Good Vibes Only: phenomenology and the biopolitics of algorithmic legitimation – draft book proposal

This was originally published on June 14, 2023 on my Substack newsletter. I’m republishing it here to get this post on my platform(Never trust platforms you don’t own.) If you would like to support the work I do (I don’t get research funds now that I’m not faculty), I’m running a sale on newsletter subscriptions: a year for $24. Offer is good until 23 February 2024.

I have finalized the first full draft of my proposal for my fifth book, titled (for now) Good Vibes Only: phenomenology and the biopolitics of algorithmic legitimation. I’m sharing both for those of you interested in the content and would like a preview of what’s to come, and for those of you who may be interested to see how an acquisitions editor draws up a proposal for their own book.

Title: Good Vibes Only: phenomenology and the biopolitics of algorithmic legitimation

Author: Robin James


This book argues that the forms of governance performed by the algorithms fueling AI, recommender systems, facial recognition, and other contemporary technologies constitute not a “soft biopolitics” of flexible norms, as John Cheney-Lippold argues, but a new biopolitical regime in which discourses of legitimacy function in place of norms to draw patriarchal racial capitalist lines around personhood. A follow-up to The Sonic Episteme, this book attends to the relationship between the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of this new biopolitical regime. My previous book demonstrated the ways sound, as a frequency, was used to translate statistical normalization, or the measurement of the most frequent frequencies in a population, into qualitative terms. This book argues that phenomenological orientation or horizon has a similar function in contexts where probability is modeled as a vector rather than (strictly) as a normal curve. These mathematical vectors have been vernacularized as “vibes”, which are qualitative categories that everyone from 2020s social media users to music streaming services use to define the same sorts of orientations or tendencies that vectors model mathematically. “Vibes” are a lay term for more or less the same phenomenon philosophers call phenomenological orientations or horizons. Studying late 2010s and early 2020s internet culture and American popular music from the 1970s through today, the book shows how orientations are policed not for their normativity, but for what Melinda Cooper calls their legitimacy, or their capacity to exhibit private responsibility in guaranteeing the lawful, patriarchal racial capitalist transfer of private property. Then, looking to the work of Beyonce Knowles and Grace Jones alongside recent scholarship in critical phenomenology, the book identifies several techniques that have emerged as ways to orient ourselves, to use Ashon Crawley’s term, “otherwise.” First, I build on Emily Lordi and Kara Keeling’s accounts of the aforementioned musicians’ “Formation” and “Corporate Cannibal” to identify a Black feminist practice of leveraging the analogous form shared by some Black radical aesthetic structures and neoliberal logics of enclosure into media for imagining relations that are irreducible to private property ownership. Then, in the final chapter, I argue that although my theory and critique of the biopolitics of algorithmic legitimation is grounded in 21st century Anglophone feminist of color phenomenology, the fact of orientation not inherently or necessarily critical of patriarchal racial capitalist power relations—Heidegger’s whole project is oriented towards what he calls “spiritual National Socialism.”  In order to orient ourselves otherwise, what matters is to whom we collectively choose to orient ourselves toward, and from whom we orient ourselves away. In this respect, Beauvoir’s existential phenomenology, which frames (re)orientation or (re) “situation” as a matter of choosing some people and some values over (and against) others, is a helpful theoretical model for imagining how we might do phenomenology otherwise.  


Developed in the late 1970s, Foucault’s account of biopower explains how qualitative social norms work together with quantitative statistical norms to model and govern society. Both sorts of norms determine the boundaries of sexual ab/normality, which decides who is and isn’t granted the protections of full personhood. 

However, as scholars such as Justin Joque, John Cheney-Lippold, and Melinda Cooper have shown, the mathematical models used by today’s computational algorithms are different than the bell-curve style population modeling Foucault discusses in texts such as The History of Sexuality v.1 and Society Must Be Defended. Though they each emphasize slightly different mathematical procedures, these three accounts all focus on procedures that model probability speculatively as a possible future rather than as a rate in past empirical data (which is what a normal curve tracks). As scholars such as Cooper, Louise Amoore, and Lisa Adkins have argued, contemporary tech and finance model reality using calculative methods that push past the limits of mere probability by folding qualitative speculation into quantitative procedures. That folding happens through the interpretation of data modeled as vectors–mathematical objects with a direction and magnitude that represent an orientation in space. As anthropologist Nick Seaver explains, “most machine learning systems parse the entities of the world by first rendering them as vectors…Represented as vectors, objects are defined by their orientation.” Whereas Foucaultian biopolitics is grounded in a mathematical model of frequency over time, this new biopolitics uses a math that models orientation in space.

Once modeled, comparisons among various orientations then get assessed both quantitatively and qualitatively for accuracy and plausibility. For example, machine learning researcher Janelle Shane’s October 2018 talk “Machine learning failures–for art!” talk highlights some of the paint colors one of her ML algorithms built after being trained on Sherwin Williams’ colors: “Sindis Poop,” “Turdly,” “Suffer,” and “Gray Pubic.” While Shane plays the inappropriateness of these names for laughs (or art), her talk highlights how the complex math behind machine learning algorithms relies on qualitative input grounded in cultural habits and traditions to sift out successful from unsuccessful results. In this example, these paint color names are risible not because they fail to conform to a standard or norm, but because they are associated with inappropriate things—excrement, pain, and genitals. Sending our thoughts in the wrong direction, results like “turdly” are excluded for their improper orientation to the basic rules of business etiquette. Whereas Foucaultian biopower weaves together qualitative and quantitative norms, this new form of algorithmic biopower weaves together qualitative and quantitative orientations, which are then judged for their relative capacity to follow the rules, especially the rules about private responsibility and the distribution and transfer of private property. In this respect, this new form of biopower likewise hinges on sexuality; however, it conceives of sexuality as an orientation that is assessed for its relative legitimacy, rather than a disciplinary or statistical norm assessed for its relative normativity.

Good Vibes Only argues that the math behind contemporary algorithmic governance works together with 21st century vernaculars as a new form of biopower centered on orientations instead of norms. Just as Bayesian probabilities and vectors supplement Gaussian probabilities modeled as normal curves, vibes supplement and in some cases replace the work traditionally performed by qualitative social norms and antinormativity. Building on Sara Ahmed’s study of orientation as a structure of racialized sexuality in Queer Phenomenology, this book argues that the qualitative component of this regime of biopower is, as its title suggests, what late 2010s/early 2020s vernacular call “vibes.”  Apart from Peli Grietzer’s 2017 piece “A Theory of Vibe” and some work by cultural critics like Kyle Chayka, not much attention has been paid to theorizing vibes and their relation to contemporary technology. In fact, most of the recent academic literature on “mood” as a musical category conceives of it as an emotion or affect rather than an orientation (briefly: orientations are the perspectives or situations that make some affects or emotions more readily palpable than others). Studying social media, internet culture, and popular music, Good Vibes Only shows that vibes discourse adopts an epistemic and ontological framework that is analogous to the one contemporary computational algorithms use to perceive and model our reality, and then uses that framework to achieve similar ends—ends that the STS and AI Ethics literature have firmly established as furthering new forms of patriarchal racial capitalist oppression and dispossession. Far from a harmless trend or annoying relic of internet culture, vernacular vibes discourses are a method for policing white supremacist capitalist patriarchal personhood without making explicit reference to either identity categories or fixed, inflexible, universal standards. For example, in chapter three I discuss how the idiom “no gender, just vibes” misrepresents the policing of white cisheteropatriarchal personhood in terms of racialized private individual/familial responsibility as the overcoming of cisheteropatrichal gender, which it figures as inherently and exclusively normative. In other words, vibes let us both celebrate the end of oppressive norms while simultaneously taking on the policing they traditionally performed. Algorithmic biopower cuts a line between persons and non-persons, living and dead, but instead of framing that distinction in terms of (racialized) sexual normativity, it does so in terms of racialized, sexualized legitimacy. Whereas normativity requires reference to universals (like beauty) and/or populations/publics, legitimacy focuses only on the private individual and their personalized orientation. In this way, the biopolitics of legitimation updates traditional Foucaultian biopolitics to work in a fully neoliberalized context absent any such thing as “society.”

After the first half of the book identifies and theorizes the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of the biopolitics of algorithmic legitimation, the second half studies the interplay between discourses of legitimacy and legitimation, on the one hand, and various strategies popular musicians and philosophers have developed to do and think otherwise. Building on the work of Dale Chapman and Lester Spence, I show how Black radical pop music aesthetics have been co-opted into discourses of legitimacy through attempts at establishing “legitimate” lineages of intergenerational stylistic inheritance. Then, looking to Emily Lordi’s work on Beyoncé Knowles and Kara Keeling’s work on Grace Jones, I argue that the forms of anti-work and stewardship (rather than ownership) Lordi and Keeling identify in these musicians’ work suggest ways of creating and relating that avoid current imperatives to legitimation. Then, in the final chapter, I turn to phenomenology as a method for theorizing otherwise than legitimacy, or orienting our theoretical practices away from discourses of legitimacy. Though phenomenology is not inherently critical or counter-hegemonic (think of Heidegger’s work, for example), I argue that Beauvoirian existential phenomenology can be the basis for such a theoretical (re)orientation. One of the earliest philosophers to theorize phenomenological orientation in a non-ideal sense, Beauvoir understands each individual subject to be situated in a sociomaterial context that makes some choices more possible than others. However, as an existential phenomenologist, Beauvoir argues that this situation is collectively produced and reproduced through the actions of everyday people. In choosing to whom we orient ourselves toward and from whom we orient ourselves away (and often against), we can contribute to the re-orientation of our situation, either for good or bad. Like neoliberal discourses of legitimacy, existential phenomenology eschews universals; however, unlike such discourses, existential phenomenology centers our collective, shared situation and our role in maintaining and/or altering it. In this way, it offers a model for orienting our thinking and theorizing away from the biopolitics of algorithmic legitimation.

Like most of my work, this book puts continental philosophy, gender and sexuality studies, media studies, and popular music studies into conversation in order to theorize the politics of race, gender, and sexuality. It draws on Mary Beth Mader’s analysis of the math behind Foucaultian normalization, Melinda Cooper’s work on 21st century American neoliberalism and biopolitics, Kara Keeling’s work on Black Queer practices of counter-financialization, John Cheney-Lippold, Justin Joque, and Nick Seaver’s work on algorithms and algorithmic culture, as well as work by Louise Amoore and Lisa Adkins on the speculative logics behind 21st century tech and markets. The best way to situate this book is to understand it as the sequel to The Sonic Episteme. That book argues that frequencies and ratios are the building blocks of normal curves and normalized statistical distributions, and that in the neoliberal era ideas of acoustic resonance are used to translate those mathematical relations into qualitative form. Good Vibes Only argues that vectors, horizons, and orientations are the building blocks of contemporary algorithmic modeling, and that vibes are vernacularizations of those models that people use to perceive themselves the same way those algorithms perceive us. Both The Sonic Episteme and Good Vibes Only study the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of biopower, but the former focuses on normalizing biopower and the latter studies legitimating biopower.


0. Introduction

The introductory chapter begins with a concrete example that connects the circulation of the idiom “vibe check” to TSA’s practice of “behavior detection” to show how the biopolitics of legitimation polices the line between persons and non-persons. Then it does the typical things an introduction does: lays out the argument, situates the book’s scholarly contribution, discusses methods, and briefly walks through each chapter.

Chapter 1: What comes before vibes?: normative biopower, feelings, and psychophysical aesthesis

The biopolitics of legitimation upgrades the normalizing biopolitics Foucault theorized for greater compatibility with mid-21st century technology and politics. This chapter explains normalizing biopower in its original form to set up the discussion of legitimating biopower. My account of normalizing biopower is rooted in Foucault’s History of Sexuality v1 and Society Must Be Defended, as well as Mary Beth Mader’s Sleights of Reason. I show how both quantitative norms and qualitative norms are fundamentally temporal: normal distributions measure the frequency of a variable in a population, and qualitative norms are, as Judith Butler famously theorized, fundamentally iterative. Both frequencies and iterative performances are cyclical phenomena that unfold over time. This shared ontology is what allows qualitative and quantitative norms to be so powerfully compatible. Using Erica Fretwell’s account of psychophysical aesthesis and Heinrich Helmholtz’s psychophysical theory of hearing, the chapter illustrates how norms work as a modality of sensation, perception, or feel. 

Chapter 2: Phenomenological Orientations, Vibes, Vectors, and the Biopolitics of Algorithmic Legitimation

Using Chapter 1’s framework for what biopower is and how it weaves together qualitative and quantitative modalities by granting them an analogous ontological structure, this chapter explains what the biopolitics of legitimation is and how it accomplishes the same work as its predecessor—carving patriarchal racial capitalist boundaries around personhood—in new ways. In place of the statistical and qualitative norm, this form of biopolitics uses an orientation or horizon as object of knowledge and governance. First, the chapter explains what an orientation is by unpacking Sara Ahmed’s concept of phenomenological orientation and Linda Alcoff’s analogous concept of phenomenological horizon. An orientation or horizon is a material and sociohistorical location, and all the affordances and limitations that location offers to facilitate and/or inhibit what one can do, think, or be; to be orientated is to be directed towards some phenomena and away from others. Closely reading Ahmed’s discussion of the heritability of orientations as a debt relationship alongside Melinda Cooper’s theorization of legitimacy, I argue that orientations are governed by logics of legitimacy, or the capacity to reproduce patriarchal racial capitalist property relations. Then, using Justin Joque and Nick Seaver’s analyses of the math behind contemporary algorithms, I argue that the vectoral math they analyze models an orientation. Looking to the way the term/hashtag “vibe” is used in social media and on music streaming platforms, I show how vibe is an orientation in the same sense as a vector, and the discursive complement to that sotf of mathematical governance. Finally, using Michelle Murphy’s discussion of the affective dimensions of “The Girl” figure, I show how the discourse of sexual legitimation expresses il/legitimacy as a vibe.

Chapter 3: From Norms to Logics of Legitimation: the jazz metaphor, the hustle, the cut, and the legitimation of Black radical pop music aesthetics

This chapter hones in on neoliberal legitimacy. First, the chapter compares moral panics around obscenity in the Midwest in the 1970s and 1980s to contemporary moral panics around LGBTQ+ people. Whereas obscenity is a form of abnormality that references a public or community norm, legitimacy references only laws (which, as Cooper demonstrates, can be divine laws, in the case of the US right, or state laws, in the case of US liberals). In this respect, neoliberal legitimacy both eliminates normativity’s need for a public or population and leverages practices of criminalization and demonization to cut the line between persons and non-persons. As Lisa Cache and Adam Kotsko have shown, criminalization and demonization blame people for who they are while misrepresenting such blame as the consequence of insufficient private responsibility. After explaining how neoliberal legitimacy works and how it builds on but departs from normativity, I then consider how discourses of legitimacy have been and can be negotiated in 20th and 21st century African-American popular music. My aim here is to both show how Black radical and Black feminist aesthetics can be co-opted into logics of legitimation, and how they can offer means of creating, relating, and feeling that are, at least in this moment, beyond the grasp of enclosure and legitimation. This part of the chapter addresses work by Dale Chapman, Lester Spence, Emily Lordi, and Kara Keeling.

Chapter 4: Orienting Ourselves Otherwise: Phenomenology as Method in the Era of Biopolitical Legitimation

If phenomenological orientations are what the biopolitics of legitimation takes its object of knowledge and governance, what role does phenomenology offer in this context as a philosophical method? Looking primarily to recent developments in critical phenomenology and post-phenomenology, I argue that adopting phenomenological methods is not itself sufficient for orientating one’s theorizing away from the patriarchal racial capitalist work of legitimation. As a philosophical practice, phenomenology can be oriented both towards hegemonic ends, such as the telos of the neoliberal university, and away from them toward otherwise possibilities, such as those suggested in the work of Alia Al-Saji and Jonathan Stern. Whether we do so in a thematized, self-aware way or not, to practice phenomenology is to chose with whom and with what values we are aligned, and with whom and what values we are disaligned. With its emphasis on action as a choice and positing of values, Beauvoirian existential phenomenology is a helpful framework for orienting our thought and theory otherwise. As we collectively make the world together through our actions, we need to be deliberate about orienting ourselves towards this otherwise and the people who would be liberated in and by it, and away from and against patriarchal racial capitalism and its logics of legitimation.


  • Me, The Sonic Episteme (Duke 2019). The Sonic Episteme is about normalizing biopolitics; Good Vibes Only is the follow-up to The Sonic Episteme because it asks the same question—how do the quantitative dimensions of biopolitics work with qualitative forms of biopower—but of a different, historically more recent form of biopower. The kind of acoustic resonance I discuss in TSE represent a transition from norms to vibes. Acoustic resonance is a vibration, and vibes are like sympathetic resonance insofar it’s a form of analogous alignment but ultimately isn’t a form of resonance because vibes aren’t vibrations. Vibes function in place of norms in the biopolitics of algorithmic legitimation.
  • Melinda Cooper, Family Values (Princeton 2017) & Life as Surplus (Washington 2011). I take two key ideas from Cooper: (1) that a new form of biopolitics has emerged since the 1990s that uses something other than Gaussian normal curves, and (2) that legitimacy or the capacity to privately assume the costs of one’s sexual behavior has come to be the primary way racialized sexuality is policed in the 21st century West. Good Vibes Only takes these two key insights of Coopers and digs much more deeply into both the quantitative dimensions of this new form of biopower and considers what the qualitative component of this new form of biopower is.
  • Justin Joque, Revolutionary Mathematics (Verso 2022). This is a deep, deep dive into the difference between frequenting probability and Baysean probability, the latter of which is what’s used by the algorithms currently feeling AI and surveillance capitalism platforms. Joque’s book is definitely more focused on the quantitative details, and GVO builds on this work to think primarily about the qualitative and vernacular dimensions of the form of biopower to which this Baysean probability is recruited.
  • Mary Beth Mader: Sleights of Reason (SUNY 2011). This is a book about the quantitative practices in Foucaultian biopolitics and their connection to the policing of sexuality. GVO takes on this same angle for this newer form of biopolitics and its policing of sexuality.
  • Nick Seaver, Computing Taste (Chicago 2022). This book is an ethnography of recommender systems and the programmers who build them. I draw a lot of technical details from Seaver’s analysis, but am not interested in them ethnographically, but philosophically.
  • Erica Fretwell, Sensory Experiments (Duke 2020). Like Mader’s book, this is about normative biopower. However, whereas Maders’s is focused primarily on the quantitative dimensions, Fretwell’s book—especially her chapter on sound—addresses what “normal” feelings were thought to be and how these sensory norms around hearing marked racial boundaries.
  • Lester Spence, Knocking The Hustle (Pounctum 2015). This book is about hip hop’s negotiation of neoliberal logics and values. I draw on Spence’s analysis in chapter 3.
  • Michelle Murphy, The Economization of Life (Duke 2017). This book tracks the same two beats as GVO: first, there’s population biopolitics, and then there’s a biopolitics where life is modeled like a market. I use her analysis of “The Girl” figure as an example of what a vibe is and how it is used to govern sexual legitimacy. 
  • Jonathan Sterne, Diminished Faculties (Duke 2022). This is a recent book broadly in the sound studies + critical phenomenology sphere. Though we share a lot of the same perspective/literature in sound studies, my approach to phenomenology is more grounded in North American continental feminist philosophy (Alcoff, Al-Saji, Devin Shaw’s read of Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, etc.), whereas Sterne’s is more focused on Ahmed’s phenomenology specifically.

COURSES in which the book might be taught:

  • Theories of Sexuality (WGST 4000/5000 at UNC Charlotte)
  • Critical Data Studies (ILS 39500 at Purdue)
  • Critical Phenomenology (TC 9538 at University of Western Ontario, PHIL 690 at Georgetown, PHIL 4157 at Memorial U Canada)
  • Foucault’s Biopolitics (FREN 7410 at LUS)
  • Popular Music, Technology, and Society (U of Edinburgh) 
  • Music and Politics (MUSC 4007 at Northeastern U)

WORD COUNT: 70,000 to 75,000 words. This feels shorter than The Sonic Episteme, but not significantly shorter.

IMAGES: 25, b/w mostly fine except for one or two.

PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED MATERIAL: most of this has been worked through very messily and preliminarily on my blog/newsletter. Though some ideas have been developed in non-academic online publications like Real Life, the material has been significantly reworked to fit in this project. None of this work has appeared previously as a peer reviewed publication, but I have presented most of it at conferences.

PEER REVIEWERS: [redacted]

Estimated MS delivery date: Dec 2025 (Two sample chapters drafted; first chapter written in bits of conference papers and blog posts and needs to be put together; fourth chapter needs to be researched)

WHY THIS PRESS? [left somewhat generic for this post]

  • Half the books I cite are published by your press, which shows this work is in conversation with many other works of interest to your readership.
  • You published one of my previous books, and this book draws on that earlier work.
  • This press has a strong list in many of the sub/fields this project engages.


Robin James is a philosopher and pop music scholar. She is author of four books, including The Future of Rock and Roll (UNC Press, 2023), The Sonic Episteme (Duke 2019), Resilience & Melancholy (Zer0 2015), and The Conjectural Body (Lexington 2010). A former associate professor of philosophy and prolific writer in non-academic venues, she has published pieces in venues including Hypatia, The Journal of Popular Music Studies, LARB, Real Life, Jezebel, Post45, The Guardian, Noisey, and The New Inquiry.