Some thoughts on Goodman’s Sonic Warfare

I’m working on a chapter that critiques a lot of trendy “vibrational ontologies” as a kind of ideal theory that just replaces one old idealized model–representationalism–with a new one–acoustic resonance. Most of the chapter is about Grosz, Bennett, & Barad’s new materialism. In this post I want to focus on Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare. So, I’ll set up what I mean by “ideal theory” and then I’ll go into the Goodman section of this chapter. And this is from the middle chapter of a book, so there are times when I’m referencing a few chapters worth of writing that isn’t evident here in this post…


According to philosopher Charles Mills, ideal theory uses a particular kind of theoretical abstraction: the “ideal-as-idealized model” (Mills 167). Unlike an “ideal-as-descriptive model,” which “purports to be descriptive of P’s crucial aspects (its essential nature) and how it actually works (its basic dynamic)” (Mills 168), an ideal-as-idealized model is “an exemplar, of what an ideal P should be like” (Mills 167) in a perfect world. The problem is, of course, that the world isn’t perfect, and its imperfections are disproportionately distributed to oppressed groups. Ideal theory is thus a social ontology that “abstract[s] away from relations of structural domination, exploitation, coercion, and oppression” (Mills 168).

In this chapter, I track how concepts of resonance, vibration, sound, and music work as idealized models in the work of new materialist theorists Elizabeth Grosz, Jane Bennett, and Karen Barad. Their work is foundational to new materialist theory, and they all share the same variation on what Sara Ahmed calls new materialism’s “founding gesture,” which “evoke[s] a position that is not held by the speaker…a position that is not explicitly attributed to somebody as a way of making a counter-claim.” (Ahmed 25). In Ahmed’s read, the position is that “feminism or poststructuralism have not dealt with the body as a real, living, physical, biological entity or have reduced ‘everything’ to language, signification and culture” (25), and the counter-claim is that by paying attention to biology we have “returned to the facts of the matter” (Ahmed 25). Ahmed argues that the problem with this gesture is its “routanization” (25). Grosz, Bennett, and Barad perform this gesture as a variation on the “audiovisual litany” (Sterne Audible Past 15)–the routanization of the supposed difference between acoustic resonance and verbal and/or visual representationalism–to mark their departure from “old” conceptual abstraction and the “newness” of their materialism. According to these theorists, new materialism is “new” because it overcomes philosophy’s traditional reliance on abstraction; it does so by replacing the things they claim are responsible for this abstraction–verbal and/or visual ontologies–with a new ontological foundation. In each of these three cases, that ‘new’ foundation fits my definition of acoustic resonance. Grosz, Bennett, and Barad think that switching the foundation of their ontologies eliminates the ultimate cause and foundation of classically liberal identity-based systems of domination. Thus, their resonant, vibratory, and diffractive ontologies are “new” because they leave old problems in the past. As Weheliye argues, “these discourses also presume that we have now entered a stage in human development where all subjects have been granted equal access to western humanity and that this is, indeed, what we all want to overcome” (HV 10).Together, the founding gesture (the claim to ‘newly’ overcome old relations of subordination) and the audiovisual litany (replacing verbal/visual representation with acoustic resonance) abstract away from ongoing relations of structural domination. Treating inequity as a thing of the past, an attribute of the “old” ontologies, Grosz’s, Bennett’s, and Barad’s new materialism abstracts away from the relations of structural domination that constitute post-identity biopolitics.
In their work, acoustic resonance is an ideal-as-idealized model in its own right…an idealized model of a different basic idea than the one naturalized by the verbal and visual ontologies they critique. Unlike “an idealized social ontology of the modern type…[which] will typically assume the abstract and undifferentiated equal atomic individuals of classical liberalism (Mills 168), the idealized social ontology of the new materialist type assumes the universally inclusive and thus noisy interactivity of deregulated neoliberal markets and post-identity biopolitical populations.


Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare develops an “ontology of vibrational force” (SW xv) is also a constituent of the sonic episteme. He understands vibration as a kind of acoustic resonance, which makes his vibrational ontology another constituent of the sonic episteme. He defines vibration as micro-rhythmic oscillation” (SW xvii) or “the amodal, nonsensuous, the abstract, cross-mediality of rhythm” (47), and takes it to be the the elemental unit of existence in our “resonant cosmos” (SW 13). So, for Goodman, vibration is rhythm, and rhythm is “the patterned physicality of a musical beat or pulse” (SW 83)–more or less acoustic resonance in my sense of the term. “Rhythmanalysis” (SW 86) is the conceptual practice or “method” (SW 86) for studying and theorizing vibration. As a method, rhythmanalysis has a lot in common with both Du Bois’s and Mader’s descriptions of statistics. First, like Du Boisian statistics that describe the pattern or rate of chance occurrences, Goodman’s “rhythmachine is a synthesizer that processes a chaotic datum in its self-generation” (SW 111)–it finds the signal in the noise. Second, like statistical normalization, which, as Mader argues, analyzes the frequential distribution of a variable across a population, rhythmanalysis both “sketches a population on the social scale” (110) and creates a pattern that “distributes [something] in time” (SW 111) across that population. Arguing that “the rhythmachine is an algorithmic entity” (SW 60), Goodman explicitly tells us that the kind of math in rhythmanalysis’s “sensual mathematics” (SW 60) is the same kind of statistics we find in normal curves and predictive analytics. Goodman’s vibrational ontology & rhythmanalytical method share many of the same commitments as feminist new materialism. The fact that his vibrational ontology and rhythmanalytical method use acoustic resonance as a way to translate the numerical relations created by statistical normalization into non-numerical phenomena (like affect, say, or music) is further proof they are part of the sonic episteme.


Like the other constituents of the sonic episteme that I discuss in this chapter, Goodman’s Sonic Warfare presents itself as revitalizing Theory, which is both set in its ways and out of touch. Mincing no words, Goodman claims that “sound comes to the rescue of thought…forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body” (SW 82; emphasis mine). Like Grosz, Bennett, and Barad, Goodman thinks vibration revitalizes theory by snapping it out of the dualist hierarchies that fix it in skeptical melancholy, thus making it more flexible, adaptable, receptive. In Goodman as in feminist new materialism, acoustic resonance is the fulcrum of a founding gesture that presents vibrational ontology as overcoming philosophy’s conventional commitments to exclusivity. Goodman iterates this gesture throughout the book. For example, he argues that “an ontology of vibrational force objects to a number of theoretical orientations,” most notably “the linguistic imperialism that subordinates the sonic to semiotic registers (SW 82; emphasis mine) and “the opposition between a celebration of the jouissance of sonic physicality and the semiotic significance of its symbolic composition or content” (SW 83)–e.g., the drastic/gnostic debate in musicology. In addition to disagreement, there’s also the gesture of avoidance: rhythmanalysis “sidesteps those preoccupations of cultural studies’ critical musicological approaches that tend to limit discussion around issues of representation, identity, and cultural meaning” (SW 9; emphasis mine). Because it begins from different ontological commitments, rhythmanalysis doesn’t get caught up in that old school privileging of meaning and content over affect. Finally, there are some gestures that evoke physical aggression: Goodman claims vibrational ontology and rhythmanalysis “bruis[e]” Western philosophy’s “dualism” and “blin[d]” its “occularcentrism” (SW 81). Philosophy isn’t Goodman’s only target for reform; he repeatedly argues that rhythmanalysis rescues music writing from the limitations of “identitiarian cultural studies” (169). These limitations are (1) the focus on representational content over emergent rhythmic patterns (SW 172), (2) the top-down “the application of cultural theory to music” (SW 160) that does not understand music as itself a theoretical practice; (3) the tendency to “claim that every quantum of cultural production should be construed as an act of resistance or opposition to capitalism” (SW 175); and (4) the focus on identity–i.e., “the segmentation of belief into ideological, territorial, affiliative, or gang camps” (SW 175)–over “subpolitical” (SW 175) becoming. These are all instances where Goodman performs the same founding gesture Ahmed locates in feminist new materialism: marking out an old body of theory that supposedly doesn’t attend to vibration and rhythm, Goodman presents his vibrational ontology and rhythmanlitycal method as new, and as overcoming theory’s past commitments to representational dualisms, skeptical melancholy, and identity politics.


Unlike feminist new materialists, Goodman doesn’t use this founding gesture to locate systematic oppression in a now-overcome past. But this doesn’t mean he isn’t using vibration and rhythm as idealized models that abstract away from ongoing relations of domination and subordination in that way; he just uses a different method of abstraction than Grosz, Bennett, and Barad. On the one hand Goodman recognizes that white supremacist patriarchy is itself a politics of frequency that both determines the normal range of human hearing and the relative ir/rationality of frequencies. For example, he argues that the range of audible frequencies is determined not just by “physiology…but also the policing of the sensible enacted by groups defined by their affective affinities determined by taste, expertise, or other audiosocial predeterminations such as class, race, gender, and age” (SW 191). He’s aware that group-based cultural practices normalize the distribution of rational, perceptible signal. Echoing Ranciere in his phrase “policing the sensible,” Goodman implies that these are infra-group practices: each group defines a common object around which that normalized distribution happens. So he recognizes a plurality of ‘normal’ distributions of the sonic sensible. On the other hand, even though he says–once–that social identity affects the range of frequencies one recognizes as audible and rational, even this account is absent the idea of systemic domination and subordination. The claim “groups defined by their affective affinities” differentially “polic[e] the sensible” (SW 191) is a claim for group-based pluralism, not an argument that white supremacist patriarchy is a large-scale politics of frequency within which those smaller group-based patterns are nested. In fact, as Wayne Marshall emphasizes in his review of the book, Goodman “focus[es] on sound as physical force, as something subpolitical and pre-ideological” (98). At least in this book, Goodman treats frequency as ontologically prior to political and ideological phenomena like white supremacy, patriarchy, or post-identity biopolitics. And as Marshall emphasizes, it’s this ontological priority that Goodman thinks sets his project apart from traditional styles of music scholarship. From this perspective, vibratory rhythm’s status as an idealized model is what makes it better than “identitarian cultural studies”–it’s able to engage a more fundamental and ‘deeper’ level of ontological analysis.


Goodman’s flattening of property relations and his claim that frequency works below or prior to the level of social identity suggests that even though his analysis hangs on racialized cultural difference, it does not account for white supremacy (and its intersections) as something that distributes non/existence itself…in other words, that white supremacist patriarchy is a politics of frequency at the ontological level, not just the sonic level. For example, he argues that rhythmanalysis shows us something that traditional cultural studies critiques of capitalism obscure, namely that “the distinction between pirate or DIY microcultures and a co-opting capitalism becomes flattened” (SW 180-1). While it may be true that the two use comparable methods and techniques, the power relations among them are not flattened. Capitalism always finds new ways to extract surplus value, but that extraction always goes in the same direction. For example, the now-defunct viral video ap Vine was widely recognized as a platform used mainly by teens of color. The tools of subcultural production and really-subsumed surplus value extraction may have been one and the same, but it’s still people of color who are most egregiously exploited. Focusing only on the relationships among virological methods or techniques, Goodman abstracts away from the underlying politics of frequency within which really-subsumed digital culture is nested, and in this way works with an idealized social ontology.


This idealized social ontology informs his framing of the frequency war between postmillennial capital and radical black art. Goodman presents “vibro-capital” (SW 188) and radical black art as a “politics of frequency”: frequency, patterned rhythms, are the medium the former uses to colonize creativity and “control” (TKTK) us in the Deleuzian sense, and they are also the medium the latter use to resist and escape colonization and control. Goodman uses sound frequency is a medium for inter-group social struggle. I’m pressing Goodman’s claim that the politics of frequency happen at the level of ontology; his analysis suggests this, but his project is focused on audio frequency as a site of both control in the Deleuzian control-society sense and Afrofuturist refusal of that control. His project leads us to the point of being able to theorize this struggle at the ontological level, of white supremacy as an ontology that produces black non-being, etc., but does not itself do that. (E.g., he could easily have discussed the distribution of sonically-produced fear: think about how gender and rape culture affects one’s affective response to the sounds of approaching footsteps while one is walking alone in the dark, or which populations in what nations routinely hear US drones.) Replacing one idealized model with a new idealized model may superficially reinvigorate theory, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re still abstracting away from ongoing relations of domination and subordination. It just re-naturalizes them behind a new ideal-as-idealized model. In this respect, Goodman’s Sonic Warfare is no different than feminist new materialism and its vibrational ontologies: acoustic resonance saves theory from an outdated idealized model, but replaces it with a new idealized model that’s compatible with statistical normalization & post-identity biopolitics.