Is neoliberalism’s becoming-woman also a becoming-sound? (and some thoughts on listening, social media, and feminized labor)

This will be cross-posted at Cyborgology later this week.

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari argue that “music is traversed by a becoming-woman” (272). By this they mean that Western systems of musical organization evoke and confront the very phenomena that serve as these systems’ constitutive exclusions.  For example, while tonal harmony was a hierarchical system of consonances (i.e., chords), it nevertheless relied upon the introduction and resolution of (as the nineteenth century progressed, increasingly jarring and destabilizing) dissonances. Similarly, the abjection/rejection/marginalization of “woman” (or better, “girl”) is what solidifies and guarantees patriarchal orders: maleness/masculinity become the “norm” or the “absolute” only insofar as femaleness/femininity are circumscribed as abnormal, unthinkable, and invisible (or, to use Irigaray’s terms, insofar as “woman” is the sex which “is not”). Thus, to claim that “musical expression is inseparable from a becoming-woman” (Deleuze & Guattari, 299) is to posit that [Western, tonal] music works by “confronting its own danger, even taking a fall in order to rise again” (Deleuze & Guattari, 299).  As Susan McClary and Catherine Clement have famously argued, the logic of tonality turns upon the evocation and ultimate containment of “feminized” musical elements (e.g., chromaticism, actual female characters in operas, etc.). To say that “musical expression is a “becoming-woman,” then, means that femininity is the danger a musical work confronts, only to rise again. Traditionally, patriarchy has treated femininity as a deterritorializing force, something whose destabilization is necessary and even pleasurable.

But plenty of feminist and non-feminist scholars have pointed out that neoliberalism co-opts and rebrands traditional (white) femininity: the Young-Girl is the ideal model for human capital, just as feminized work–flexible, care-oriented, informal/unpaid–is the new model for labor. As Natalia Cecire puts it, “neoliberalism operates through hypertrophied forms of femininity.” Femininity isn’t deterritorializing, but the mechanism of reterritorialization.

So, in the same way that neoliberalism co-opts femininity and has it lead the charge to “creative destruction,” does it also co-opt “sound” or “music” as the primary medium of and/or metaphor for this work?

Why might we think this? Kate Crawford’s paper on listening and online interaction, which I really like, argues that listening is a better conceptual resource for metaphors to describe the kinds of attention, relation, and interaction naturalized in more-or-less contemporary social media. There, she cites Nick Couldry’s argument that the “‘reciprocal, embodied nature of listening; its embeddedness always in an intersubjective space of perception’” (cited in KC 525) is what makes it particularly appropriate to describe online environments. But think about it: reciprocity, embodiment, embeddedness, intersubjectivity–all these sound a lot like the stereotypical attributes of trad white femininity. It seems like sound’s femininity is what makes it so well-suited to theorize and describe digital, socially-mediated life.

This connection between sound and femininity suggests a connection between hyperemployment and communicative capitalism. Though Crawford doesn’t explicitly argue this in her article, her analysis easily lends itself to the following interpretation: “background listening” is the traditionally feminized work–the un/under-compensated care work usually tasked to women as both consequence and cause of their marginalization–of the social media economy.

The kind of attention required for background listening is what we might call, after Sandra Bartky, a “feminine discipline”–the practice of this discipline is what makes one legibly feminine. “Background listening” is similar to the “distracted” listening that characterizes radio and/or ubiquitous music listening, the very kind of listening, she points out, that got Adorno in such a tizzy. But, if you read Adorno more closely, this distracted or “regressed” listening is thoroughly feminized. As I show in this book, just about every time he talks about this kind of listener, he makes reference to (sexualized) female body parts shortly before and/or after. In Adorno, distracted listening is femininized. But, as Crawford shows, this is precisely the skillset one needs to navigate Twitter. Women’s work involves knowing exactly when to tune in and hear everything in full detail, and when to tune out irrelevant noise. For example, isn’t this what moms do with kids? They lurk around, tuning in when needed but also letting kids have space. This is what my mom referred to when she said she, like all moms, had eyes in the back of her head.

This ability to tune in (and out) is also the same skillset that we require of care workers: they must be intimately and personally attentive to the unique and distinctive needs of others. Just as it’s difficult to outsource the work of a babysitter, a housekeeper, or a nurse, “it remains difficult,” Crawford notes, “to outsource the act of listening” (531). Both involve addressing specific, materially-rooted concerns that can’t be uprooted or abstracted from their context. And because of this, such labor is extremely inefficient. And that’s why it is “of low value…[and] difficult for it to be recognized as an important and value-generating form of work” (531). [1] The kinds of listening that are least efficient, the kinds of listening that can’t be made to “Lean In,” but are doled out to the least advantaged members of society. They’re the kinds of listening that produce hypotrophied, rather than hypertrophied, femininities, femininities that keep you at the margins instead of shooting you to the center.

A caveat: these are all modernist accounts of sound and femininity that neoliberalism appropriates. What was marginal to modernity is central to neoliberalism (in general). This begs the question: so what about neoliberal accounts of sound and femininity? I’ve talked a bit about the latter in my post on the financialized girl. There I argue that patriarchy still feminizes–that is, it structurally produces some kinds of people/phenomena as women, as neither included nor potentially included in society/capitalism/humanity. But what about “sound”? What kinds of sonic, acoustic, and auditory phenomena get, perhaps we can say, phased out of this normalized and normalizing account of sound? What sonic phenomena don’t sync up with it, produce either dissonances in need of domestication, or sub/supra auditory frequencies we can’t even hear?

[1] “However, a commitment to background listening comes at a cost – the cost of human attention. A senior executive at Dell may underscore the importance of listening to customers, but in practice this means that more than 130 Twitter feeds emanate from Dell Corp., and each is connected back to a staff member who must personally maintain that account while adhering to corporate communication protocols (Soller 2009). This is the labour of listening. But how is this labour to be quantified? As long as listening is not considered to be an important part of online participation, of ‘low value’ in the process of online engagement, it is difficult for it be recognized as an important and value-generating form of work” (531)