Introduction to The Sonic Episteme (or maybe The Sonic Hypothesis?)

I’m in the middle of writing a book for Duke UP, and I thought I’d post the current version of the introduction to give y’all a sense of what I’m writing about this year. I’ve pasted the opening pages below, but you can read all 28 pages here.

The title is tentatively The Sonic Episteme: acoustic resonance & post-identity biopolitics. But I’m thinking of maybe changing the title to The Sonic Hypothesis…

  1. The Sonic Hypothesis & The Sonic Episteme

Michel Foucault began his book about European Modernity’s episteme with an analysis of a painting about the gaze (Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas). “Episteme” is his term for the implicit, taken-for-granted ideas, methods, and logics that tie a group of intellectual, scientific, economic, and political practices together as their common denominator. These “rules of formation, which were never formulated in their own right, …are to be found only in widely differing theories, concepts, and objects of study” (OoT xii). According to Foucault, Velazquez’s painting reveals those unstated rules. Using techniques like mirroring, portrait painting, surface/depth and signifier/signified interpretative play, vanishing-point perspective, etc., Las Meninas makes the sovereign’s gaze explicit as such: painting the spectator(s)–the king and queen of Spain–reflection in a mirror, it represents the fourth wall. Those techniques and that fourth wall are a two-dimensional system of visual representation, and that two-dimensional system explicitly formulates what “unknown to themselves, the naturalists, economists, and grammarians employed the same rules to define the objects proper to their own study, to form their concepts, to build their theories” (OoT ix). The rules that were implicit in Modnerity’s episteme were explicit in 17th century painting and theories of painting.

17th century painting is an appealing and effective model for this episteme because it naturalizes the ontological foundations of the power relations that structured European Modernity, such as the subject/object distinction or the disinterested spectator/view from nowhere. This is why “the prevailing [image] of modernity as an ocular era” (Erlmann 15) exists, even if, as Veit Erlmann argues, it’s a misperception and misreading of Modern philosophy. We tell ourselves Western modernity was “homogeneous[ly]…ocularcentric,” (Erlmann 15) because that story makes particular configurations of privilege and domination seem just, inevitable, and right. For example, visual/verbal-vs-oral oppositions often underwrite essentializing West/non-West binaries: “they” are different from “us” because they aren’t ocularcentric like we are. Similarly, Laura Mulvey’s idea of  “the male gaze” works because narrative cinema’s fourth wall and (classically) liberal patriarchy’s proceduralism both obscure the conditions of their production in similar fashion: the camera’s gaze obscures the fact that the film is a film just as liberal ideas of equality before the law obscure histories of white supremacy and patriarchy. There’s a “visual hypothesis” about Western modernity’s episteme in the same way there’s a “repressive hypothesis” about 19th and 20th century Western sexuality: they are, to riff on Charles Mills’s description of white supremacy, “cognitive dysfunctions that are socially functional” (Racial Contract 18).

Many early 21st century theories that call themselves some variation on “neo-” or “post-” [some aspect of Western modernity]–like neoliberalism or post-identity politics or new materialist posthumanism–mark their departure from Western modernity by appealing to a sonic hypothesis. In the same way that the visual hypothesis naturalized a sociohistorically specific notion painting, the sonic hypothesis naturalizes a sociohistorically specific notion of the sonic: acoustic resonance. 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 of intensity) emerging from noise (irrational patterns).

Sometimes this appeal is explicit, sometimes it’s implicit but easy to infer. For example, in his 1977 book Noise, economist and social theorist Jacques Attali argues that “the laws of acoustics. . . displa[y] all of the characteristics of the technocracy managing the great machines of the repetitive [i.e. neoliberal] economy” (113). And, as I discuss more extensively in chapter one, there’s evidence he’s correct. For example, neoliberal economists like Milton Friedman think the deregulated, entrepreneurial market is “a system of proportional representation” (Capitalism & Freedom, 15) that expresses human behavior in statistically-calculated ratios such as probabilities and cost:benefit calculus. These ratios are also the basic mathematical tool we commonly use to measure sound waves (e.g., pitch is a ratio of cycles per second, decibels are ratios that compare the intensity of a particular sound to what is generally agreed to be the maximum intensity average human ears can perceive). But unlike the ancient Greeks, who measured sounds in terms of geometric proportion–the geometric proportions of a string (unfretted, fretted at midpoint, fretted at the ⅓ point, etc.), neoliberals measure things/markets as statistical proportions (i.e., probabilities). Friedman’s proportions are ratios that express the average or normal frequency of a variable, and these ratios display the same characteristics 21st century scientists and musicians use to measure the physical properties of sound.

This same system of proportional representation–in particular, the proportional representation of public opinion proffered by polling and, more contemporarily, big data–is the foundation of the “postdemocratic” political ontology philosopher Jacques Ranciere critiques in his book Disagreement. That’s why he calls postdemocracy “the perfect realization of the empty virtue Plato called sophrosune” (Disagreement 106). Plato explicitly models sophrosyne (generally translated as moderation) on contemporary-to-him understandings of musical harmony as geometric proportion. Organizing society according to statistically-calculated frequency ratios, probabilities, and forecasts, postdemocracy updates Plato’s original idea of sophorosyne with 20th and 21st century math…and here we are back at Attali’s claim that the laws of acoustics look a lot like the principles of neoliberal social order and political ontology.

The sonic hypothesis isn’t limited to political philosophy. A number of ontologies and posthumanisms grouped under the “new materialist” label either explicitly model their ontologies on acoustically resonant sound, or implicitly do so by appealing to concepts of vibration and dynamic patterning, which are also fundamental concepts in contemporary acoustics. For example, Elizabeth Grosz’s Deleuzo-Darwinian ontology treats “vibrations, waves, oscillations, resonances” (CTA 33) as the fundamental elements of existence, and Jane Bennet’s “vibrant” materialism argues that everything is matter, all matter vibrates, and vibration is a dynamic patterning of differential intensities: “what philosopher Brian Massumi describes as the ‘pressing crowd of incipiencies and tendencies’ that is matter’ (57; emphasis mine). Though Bennett never explicitly makes the connection to sound, her concept of matter as dynamically patterned waves of pressure makes matter sound a lot like, well, sound, which contemporary scientists understand as dynamically patterned waves of pressure. From neoliberalism to new materialism and beyond, acoustically resonant sound is the “rule” theorists “to define the objects proper to their own study, to form their concepts, to build their theories” (OoT ix). The sonic hypothesis thus forms the foundation of a sonic episteme, which, like Modernity’s purported visuality, is a cognitive dysfunction that’s socially functional.

How exactly does neoliberal post-identity society function? The “neo-” and “post-” prefixes are strong clues: they indicate (supposed) progress past some traditional structure, practice, or limit. Neoliberal political economy and post-identity politics upgrade Modernity’s political and social systems to work more efficiently in evolving technological and political contexts. A lot of this efficiency comes from changing the way social inequity is produced and managed. First, instead of strictly regulating purity (which takes a lot of resources), laws and institutions include deregulated differences, often under the banner of “diversity.” I call this first step the domestication of noise because it turns what was formerly a problem (in the Du Boisian “how does it feel to be a problem?” sense) into a resource. Second, as clusters of “normal” and “abnormal” performances emerge from this deregulated activity, irreparably abnormal performance appears to threaten the safety and stability of the normals, so abnormality becomes the basis for unequal (i.e., unjust) treatment. Both because abnormal populations are exceptions to the norm/rule, and because we make exceptions to rules and norms about how people deserve to be treated on the basis of abnormal performance, I call this second move the politics of exception.

The infamous Bush-era education program No Child Left Behind is an example of the domestication of noise and the politics of exception. Instead of segregating public schools explicitly on the basis of race and policing the purity of white schools, NCLB uses nominally inclusive performance-based measures to dole out both resources and penalties on what are effectively racial lines. Especially because it relies on the statistical distribution of test scores, NCLB is a great example of neoliberal, post-identity social functionality in general. Including everyone on the same quantitative, statistically-measured spectrum kills two birds with one stone: (1) it serves as evidence that identity-based social exclusion is over, obsolete, a thing we “neo-”s are “post-” because we’re all on the same playing field, and (2) provides the mechanism for producing white supremacist patriarchy without relying explicitly on identity-based social exclusion. As I will explain more thoroughly later in the introduction, that mechanism is statistical normalization. And because statistical normalization is the central tool or method neoliberal post-identity society uses to keep white supremacist patriarchy functioning, this functionality is biopolitical in Foucault’s sense.

The sonic episteme uses acoustic resonance to naturalize the forms of white supremacist patriarchy that biopolitical normalization creates. These ideas of frequency ratios and signal emerging from noisy interactivity are culturally and historically specific understandings of what sound is and how it works–and that’s why acoustic resonance is the blueprint that is continually and repeatedly appealed to in various explanations of these sociohistorically local ‘neo-’ and ‘post-’ theories. Just as the ancient Greeks used the concept of (geometrically proportional) harmony to rationalize social inequality (e.g., Plato’s myth of the metals, or gendered variations on sophrosyne, both of which I discuss in the book), 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. The sonic epistme’s dehistoricized, “objective” concept of resonance comes with a lot of baggage, and the sonic episteme naturalizes that baggage, importing particular relationships and values under outwardly neutral, nonpolitical sonic and musical metaphors. Moreover, because sound is one of Modernity’s “others,” appealing to sound can appear both revolutionary (turning Modernity on its head) and recuperative (recovering what Modernity excluded). Doubling-down on what Jonathan Sterne calls “the audiovisual litany” (Sound Studies Reader, 9) that defines sound negatively against European Modernist concepts of visuality and the gaze, theorists from Julian Henriques to Adrianna Cavarero use sound and acoustic resonance to mark the “neo-”ness or “post-”ness of their theory or practice. Henriques, for example, argues that sound strikes a “critical attack that…literally strikes at the heart of the predominantly ocularcentric character specific to Western metaphysics” (Henriques SB xxix). The epistemic and discursive shift from vision to sound is the same movement that’s represented by the “neo-” in neoliberalism and the “post-” in post-identity.  

I’m not arguing for the sonic episteme. I’m showing that it exists in order to critically theorize it. Each of this book’s chapters considers the accounts philosophers and theorists give of 21st century “neo-” and “post-” concepts, practices, and discourses and asks why these are the accounts that make sense and get taken up within and beyond the academy. Each of these accounts appeals to some notion of sound acoustic resonance, though sometimes that appeal is implicit and requires some excavation on my part. In order to show the sonic episteme’s comprehensiveness, there will be times when I extend these accounts and make my own appeals to sound and sonic phenomena to unpack and explain various aspects of these theories (e.g., later in the introduction I’ll compare biopolitical normalization to audio compression). What matters here isn’t the accuracy of these accounts, but that people think these accounts are credible; or, it’s not the cognitive (dys)functionality I’m interested in, but the social functionality. For example, in The History of Sexuality v1, Foucault points out that the story 20th century Europeans and European philosophers tell themselves about sex (that it is repressed) is in fact the opposite of what’s actually happening (they’re talking about it all the time). Foucault then asks why this is the story that gets told, and (eventually, across HSv1 and the lecture courses) argues that this story gains credibility because it makes particular kinds of racism possible (i.e., the biopolitical kind that conflates racial blackness with sexual deviance). My analysis of the sonic episteme takes a similar approach: I’m asking why acoustic resonance is the story that philosophers and theorists appeal to in their accounts of “neo-” and “post-” phenomena, and will ultimately argue that this story gains credibility because it makes particular kinds of racial patriarchy possible.  Ultimately, I argue that the sonic episteme is, as the well-known Adorno/Foucault meme would put it, possibly bad and definitely dangerous. The sonic episteme is a powerful philosophical tool. It’s a dangerous tool because when it’s used unreflectively it makes it easy to naturalize 21st century racial patriarchy. However, it’s not always a bad tool because it can, when used critically, make it possible to de-naturalize that same racial patriarchy.