Perceptual Coding & A Sonic Cyberfeminist Theory of Oppression

I’m working on a piece for Annie Goh and Marie Thompson’s special issue on sonic cyberfeminisms. Here’s the part where I work out my theoretical framework:

In The Sonic Episteme, I argued that Jonathan Sterne’s concepts of perceptual coding and perceptual technics create breaks in the audio spectrum in the same way that neoliberalism and biopolitics create breaks in the spectrum of humanity. According to Sterne, perceptual coding refers to “those forms of audio coding that use a mathematical model of human hearing to actively remove sound in the audible part of the spectrum under the assumption that it will not be heard” (loc 547). Neoliberalism and biopolitics use a mathematical model of human life–the market, the population–to actively remove people from eligibility for moral and political personhood on the assumption that they will not be missed. They each use the same basic set of techniques: a normalized model of hearing, the market, or life defines the parameters of what should be included and what should be disposed of, all for the purposes of maximizing the accumulation of private property/personhood (under liberalism, personhood is a type of private property).

For example, using scientific research on which frequencies were supposedly “essential for the reproduction of sound” and which were unnecessary for the intelligible transmission of speech” (Sterne loc 987), AT&T developed techniques for compressing phone signals that eliminated those unnecessary frequencies. As Sterne and other sound studies scholars emphasize, this line was not an objective one but grounded in what Jennifer Lynne Stover calls a “listening ear”: “a socially constructed ideological system producing but also regulating cultural ideas about sound” (13). The mathematical models of hearing used in most of this type of research reflect Western biases about the most important features of human speech (e.g., that tone is insignificant to meaning). So, perceptual coding uses white supremacist, capitalist presumptions about the limits of humanity to mark a break in what counts as sound and what counts as noise. It then uses that break to decide how resources are allocated: “By calculating the limits of human hearing, and of the parts of hearing most necessary for understanding speech, AT&T was able to create a system that only reproduced those parts of the signal (loc 508). Cutting out unnecessary frequencies let them squeeze more phone calls on the same bandwidth, thus allowing it “to squeeze more profit out of its infrastructure” (loc 775).

Neoliberalism and biopolitics make white supremacist capitalist patriarchy more efficient so that it can squeeze more ‘profit’–here in the sense of personhood as a form of private property–out of the basic infrastructures we’ve inherited from the Enlightenment. I have developed these claims extensively in both Resilience & Melancholy and The Sonic Episteme, so I will only briefly summarize them here. Whereas Modernity and classical liberalism appealed to ideals and technologies that enforced purity, policing purity (like the purity of whiteness) is resource-intensive. It’s a lot easier to identify the threshold at which the costs of policing that impurity outweigh the benefits and then structure things so impurities stay below that level. THis is how Foucault describes changes in policing in Society Must Be Defended: the aims of policing shifted from eliminating crime to maintaining an acceptably low crime rate. The same is applied to policing the limits of white supremacist capitalist patriarchal personhood: instead of excluding everyone but white cishetero bourgeois men, neoliberalism and biopolitics include anyone who can successfully meet performance-based metrics (like credit scores or standardized test scores). According to political theorist Lester Spence, “neoliberalism relies on three populations, institutions, and spaces: those perfectly formed according to market logic, those able to be re-formed according to that logic, and the exceptions unable to be re-formed.” The main difference between neoliberal logics of exception and classically liberal logics of exclusion is that neoliberalism has figured out that it is more profitable to re-form some marginalized populations and grant them (conditional, instrumental) access to elite spaces than it is to keep them out. Re-forming exceptional populations is thought to be too costly and inefficient–it would impede the accumulation of personhood-as-property for those in the first group, whereas the re-formation of the middle group is a form of such accumulation. Spence’s exceptional populations and Sterne’s surplus frequencies are analogous phenomena because they are carved out with the same basic tools that appeal to the same underlying values.

Perceptual coding is a sub-type of broader neoliberal and biopolitical logics. Here, explicitly capitalist and implicitly white, Eurocentric, patriarchal, and abelist assumptions motivate the use of a cost/benefit calculus to identify surplus frequencies whose disposal allow for the more efficient accumulation of capital. Perceptual coding is easier to study and analyze than these broader logics, which happen at a much greater scale. For this reason, I use Sterne’s account of perceptual coding as a model for a sonic cyberfeminist theory of oppression. It shows us not just how oppression works under neoliberalism and biopolitics, but also its motivations and effects. I already mentioned these motivations in the beginning of this paragraph: the point is to increase the efficient accumulation of personhood as property by white supremacist capitalist patriarchal institutions. This determines whose lives are deemed worthy of social investment and whose lives aren’t. In this context, privilege is the receipt of such investment and the ability to build on it by access to circulation (markets, life). Oppression is the denial of this investment and access to circulation. For example, mass incarceration takes people of color out of circulation and subjects them to carceral logics (which are defined by their production of isolation and containment) because this is the way such populations are most profitable for neoliberal and biopolitical white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Perceptual coding subjects audio frequencies to the same techniques of government and management that neoliberalism and biopolitics subject people to. For this reason, it can serve as a specifically sonic cyberfeminist theory of oppression.