Neoliberal Noise: Attali, Foucault, & the Biopolitics of Uncool

Here is a PDF of my forthcoming article in Culture, Theory, & Critique. 

Here is the article’s introduction: 

  According to theorists like Jacques Rancie`re and Mark Fisher, that it is impossible
to even imagine alternatives to the status quo is one of neoliberalism’s
central, definitive claims (Rancie`re 1999; Fisher 2009). However, in his 1977
book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali claims to develop
just such an alternative. He argues that ‘composition’ – music-making unconstrained
by commodification, alienation, exchange, and what Herbert Marcuse
calls the ‘performance principle’ – is a way to resist post-industrial capitalist
exploitation, which he calls ‘repetition’ (Attali 1984; Marcuse 1974). Reading
Attali through Michel Foucault, I argue that ‘repetition’ is less an Adornian
theory of mass culture and more a Foucaultian concept of ‘neoliberal biopolitics
– that is, the statistical maximization of life and minimization of risk or

randomness’ (James 2012). From this perspective, Attalian composition is not
so much an alternative to repetition as its culmination. Attalian composition, both
as a practice of the self and as a mode of mid-20th-century Western musical
production and consumption, is a type of deregulatory neoliberalism.

Though composition is not an alternative to neoliberalism, we can still
look to musical practices for possible alternatives to deregulatory normalisation.
Deregulation makes the avant-garde the new normal. Everyone in the
bourgeois mainstream (not just elites) is expected to cut a new leading
edge, to ‘go gaga’ (Halberstam 2012). In that case, might blandly regularised
averageness – what I’m calling, following J. Temperance (2012),‘uncool’ – be
a way to undermine neoliberal imperatives to cultivate and exploit excess?
Or, is uncool’s frictionless co-opt-ability evidence that it is incapable of genuinely
‘resisting’ neoliberal hegemony? But perhaps this inability to ‘resist’ is
evidence that alternatives to deregulatory normalisation won’t oppose cooptation
so much as make it a bad (unprofitable) investment? To address
these questions, I consider two types of musical ‘uncool’ found in Spandau
Ballet’s ‘True’ (1983): (1) the inability to louden the mix without introducing
overly obvious errors, which I’m calling its sonic uncool, and (2) the white
masculine uncool attributed to it by critics and journalists. I argue that the
most effective counter-hegemonic responses to deregulatory biopolitics
must address populations, like the first type of uncool, not (only) individuals,
like the second type.

In what follows, I will focus on several key concepts in Noise, and read
them through Foucault’s late work on neoliberalism. First, I will argue that
Attali’s concept of repetition, his term for the episteme that unites both posttonal
compositional practice and neoliberal political economy, is compatible
with and sometimes expands on Foucault’s theory of biopolitics. Then, I
explain how Attali derives three key features of neoliberalism – deregulation,
intensification, and human capital – from an analysis of avant-garde composition
and the recording industry. This both clarifies how specific musical practices
and conventions are neoliberal, and sets up the last two sections of the
essay, where I first critique his theory of composition, and then consider the
two types of ‘uncool’ discussed above.

But first, I want to clarify my method. How can an analysis of music tell us
anything about politics? How can I translate between musical practices and
aesthetics, on the one hand, and political/ideological formations, on the
other? Following scholars like David Harvey and Shannon Winnubst, who
treat neoliberalism as a ‘common-sense way many of us interpret, live in,
and understand the world’ (Harvey 2007: 148), or a ‘social ontology and epistemology’
(Winnubst 2012: 83), I take neoliberalism as a background epistemic or
ideological context that sets the parameters within which specific practices are
meaningful (they make sense) and functional (they work correctly) (Winnubst
2012). In the contemporaryWestern world, neoliberalism is one of the primary
epistemological frameworks that shape structures of subjectivity, relations of
production, gender and race politics, even artistic practices and aesthetics.

Taking neoliberalism as a common epistemic framework (or, in more Foucaultian
terms, power-knowledge regime), I can posit parallels between music and
politics without having to go so far as to claim causal relationships among
them. Unlike Attali, who claims that music ‘heralds’ paradigm shifts in political
economy (and thus posits both causal and temporally correlated
relationships), I think music and political economy are both manifestations of
broader epistemic shifts that cannot be pinned down to singular, coherently
identifiable causes. This essay considers the extent to which Attali’s account
of music and political economy is compatible with Foucault’s understanding
of biopolitical neoliberalism, and then uses that compatibility as the basis

for extending Foucaultian analysis of neoliberalism of and through music.