Intro to chapter 5 of GOOD VIBES ONLY

I’m working on finishing the first draft of my book GOOD VIBES ONLY: PHENOMENOLOGY, ALGORITHMS, AND BIOPOLITICS and I’ve finished a first draft of the final chapter. This is the chapter that’s explicitly about phenomenology, and it draws together a list of key texts that…is pretty representative of my method of drawing from just about any relevant humanities discipline. Those texts include: Marina Peterson’s Atmospheric Noise, Eric Stanley’s Atmospheres of Violence, Louise Amoore’s Cloud Ethics, Tina Chanter’s Whose Antigone, and Beauvor’s Ethics of Ambiguity. You can get a sense of the chapter from the intro below:

Chapter 5: Atmospheres and Ambiguities: Critical Phenomenology and the Biopolitics of Legitimation

“New York Metro Weather” is an indie weather publication that operates primarily on platforms like Patreon and the one formerly known as Twitter. More hip and voicey than your average matter-of-fact weather report, NY Metro Weather routinely uses the term “vibes” to refer to the weather: their weekly forecast is named “NYC Weekly Vibecast,” and they end each Tweet/X post weather update with a pronouncement about the quality of “the vibes”: “the vibes are pretty dang good!” or “the vibes are…hazy” or “the vibes have floated away.

NY Metro Weather uses “vibe” to translate meteorological conditions into the terms of human experience. For example, describing “High temperatures reach the mid 70s with mostly sunny skies, comfortable dew points and a gorgeous breeze” as having “immaculate” vibes, they synthesize data points about various atmospheric conditions–temperature, cloud cover, humidity, and wind–and their relation to the average New Yorker’s bodily experience into a qualitative state. As NY Metro Weather uses the term, “vibe” translates meteorological terms into phenomenological ones. 

NY Metro Weather’s social media editor is not the only person to use vibes and atmospheres to think in phenomenological terms. Amid the growing literature on atmospheric studies, this chapter zooms in on Eric A. Stanley’s Atmospheres of Violence and Marina Peterson’s Atmospheric Noise. These two books model atmosphere and the atmospheric analogously to vibes and use these concepts to analyze the phenomenology of figures defined by their position at the intersection of two competing regimes of legitimation: “near life” and “noise.” These two categories describe the situation (Beauvoir’s term for phenomenological horizon or orientation) of phenomena which are tasked with meeting contradictory demands of competing authorities, and thus damned if they do and damned if they don’t. These texts are, I argue, critical phenomenologies of criminalization and demonization, and their concepts of atmosphere are theoretical tools we can use to critically analyze the biopolitics of legitimation.

Though this is not their stated intention or claim, Stanley and Peterson use “atmosphere” as a way to theorize the same sorts of phenomenological orientations I locate as the central objects of knowledge and governance in the biopolitics of legitimation: vibes and vectors. The first section in this chapter explains this argument. Focusing on the relative density and orientation of molecules and particles in the air, which is perceived with a mix of objective measurements and subjective tendencies, Stanley and Peterson’s atmospheric analytics offer a critical phenomenological method that’s uniquely well-suited to studying the biopolitics of legitimation because they model the same sorts of relationships that vibes and vectors do. Drawing on Louise Amoore’s Cloud Ethics, I show how these relationships take the form of what she calls “condensation”; that is her metaphor for how cloud-based algorithms like Large Language Models and Neural Nets process data. Atmospheric phenomenologies offer concepts and methods that help us think critically from within the epistemic framework legitimating biopolitics uses to know and govern reality. 

The next section focuses on two analogous figures of illegitimacy in Stanley and Peterson’s books: near life and noise. “Near life” is Stanley’s term for the experience of trans, and especially Black trans people’s inclusion into white cisheteropatriarchal racial capitalist life as “the damned” (109), the criminalized and demonized who are forced to be present and live as figures of illegitimate existence. Stanley argues that near life is caught between competing imperatives to both disappear and make a spectacle; the former imperative comes, I argue, from the patriarchal racial capitalist order of the private family, and the latter comes from neoliberal models of the private market. Peterson’s text is more literal in its study of atmosphere: this critical anthropology of airplane noise shows how the noise that airplanes make on the ground at airports and as they takeoff and land over people’s homes and businesses led to the enclosure of the atmosphere as private property owned by either the federal government or private individuals. As Peterson demonstrates, legal disputes in the US about airplane noise led to “struggles…over the legitimacy of differential regimes” (22) within the federalist partitioning of airspace. Though the federal government owns the airspace in which planes traveled, their engines reshape the atmosphere (mammals perceive sound as patterns of differential air pressure) to send sound waves that trespass into state and private property. “Drawing together air and ground, noise itself was,” as Peterson puts it, “indeterminate, coming into being even as it fell, again, into jurisdictional gaps posed by divergent arenas of authority” (24). In other words, airplane noise fell into both federal and state/private jurisdiction while also slipping between them. In this context, noise is an illegitimately oriented atmosphere, vectors of air pressure whose existence disturbs the legitimate distribution of property right between federal and state/private ownership. From this perspective, we might think of noise as demonized sound, sound whose very existence must be eliminated in order to maintain the legitimate distribution of property.

Noise and near life are demonized/criminalized atmospheric orientations caught in a double-bind between two competing regimes of property ownership. As I argue in the chapter’s third section, they are comparable to the way continental feminist philosophers have theorized the figure of Antigone. Described by Hegel as “the eternal irony of the community,” Antigone represents the situation of white women in classical liberalism: they are members of society without being full persons either in the civil sphere or the private sphere of the family. Stanley and Peterson’s figures of near life and noise reorient this figure for a context in which there is no community or civil society and the sole function of the state is criminalization – think less “the eternal irony of the community” and more “the eternal irony of private markets and families.” Noise and near life are paradigmatic cases of phenomena demonized in the crosshairs of conflicting regimes of private property legitimation, and in this respect they help illustrate how the biopolitics of legitimation polices the boundaries of personhood. 

This schematic of two competing regimes of legitimation isn’t,however, the full picture of how the biopolitics of legitimation governs personhood. Though Peterson’s and Stanley’s accounts of “noise” and “near life” attend to the competition between two regimes of legitimation, this competition occurs after an earlier and politically more fundamental round of vibe checking. Using philosopher Tina Chanter’s reading of the typically overlooked role of slavery in Sophoclese’s Antigone, I show how logics of criminalization and demonization include a third regime of property legitimation. Just as the family-vs-state dynamic in Antigone is also in dialogue with laws and conventions governing who could and could not legitimately be a slave, the domestic-vs-markets dynamic in Stanley’s analysis of near life is also in conversation with laws and conventions regarding who can and cannot legitimately occupy the common social horizon. Chanter’s analysis points toward the role of sophrosyne, the ancient Greek idea of harmony, sound-mindedness, and self-mastery, in justifying the distinction between who could and couldn’t legitimately be a slave. Foreigners or barbarians were represented as incapable of aligning themselves, their families, and their cities with the purportedly “natural” patriarchal order of ruler and ruled. This lack of self-mastery was then taken as justification for their eligibility for slavery: if they couldn’t keep themselves in line, then it was only right that somebody else do it for them. In the biopolitics of legitimation, sophrosyne appears not as harmony but as a vibe or orientation. And it’s the checking of this vibe, one’s perceived capacity to maintain one’s alignment with the legitimate order of ruler and ruled that determines one’s access to the protections offered by the private family and private markets.

As I show below, near life and noise are examples of vibes that lack sophrosyne: they are out of line with the legitimate order of ruler and ruled. Chanter’s approach to Antigone highlights how this being out-of-line is quite literally a form of illegitimate lineages of heritability. Ancient Greeks tended to frame sophrosyne as a matter of genos, their term for lineage, kin, or family. Building on the argument from chapter 3 that legitimating biopolitics treats orientations as heritable property, this chapter argues that the biopolitics of legitimation uses its own version of sophrosyne to police the heritability of personhood-as-property. For example, Stanley argues that for the subjects of their study, all of whom were executed in spectacular acts of violence, their “gender nonconformity [is] a gift to us all that was returned to them as debt” (100). Depending on the specifics of their situation, some queer/trans people of color will be able to flip their oppressed identities into human and fiscal capital – that’s basically the influencer model. Others, however, are less well-situated to do so; and because they do not adequately return what has been vested in them, their orientation feels like a debt they must repay, e.g., through the spectacle of their death. Here, the capacity to participate in human capital markets is conditioned upon a more fundamental (though multifactored) orientation. Though the stakes are vastly different in the music industry, you can observe similar phenomena there. For example, though Black artists have always been making country music, in the 21st century the only Black musicians to score significant country hits are ones oriented toward either viral social media spectacle (Lil Nas X) or billions of dollars in family wealth (Beyonce Knowles Carter). Venturing into the whitest of popular genres, these Black artists are treated as legitimate participants in the genre by virtue of their orientation toward capital. That orientation was what determined their songs’ eligibility for the country music charts, i.e., the market in country music. In order to even align oneself with the private family and private markets, one has to be felt to be sufficiently aligned with the legitimate distribution of property–you have to give “private responsibility” vibes. 

The biopolitics of legitimation appeals to three intersecting discourses of legitimation to determine the boundaries of personhood: the private family, private markets, and private responsibility. Together, these orient the atmospheres that orient us, collectively and individually. In figuring out how to fight back against this and what alternative atmospheres and models of personhood might look like, it may be tempting to turn towards alternative sources of legitimation and/or ideals of illegitimacy, much in the same way late 20th century queer theory valorized anti-normativity. As my analysis in chapter four suggests, that’s not going to be an effective approach: just about any orientation can be co-opted and folded into modulating logics of legitimation. 

Instead of seeking out illegitimate atmospheres or orientations, it would be more effective to adopt an approach from the tradition of existential phenomenology that claims the only genuine grounds for ethics we have is the fact of our shared, mutual situation. The final section of this chapter turns to Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity to develop a critical phenomenological approach to guiding our ethical and political responses to the biopolitics of legitimation. In that text, she develops an ethical system that begins from the socio-material fact that we all share a world–we are oriented to and by one another. Every action shifts our orientations to specific people and away from others. Acting ethically and justly is not a matter of adopting a particular orientation; it means being individually and collectively responsible to one another for our mutually-oriented world.