Music & the Ambivalent Politics of Feminist New Materialism–AMS MPSG 2014

Here’s the text of my extremely short talk at the 2014 AMS Music & Philosophy Study Group Session. Here is the longer chapter on which this talk draws.

Music & The Ambivalent Politics of Feminist New Materialism


Perhaps unwittingly, Veit Erlmann’s claim that “the acoustic and physiological phenomenon of resonance…was, for all intents and purposes, modernity’s second science” (Reason & Resonance 11; emphasis mine) echoes the title of Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. This resonance between sound and femininity also emerges in A Thousand Plateaus, where Deleuze & Guattari argue that modernity’s becoming-music is also a becoming-woman; that comparison works, they think, because of music’s and woman’s analogously minoritarian position in Western modernity. As these examples suggest, European modernity feminizes sound, music, and resonance: resonance is the (male) gaze’s feminized other, the constitutive outside of the classical episteme.

What we tend to call “neoliberalism” is an upgrade to the classical episteme. This upgrade includes a re-valuation of (some kinds of) femininity: from Tiqqun’s Young Girl to Sandberg’s Leaners In, to the more fundamental “feminization” of labor as fully subsumed care and affect, neoliberalism’s ideal subject is still patriarchal, but exhibits classically “feminine” attributes. This post-feminist politics echoes the post-visual and post-discursive turns in contemporary theory: new materialism and sound studies are increasingly prominent and influential across the humanities. Just as the becoming-femme of neoliberalism doesn’t make it less patriarchal, the becoming-sonic of ontology doesn’t make it less theoretical, more material, less discursive, more sonic.

The larger project uses readings of Elizabeth Grosz’s and Jane Bennett’s theoretical work, Beyonce’s “Video Phone” and MIT’s “visual microphone” to show that the sonic turn in feminist new materialism is a neoliberal reorientation of the classical episteme. In each of these instances, algorithmic processing and the ontology that it embodies recovers and amplifies the voices silenced by modernity’s (male) gaze. Sound and/or music is the metaphor for both what gets recovered from modernity (voice, vibration) and how that recovery works (listening, songlines, music). But even in nominally sonic phenomena like music videos and microphones, “sound” is only a metaphor or means for something else.

In this short talk, I will focus on Grosz and MIT’s visual microphone, which embodies Grosz’s ontology. In both cases, sound/music is an instrument that produces something else: in Grosz’s case, it revitalizes theory; in the viz mic’s case, ultimately un-heard sound generates noisy visual data that, when properly processed, produces a clean sonic signal, one that produces a data profile other algorithms easily recognize as such. Non-resonant sound (sound as metaphor, sound as recorded in visual movement) is the means by which either philosophy or sound culture is “modulated” to synch with the imperatives of neoliberal institutions–the university and the data economy, respectively. Modulation does not overcome or remedy the structures of exclusion (patriarchy, theoretical abstraction) so much as reformulate them. Insofar as theoretical abstraction intersects with patriarchal de-centering of femininized phenomena/women such that abstraction is a technique of patriarchal domination (this is Irigaray’s argument), we can understand new materialism’s modulated abstraction as a tool of post-feminist (i.e., modulated) patriarchy.

So, that’s the argument. I don’t have a ton of time to give you evidence for that argument, but I will gloss some highlights.


1. Grosz

Groszian ontology is a theory of dynamic emergence: “life” is basically analogous to a Reichian gradual process. It is what emerges from the “note-to-note” (CTA 45) interactions of things. “A practice the living perform on chaos to extract some order and predictability” (CTA 26), life is the activity of maintaining maintaining and sustaining a synchronized assemblage by filtering out what would put this signal’s component parts out of phase. This is what Grosz’s claim “living beings are vibratory beings” (CTA 33) means. Life is the emergence and maintenance of rational (that is, legible) signal from the erstwhile night in which all “vibrations, waves, oscillations, resonances” (33) are chaotic white noise.


In Grosz, “music” works at two levels: it is both the metaphor by which Grosz theorizes a concept of vibrant life, and it is the tool with which she applies that concept of vibrancy back on the category of theory. Referencing Jankelevitch in the epigraph of CTA’s second chapter, Grosz understands “music” as drastic and embodied rather than representational-propositional. As such, music embodies all the features new materialists find lacking in traditional, proposition- and content-centric “theory.” In fact, for Grosz as “for Uexkull, music is not just a useful metaphor… it is a literal form by which nature can be understood as dynamic, collective, lived rather than just fixed, categorized, or represented” (CTA 40). Just as Nietzsche uses (one version of) “the feminine” as a cure for philosophy’s skeptical melancholy (Gooding-Williams), Grosz uses “music” to cure philosophy’s representational-linguistic melancholy and bring it back to “life.” Music itself is a form of “life,” and if we practice philosophy musically, then we can overcome the pathologies (like propositionality, representationalism, subject-centrism) with which modernity has saddled us and make philosophy itself more vibrant and vital–that is, in synch with hegemonic practices of intellectual and academic production.

Grosz’s new materialist philosophical method is ironically abstract when it comes to “music.” She never, ever thinks through or appeals to an example of an actual musical work or practice. She only analyzes other philosophical and/or literary discussions of music. Grosz appears to be appropriating all the benefits of “music” while still excluding sound and centering theory/philosophy. But what if we center sound? What if we take Groszian materialism and see how it manifests in sound practices?


2. The Visual Microphone & Giving Voice to Silenced, Vibrating ‘Things’

The visual microphone sonifies contextually inaudible material vibrations. Developed by researchers at MIT, the visual microphone reads video recordings of vibrating objects and reconstructs the sounds that caused and/or resulted from that visible material vibration.  As MIT’s Hardesty explains, the heart of the visual microphone is a set of “algorithms that amplify minuscule variations in video, making visible previously undetectable motions.” Amplifying the visual noise in video images and processing through a variety of filters, the visual microphone generates a database of noise, from which it then pulls out the profile of vibrations that would generate the most probable, “common sense” auditory signal. It algorithmically generates lots and lots of visual noise, because the more visual data it can collect, the more accurate a rendition of the audio signal it can produce. Instead of tuning noise out, we amplify it so that the hidden ‘harmonics’ emerge from all the irrational noise. Or, in more Groszian terms, we amplify chaos and individual variability so that the most maximally vibrant lives can emerge from it.

The visual microphone exhibits key features of new materialist ontology. First and most importantly, it understands phenomena as processes of dynamic emergence, and amplifies chaotic noise or individual variation so that the signal that does emerge will be as strong as possible. Second, because of the high degree of noise, this emergence is the outcome of distributed processing. Average human ears alone are incapable of processing all the noise the visual microphone records and amplifies, mainly because it isn’t even auditory noise in the first place. It thus outsources and distributes the work of listening from our ears to various computer programs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the MIT video, which shows a smartphone Shazaaming the “Ice Ice Baby” riff recovered from one of their experiments (Shazaam is an song identification ap). The proof of their experiment isn’t whether the human audience can recognize the sound they recovered from the visual mic, but whether Shazaam’s bots can. These bots don’t measure vibration; they “listen” for predefined patterns in data streams. These data patterns might be analogous to the patterns of pressure intensity in a sound wave, but what gets lost in the analogy is the vibratory materiality of sound waves.  Data certainly has its own materiality, but it is not vibratory in the way sound is; data neither causes nor effects material vibrations. So, in the case of the visual microphone, material vibration is raw material for algorithmic processing, and it’s the algorithmic processing that actually exhibits the ontology theorists attribute to vibratory material. Are sonic vibrations merely disposable metaphors for an ontology best embodied not by sound but by data? This brings me to the final point of similarity between the visual microphone and new materialist ontology.

The visual microphone is an instrument with which we can attend to the ‘voice’ or sonic potential of non-traditionally speaking/sonic phenomena.

As researcher Abe Davis explains,

We’re recovering sounds from objects. That gives us a lot of information about the sound that’s going on around the object, but it also gives us a lot of information about the object itself, because different objects are going to respond to sound in different ways.

The visual microphone (re)sonifies otherwise silent or silenced phenomena. And these recovered sounds, the long-silent “voice” of inanimate things or objects, give researchers unprecedented insight into the material properties of these things. In this way, it embodies Bennett’s description of new materialism as “giving voice to things.” The visual microphone certainly “recovers sounds from objects,” but it doesn’t necessarily or even primarily listen to them, at least in the traditional sense of listening as attention to patterns of pressure generated by vibrating bodies. Instead of treating sound as vibration, sound is a data stream that can be variously processed and crunched, either by Shazaam or by some algorithm designed to infer the material properties of whatever recorded object they’re studying. This data is processed in ways that abstractly resemble sound’s material properties, but which are removed from sonic materiality.

Whereas feminist new materialism uses sound as a metaphor to theorize its onto-political project, the visual microphone embodies new materialist practice as sound. However, in that process, the visual microphone de-centers the very material vibration that new materialist theorists use sonic metaphors to capture and center. If new materialist ontology can be embodied by things that don’t actually vibrate, if it can work in the absence of material vibration, is “vibration” itself just a metaphor for something like “life” or “health” as dynamic, i.e., as biopolitically healthy in neoliberal terms (flexible, adaptive, resilient)? Is this how the becoming-music/sonic of new materialism intersects with the becoming-Young-Girl of neoliberal capital & post-identity politics? Just as the latter includes (some) women while still using feminization as a technique of domination, does the former include sound and matter while still using actual sonic materiality as a criterion of exclusion or marginalization?