Acoustic Resonance & Neoliberal Biopolitics: On ratio as technology

This is part of the book manuscript that I’m working on this summer. It’s from the part in the intro where I lay out the basic terms of my argument, which is this:

Theories of neoliberal political economy, post-identity biopolitics, new materialist posthumanism, “new algorithmic identities” and algorithmic culture, even popular accounts of string theory, all these theories and discourses appeal to some notion of acoustic resonance, conceived either as a ratio expressing a frequency, or as signal (that is, a rational pattern) emerging from noise (irrational patterns). This particular notion of sound as acoustic resonance is a commonly cited, illuminating, and accurate model or metaphor because it embodies the material, conceptual, and social structures and relationships that organize a biopolitically neoliberal, post-identity society.

In the section I’ve excerpted here, I make the connection between acoustic resonance and neoliberal biopolitics. They both rely on the same concept of ratio, and it’s this ratio-nality that makes acoustic resonance a convincing and accurate conceptual model for neoliberal biopolitics.

  1. Acoustic Resonance

The sonic episteme naturalizes a sociohistorically local concept of what sound is, physically, and how it works, mechanically. (This is what distinguishes it from ancient Greek theories of cosmic harmony: the sonic episteme ontologies a different concept of sound than the Greeks do.) That concept is what I call acoustic resonance. “Resonance” generally means, as Helmholtz puts it in TKTK, “vibratory motion” (3). But “resonance” hasn’t had a consistent meaning across the history of Western philosophy and science. As the physics behind resonance changes, so does the mechanics. The kind of motion that counts as vibratory depends on the medium or material whose vibrations we observe and whose behavior we abstract from to talk about “resonance” per se. The ancient Greeks observed vibrating strings, and thought that these strings transferred their back-and-forth motion to the air. Contemporary scientists observe pressure waves travelling through fluids (like air or water): “a sound wave consist[s] of a condensation or high-pressure pulse followed by rarefaction or low-pressure pulse” (Olson 4). This isn’t a back-and-forth motion but a pattern of higher and lower intensity. This pattern is generally visualized as a waveform, with the upper peak describing that highest intensity and the lower valley describing the lowest intensity. In the 21st century academy, “acoustics” refers to the study of this kind of motion, which is commonly described (e.g., on the Acoustical Society of America website) as “mechanical radiation in all material media,” like the earth’s crust or the ocean or human eardrums. Given 21st century understandings of “acoustics,” acoustic resonance is thus the flow of patterned intensities. These patterns are calculated with differential equations and described as ratios: for example, mHz for pitch or frequency is the ratio of cycles per second, dB for amplitude/volume is the ratio between the intensity of a sound wave and some fixed referent, such as the threshold of typical human hearing. Because they are measuring flows, acoustic ratios express a rate or frequency, such as the rate at which the patterned intensity flows, or the rate of the flow’s intensity. The sonic episteme thinks sound is acoustic resonance–the patterned intensity of a flow, expressed as a rate/ratio.

These patterns interact via phase relationships. When patterns are in phase, they align at regular intervals; an example of this would be a song sung in “in the round.” Composer Steve Reich describes these type of phase relationships as “rational”: they align at intervals we are habituated to recognizing, like ½, ¼, ⅓, ⅔, 180 degrees, 90 degrees, etc. Flows–of air, of current–with rational phase patterns are referred to as “signal.” Patterns that do not align at regular intervals are “irrational” and out of phase. Irrationally phased flows are noise. Every tone has overtones, and when it comes to rationality or irrationality, the phase relationships among overtones is just as important as the relationship between fundamental tones. In European music theory, overtones that are integer (whole-number) multiples of the fundamental frequency are called “harmonics,” whereas overtones that are non-integer (i.e., fractions) multiples of the fundamental frequency are called “inharmonics” because harmonic frequencies fall in phase with the fundamental frequency and inharmonics ones don’t. In this sense, “rational” relationships among patterns are “rational” when they are proportional and thus expressible as ratios; such relationships are “irrational” when they aren’t consistently proportional enough to be expressible as a ratio.

Acoustic resonance is a type of vibratory motion in which flows themselves and relationships among flows are (ir)ratio-nal patterns. So, “thinking through sound thus evolves into a philosophy of resonance” when it considers “reason…as ratio rather than only representation” (Henriques SB xxx). Similarly, “a nonrepresentational ontology of vibrational force” (Goodman xv) prioritizes “is concerned primarily with the texturyhthms of matter, the patterned physicality of a musical beat or pulse” (Goodman 83). Modeling reason on ratios may appear to liberate us from all the bad shit European Modernity bequeaths us (subject/object metaphysics, signifier/signified representationalism, classically liberal identity politics, etc.), but this particular sort of ratio is also a technology that neoliberal biopolitics uses to oppress and dominate us in the present.

2. Post-Identity Biopolitics


In general, “biopolitics” refers to a style of governing focused on life: life is the object of governance and site of power’s investment (or divestment), and killing off internal threats is a common and common-sensically justifiable way of fostering that life (e.g., eugenics). When it comes to defining and theorizing biopolitics, two of the most commonly cited philosophers are Foucault and Giorgio Agamben. Foucault’s account foregrounds the role of statistics, probabilities, and Gaussian normal curves; these are not central to Agamben’s account. My theory of biopolitics appeals to Foucault because statistics are the thing that make biopolitics part of the sonic episteme. Frequency ratios are one of the fundamental mathematical components of normal curves, and they are also found in theories of acoustic resonance (mHz is a ratio expressing a frequency) and in neoliberal cost:benefit calculus.

Reading Foucault’s concept of biopolitical normalization alongside a critical history of statistics, Mary Beth Mader argues that the thing that distinguishes biopolitics from other technologies of government (like disciplinary normation, sovereign law, etc.) is that it operates at a different ontological register (SoR 56). Statistical norms do not govern relations among people, words/laws, or God, but relations among numbers. Statistics produce the political ontology they are claimed to merely describe, transforming social relations as a particular type of mathematical relationship: the frequency ratio. As Mader puts it,

when expressed as ratios, the actual social relations between groups of people are masked in these figural expressions that employ the specific features of mathematical objects to characterize people and groups of people…endogenous mathematical traits that are superimposed on the social objects studied, rather than discovered in them (SoR 65).

So, there are two parts to her claim: (1) social relations–both the concrete relations among people and the abstractions about how we do and should relate–are conceived and remade in terms of mathematical relations among numbers, and (2) because statistics are the mathematical instrument used to measure, manage, and enforce those relations, society is made to embody the specific kind of mathematical relationship statistical norms express, namely, ratios (more narrowly, ratios of the frequency of a given variable in a population). “With the spread of the statistics of population and their role in the constitution of subjects, then, social relations literally become rationalized, or more precisely, ratio-ized” (SoR 45).

But Plato’s Republic also rationalizes social relations: this is what the myth of the metals does. So it’s not ratios per se that are definitively biopolitical, but a particular way of calculating ratios. Plato’s ratios are geometric; they compare relative size or reality (e.g., the length of segments on the divided line is proportional to the ‘reality’ of what that line represents: thoughts, Forms, images, etc.). Biopolitical ratios are frequential: they compare the relative frequency of a phenomenon in a group. For example, the normal curve (aka the “bell curve”) “is a graphic representation of the distribution of frequencies of values for a given measured property, with the most frequent values being those in the distribution that cluster around a mean or average in a single peak” (SoR, 45). Statistical norms are ratios of ratios: they take individual measurements of the rate at which a given property X appears in a population (this is the first set of ratios), and then aggregates these and finds the most common or “normal” rate, the average rate Y at which X rate occurs. “The ratio” is one of “the basic conceptual components of the notion of the normal curve” (44), and of normalization as a technique or technology.

Normalization is the mode of governmentality Foucault attributes to neoliberal biopolitics: it’s not the juridical punishment of offenders (i.e., taking something away from those who transgress), nor is it the disciplinary normation of subjects (compelling adherence to a prescribed archetype, rendering docile); rather, it’s the normalization of frequencies (remember: the object of this kind of power isn’t people or groups but numbers). Normalization involves (1) determining the range of ‘normal’ distribution of X, and then (2) bringing frequencies outside that normal distribution back in line with it. As Mader explains, citing Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population,

the various normal curves are collected and compared. Then, ‘certain distributions’ are ‘considered more normal than others or in any case more advantageous than the others. It is these distributions that will serve as norms.’…In the kind of normalization that characterizes regulatory control…the technique then will be to attempt to reduce all of the most deviant of these normal curves to the level of the general normal distribution” (SoR 52).

As a technique or a technology, this type of normalization is identical to the technique audio engineers use to compress audio signal. (Because audio normalization means something else than what Foucault means by normalization, whenever I say normalization here I mean it in Foucault’s sense, not in the sense commonly used in audio engineering.) Compression is a way to manage a signal’s gain–how ‘loud’ or dynamically strong it is. As Mason Hicks explains, “Compressors and limiters are specialized amplifiers used to reduce dynamic range — the span between the softest and loudest sounds.” Compression is technologically important because signals with gain that veers outside the average range will sound distorted when those out-of-range parts are played back over speakers, earbuds, phones, etc. In the 21st century, compression is generally an automated process performed within a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). Users decide what the upper limit of gain should be, and, as Paul White explains, “a compressor ‘turns down’ the audio when the level exceeds a threshold set by the user. The amount by which the gain is turned down depends on the ratio of the compressor — for example, if a ratio of 5:1 is set, an input signal exceeding the threshold by 5dB will be output with a level of only 1dB over the threshold. Once the signal falls back below the threshold level, the gain returns to normal.” So there are two important things in White’s explanation: first, compressors bring deviant signal back within, or at least proportionally closer to, “normal” gain range; second, the primary unit or tool here is the ratio: signals aren’t just brought in line with the norm, but brought in relative proportion to the normal range. In biopolitics, the cases that can’t be brought into adequately relative proportion to the normal range get quarantined to preserve the health of those in the normal range and, more importantly, to preserve a specific range of the spectrum as normal. This process of producing and quarantining abnormals is how biopolitics upgrades classically liberal forms of social exclusion so that they can work without explicitly relying on social identities, so that they can be, in other words, post-identity.