Slow Death, Sound, & Lean Ontology


Attali argued that both postwar avant-garde art music and economic theory used the “laws of acoustics” to transform chance and indeterminacy into features rather than bugs. Both practices developed ways of positing background patterns or parameters behind foreground noise. Writing in 1905, W.E.B. Du Bois defines sociology as “the Science that seeks the limits of Chance in human conduct” (Du Bois 44). [1] Here, chance means “the scientific side of inexplicable Will” or “undetermined choices” (44). These undetermined choices are what Beauvoir would call the human capacity to negate the given–namely, the ability to do something other than what is preordained by the laws of physics and the causal chain of material events leading up to this point. Like Attali, who uses patterned intensities and frequency ratios to describe how composers and statisticians harness chance, Du Bois also uses the concept of rhythmic patterning to explain how chance becomes an object of sociological observation.

According to Du Bois, sociologists can’t study chance directly: you can’t plan to find unpredictable phenomena. But you can observe the rate at which unpredictable things happen. So, Du Bois argues that “the duty of science, then, is to measure carefully the limits of this Chance in human conduct” (44; emphasis mine). Tracking chance occurrences across a defined set of phenomena, you can determine the limits or parameters within which they operate, that is, their normal range or rate. This range or rate is what sociologists observe; it manifests, Du Bois explains, in “the rhythm of birth and death rates” (44) or the “lines of rhythm” (38) that organize complex human interactions, like, say, “the operation of a woman’s club” (44). This rhythm is what makes “Chance…as explicable as Law” (44); we can’t explain the why or wherefore behind chance events (i.e., their causes), but we can identify patterns in their frequency. Vital statistics and the daily operations of an organization fall into regular patterns or “uniformities” (44), and those patterns are sometimes interrupted by irregularities like a “more or less sudden rise at a given tune” (44). Tracking and measuring the regular and irregular rhythms of daily existence, sociologists find the limits of chance in human life.

From the perspective of biopolitics, irregular rhythms are abnormal ones that need to be either reformed or, if incapable of reform, eliminated. In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant argues that the fact of obesity (in the sense of “facticity” as lived experience) is the effect of a daily routine whose rhythms lack the speed and intensity late capitalism demands of us all, routines and rhythms that are economically irrational. From the perspective of capital and the biopolitical state, these rhythms and patterns appear to cost more than they nourish and benefit. But from the perspective of people living in this way, the benefits actually outweigh the costs. For someone who can never get out of literal and metaphoric debt, all short-term benefits are worth it. “A relief, a reprieve, not a repair,” the sensuous and social pleasures of these life rhythms “are often consciously and unconsciously not toward imagining the long haul” (CO 117). In this case, going deeper into the red isn’t a problem because there’s nothing you could ever do to get into the black. She calls this state of eternal in-the-red-ness “slow death.” Like an overheated car engine, existing in the red is unsustainable; it burns you out harder and faster, diminishes your viability. “Slow death” can refer to drawn-out, chronic states of dying, dying that isn’t a sudden event. But it can also refer to rhythms, routines, or patterns that are pathologically irrational, a slowness that is bioplitically abnormal and economically irrational, and thus a state of death.

Slow death isn’t just irrational in the end sum, but in the moment-to-moment management of living. It’s inefficient patterns of behavior that diminish productivity for others, i.e., surplus value. Capitalism requires “coordinating one’s pacing with the working day, including times of preparation and recovery from it” (CO 116); not only do we have to make sure we’re at work on time and that we coordinate our needs for bathroom, smoke, and meal breaks to the demands of our work schedule, but we have to plan “self-care” and “wellness” so that the work grind doesn’t diminish our capacity to perform adequately at work. Like out-of-phase windshield wipers, pacing that does not synch up with these patterns of increased and diminished intensity feels irrational–from our perspective we can’t find the pattern in it because we’re only looking for patterns that follow our preset schema.

Neoliberalism demands that we pace ourselves so that everything, including leisure, social relations, and self-care, is oriented to augmenting human capital. Everything, in other words, is work. Slow death, then, is the practice of taking “small vacations” (CO 116). Affectively, this feels like “coasting, with all that’s implied in that phrase, the shifting, diffuse, sensual space between pleasure and numbness” (CO 117), “an experience of self-abeyance, of floating sideways…releasing the subject into self-suspension” (CO 116). Eating to experience sensory pleasure for its own sake–and not for the sake of nutrition, wellness, diet, weight-loss–is a vacation from pleasure-as- work, and it suspends the cost:benefit calculus that makes us into good neoliberal subjects; for these reasons, it can feel goal-less and undirected–like coasting or floating.

Berlant’s description of slow death’s affective timbres echoes Kemi Adeyemi’s account of hip hop’s lean aesthetics. The pressures of the hustle and the grind are even more intense for black people, creating what Adeyemi calls “a requirement of black everyday life where maintaining success requires that you work nonstop.” As the police executions of Eric Garner (who was shot while selling cigarettes) and Alton Sterling (who was shot while selling media from his car) made extra clear, nonstop work and entrepreneurship can often put black people at greater risk–it doesn’t bring them closer to the black but pushes them further into the red. In this context, “Despite the physical risks of consuming lean, the drug appears to be a stalwart coping mechanism for artists whose work ethic has led to extravagant excesses that are balanced by the increasingly visible violence done onto black bodies” (Adeyemi).

Lean is basically a mix of prescription cough syrup (promethazine and codeine) and some flavoring ingredients. Rapper Mac Miller describes its high as a “slowed down” feeling that “put me out of the fast-paced industry” and “makes you lack emotion.” It’s a vacation both from the pace of the work-hard-play-hard grind, but also from the demand–a demand that’s particularly intense for black people–to do emotional labor. This vacation lets artists both inhabit the music industry’s nonstop pace and switch that pace up and turn their attention to things they otherwise wouldn’t have time to consider, like physical sensation for its own sake. It’s almost like slow motion film: it’s not actually changing the tick of the clock’s click track, but finding more frames between each tick. In a way, it takes neoliberal capitalism’s logic of investment and intensification and transforms it from a profit-and-productivity generator into the opposite. Lean isn’t an investment that intensifies the pace of output/productivity, but the volume or gain of sense perceptions. This is why some rappers describe lean as a creativity booster. As Fletcher Babb describes in Vice,

It makes you really sleepy and dissociated quickly, and magnifies the already intense effects of codeine. You can cool off in a swimming pool, or you can sit in air conditioning. But if you walk dripping wet into an ice-cold house, the feeling is magnified a thousand times over.

It slows things down and makes you feel floaty, but it also intensifies your sensory perceptions. And for an artist, intensified sensory perception can definitely help creativity, as you try to represent in sound the affective and sensory states lean opens up for you.

So what does that sound like? According to Adeyemi, when

Houston’s DJ Screw…worked to record the loosened, detached body-feeling accessed through lean with his “chopped and screwed” productions[ h]e slowed the tempo of whole songs to around 60 bpm, which elongated the vocals to an underwater slur, and chopped the rhythm up with strategic pattern interruptions that created even more goopy space between beats.

Interrupting the normal pace or pattern of things in order to create the sense of dissociative suspension, Screw’s chopped and screwed style, at least in Adeyemi’s account, produces in sound the same feeling Berlant thinks eating produces in obese subjects bodies. Chopped-and-screwed style represents, in sound, the pleasures of interrupting capitalism’s throttling you into the red.

That’s just one way hip hop artists use sound to represent that interruption. Another way to slow things down and intensify your perception of these things is, as I suggested above, to mimic the effect of slow motion film. Slow motion film doesn’t actually record events at a decelerated pace; it just takes lots more frames per second, capturing many more repetitions of the same image than you would at 24FPS. Slo-mo turns an otherwise imperceptible moment into a series of iterations. Perceived as a series rather than as an instant, that experience is both more intense and easier to understand and control. Tracks about lean constantly feature serial iterations of key lyrics. A$AP Rocky’s “Purple Swag” has serial iterations of “swag…swag, swag, swag.” Future’s “Codeine Crazy” begins with serial iterations of “pour that bubbly”, and that structure is repeated again at the beginning of later verses. The middle of the song–effectively its bridge–is about two full measures of “codeine crazy” repeated over and over in series. There’s all those “jumpman, jumpman, jumpman”s (and Future adds two more to that sometimes), all those “panda, panda, panda”s, and as I’ll talk about later, all those “I slay”s and “I ain’t sorry”s. These are all serial iterations of a lyric: it’s not just a little repetition, but a long series that often feels like one or five too many–think about how Future jumps in “Jumpman,” his first line adding two more “jumpman”s to Drake’s pattern of three in a row. The overkill is a hint that this repetition is intentional and important: it’s not just there to make a rhythm or a rhyme work, a piece of a greater whole–it IS the greater whole. Repetition is absolutely common in pop songs, but this is a defined, distinct style of repetition: serial iterations of a lyric, often to the point of obvious overkill. Lil Wayne’s “Me and My Drank” clearly and explicitly links this style of repetition to lean aesthetics and to Houston hip hop. After the third verse, just before the four minute mark in the song, Wayne says “Mr. DJ Screw Ima do this for you.” What follows is the song’s hook, “Up in the studio, me and my drank, me and my drank, me and my drank,” chopped, screwed, and repeated four times (which is twice as many times as it’s been repeated in earlier iterations). There’s two levels of repetition here: the whole phrase is repeated serially, but there’s also the serial repetition internal to the phrase. Putting this repetition in Screw’s signature style, and naming him directly, this song clearly connects the overblown serial iteration of a lyric to Houston-inflected lean aesthetics.

This overblown serial iteration of a lyric does in music what slow-motion photography does in film: it captures a hugely long series of iterations of the phenomenon, creating the effect of slowed-down time and intensified sensory impact, carving out space within the ongoing hustle and bustle of everyday life that continues apace. Chopped-and-screwed-style down-pitched vocals do something similar: decelerating the pitch-frequency of the track while keeping the tempo and meter the same creates the effect of slowness without actually changing the pace. These practices create an alternate dimension of reality within the hegeomonic world order, a reality with its own ontology and metaphysics, ontologies and metaphysics that center black life and ways of living, not blackness as social death. In other words, lean aesthetics create an alternate reality, a parallel universe, within hegemonic reality. Just like works of science fiction and some pop science accounts of string theory, which posit that parallel universes vibrate at different frequencies than our own, lean’s crafts this alternate reality by crafting new patterns of intensity, new rates of vibration.

Slowness is one way to experience and describe the effect of being out of phase with hegemonic patterns. Like the slowness of Berlantian slow death, lean’s slowness is an economically irrational pattern of intensity–irrational because it doesn’t synch your body and your psyche up with the patterns of behavior that maximize the interests of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. As the descriptions from Berlant, Adeyemi, and the above-cited songs and artists suggest, slowness is how this out-of-phase-ness feels from the perspective of the people who are out of phase, the people behaving ‘irrationally.” From the perspective of ‘rational’ actors, that slowness registers as noise. Ashon Crawley’s writing on the use of noise ordinances to police the worshiping styles of black churches highlights the connection between economic irrationality, parallel dimensions and their patterns of vibration, and noisiness. Crawley does this by contrasting the sounds produced by black worshipers to the sounds of church bells, which represent the economic rationality of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the clock that regulates business and banking hours:

unlike the noise of church bells, there was no regularity or synchronicity to the noise…the noise of this movement was not given to sequence and order but a flouting of it, an antagonistic threat against it. And thus, also against the political economy that demanded such regularity of time and space. The noise was itself the announcement of a shifting, and a critique, of Newtonian time and space, and the labor this logic necessitated. The noise of the flesh is not the announcement of, but a disordering and breaking with, modern time and space. [emphasis mine]

The church bell disciplines time and the bodies in its space-time continuum; this discipline prevents bodies from having (often pleasurable) sensory experiences whose perception and enjoyment require you to disalign your body with the alignment that makes it most productive for white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. When black bodies (and this matters a lot–when white bodies make the same sounds black ones do, they’re often rewarded, c.f. Elvis, Iggy Azalea, etc.) are disaligned from the church bells and their Newtonian space-time, the sounds they make feel like noise to ears listening for ‘church bells’ (i.e., sounds made by bodies aligned by the patterns of WSCP). WSCP ears literally hear the static of an alternate universe, a universe vibrating in patterns of intensity, patterns of condensation and rarefaction of sensation, that give black bodies a reprieve from the disproportionately intense demands WSCP puts on them, demands for work, for physical and social precarity, etc. Hegemonic institutions set up conditions so that black bodies are always compelled to produce sounds that are in the red, and have devices set up to filter that out of privileged spaces–social limiters, effectively, like the noise ordinances Crawley discusses. But when these sounds are slowed down enough that they pass through the limiters, they sneak in and build alternate universes under the radar.

Lean aesthetics–especially the hyperbolically serial repetitions of a lyric–materialize the “slowness” of slow death in a medium you can perceive without being high. It translates the phenomenology of that high into sound, so we can experience “slow death’s” pleasures sonically, when we listen to and/or make those sounds. The experience it translates is not the experience of actually dying, but of living in a different dimension, existing in patterns that don’t synch up with *this* world but definitely do in another.


[1] Thanks to Keguro Macharia to pointing me to this passage last week.