Some thoughts on Cox’s apologia for “sonic materialism”

I have some initial thoughts on Christoph Cox’s defense of the “ontological turn” in sound studies aka sonic new materialism or realism newly out in parallax. This is all very initial and mainly note-taking for me to return to once I’m finished with grading finals. Cox’s apologia helps me connect some of my very early work in The Conjectural Body to my most recent work in The Sonic Episteme. More specifically, some of his basic theoretical commitments reveal an underlying liberalism that naturalizes (in the sense of misrepresents as an inherent, immutable given, a necessary feature, rather than a sociohistorical contingency), you guessed it, white supremacy and whiteness.

These commitments reveal themselves in two main places: in his discussion of “nature” and “culture” at the beginning of the piece and in the way he discusses both justice and conceptual abstraction at the end of the piece.

He ends his first paragraph with a statement of his main argument: “Here I want to clarify that I  conceive ontology and cultural analysis to be complementary rather than adversarial projects” (1). “Ontology” functions as a stand-in for the real stuff prior to politics–Existing before it gets muddled by existents, nature outside of culture. In the next paragraph, Cox adopts this nature/culture language. He argues:

Yet there are two different ways to construe this complementarity, only one of which I think is viable. One can take the real to be a social construct, thus folding nature into culture, ontology into epistemology; or one can take cultural history to be an outgrowth of natural history, thus folding culture into nature and conceiving human knowing as one natural process among others. The first position has been prevalent in the humanities and social sciences for decades, but it is deeply mistaken. Confounding chronology, it treats us latecomers in the history of the universe as the authors of that very universe. Only the latter position – that cultural history supplements a natural history that vastly preceded it – makes any sense.

Let’s work through this claim by claim: Cox argues that nature and culture (we’ll defer figuring out his definition of these terms for a minute) are related, but there is only one proper relationship between them: the one where culture follows from nature. The wrong one, the one that thinks “nature” itself is a “cultural” phenomenon is wrong, according to Cox–it puts the cart before the horse, taking what is chronologically later–human culture–and putting it as chronologically prior. Nature first, then culture.

The problem with Cox’s argument here is that the very idea of “nature” as that which precedes culture is itself a sociohistorically local idea! European philosophers invented it in the enlightenment. (My claim here is similar to the claim that the very idea of “sexual difference” is itself the product of a white, European gender system. And this is an accurate claim–see for example this book.) Social contract theorists retooled the idea of “nature” to mean that which is prior to or outside of civil society. They invented the idea of a “state of nature” so that classically liberal contractarian society appeared to be a legitimate exercise of political power and authority. This is what the entirety of The Conjectural Body’s second chapter is about.

There, I show that Jean-Jacques Rousseau already made this argument in his early musical writings (i.e., everything up through the Essay on Languages). I note a significant break between these early musical writings and his later political writings. Charles Mills marks a similar break between what he calls Rousseau’s “non-ideal contract” (in the Second Discourse) and his more famous “ideal contract” (more about idea/non-ideal theory later). In his early musical writings, Rousseau is deep in a beef with composer and music theorist Jean-Philipe Rameau about whether or not there is such a thing as the “nature” of sound. Rameau thinks the overtone series is the elementary, objective reality of sound, and thus this newfangled tonal harmony he was participating in inventing was the best and only True way to organize music because it was based on the overtone series. Having observed how his colleagues in political philosophy seem to be inventing various “states of nature,” Rousseau argues that the very idea of “nature” is a sociohistorically local concept. For example, he points out that both hypothetical and real people supposedly in the “state of nature” (like indigenous peoples) don’t think or know that they’re in the state of nature. It’s both theoretically impossible (how can someone in a pre-linguistic state have a concept of nature?) and anthropologically impossible–of course not-yet-colonized non-European indigenous peoples don’t use trendy concepts in then-contemporary European philosophy (for example, Native Americans didn’t understand themselves to be in the state of nature because English concepts of the state of nature frame it as the absence of private property relations, and Native Americans didn’t practice these sorts of relations prior to colonization and conquest). So if “nature” itself is a concept invented in order to justify the legitimacy of classical contractarian liberalism, then Rameau’s appeals to the objective nature of sound has the effect of justifying European harmonic conventions as the only legitimate way to organize sounds (Conjectural Body 36-42).

For the classical liberals, the whole point of putting nature prior to politics was to justify the existence of so-called “natural” inequalities. Liberal commitments to formal equality before the law prohibit civil society to recognize any differences among individuals. The only way to justify patriarchy and white supremacy is to treat these differences as natural, physiological, pre-political ones that exist only in the private sphere, not in civil society. Status hierarchies are fine if and only if they exist prior to the civil sphere’s formal equity. And this is what Rameau does: he argues that there is a status hierarchy (i.e., the order of overtones) inherent in the nature of sound as such. And the issue here isn’t that I or Rousseau are anti-science (remember that First Discourse, the arts and sciences are both good and bad), but that Rameau interprets the relationships among overtones as a status hierarchy. The main difference between Rameau and Cox (and other vaguely Deleuzian materialists like Goodman and Grosz) is that the new materialists replace the mechanism for distributing high and low status–where Rameau heard hierarchies, they hear flattened markets or “sound’s universal becoming” (Cox 6) (such as the “self-organizing power of material processes” Cox names on p. 3 or the “flows” and “sonic flux” he talks about in the last paragraph of the piece). The argument about new materialism & neoliberal biopolitics is the basis of chapter 3 of The Sonic Episteme, which you can read a bit about here (longer) and here (shorter–this is my SPEP 2018 paper).

Flattened markets are another — neoliberal — version of formal equality. They treat everyone as having equal opportunity for success. However, as Foucault and plenty of other people point out, neoliberal concepts of the market and human capital cannot and do not account for material inequities in background conditions, such as environmental pollution, the quality of public education, family wealth, and so on. It’s formal equality before the market instead of formal equality before the law.

Cox claims his project is “situated yet universalizing” (5), but he frames this in a way that treats all situations (African, Indian, whatever philosophical traditions he mentions in passing) as formally equal. He talks about whiteness without an account of white supremacy, as though white highbrow sound culture is formally equal with all cultural practices. (See Cox 4-5). Here’s where his ideal theory comes in–he theorizes based on how things ought to be in a perfect world free of the ongoing legacies of intersecting relations of domination and subordination (white supremacy, patriarchy, etc.). In an ideal world, all “situations” would be of equal political, social, and yes material status. But we do not live in this ideal world. Our world, including and especially or physical, concrete, material world, is significantly (perhaps irreperably?) shaped by centuries of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, ableism, cisheterosexism, you name it. To treat all situations from which to universalize as fungible because they are of equal standing obscures and naturalizes those very material inequities. The only way Cox can read Thompson as a “relativist” is if he understands whiteness to be one option among fungible, interchangeable options. As I read her, Thompson is not arguing that concepts of sound are culturally relative, but that Cox appeals to a concept of sound that has hegemonic and privileged status within white supremacy (white, in other words, is not one relative option among others, but the one that institutions actively encourage over others). Hers, in other words, is a non-ideal account of sonic ontology, one that recognizes that centuries of social, political, and material practices have made our world into one whose very distribution of molecules in the atmosphere is shaped by white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism.

So instead of fighting about correlationism or materialism, it would be better to think about idealizing and non-idealizing abstractions. As I argue in The Sonic Episteme, the correlationism-vs-materialism debate largely takes place within the realm of ideal theory. (This is in part why the materialists so often return to white Western concepts of ‘sound’ rather than theories and practices outside the white Western academic disciplines.) What we need are non-ideal accounts of sound and sonic materiality. As Mills explains in his “Ideal Theory as Ideology” essay, abstraction itself isn’t the problem. The problem is that liberalism abstracts away from ongoing relations of domination and subordination (e.g., formal equality before the law or market). It is entirely possible to form abstractions that do not abstract those ongoing relations of domination and subordination away. As Mills points out, white supremacy is one such abstraction, so is patriarchy. The Sonic Episteme points to a number of non-ideal theories of sound.