Feedback and Distortion in the Political Economy of Music: Rhythmanalysis between Deleuze and Attali.

 

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Music is prophecy. Its styles and economic organisation are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible, that will impose itself and regulate the order of things; it is not only the future of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future.[1]

Attali’s description of music as a vortex upon future words, its containing within it the forms of Capital’s future crises, shares much in common with Russolo’s celebration of noise. Indeed, Russolo’s The Art of Noises would have been an apt afterword to Attali’s text. But Attali’s work and the the Futurist manifestos of the early twentieth century have a deeper relationship than merely a linguistic similarity. For Russolo, the age of industrialised warfare has introduced sonic warfare – as a maelstrom of affect – into the everyday experience of civilians. He sees the atonal and percussive bombardment of the metropolis as smashing the old harmonic order of Western classical music. Thereafter noise, for the Italian Futurists, becomes the sound of the future itself: as everything that can be called ‘sound’, that can be heard and understand as a sound must already be familiar to us. Attali takes this futurist sensibility as the basis for his chronology of the development of music alongside that of political economy, in which noise functions as the outside to present distributions of the sensible (to borrow Foucault’s language):

With noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world. With music is born power and its opposite: subversion. In noise can be read the codes of life, the relations among men. Clamour, Melody, Dissonance, Harmony; when it is fashioned by man with specific tools, when it invades man’s time, when it becomes sound, noise is the source of purpose and power, of the dream – music.[2]

Attali certainly shares the masculinist aesthetics of futurism – in which past and futurity become gendered terms; the past having associations with classical ideas of a passive femininity of the earth; the ‘noise of the future’ being exclusively revealed to the übermensch as his to shape and mould. Nonetheless, Attali uses this essential binary to construct four main periods of the sonic economy: sacrifice, representation, repetition and composition, corresponding to specific periods in the development of political economy. He takes pains to stress that these orders are hazy configurations and explicitly non-hierarchical – “the variable overlappings between periods, styles and forms, prohibits any attempt at a genealogy of music”[3] – but all of which revolve around the central motif of a present born out of the chaos preceding it. This structure has certain aspects in common with Hegelian Marxist praxis (in which the contradictions of capital accumulation necessitate future crises) but the linearity of Attali’s method – rather than questions of its horizontal or hierarchical topology per se – is what we wish to deconstruct here.

Chiefly, Attali describes noise as a homogenous force driving musical change, rather than a socialised phenomenon in itself: “I would like to trace the political economy of music as a succession of orders […] done violence by noises”[4]. Music thus operates in a dialectical position “between noise and silence”[5] which become the extremities of political economy’s frequency range. This ignores the fact that the subjective experience of noise, being subjected to noise, is (under the conditions of modernity Attali designates the order of repetition) already embedded in the biopolitical. Noise, as we have seen, is instrumentalised by biopower as an affective apparatus rather than standing outside of such apparatuses. Or, as Louise Varèse criticised Russolo’s similar fetishization of noise:  “Why, Italian Futurists, do you reproduce only what is most superficial and boring in our daily lives?”[6] Thus, Attali’s linear chronology, defined by the noise-sound binary, suffers from its own internal distortions. To make this clear, it is first necessary to set out the structural features which inform Attali’s temporal orders of sound.

Firstly, Attali defines the era preceding music’s commodification as ritualistic, following the paradigm of Pieter Brueghel’s painting Carnival’s Quarrel With Lent which serves as the paperback’s cover image. Attali reads the painting’s depiction of the symbolic characters of “Festival, Masks, Penitents, Round Dance”[7] as the four manifestations of music’s encoding in the medieval world view – to which the Church (in the form of Lent) comes to dominate and prohibit the others in the centuries after Brueghel’s painting was completed. Prior to music’s exchange as a commodity, Attali cites sacrifice as the social code which ascribes music its function in the medieval society: “It symbolically signifies the channelling of violence and the imaginary, the ritualization of a murder substituted for the general violence, the affirmation that a society is possible if the imaginary of individuals is sublimated”[8]. The subject of the sovereign society, as Foucault analysed in relation to punishment, is constituted through ritual. Against this sacrificial code of medieval music, the representational network of music’s commoditisation under early or mercantile capitalism encloses the ritualistic practices of the sovereign society and spectacularises its content in the form of use-value. Musicians thus become special kinds of workers in the total division of social labour. Recording technology, for Attali, ends the collective use of music by the sovereign and mercantile societies and instead allows for music’s direct domination by exchange value as a mass produced commodity enjoyed in the main by individuals. The era of repetition ends music’s representational reliance on a source or origin of sound – the simulacrum triumphs over music’s initial ritualistic function one and for all:

Reproduction, then, emerges as a tremendous advance, each day giving more people access to works created for representation – formerly reserved for those who financed the composition of the work – than at any time since man’s creation. But it also entails the individualisation of the sacrificial relation as a substitute for the simulacrum of the rituality of music.[9]

In each case the social relations which produce the music of the preceding period are subjected to an external force which simultaneously transforms and absorbs music’s societal encoding as a network of signifying practices into an entirely new totality. However, this history is in actuality entirely Eurocentric in perspective, privileging Western classical music of reproduction as an inevitable result of the development of early political economy. The ‘social’ in this case refers specifically to bourgeois European high culture in its triumph over primitive or ritualistic networks of music. Instead of an essential part of the reproduction of everyday life, music as representation becomes alienated from the sphere of labour as a ‘thing’ to be consumed. This linear narrative denies to ritualistic or sacrificial music any signification outside of its communicative role in the reproduction of ideology. The emphasis is on a cohesive social totality which develops out of its own material contradictions – with Western classical music the inevitable inheritor of music’s sacrificial origin. Attali gives little time to the edges of this analysis, to the liminal spaces of political economy’s territorial expansion in the 15th to the 19th century. Here, the conceptual distinctions between sound and noise, signification and representation, begin to blur. Steve Goodman, in his ethnography of sonic warfare, uses the example of the Jamaican Maroon tribe who successfully resisted British colonisation during the Eighteenth century using tactics which strategically redistributed the social function of noise and sound:

The abeng, a fashioned cow horn, had two uses: by slave holders to call the slaves to the cane fields and a “traditional form of communication among the communities, warning them and sending messages across difficult terrain.” The Maroons used the abeng in tandem with their other special techniques—drum communication, the ambush, and camouflage—in order to outwit the British […] The abeng, as a system of communication, produced signals “reproducing the pitch and rhythmic patterns of a fairly small vocabulary of Twi words”.[10]

The abeng is an instrument engaged both in the symbolic structures of Maroon culture and in the immediate practices of labour necessary for the reproduction of the social. By allowing communication across long distances, the abeng subsequently becomes re-coded as a tool for European colonial expansion. This conceptual violence to the abeng’s role in Maroon society engenders its further reconfiguration as a military object – its same affective resonance now becomes militarised:

Sentries stationed outside the villages would use the different pitches to communicate the British approach, the extent of the weapons they carried, and their path. But the abeng also had another affective function: to scare the British with its “hideous and terrible” dislocated tones, sometimes managing to repel the invaders with sound itself.[11]

Contrary to Attali’s conceptual binary, the abeng could emit both noise and sound simultaneously depending on its listener. Furthermore, the abeng defines a territory; it establishes a spatial relationship between the Maroons and the British colonizing force that is completely unconnected to its historical origin. As an object, the abeng becomes an assemblage of affective potentials. It is precisely the abeng’s separation from its origin in a human voice that becomes the source of its terror for the colonial soldiers – the terrible drone appears to rise from the earth itself. This affective power, in the Spinozist sense, is non-representational. It doesn’t stand in for any specific signifying practice. Instead, the British encode the abeng’s bass frequencies with their own significations, terrors and nightmares. It is not incidental that Attali never develops his own theory of affect – his Eurocentric history of sound depends upon the very representational models familiar to Western art practices in order to make sense. As such, like all liberal histories, Attali’s analysis masks over the immense violence Capital inflicts upon bodies and territories through sonic as well as actual warfare. More broadly, the logic of his argument contains a libidinal trace of imperialist psychology – by aligning ‘noise’ as the outside to Western music and culture – noise comes to stand in for those cultures capital has yet to mercilessly assimilate into itself.

Against Attali’s liberalism, we might posit a radically non-linear history of sound’s relationship to political economy, in which musical forms don’t exist merely as the appendage to technological advances in the production and distribution of vibrational affect. The simultaneously combined and uneven development[12] of global capitalism serves as a paradigm through which sound and vibrational affect can be seen to contain multiple relationships to spatio-temporal realities at the same time. The territorialising power of sound (whether under the guise of sonic warfare or not) to re-encode concepts of bodies, populations and cultures with new meanings can also open up the possibility of alternate histories, as well as new relations between history, the present and futurity. These temporal properties of sound and affect are explored by Deleuze and Guattari in the section “Of The Refrain” from A Thousand Plateaus. As well as expanding the concepts of affect, difference and repetition into a full philosophy of music, the section is also the most explicitly rhythmanalytical of their collective work together. Unlike Attali’s political economy of music, Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the refrain is not only non-Eurocentric but non-anthropocentric:

The role of the refrain has often been emphasized: it is territorial, a territorial assemblage. Bird songs: the bird sings to mark its territory. The Greek modes and Hindu rhythms are themselves territorial, provincial, regional. The refrain may assume other functions, amorous, professional or social, liturgical or cosmic: it always carries earth with it; it has a land (sometimes a spiritual land) as its concomitant; it has an essential relation to a Natal, a Native.[13]

Attali’s emphasis on music’s (and specifically the Western canon’s) representational properties – its ability to symbolise, stand in for or otherwise substitute itself for the wider superstructure of its society, drives his chronology. This basic movement is encapsulated in Brueghel’s painting as the master-signifier from which his other readings are derived. Deleuze and Guattari reverse this representational tendency, in keeping with their wider aim of overcoming philosophical practices based on different versions of Platonism. As such, Deleuze and Guattari contend that sound and music creates or gives meaning to (territorialises) space. For Attali, the space music occupies (either the festival or village of the sacrificial order or the concert hall of early capitalism) is always already encoded with semiotic and material structures of exchange of which the artistic act is but one interpretation. In this way, what begins as one period among others (the representational) becomes a spectral presence in all the others; haunting the structure of Attali’s argument. Deleuze and Guattari’s naturalistic example of territorial birdsong is in keeping with other examples (such as the bee and the orchid from “Rhizome”) which allow them to set aside the language of representation (which falls back on questions of semiotics) in favour of their own language of forces, lines and speeds. As in Spinoza’s ontology of the body, systems of meaning and identity (‘what is a body?’) are replaced by relations of becoming (‘what can a body do?’). Birdsong doesn’t require interpretation in order to function, it reorganises its relation to the territory around it through affect. Against Attali, the political and cultural ramifications of Deleuze and Guattari’s non-representational musicology we will now seek to uncover and mobilise for the practice of rhythmanalysis.

Whereas Attali confines his analysis of music as a uniquely human activity, and seeks to ground the practice of listening and making music within the wider division of labour in society, Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the refrain begins prior to those concerns. Attali’s critique tends towards the macro-economic categories which provide the groundwork for his methodology, for this reason his discussion of territory, of land, and music’s relation to the land operates at the level of nation-states: the land of the grand composers whose thematic structures encircle a people – indeed defines the people as a society. The period of ‘representation’ which lies at the gravitational centre of Attali’s narrative thus becomes ‘the world’ of Mozart, of Beethoven. Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of music begins at the polar opposite – at the molecular or minor level of the tune a frightened child hums to himself whilst walking home:

A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilising, calm and stable, centre in the heart of chaos.[14]

The song is an incantation, an attempt to project order onto an alien environment. The familiar sounds and intervals of the refrain, bouncing of the strange and hostile forms of the unfamiliar territory, suddenly render those forms knowable. In this respect the French word Deleuze and Guattari use – ritournelle ­– carries with it associations of the local and the common which ‘refrain’ screens out. Deleuze elsewhere even characterises the ritournelle as an expression, a humming to oneself prior to language:

When do I do ‘tralala’? When do I hum? I hum in three various occasions. I hum when I go around my territory and I clean up my furniture with a radiophonic background – meaning ‘when I am at home’. I also hum when I am not at home and when I am trying to get back home […] I look for my way and I give myself some courage by singing ‘tralala’. I go toward home. And I hum when I say ‘Farewell, I am leaving and in my heart I will bring you with me’. That’s popular music […] that’s when I leave my place to go somewhere else.[15]

The emphasis on the domestic – a space becoming a home – implies that homes are not pre-given territories which will always remain so. Rather, the ritournelle mobilises affect by giving meaning to our relationship with the territory, by defining it through our presence within it – the objects and clutter are made homely by our ‘tralalaing’. This ability of sound to carry a territory with it, to capture space through sonorous affect, drives Deleuze’s (and Guattari’s) theory of sound:

In other words, the ritournelle, for me, is absolutely linked to the problem of territory, and of processes of entrance or exit of the territory, meaning to the problem of deterritorialisation. I enter in my territory, I try, or I deterritorialise myself, meaning I leave my territory.[16]

Deleuze argues that bodies and territories do not exist a-temporally and neither does one precede the other in a hierarchy. Instead they require their mutual production as an organisation of forces, rhythms, affects and perspectives. This is how one is able to carry a territory with them – to make oneself at home as it were – by sonic affect. The ritournelle or ‘tralalala’ functions as a kind of ‘summoning up’ of a temporal-spatial assemblage by establishing the perceiving body as the locus of a space which becomes a territory through its audial interaction with the subject – space is territorialised. We have already shown how vibrational affect functions in the production of the prison territory. But in order to critique Attali’s musicology fully we must turn this analysis back on itself to understand how, contra Attali, music does not simply respond to changes in political economy. Instead, I will argue that the sonic body is engaged with practices of listening as an active rather than passive process, which continually produces itself through its encounter with the technological modes of sonic production.

In describing the work of the painter Francis Bacon, Deleuze references Paul Klee’s dictum “not to render the visible, but to render visible”[17] and in doing so alludes to music’s potential to ‘cut through’ the listening subject as an act of deterritorialisation, transforming what it means to listen or to be a listener:

The task of painting is defined as the attempt to render visible forces that are not themselves visible. Likewise, music attempts to render sonorous forces that are not themselves sonorous. That much is clear. Force is closely related to sensation: for a sensation to exist, a force must be exerted on a body, on a point of the wave.[18]

Superficially, Deleuze and Attali’s understandings of music seem to coincide – musical production, for Attali, being driven by the continual incorporation of what is categorically not music: ‘noise’. But Deleuze’s argument is more subtle – whereas in Attali ‘noise’ is simply those chaotic forces of sonic affect which music is at present incapable of integrating into its formal properties[19], Deleuze identifies in music’s power to render sonorous the potential to enact a conceptual violence upon the listening subject – but not necessarily by ‘violent’ or extreme methods of composition. This violence concerns a reorganisation of the faculties of listening themselves – the qualitative experience of listening is itself brought into crisis. Attali only considers listening to be an active process engaged in the production of the sonic body when it comes to his predicted period of ‘composition’ in which the productive technologies of music are in some way democratised. No longer the preserve of a monopolistic industrial capitalism, he argues that the technologies of musical production are to be reclaimed by the audience only once the Fordist principles of labour which governed the rise of the culture industry (the mass production of music as a commodity) have begun to decompose:

Music is to be produced not in a temple, not in a hall, not at home, but everywhere; it is to be produced everywhere it is possible to produce it, in whatever way it is wished, by anyone who wants to enjoy it […] But the musician does not have many ways of practicing this kind of music within the existing networks. […] composition is revealed as the demand for a truly different system of organisation, a network within which a different kind of music and different social relations can arise.[20]

Attali’s prediction of the crisis of traditional media conglomerates is, in the twenty-first century, entirely accurate. But this crisis, in which the analogue technologies of musical production (vinyl, tape, CD) have been replaced by digital means of distribution (resulting in a large scale decline in profitability for the culture industry), has not ended the spectacularisation of music first brought about by the period of representation. If anything, the spectacle of the commodity has only been intensified by the democratisation of musical production. This fact is betrayed by Attali’s own language, where the emphasis on ‘enjoyment’ as the horizon of listening praxis speaks to the deep entrenchment of commodity music’s codes and values on the conceptual landscape of his musicology. Attali sees John Cage as the major figure who announces the expected “regenerating of all music […] giving back the right to speak to people who do not want to have it”[21] by continuing the work of the Italian futurists who first “opened the door to the concert hall to let the noise in”[22]. Ultimately, however, Attali falls prey to the same fetishization of the liberating possibilities of technology which curtails the radicality of Russolo’s original missive. This misapprehension concerns the nature of sonic technology itself: the means by which music has the capacity to affect bodies. Attali’s representational methodology – wherein music communicates certain codes and social relations imminent to the social body itself – can only conceive of musical technology as an extension to or acceleration of this representational schema. Even the most abstract music, for Attali, is communicative in regards to its formal immersion in the wider social division of labour. We do not wish to argue to what extent this perspective is more or less accurate when it comes to ‘reading’ sonic texts. Rather, we wish to sidestep this tradition entirely by focusing on the pre-personal or pre-representational domain of affects in relation to the technology of musical production. This is where Attali’s theorisation of sonic technology and the listening body misfires.

That is to say, where Attali sees music as essentially representational in essence, and the role of technology is a corollary to this representational form, his musicology can never penetrate the surface of bodies to uncover the ‘molecular’ politics of affect at work therein. Sonic technology operates for him on the communicative or surface level of the listener’s body as a particular manifestation of the logic of universal exchange:

When reproduction becomes possible for an object and no longer only for the standard: with the stockpiling of music, a radically new economic process got under way. [For music] to take on meaning, it requires an incompressible lapse of time, that of its own duration. Thus the gramophone, conceived as a recorder to stockpile time, became instead its principle user. Conceived as a word preserver, it became a sound diffuser. […] stockpiling then becomes a substitute not a preliminary condition for use […] music [is] no longer heard in silence. It is integrated into a whole. But as background noise to a way of life music can no longer endow with meaning.[23]

A technological form enters into an economic relation with the content of works, as a means of production and distribution, which in turn mutates the communicative social relations in which individual bodies are exposed to the work. The ‘meaning’ of the work is thus mutated alongside its social production as a commodity. Attali uses this analysis to explain the standardisation of popular music according to the logic of consumption, and at the same time decries commodity music’s inability to give adequate expression to this logic. Technology, in this case the phonograph record, enacts a violence upon the sonic by controlling the conditions of its material emergence as a work. But this violence remains for Attali on the representational level of communicative performance: the technologies meant to preserve representational sound instead bring about the era of repetition. This implies that, for Attali, the listener of these works is to a large extent a passive entity in the transformation of music from representation to mass reproduction – the agency of whom is perhaps to be recovered in the speculative period of composition. The body of the listener is left largely unscrutinized here; as it is technology which sets in motion the communicative practices of consumption which the listener partakes in, but which do not transform the meaning of the listener’s body itself.  The language of encoding and networks permeate the text (and Attali successfully shows how modes of production transform the encoding of music’s communicative qualities in different societies) but the question of what precisely happens to the listener’s body when they listen to a phonograph record rather than a live performance is left unscrutinized. Moreover, the impact of the reproductive technology of Fordist capitalism on musical production is always referred to by Attali in terms of lack. The chapter on repetition functions well as a nostalgia piece for the transcendent qualities of Romantic works. The moulding of musical forms by technological innovation is only considered on the communicative level of meaning, as an inferior relation to the representational qualities of Romantic works. This argument takes precedence over the immanent and affectual relations of force between the body and the new sonic machines. Attali’s listening bodies appear to remain largely identical throughout his chronology. Contrary to this, the vibrational ontology of rhythmanalytical thought posits that technology and bodies are mutually interactive, rather than the former acting as an appendage to the latter – as a social relation which governs behaviour. Rhythmanalysis considers the body as an organisation of forces, speeds and rhythms both conceptual and biological which occur in tandem with the rhythms of technological development. This view is argued by the feminist theorist Sadie Plant, whose engagement with the emerging digital technologies of the late twentieth century inform her critique of the relationship between the female body and the machine:

While the notion that technologies are prostheses, expanding existing organs and fulfilling desires, continues to legitimize vast swathes of technical development, the digital machines of the late twentieth century are not add-on parts which serve to augment an existing human form.  Quite beyond their own perceptions and control, bodies are continually engineered by the processes in which they are engaged.[24]

It is precisely this liberal notion of the human body as a pre-existing entity over which technology exerts influence which infects Attali’s text. The body which listens to a performance of a Beethoven symphony in a concert hall is radically different to a body listening to the recorded sounds emanating from a loudspeaker. As well as the effects of recording technology on the consumption of music (which renders music an exchangeable commodity like any other) the sonic machines of the twentieth century also activated radically new possibilities for the organisation of bodies and territories through vibrational affect.

For Friedrich Kittler, writing only nine years after Attali, recording technology constitutes a challenge to previous ideas about subjectivity and voice:

Upon speaking into a phonograph, the vibrations of one’s voice are transferred to a point that engraves lines onto a metal plate that correspond to the uttered sounds – uneven furrows, more or less deep, depending on the nature of the sounds. It is quite probable that in analogous ways, invisible Gramophone lines are incessantly carved into the brain cells, which provide a channel for nerve streams.[25]

Kittler, a rhythmanalyst in all but name, sees the distinction between the material forms of sound’s inscription on the phonograph plate and their virtual existence as potential-audio. This leads him to suggest there being a similarity between the inscription of sound onto the phonograph and the inscription of vibrational affect onto consciousness:

This is precisely the phenomenon that occurs when the phonograph’s small copper disk, held against the point that runs through the grooves it has etched, starts to reproduce the vibrations: to our ears, these vibrations turn back into a voice, into words, sounds, and melodies.[26]

Recording technology is here not an external appendage which determines the social context of sonic experience as it is for Attali, but constitutes for Kittler a transformation in the conceptual categories by which we understand sound, affect and subjectivity. Attali’s focus on the macrocosmic sphere of the political economy of music never allows him to bore down into individual works. Specific genres and composers are mentioned in passing, but only to illustrate a ready-made correlation with his historical categories. Kittler’s argument here depends upon a disconnect between the virtual movement of affect in the production of recorded sounds and the material object onto which those sounds are transcribed. Attali does understand that in the period of mass reproduction, the stockpiling of recorded music is simultaneously the stock piling of use-time: “People must devote their time to producing the means to buy recordings of other people’s time, losing in the process not only the use of their own time but, but also the time required to use other people’s time […] They stockpile what they want to find the time to hear.”[27] And this storing up of useful time not spent in the production of surplus value is the process by which exchange-time (time as commodity which can be bought and sold in the form of recorded sound) corrodes its use-time. But this dialectic of use-time and exchange-time misses out the essential spatialisation of time which occurs when one listens to a sound recording. Kittler rhythmanalytically restores this spatial component of recorded time into his theory of the gramophone by pointing out the difference between the lines carved into the object by the process of production and the virtual or potential sounds they contain. Moreover, this spatial dimension of recorded time also includes the listener, whose body is intimately engaged in the sound-object’s mobilisation of affect. The virtual potential of sonic-objects to create affective responses in the listening body by their material compression of space and time is ignored by Attali, but constitutes an essential part of Kittler’s phenomenology of sound and technology. Kittler’s argument is for this reason thoroughly and intrinsically modernist where Attali’s is instinctively reactionary. Kittler recognises that the technological forms of modern recorded sounds require a reappraisal of our understanding of the time and history those sonic objects contain as their virtual element.[28]

This transformation which Kittler identifies in the kind of philosophy required to understand modern music can be felt at the level of individual works. To take one example which Attali gives as quintessential to the period of repetition – The Rolling Stones – we can begin to see the cracks in his historicism. If one considers the material history which the Rolling Stones appropriated and which made their pop music possible in the 1960s – the blues music of the black American deep South – it is evident how vital the technological forms which made it possible for that music to be preserved is to its cultural meaning in the present. The critic and theorist Mark Fisher has argued that the invention of the phonograph did not represent simply the technological form which allowed for the objectification of early blues music into an exchangeable commodity (as Attali would have it) but was imminent and integral to the aesthetic of blues music itself: “The ‘mythologized deep south’ arises from the ‘layers of fizz, crackle, hiss, white noise’; there is no presence except mythologically, no myth without a recording surface which both refers to a (lost) presence and blocks us from attaining it.”[29] That is to say, the ‘noise’ in the Attalian sense as that which is external or erroneous to the recorded sound and which permeates early blues recordings as distortion and interference in the sound, is vital to the cultural mythology surrounding the deep south which the Rolling Stones and other rock and roll groups successfully incorporated. The ‘deep south’ of Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson, as a mythologised cultural past, is created by and through this noise. The hiss of the vinyl foregrounds the sonic object as belonging to the past in a way entirely at odds with Attali’s argument that recording technology makes possible a permanent presence of the sonic object. Consequently, Attali’s desire to uncover how sonic objects “take on meaning”[30] (in the sense of representation) is entirely blind to the untimely effects of recording technology on those sonic cultures which distort and refract his historicism.

As such, Attali’s linear chronology posits that the standardisation of popular music by the culture industry can only be superseded by the new set of social relations brought about by the period of composition. But Attali’s frames of reference for popular music in the late 70s (most frequently Anglo-American rock and roll acts) might already be considered outdated compared to the experiments in electronic composition by the popular modernist avant-garde in Europe and elsewhere. Taking our reading of the untimely elements of blues music into a wider understanding of the aesthetics of modern music, we can undermine Attali’s linear conception of history based on the dualism of sound-noise By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the absorption of recording technology into the immanent construction of works themselves has radically reengineered the vibrational politics of sound away from Attali’s emphasis on representation. Early phonograph music shows us that noise is immanent to those works themselves – the recording mutilates its own material history as an object. This integration of music’s ‘other’ – white noise, static, chaos – within the structural properties of the sonic object belies those notions of historical origin essential to Attali’s historicist approach to the political economy of music.

Noise is already integral to the aesthetics of recorded sound. These works reveal how modern music is dominated by the technological conditions of its emergence, rather than existing prior to those conditions. Furthermore, the phenomenological interplay between sonic objects and sonic bodies which recording technology facilitates produces the untimely effects of cultural dislocation and fragmentation fundamental to modernity. Attali’s cartography of sound posits ‘noise’ as the unknowable other to the Western canon, just as capital regards the unknown simply as territory to be captured and assimilated into the world market. Within Attali’s formulation there is no qualitative divergence from the philosophy of representation which structures European though and which is concurrent with the historical emergence of capitalism.

To approach Attali’s text from a rhythmanalytical perspective, one observes that the homogeneity of thought with which he approaches music, also colours his critique of historical capitalism. What emerges from Attali’s reading of political economy is a monolithic regime which is temporally linear and logically progressivist – a capital whose rhythms of production and crisis operate at one frequency. Just as recording technology brings distortion into the cultural logic of sound, we can soon see the fissures in Attali’s mono-rhythmic history of capital. In contrast, the Marxist economist Ernest Mandel’s appropriation of Kondratiev waves, as long cycles of capital accumulation, provides some evidence of what a rhythmanalytical critique of capital from the left might look like:

The history of capitalism on the international plane thus appears not only as a succession of cyclical movements every 7 or 10 years, but also as a succession of longer periods, of approximately 50 years, of which we have experienced four up till now : the long period from the end of the 18th century up to the crisis of 1847, characterized basically by the gradual spread of the handicraft-made or manufacture-made steam engine to all the most important branches of industry and industrial countries; this was the long wave of the industrial revolution itself.[31]

The Kondratiev wave functions in Mandel’s analysis as a sub-bass frequency to the normal rhythms of capital’s cyclical crises. Furthermore, this extremely low frequency waveform arises out of capital’s own engagement with new technology in the form of fixed capital:

Each of these long periods can be subdivided into two parts: an initial phase, in which the technology actually undergoes a revolution […] This phase is distinguished by an increased rate of profit, accelerated accumulation, accelerated growth […] followed by a second, in which the actual transformation in productive technology has already taken place […] It is now a matter of getting the means of production made in these new production sites generally adopted in all branches of industry and economy.[32]

Mandel, following Kondratiev’s work in the first half of the twentieth century, suggests that each long wave of capital accumulation is contemporaneous with the universal dominance of a particular technological form – the steam engine of the late Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, the incorporation of electronics into production methods in the early twentieth century, and the emergence of nuclear technologies in the second half of the twentieth century. The immense amount of fixed capital invested in these technological forms, once they become universalised, can only increase the rate of production quantitatively rather than revolutionising the modes of production themselves as they did previously. Hence, the rate of profit is forced into long period of gradual deceleration:

The force that determined the sudden extension by leaps and bounds of capital accumulation in [the earlier technological form] thus falls away, and accordingly this phase becomes one of retreating profits, gradually decelerating accumulation, decelerating economic growth, gradually increasing difficulties in the valorization of the total accumulated capital, and particularly of new additionally accumulated capital, and the gradual, self-reproducing increase in capital being laid idle.[33]

Just as the political economy of music is temporally and historically unfixed by its encounter with recording technology, producing from the beginning what we would normally identify as postmodern aesthetic phenomena – nostalgia, parody and simulacra – capital itself is always and already developing in an untimely ratio with technological structures. The logic of musical development, like that of expansive capitalism, has always been combined and yet uneven – encountering distortion, static and feedback. That which remains radical in Attali’s text are precisely those instances where the guarded defence of linear history momentarily slips and the lines between each period become blurred. It is at these junctures where Attali’s thought pre-empts the speculative concept of ‘composition’ which forms his final chapter, and the question thus becomes not what music has been but what it has not been yet – a task which will always entail the untimely resuscitation of old forms and obsolete technologies in its construction of futurity.


[1] Jacques Attali. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1992 p.11.

[2] Ibid p.6

[3] Ibid p.19

[4] Ibid p.19. [Attali’s emphasis].

[5] Ibid p.19

[6] Louise Varèse. Varèse: A Looking-Glass Diary. London: Eulenberg Books 1975 p.132.

[7] Attali. Noise p.23.

[8] Ibid p.25-26.

[9] Ibid p.89.

[10] Steve Goodman. Sonic Warfare p.65

[11] Ibid p.65

[12] The phrase was popularised by Trotsky (The History of the Russian Revolution. Trans. Eastman, Max. London, Pluto 1977 pp.26-27) but is frequently used in world-systems theories of economic development.

[13] Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus p.344

[14] Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus p. 343.

[15] Gilles Deleuze. Abécédaire. Translated as Gilles Deleuze from A to Z. Dir. Pierre-André Boutang. Semiotext(e) DVD 2011. [translation modified].

[16] Ibid. [translation modified]

[17] Paul Klee qtd. in Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Trans. Smith, Daniel W. London: Continuum 2003. 56

[18] Ibid.

[19] In fact, Attali misses the point that ‘noise music’ already existed as a specific genre when writing his book – the Japanese  composer Merzbow is now considered its most prolific artist.

[20] Attali. Noise p.137

[21] Ibid. p.136

[22] Ibid.

[23] Noise p.101

[24] Sadie Plant. Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture. London: Fourth Estate 1998 p.182

[25] Friedrich Kittler. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. California: Stanford University Press 1999 p.30-31.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Attali. Noise p.101

[28] An idea we might associate with Benjamin’s discussion of the ‘aura’ of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

[29] Mark Fisher. “Phonograph Blues” 2006. <http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/008535.html >

[30] Attali, Noise p.101

[31] Ernest Mandel. Late Capitalism. London: Verso 2004 p.120

[32] Ibid p.121

[33] Ibid p.121

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