calls, following Levinas, the “Saying,” and what Jean-Luc Nancy calls “resonance”). This acoustic, algorithmic episteme is manifest in many prominent theories of affect—from Steve Shaviro’s work on post-cinematic affect, to Sarah Ahmed’s work on feminist “bad vibes,” to Deleuzian-inspired work on affect (e.g., Massumi, Puar, etc.). The “affect” that’s the subject of affect theory is generally understood as an acoustic, sonic phenomenon—as a dynamic patterning propagated through a medium.
This is obviously a very big claim. Too big, in fact, for me to fully substantiate here, and big enough that it’s the topic of a book manuscript I’m currently writing. Today I want to present a part of this research, a slice that begins to substantiate the bigger claims I just made. This slice is focused on the concept of sophrosyne as the “orthos logos” of both ancient Greek and neoliberal political and ethical thought.
In what follows, I will first discuss ancient Greek (mainly Platonic) notions of sophrosyne, and show how this concept is grounded in ancient Greek music theory, specifically, their understanding of harmony as geometric proportion. I will then use Jacques Attali’s work on music and Michel Foucault’s late work on both ancient Greek thought and neoliberalism to first (a) establish that moderation is important to neoliberalism’s marketization of everything, and then (b) show that this neoliberal concept of moderation is, like ancient Greek sophrosyne, grounded in a concept of harmony, but a concept of harmony that’s different than the Greeks’ geometric one. This neoliberal concept of harmony is acoustic and algorithmic. I will conclude with an example of acoustic sophrosyne, both as a structure of subjectivity and as a musical gesture—the aforementioned Ludacris song.
Neoliberal sophrosyne is the practice of distorting oneself as much as possible–being as “loud,” as “gaga,” as manic-pixie-dreamy, as “ludacris” as we can–without upsetting the overall signal. It’s “healthy” risk-taking that doesn’t pass over into pathological over- or under-use. To be successful entrepreneurs of ourselves, we must be moderate. And as the Luda video suggests, being “moderate” means being just white, masculine, homonormative enough so that your self-entrepreneurship doesn’t distort the overall distribution of wealth and privilege.
If human capital is, as Angela Mitropoulos puts it, “the unfolding of (capitalist) economic logic onto putatively non-market behaviours” (Mitropoulos Contract & Congagion 149), sophrosyne explains how market mechanisms—that is, algorithms–can manifest in and across bodies as affects.
Sophrosynetranslates algorithms to affect, mathematical propositions to kinesthetic and aesthetic properties. It is a tool neoliberalism uses to make affect, corporeality, and non-propositional/drastic/implicit knowledges legible to, and thus controllable by, market logics. That is, sophrosyne allows us to think of and/or experience affect, bodies, habit, non-propositionalizable phenomena as a (neoliberal, deregulated) market.
It’s how we bring otherwise non-quantifiable phenomena into algorithmic quantifiability. This is why the sonic metaphor is so important. Understanding something in sonic terms lets us think of it algorithmically, which then easily translates into statistical/algorithmic terms. I’m arguing that sonic metaphors do important ideological work for neoliberalism—it’s one significant way that non-quantifiable, non-propositionalizable phenomena are conceivable as markets or in market terms.