Noisy Feminists, Neoliberal Sophrosyne, & Lemonade’s Demonic Calculus–my talk at NYU Musicology 4/27/17

I’m speaking at NYU’s Music Colloquium on Thursday April 27th. Here’s the text of my talk. I’ve put the introduction below.


Anne Carson’s “The Gender of Sound” studies the women of classical Greek literature. They are presented as “a species given to disorderly and uncontrolled outflow of sound”; unless carefully managed by husbands and the law, women’s loose lips (in both senses of the term) will upset overall “harmonious” order of the city. That’s why the ancient Greeks thought women’s disharmonious sounds acted as “as political disease.” Emphasizing the relationship the Greeks drew between sonic harmony and social harmony, Carson’s analysis of gendered sounds hinges on the concept of sophrosyne; often translated as “moderation,” sophrosyne was directly tied to ancient Greek theories of musical harmony as geometric proportion. For example, philologist Helen North, who wrote the two books on sophrosyne, argues that “Plato’s later definition of sophrosyne,” the one in the Republic and Laws, appears “in unmistakably Pythagorean terms as harmonic proportion (Rep. 431D ff)” (North 1966 164).


Unpacking the music theory behind Carson’s analysis reveals what is culturally and historically specific about the concept of sophrosyne she uses. Harmony-as-geometric-proportion suited a particular variation of patriarchy. If we update the concept of harmony on which we model sophrosyne to accord with contemporary acoustics’ understanding of interacting frequencies, Carson’s analysis has a lot to tell us about the variations of patriarchy we experience in the present, and how we feminize sounds and speakers that feel politically malignant.


Today, feminine-presenting phenomena can “lean in” to patriarchal privilege and avoid the negative effects of structural feminization by exhibiting the proper balance between signal and noise. Conversely, femininities that feel immoderately noisy or loud because they distort rather than amplify patriarchy are structurally feminized. Filtering healthy from unhealthy noise is how post-feminist patriarchy accomplishes the work of gendering, that is, of separating those with access to institutionalized patriarchal privilege from those without it. This filtering is a kind of sophrosyne, a practice of moderation modeled on contemporary acoustics’ understanding of harmony as a relationship that emerges from interacting frequencies. Contemporary patriarchy needs women to make lots of noise, because it is from that noise that white supremacist patriarchy emerges as signal.
The first section of this talk argues that sophrosyne is a technology that post-feminist patriarchy uses to gender and racialize women. After unpacking Carson’s use of sophrosyne, I then consider two contemporary examples of gendered, feminine and “feminist” noise: “loud” feminists of color on social media, and the feminist “voices” that are legible to mainstream institutions as acceptable political disruption. Finally, I use the concept of acoustic sophrosyne to explain how these feminine and feminist noises are produced by and productive of post-identity patriarchy. The second section of this talk considers Katherine McKittrick’s concept of “demonic calculus” as a black feminist response and alternative to post-feminist sophrosyne. A practice of “count[ing] it out differently” (MBL 23), demonic calculus reapportions sophrosyne’s “harmonic” ratios so that they rationalize black women’s experiences under white supremacist patriarchy. I conclude by showing several ways demonic calculus works as a compositional strategy in Beyonce’s 2016 album Lemonade.