Remarks for Author-Meets-Critics on Resilience & Melancholy at philoSOPHIA 2016
Thanks to Sina Kramer, Adriel Trott, Jana McAuliffe, and Bryan Kimto for organizing and participating in an author-meets-critics session on Resilience & Melancholy at philoSOPHIA 2016. I’m always humbled when people spend their time and their energy thinking with and through my work. I’m especially appreciative of their smart and incisive comments. Below are my responses, which I’ll deliver Saturday March 12, 2016, at the University of Colorado, Denver.
I really appreciated your points about what noise is and how the concept works in political philosophy. I’m not someone who works a lot with ancient philosophy, but I am someone who reads a lot of Ranciere and who thinks he gets a lot right, so the logos/phone framework made sense to me as a way to dig into the “well what IS noise?” question (there’s that part at the end of Disagreement where he takes up Aristotle and Plato as ways to talk about postdemocracy, for example).
First I want to think with you a bit on the noise question–what is noise, and what role does noise have in social justice struggles, if any? Eventually I’ll bring this convo around to a few things you had to say about my method in the book, and the “how is this book philosophy?” question people will inevitably ask about it (because, as Dotson shows, that’s what we do).
Noise is a concept with a genealogy. The ancients had a concept of dissonance and displeasing sound, but my sense is that it’s not the same as what 21st century acousticians, statisticians, and even grouchy Robin who’s upset at the dude next door continually revving his motorcycle engine while I’m trying to sit here and concentrate all mean by “noise.” The ancients were talking mostly about sounds that were out of whack, disproportionately arranged. Sound studies scholars generally recognize that noise, as a concept, changed in the industrial revolution. Suddenly there was a lot–a LOT–of noise made by all these machines, and a lot–a LOT–of noise made by people increasingly packed into urban areas, generally to work with those machines. We get this idea from Luigi Russlo, who’s classic 1913 essay “The Art of Noises” argues that: “In antiquity, life was nothing but silence. Noise was not really born before the 19th century, with the advent of machinery. Today noise reigns supreme over human sensibility” (4). It’s at least an interesting correlation that just as noise comes to mean the sonic by-products of industrial urban life–effectively, pollution–Russlo defines noise against sounds, which are pure.
Just as noise comes to mean sonic impurity, statistics emerge as a privileged domain of knowledge (cf. Mary Beth Mader’s Sleights of Reason on this ). As Mary Beth Mader puts it, in biopolitics, “social relations literally become rationalized, or more precisely, ratio-ized” (SoR 45). In statistics as in acoustics, this ratio is the expression of a frequency–the number of cycles a pressure wave makes in a second, or the “distribution of…values for a given measured property” (Mader SoR 45). Statisticians borrow heavily from acoustics: hence the title of Nate Silver’s book, “The Signal and the Noise.” I’m not an expert on Aristotle here, but I have been working a lot on Plato’s concept of harmony and harmonic proportion, so correct me if I’m overgeneralizing from Plato, BUT: I think logos/phone and signal/noise are the same distinction calculated with different kinds of math. Plato–and basically all the ancient Greek music theorists–understood sound in terms of geometric proportion. Where they used geometric ratios, we use frequency ratios, expressed oftentimes as statics and probabilistic or predictive analytics. So: yes, it’s the same general idea, it’s just executed with different techniques.
So what does this mean for noise and politics? Modernist aesthetics and political liberalisms tell us that making noise, proclaiming injustice, proclaiming a wrong as the part sans part, these are the ways one can effect political change. Even Russlo thinks noise is therapeutic: “the characteristic of noise is to brutally bring us back to life” (9). What I’m trying to do with my concept of melancholy is trace a contemporary version of a practice–a feminist practice, a womanist practice–that isn’t focused on noisemaking because it is guided by a different concept of politics and the political. Instead of making noisy appeals, this practice works in, even creates, alternative, unconventionally audible registers. (Alex Weheliye’s new book Habeas Viscus traces this movement from resistance-and-opposition as a model for politics to alternative/extrapolitical registers.) Logos/phone, signal/noise, these structures take the latter as opposition to the former. Noise is the constitutive outside of signal; they define the boundaries of a register of perception, existence, etc. What I mean by melancholy isn’t a kind of opposition; it doesn’t stick within the same register or appeal to the institution that delimits it as without part. From the dominant perspective, these practices feel like melancholy because they read as failures to invest in the same institution, the same register of politics, the same common object that makes “us” a “we.”
Here are two examples of this practice:
- “Making appeals,” as you puts it, re-centers the already centered thing. But there are subcultures, places where people find value and are valued in non-mainstream terms, in terms that don’t require an appeal to the state or the market…or at least where those appeals are secondary concerns, like a shitty day job. Halberstam talks about this extensively in In A Queer Time And Place. As long as you matter somewhere, to someone, it’s less dire that you matter to THE state or THE market. Subcultural belonging often comes with consequences from the state or the market, but communities also develop ways to cope with those. Instead of arguing with the Man, just make him as irrelevant as possible. He won’t like that at all, he will throw a tantrum, as some white people did in response to Beyonce’s Formation, he’ll think you’re being too loud (which is different than being noisy). As Trott puts it, “What happens when the system is losing its investment because those invested in refuse to re-invest? It seems as if that might be felt as a recognizable loss to a system that has already invested in those persons, and so feels their death as meaningful because such persons are valued.” People will get really upset at you for not returning their investment in you. But if you’ve built the support structures so you can DTMFA, then bless his heart. You’ve shifted the register of your political life to one where his tantrum doesn’t matter. This subcultural work is a small part of the sort of changing the background conditions that Trott talks about. I’ll return to this idea in a second.
- So, my dogs: they understand some of my words, and I think I understand some of their vocalizations, but we communicate primarily through body language and gesture. It’s not about them or me being noisy, or demonstrating command of some logos or another. It’s a different register. A third register we figure out together.
(b) Changing background conditions
So this brings me to the other two main themes in Trott’s response: the worry about co-optation and her question about changing background conditions. I’ll talk about the latter first. She writes: “This alternative subjectification would seem to force a change in the background conditions once the well-invested refuse to go back into the life of neoliberalism re-investment.” When we who have been well-vested pay our capital forward to subcultural institutions and spaces, we change the background conditions, both for us, but more importantly for those who are more precarious. We can make it viable to respond to the demands of the state, the market, the discipline of philosophy, with a big shrug emoji…which is pretty much my question to the “Is this book philosophy?” Trott opens with the claim that I remain “unbeholden” to the world of academic philosophy. That effectively describes the method in all my work, this book included: informed by but unbeholden to academic philosophy. I hope this book can change the register of work that can be done by scholars in more precarious positions. But I hope it’s also an example of a practice that says “meh” or raises a big shrug emoji to academic philosophy’s own market, the job market and tenure market in which one must constantly justify oneself and one’s work as philosophical. Because I’ve had other spaces to validate my work–musicology and pop music studies and gender studies–I didn’t have to re-invest in academic philosophy, in making myself legible AS a philosopher. Because of the work others before me have done to dis-invest in mainstream academic philosophy, I’ve felt I could have a career that was unbeholden to it. I hope this book pays that disinvestment, um, forward.
As far as co-optation goes: I want to use this as a transition to Bryan’s comments, which begin with the concern that alternative practices like melancholy actually feed the systems they divest from.
First, again, thanks for your careful attention. I really appreciated how your questions pushed my line of thinking exactly where it needed to be pushed, and the sustained and informed engagement with pop music and its politics. Second, I really appreciated the way you used pop as your archive for philosophical analysis. I wish there were more of this in philosophy.
But to loop back to your first question about, as you say, “whether or not neoliberalism’s resilience—that is, neoliberalism as itself resilient—depends upon and produces melancholy in order to maintain itself…Read in this way, melancholy is not a subversion, but is instead a necessary part of the entire economy and one that allows it to remain in motion.” I don’t think it IS a subversion, nor does it have to be one to work. I think what I’m trying to do is think of circuit bending less as subversion and more like embezzlement. Not opposition, but a drain, a failure to invest or reinvest. Melancholy just DNGAF about addressing itself back to the discourse that pathologizes it. It bends the circuit of (re)investment away from the feedback loop of neoliberal resilience.
Yes, black melancholy is certainly a point of profit for MRWaSP capital…but it is also more and other than that. I think that the lesson to be learned from the Foucault that you discuss, as well as from hip hop feminists like Gwendolyn Pough and black queer thinkers like Alex Weheliye is that resistance/subversion (and its companion, agency/objectification) are just the wrong fucking concepts for thinking about the practices black women, femmes, and nonbinary people have used, over centuries, to exist, to live, to make meaning, to make art. These concepts are, to use Adrian Piper’s term, too “zero-sum” to account for the ways black women’s aesthetic strategies work in multiple registers (Davis, Havis). In a non-zero-sum accounting, co-optation and alternative world building don’t invalidate one another. Your analysis of Formation, which does a really nice job highlighting Beyonce’s longstanding ambivalence wrt mainstream and black subcultural aesthetics and politics, uses a variant of this non-zero-sum accounting.
I think you’re talking about something along these lines–i.e., a move to a different set of terms–with your claim: “a black sexual politics that might not even acknowledge the dichotomy between resilience and melancholy or an opposition between life and death.” I can’t remember if I talked about it exactly in these terms in the book, but another way to think about melancholy is just “life in other terms” than the biopolitical life/death dyad.
The eros you describe is, I think, exactly the payoff or motivation for the melancholic practices I talk about in chapter 4. Doing things that make you feel good–like buying an iPhone or a Gucci bag or getting your nails done or whatever–that’s a way of coping with constant, systemic trauma. It’s just those responses are pathologized because they don’t adequately marketize that trauma for MRWaSP capital. For the ppl who experience them, they don’t feel melancholic; they just look that way from the dominant perspective or logic. I think your analyses of Rihanna/Brown and Monae/Badu are fantastic elaborations of the kind of thing I was thinking about with melancholy, but from a different angle and for a different purpose. Or, as you put it, “Another way to read Unapologetic then, is as a refusal to participate, in even melancholic terms, in resilience’s economy.” I would say: I don’t think people necessarily choose melancholy as such; they’re choosing something in another register that feels like something else, but in the register of resilience discourse, that reads as melancholic. Or, I’m not sure you need to be invested in melancholy to register as melancholic.
With a gesture toward Halberstam’s shadow feminisms here, I’d suggest we think about melancholy as a practice tied specifically to femininity and feminization. If resilience is the spectacle of overcoming the traditional limitations of femininization, melancholy is a strategy for inhabiting femininity and feminization. Rather than doing the socially, culturally, and politically valued work of fighting back, melancholy does what we might think of as care and subcultural community-building work: self- and other-care that generates meaning and value in other registers than the one loving and thefting your erstwhile melancholia. IRL, you need both fighting back and the care that builds alternative worlds.
Finally, you ask about broadening the scope beyond the pop world defined by Billboard and Radio 1 (and Jana asks a related question, which I’ll jump into in a second). Specifically, you ask “how the politics of melancholy as James has outlined in [pronoun] book can account for the global economy of life/death upon which both Global North resilience and Global North melancholy depend. That is, can melancholy generate alliances across nation-states or does it limit us to a provincial contestation of happiness?” This is a great question…and definitely out of my wheelhouse but one I’d love for others to take up. Just to push it a bit, though, I’m thinking about Diplo and Major Lazer’s recent tour of Cuba. US musicians appropropriating Caribbean and Latin American pop are brought to Cuba–by Cuban promoters–to bring some feel-good EDM bangers to Havana. All these soars and drops are supposed to be evidence of Cuba’s progress, it’s ability to get over any hard feelings about the US and 20th century geopolitics. For example, the promoter who put together the concert said that “nobody cares” that it took place at a venue traditionally associated with resistance to the US. In fact, the details of Diplo’s visit sound uncannily similar to the US State Department’s American Music Abroad program, which focuses on “person-to-person” diplomacy as a way to build goodwill to US soft power by globalizing hip hop in Muslim countries.  So what I want to stress here is the ambivalence of happiness: happiness is happening on multiple registers. There’s the imperative from globalized capital to get over any bad feelings about Cold War imperialism and a century of musical appropriation and just party hard in the name of accumulating some really subsumed surplus value, but there’s also plenty of possibility for Cubans to develop other registers of enjoyment. It’ll be interesting to see how EDM plays out there, and I look forward to reading my ethnomusicologist colleagues’ accounts of that.
Thanks for your careful attention to the aesthetics and music stuff. I really appreciated the TV analysis. You also laid out two main questions, which I’ll address in order.
First, you asked me to think about music other than EDM-pop. What about other kinds of formerly radical music–like spirituals or blues or hard bop or funk or or or? Have they lost their political efficacy? To answer this, let me start by explaining a bit about my method and assumptions. In any given context, at least Euro-Western context, the same concepts, discourses, practices, and structures of feeling that organize society also organize that society’s music. For example, social contract theory–which is really a series of domination contracts–and 18th century tonality are effectively the same thing: systems that develop a series of functional hierarchies supposedly grounded in and expressing “natural” phenomena, in the nature of sound waves or people themselves.
The formal innovations in these historical genres like blues were targeting historically specific social and political and epistemic structures. So, these formerly radical formal innovations don’t have the same effect now in part because we’ve changed and they haven’t. The conditions they negotiated no longer exist, or no longer exist in the same way. It’s like bringing a knife to a gun fight.
The ancient can, for its alienness, be radical (think of Sun Ra’s use of Ancient Egypt, or of Pet Shop Boys sampling Michael Nyman reworking Henry Purcell). But it can also just be something like the Stravinskian neo-classicsm that Adorno famously finds lacking. Older forms can become newly radical because changes in contemporary structures and forms make them newly salient. For example, in 1979 Richard Dyer–yes, the same guy who wrote White–wrote an essay “In Defense of Disco” for a gay communist publication. He argued that disco’s form made it queer. The rock of the day–punk and metal and glam–had a v/c/v/b/c/c structure that created a tension-climax-release dynamic, a dynamic that was isomorphic with straight men’s cock-focused sexuality. Disco, on the other hand, didn’t have a single point of climax: songs cycled up and down, up and down, looping and cyclical rather than tumescently teleological. This gave them what Dyer called a “whole body eroticism,” a queer eroticism in contrast to cock rock’s straightness. Eventually, this sort of cyclical ateleological form became quite standard: UK garage, Daft Punk, Paul Oakenfold, Moby, LCD Soundsystem…It was now the structure of feeling for straight dude music. However, with the rise of dubstep and brostep, teleological climaxes are now a Thing in dance music. “Bros need drops,” as the viral parody videos proclaim. In this context, disco’s cyclical rise and fall is formally queer again. We find this structure, for example, in Brooklyn band bottoms’ 2015 single “My Body.” Musically, the song is effectively a 24-bar loop repeated five and a half times; it builds by layering voices, but there’s no tension-release moment. [there’s a diagram of the structure at the end of this post/paper] The video clarifies that this song is about queer pleasure in a nonbinary body. This music is not diso, and its structure of feeling is not the same as Dyer’s “whole body eroticism,” and brostep drops are not cock rock climaxes–gender and sexual politics have changed a LOT in 40 years–but this is an analogous dynamic because the musical context makes past techniques newly salient.
Next you asked about political economy. How does the “political economy of music production”–the fact that people got paid and made profits in all these songs I talk about–how does this factor into the claims I make about the songs, and the bigger structures I talk about re: MRWasP and neoliberalism?
First, a background claim. It is a truism in pop music studies–and in black feminism–that artworks have effects outside and beyond the conditions of their production. You could call it an aesthetic dimension over and against literal material existence. Commercially produced artworks don’t necessarily reproduce or reify the capitalist relations that birthed them. Think about Beyonce’s Formation: sure, she got paid, and Jay got paid, and a lot of old white suits got paid, but black women’s intellectual, communal, emotional, and affective responses to that video and her live performance? That was a Thing, a Real Thing that exceeded the limitations of the artwork’s political economy as a product, and the political economy of Twitter. Angela Davis identifies a similar dynamic in Billie Holiday’s work: sure, white dudes got paid, but her work had effects beyond and outside that white patriarchal capitalism. So I’m going to take this as a settled question: commercial, capitalist works have effects that exceed the conditions of their production. Or: there’s more than one thing going on here, and these things neither compensate for nor cancel one another out.
Ok a second background claim: In neoliberalism specifically, cultural politics IS political economy: full subsumption, communicative capitalism, human capital. And as Cheryl Harris argues, the political economy of private property IS the white supremacy, whiteness is property. neoliberalism both intensifies that and financializes whiteness.
I want to bring in Carole Pateman’s concept of property-in-person and Doreen St. Felix’s “The Prosperity Gospel of Rihanna” right now, and eventually wind my way around to Lester Spence’s work on black neoliberalism, especially as embodied in “the hustle.” Pateman argues that “the conception of the individual as owner of property in the person is crucial…to understanding how relations of subordination can be presented as free relations” (C&D 20). Basically, splitting my political subjectivity–the owner part–from my body and what I do with it 40 or 60 or “I work six jobs I don’t get tired” hours a week–lets it seem like we’re all equal before law when in fact we’re materially situated in relations of subordination and superiority.
Part of what Beyonce and Rihanna–especially Rihanna–are doing is using the aesthetic to reclaim some of that property, to take what is love-and-thefted away from them and invested in the property interests of whiteness and white supremacy, and to re-invest it in themselves. As St. Felix puts it, “To be a black woman and genius, is to be perpetually owed.” In demanding BBHMM, or “best revenge is your paper,” Rih and Bey are collecting on debts owed them: personhood, artistic credit. This is why, in “Pour It Up,” Rih makes it rain with money bearing her face.
Rihanna’s prosperity gospel is definitely a melancholic hustle. There’s a lack of aesthetic payoff for mainstream–white–pop audiences…but definitely an erotic payoff in Bryan’s and Lorde’s senses. For example, with her most recent single, “Work,” which is significantly dancehall-influenced, white people mainly just complained about the unintelligibility of her patois. White people also complained about the overtly black “Formation” video and Super Bowl performance: how dare Beyonce take the biggest stage in the nation and perform something about and, more importantly, FOR black people? She took all that had been invested in her and channeled it to blackness and black people, and of course that got people supremely upset. That’s a melancholic hustle.
Not all hustles are melancholic. “The hustle’ is how neoliberal market logic gets translated into African-American aesthetics and culture, and thus how elite blacks get folded into MRWaSP. Lester Spence defines hustlers as “black men who are forced to work incessantly with no way out…risk-taking street entrepreneurs consistently having to make ends meet, responsible for success/failure” (2). The hustle is basically neoliberal market logic as applied to black subjects…black men, working-class black men. also argues that prosperity gospel is one manifestation of “the hustle.” To be super quick, I’m arguing that Beyonce and Rihanna are calling on black women’s performancee traditions and aesthetics to bend the racialized gender/sexual relations that capital flows through. LH Stallings argues that though it’s conventional to see women strippers and their male rapper audience in terms of heterosexual desire and normatiavity, the dancers’ use of black dance performance traditions and aesthetics displace scripts of femininity and put their bodily gender performance in transition. And because “this is what rappers get caught up in–the fantasy of woman whose origin is in the female dancers’ undoing of woman,” (138), this fantasy also undoes them as “men.” Beyonce and Rihanna are doing something similar, using performance to undo the gendered identities and relations that structure neoliberal market relations.
 Mader does some genealogical work on the advents of statistical governmentality: “This extension of the mathematical law of error to social objects ushers in the nineteenth-century era of “social arithmetics,” “social mathematics,” and “social physics” and thus marks the advent of what becomes quantitative sociology. It is the frequent occurrence of the normal distribution in the growing nineteenth-century collection of social data that prompts Quetelet to make this extension of the Gaussian error law from astronomical to social objects. He supposed that the mean of the normal distribution in the case of the social object should have the same kind of error-canceling accuracy as the mean in the case of the astronomical object” (Mader, Sleights of Reason, 53).
 “The visit included smaller parties and impromptu D.J. sets, along with a government-organized news conference. There was also a cultural-exchange panel — required for American artists playing in Cuba — with aspiring local producers and electronic musicians, who asked detailed questions about software, distribution and mixing and mastering techniques.”
bottoms, “My Body” (2015) (click link for gdoc with formal analysis of the song)