I finished Andrew Culp’s Dark Deleuze late last night, not realising I was sitting in almost total darkness. The book is exhilarating and exhausting. For anyone engaged in any kind of activism as (at the same time) philosophical praxis it’s a long overdue rejoinder to the Spivak/Badiou/Zizek image of Deleuze as, at best, a-political or, at worst, a Eurocentric imperialist.

I share with Culp a fascination with those pages of What is Philosophy? that are contemptuous of the politically and philosophically stifling work of ‘opinion’, as well as the authoritarian image of ‘dialogue’ which emerges (where Socrates becomes, in fact, a profoundly anti-discursive thinker). Perhaps it’s the monotony of tedious liberal think-pieces that fill the pages and pixels of the post-Brexit UK media that aren’t already outright fascist, fretting about the rise of the new ‘post-truth’ politics, and utterly oblivious to the concept of ideology (let alone noology).

That’s not to say that these processes aren’t important, but to register the need to think about them materially, as the assemblages of enunciation that go hand in hand with the way in which social media has become the dominant mode of both production and consumption in capitalist societies. We’re all content providers now.

As such, Culp’s notion of ‘conspiracy’ as a semiotic strategy in the era of compulsory transparency that characterises the societies of control, is a potent one. The frequent criticism of anarchist actions ‘we don’t know what you stand for!’ is a sign of health, as long as it isn’t fetishised as an end itself.

What’s more perplexing to me as someone interested in both the ‘post-anthropocentric’ turn in philosophy and the rise of ‘post-anarchism’ that (I think) counts AC as a co-conspirator, is the disconnect between ‘new materialism’ (in Culp’s view) and any political project. In contrast to the white-male dominated ‘speculative realism’, those aspects of new materialist thought influenced indirectly or directly by Deleuze have, from the beginning, been transversally engaged in thinking about the ‘matter’ of race, gender, indigeneity and sexuality.

When Manuel Delanda talks about complexity as the ‘technical backbone’ of Deleuze’s philosophy we should all cringe. But that’s not to say that all thinkers of the loosely termed ‘new materialist’ moment have a reductionist view of thought. The problem lies in the involuntariness of thinking, the cruelty of affect, which has to come from an outside that is not transcendent. Rather, what arises for me in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter is a material vitalism stripped of any kind of organicist or positivist intonation, that approaches the involuntarist image of thought as, precisely, the unbecoming of the world—the thought from outside. Perhaps there is no ‘ontology of Deleuze’ but that’s not to say there isn’t a politics of ontology of Deleuze. “Politics precedes being”.

The immediate political ramifications of ‘the non-human turn’ are for me crucial in the era of Black Lives Matter, where Frank B. Wilderson III’s concept of Afro-Pessimism is at once a politicisation of ontologies of presence that are organised structurally via anti-blackness, for which the logical forms of resistance are the principles of non-communication, conspiracy, and a refusal of the world.

I don’t intend these scattered thoughts to be part of a dialogue or critique for the above reasons, so much as the beginnings of a conspiracy by which we might weaponize ‘the non-human turn’ along a line of flight that incorporates anarchist praxis in its resistance to the present.





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


“For Londoners London is obscured: too thinly spread; too private for anyone to know; its social life invisible; its government abolished; its institutions at the discretion of either monarchy or state or the City, where, at the historic centre there is nothing but a civic void which fills and empties daily with armies of clerks and dealers – mostly citizens of other towns. The true identity of London, he said, is in its absence – as a city it no longer exists. In this alone it is truly modern. London was the first metropolis to disappear.”

London. Dir. Patrick Keiller 1991.

In Daniel Defoe’s account of his journey from Herefordshire into Wales, he makes no mention of “the line of grey Norman castles […] the fortress wall of the mountains” (“Culture is Ordinary” 10) that impose the fact upon Williams, more than a century and a half later, of how the culture of his birth was won. For Defoe, an Englishman in Wales, the history of the country is to be seen and not lived:

The most to be said of this town, is what indeed what I have said of many places in Wales, that it is very ancient, and indeed to mention it here for all the rest, there are many tokens of antiquity to be seen everywhere in Wales, than in any particular part of England. (A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain,1724-6, 376)

History as it is lived and experienced in the present never enters into Defoe’s diary, except for so many imaginary hieroglyphics through which one can live the past vicariously – “It was among the mountains of this country that the famous Glendower sheltered himself, and taking arms on the deposing Richard II proclaimed himself Prince of Wales; and they showed us several little refuges of his in the mountains” (377) – stories from some other country. Rather, the cultural activity – indeed the only real cultural activity as it is lived – Defoe sees in mercantilism: “Here also is a very great trade for coals, and culm, which they export to all the ports of Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall, and also to Ireland itself; so that one sometimes sees a hundred sails of ships at a time loading coal here; which greatly enriches the country” (378). Here, finally, lies Williams’ assertion “culture is ordinary” (The Raymond Williams Reader 10) – though it remained unknown to Defoe. That is to say, culture is labour and thus it is ordinary:

To grow up in that country was to see the shape of a culture, and its modes of change. I could stand on the mountains and look north to the farms and the Cathedral, or south to the smoke and the flare of the blast furnace making a second sunset […] the making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery; writing themselves into the land. (11)

This passage is remarkable if only for the depth and breadth of experience to which the speaker lays claim. Its advocacy of “common meanings” (ibid.) and a social experience of history and culture intimately tied to one’s locality yet fundamentally deterritorialised – unbound to institutions of state or church through which certain cultural formations become dominant and thus exclusive – is extremely persuasive. What nonetheless remains unscrutinised, or at least unarticulated in this essay, are the historical forces which made this proclamation possible. What category of experience has to exist in order for Williams’ notion of communal, and explicitly working-class, cultural and social formations even to be expressed? Part of the canonization the “Culture is Ordinary” essay has been afforded in the field of contemporary criticism has to do with the bittersweet acknowledgement that the person capable of making such an argument now seems a figure more and more disconnected with ourselves. Who now, after all, could look on the place of his or her birth and see the entire history of their culture written into the landscape? Who, moreover, is able to say they know their own culture as assuredly as Williams does his – bound precisely as it is to a mode of mass industrial production now past? The question becomes, therefore, is Williams’ belief in a topographic and material understanding of one’s own culture: a landed culture that is unique and common to our present time, yet localised and communal, now impossible? Or, as Robinson expresses at the close of Patrick Keiller’s London, do we now live in an ‘absent’ culture, divorced from the common meanings and experiences Williams cherished – like citizens of a disappearing city; the experience of which is a foreign landscape?

In the first instance, however, Williams’ ‘topographic imagination’, as evident in “Culture is Ordinary”, must be clearly and fundamentally related to his conception of cultural materialism as critical practice, wherein it differs from other Marxist interpretations of culture. Williams’ theory and practice of cultural materialism cannot be regarded as one totalizing theoretical system, as its development and divergence from other Materialist critiques is ongoing throughout his work. His earlier exposure to F.R Leavis and E.M.W Tillyard overshadows several of his earlier texts, in that Williams’ materialism represents in large part a reactionary gesture towards this influence which, in Politics and Letters (1979) dominated the English faculty at Cambridge as the “going position” (245) for several years after his graduation. Williams’ main departure from Leavis – whose practical criticism inherently dependedupon a small set of canonical texts or writers designated ‘high art’ by their very inclusion, and which thus inherently territorialised culture as the sphere of elites – occurs most assuredly in Culture and Society (1958). Williams begins by analysing the semiotic shifts in the words ‘industry’; ‘democracy’; ‘class’; ‘art’ and ‘culture’ over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which, he argues, self-evidently indicates the much wider forces of historical change acting on the social field. Thus, industry was no longer used as a general term for work or conscientiousness as it had originally, and instead came to refer only to the mechanisms and processes factory production. Likewise class evolved as a descriptor to differentiate between those engaged in industrial labour and other types of work and ultimately the gentrified or refined strata of society. At precisely the same time, art had ceased to mean skill, as it had under artisan phase of capitalist production, and instead referred only to certain creative activities in the field of aesthetics – such as painting, literature and music. Culture in the early eighteenth century had referred to the growth and cultivation of crops, but was by the twentieth century now a synonym for civilisation, whilst sustaining some of the earlier associations with growth, nurture and the organic from its earlier usage. Culture thus becomes for Williams essentially the opposite of Industry if we were to take into account the historical – and sociological – formulations of their meaning, not as a concrete range of applications but several fluctuating and overlapping spheres of meaning. Culture, in its modern sense, took under its domain activities and processes that had nothing to with industrial kinds of labour – and therefore the working-classes. This perspective was typified for Williams by the nineteenth century forms of Romanticism or Romantic modes-of-thinking, wherein the separation between artistic production and the activities of everyday life is paramount. Within this central argument of Williams’ early work lies the key critique of “Culture is Ordinary” and his later critical texts: that is, the ideological structures that separated culture from labour, and in doing so disenfranchised the working-class from as a constituent part of British culture and society, could be overcome through materialist excavation of their origins.  Culture and Society might therefore be seen as the manifesto of William’s cultural materialism, even in its embryonic stage of development, as he explicitly targets Leavis as his antagonist and the high-priest of the territorialising approach to cultural criticism organised around exclusivity rather than inclusivity:

Leavis might reasonably reply, to what I have written, that to see literature as a specialism among others is not to see literature at all. I would agree with this. But the emphasis I am trying to make is that, in the work of continuity and change, and just because of the elements of disintegration, we cannot make literary experience as the sole, or even the central test. We cannot even, I would argue, put the important stress on the ‘minority’, for the idea of the conscious minority is itself no more than a defensive symptom against the general dangers. (254)

This materialist turn in Williams’ thought pre-empted his much deeper engagement with Marxist theory in his works after Culture and Society, yet Williams himself was anxious to develop a more thorough and complex theory of culture than Marx’s writings (or those available in English at the time) seemed to offer: “an increasing number of Marxists now believe that cultural theory has become more important, in modern social and cultural conditions, than it was in Marx’s own day” (What I Came to Say 1989, 196). This simultaneous investment and critical distance in Marxist theories of culture hinges on one of the most discussed and controversial passages Marx wrote:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness.” (Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859, 23).

This paragraph from the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is frequently, and incorrectly, cited as a totalizing theory of culture. Rather, Marx’s argument is to insist that legal and political practices of government (the state) must by necessity work to perpetuate the market forces (the division of labour) of that society – from which in turn ideas of universality and shared or national experience – freedom, justice, history – proliferate. The language Marx uses to describe the relationship between the base and the superstructure is not deterministic in any reductionist sense, though for much Marxist criticism available to Williams in the 1950s this was certainly a prevalent tendency in much orthodox Marxist thought and writing. In that sense, despite the wildly polarised political positions of Marx and Leavis, the interpretation of their work led to a similar interpretation of culture: as partitioned off from material contact with the outside world. Williams certainly acknowledges the causal power of capitalist economy to affect the division of labour and therefore the forms of govermentality available to that society, but he radically expands the range of activities considered to be ‘economic’ just as he does with ‘cultural’ practices.

In The Long Revolution (1961), published partly as a companion to Culture and Society, Williams identifies four systemic processes integral to societal development: the system of decision; the system of maintenance; the system of communication; and the system of generation[1]. These correspond to the spheres of politics, economics, education and domesticity commonly identified as the constituent elements of social life. Williams’ interjection into Marxist theory was to argue that Marx places more importance on the first two categories than the latter:

Man in society was traditionally defined as man in social relationships based on a divine order, a received order, or an established order. This was then extended, first by theorists of the market, later by socialists such as Marx, to man in social relationships based on economic activities: as the activities change, so the order must change. This was better, but still left out too much […] art is degraded as a mere reflection of the basic economic and political process, on which it is thought to be parasitic; or it is idealised into the separate sphere of aesthetics – if Economic man, then Aesthetic man. But the creative element of man is the root both of his personality and his society; it can neither be confined to art nor excluded from the systems of decision and maintenance. (The Long Revolution 133-134).

In this way Williams is able to turn the determinist or essentialist arguments of orthodox Marxism inside-out; as he would in Politics and Letters, describing the industrial revolution as in equal measure a revolution in creative practices as well as modes of production, with both bearing equal weight upon the other:

The industrial revolution was among other things a revolution in the production of literacy and it is at this point that the argument turns full circle. The steam press was as much a part of the industrial revolution as the steam jenny or the steam locomotive. What it was producing was literacy; and with it a new kind of newspaper and novel. The traditional formulations that I was attacking [in The Long Revolution] would have seen the press as only a reflection at a much later stage of the economic order […] Whereas the revolution itself, as a transformation of the mode of production, already included many changes which the ordinary definitions […] said were not economic […] it was an industrial revolution in the production of culture as much as an industrial revolution […] in the production light, of power, of building materials. (Politics and Letters 144).

This deterritorialised reading of ‘labour’ and ‘culture’ engaged in equal measure with various social processes of production, rather than the purely material production of commodities, is the keystone of Williams’ critical project – cultural materialism – and its defining deviation from other forms and practices of cultural theory. Moreover, the consequences of this revelation will determine our understanding of Williams’ relevance to the contemporary theoretical field as it is constituted today – something that has until only recently been thoroughly recognised.

In that respect, compare the language of Williams’ cultural theory of labour (and its opposite – a ‘labour’ theory of culture) with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s theory of ‘immaterial labour’ in late capital:

Affective [immaterial] labour is better understood by beginning from what feminist analyses of “woman’s work” have called “labour in the bodily mode”. Caring labour is certainly entirely immersed in the corporeal, the somatic, but the affects it produces are nonetheless immaterial. What affective labour produces are social networks, forms of community, Biopower. Here one might recognise once again that the instrumental action of economic production has been united with the communicative action of human relations; in this case, however, communication has not been impoverished, but production has been enriched to the level of complexity of human interaction. (Empire 293)

Hardt and Negri are referring to the specific conditions of social labour in what they term the “informational economy” (ibid.) of postmodern or late capitalism. However, many of the central theses of this theory are co-dependent on the materialist understanding of culture formulated by Williams. Whilst Hardt and Negri still differentiate between “economic production” and the immaterial production of cultural interaction between people, they arrive at similar conclusion. That is, the forms of labour which characterise late or “post-industrial” capitalism – centred on the selling of services and assemblage of commodities rather than the cultivation of raw materials which it relegates to the third-world – could not function without the non-economic (or better yet, ‘non-material’) production of new and forms social communication and cultural norms. For instance, the proliferation of temporary or ‘flexible’ labour relations now standardized by Western capitalist countries since the early 1980s as the dominant form of employment in a majority post-industrialised political economy. Now, Williams’ interjection would be to ask ‘was this not always the case’? We have already seen how Williams argued that the industrial revolution not only consisted of, but could not even have taken place, without a revolution in the production of new forms of cultural practice (new printing technology and an explosion in the audience for public journals, novels and other literatures). But even more so, Williams anticipates the issues and conjectures of contemporary cultural theory in his totalizing theory of cultural production than has been fully acknowledged by the field:

It is clear that the reaction against exclusive political and economic social thinking can go too far. The system of decision is clearly crucial: it can quite literally be the life and death of a society. […] production and distribution are not only essential for the maintenance of life, but the highly variable ways in which they colour our whole experience […] The truth about a society, it would seem, is to be found in the actual relations, always exceptionally complicated, between the systems of decision, the system of communication and learning, the system of maintenance and the system of generation and nurture […] Thus, in certain societies, the family is also a directly economic organisation, and its system of decision covers a wide area of activity. Here the relationships between persons will be of a complex yet quite unified kind, in that every person is involved with every other in more than one type of activity. (The Long Revolution 135-136).

That is to say, therefore, that the forms of Fordist labour industrial capitalism relied upon could not have functioned without a whole range of productive practices engendered by the bourgeois family unit, whose divisions of domestic labour based on gender and age were not only reliant on the wages of the patriarchal worker, but also worked to sustain and perpetuate the very forms of consciousness and subjectivity that constituted the worker. In this sense, Williams’ theory of culture is highly complex, as it relies on several networks of symbiotic social relations and practices, but equally hugely prophetic in its ability to resist any reductive or elitist analysis of cultural development in favour of a more dispersive and multifaceted theory of culture. The radicalism of this gesture, still perhaps not fully realised in contemporary discourse, is that it opens up all new territories and spheres of society previously closed off to the practice of cultural theory. For instance, one need only mark the similarity between Williams’ description of a public sphere which is also a cultural sphere, which becomes materialised or made corporeal through institutional environments which we “learn […] in our bodies, and we are taught the conventions” (137) – and the theories of ‘biopower’ Hardt and Negri inherit instead from Foucault and French poststructuralist theory. However, what is perhaps assumed or left unsaid in Williams’ account of cultural materialism, is that capital actually relies upon the separation of cultural and economic spheres as part of its ideological apparatus.

Thus in many ways, Williams himself seemed to pre-empt the political and historical forces that would act upon the British definition of culture in the second half of the twentieth century in The Long Revolution:

As we enter the 1960s, the effective historical patterns of British society seem reasonably clear. […] Yet in deeper ways, that have perhaps not yet been articulated, this idea of a good society naturally unfolding itself may be exceptionally misleading. […] The deep revulsion against central planning, which makes sense again and again in many details of our economic activity, may be really disabling in this long run. And this revulsion is itself in part a consequence of the democratic revolution – the determination not to be regimented. […] The very strong case for central planning, not simply to avoid waste but to promote essential development, research and organization, is practically nullified by a wholly credible emotion: that we reject this idea of economic system controlling our lives. True, we our controlled now and will continue to be controlled by a quite different system, with its own denials and rigidities, but in the first place this is very harder to identify. (319-320)

To the system we might reasonably give the name biopower, as we have above, but the historical tradition of this term in French philosophy (from Foucault through Deleuze and Guattari, to Hardt and Negri) would be to divorce Williams’ theory of culture from its immediate historical surroundings and its specific significance for British cultural criticism. Specifically, the work of Stuart Hall has most successfully inherited the theoretical language of Williams, whist applying it to the social conditions of British culture in the second half of the twentieth century and the developments in political economy Williams anticipated in The Long Revolution. For Hall, the methods of materialist critique developed by Williams never lost their validity, but the rapidity of social change enacted by ‘late’ or ‘post-Fordist’ political economy served to obscure the revelations Williams made in theorizing the relationship between cultural and productive activities. Thus, for Hall, post-Fordism in the 1980s and 90s entailed:

More flexible, decentralised forms of labour process and work organisation; decline of the old manufacturing base and the growth of […] computer based industries; the hiving-off or contracting out of functions and services […] a decline in the […] skilled, male, manual working class, the rise of the service and white-collar classes and the ‘feminization’ of the workforce; […] an economy dominated by multinationals […] the weakening of older collective solidarities […] the emergence of new identities associated with greater work flexibility. (“The Meaning of the New Times”, New Times: the Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s, 1989, 28).

Implicit in this argument is the necessary relationship between practices of material labour and the forms of social consciousness or identities that are both sustained by and condition those corporeal modes of production. Yet nonetheless, the changes in British cultural life did not for Hall engender the recognition of Williams’ integrationist theory of labour and culture, but rather the still more indebtedness of capitalism to their perceived separation, in contradiction to the simultaneous acceleration by which the two spheres collided.

This paradoxical development of culture – as more and more systems of thought and experience in the social realm are brought under the universal law of exchange – was already taking place in the 1960s. Williams tracks this ‘postmodern turn’ (as it would later be termed) in the change in usage of the terms ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ in the same manner as he proceeded in his earlier work. If, Williams posits, the relationship between the individual and the social (state, institutions, family, work) are increasingly thought of as productive systems (where the product is a certain reflexive identity) for which one can choose to buy into or not, then the whole range of practices and activities designated as cultural experiences by Williams’ theory (thus, also labour) are hollowed out for their essential, individual and exchangeable value rather than their communal or social value:

An equally important effect of the ‘consumer’ description is that, in materializing an individual figure, it prevents us thinking adequately about the true range of uses of our economic activity. There are many things, of major importance, which we do not use or consume individually, in the ordinary sense, but socially. It is a poor way of life in which we cannot think of social use as one criterion of our economic activity, yet it is towards that we are being pushed by the ‘consumer’ emphasis, […] It is easy to get a sense of plenty from the shop windows of contemporary Britain, but if we look at the schools, the hospitals, the roads, the libraries, we find chronic shortages far too often. (The Long Revolution 323-324)

Williams is precisely right to look to the topographic conditions of life in late capital, as it was first emerging in the 1960s, for the cultural shifts taking place in society. By topographical, in this sense, we do not simply mean to refer to the landscape separated from humans – but in the character of the landscape as a further cultural system that is continually being produced by its contact with human society – in what is a distinctly ‘Williamsian’ configuration. Therefore, it becomes possible to observe the topographic and architectural development of ‘public spaces’ within British culture since the 1960s as containing a reflexive element of both the material and ideological forces at play in the social field. Fredric Jameson, in his essay Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (New Left Review, July-August 1984, 53) is explicitly concerned with the changing relationship between the topography of the city and the ideological production of the modern subject we have seen Williams begin to observe in the 1960s:

[…] the alienated city is above all a space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves […] Disalienation in the traditional city, then, involves the practical reconquest of a sense of place, and the construction or reconstruction of an articulated ensemble which can be retained in memory and which the individual subject can map and remap along the moments of mobile, alternative trajectories. (89)

Jameson’s idea of “cognitive mapping” (ibid.) and its malfunction in the modern city is thus closely tied to his psycho-social definition of postmodernism as a kind of temporality organised around a succession of perpetual presents. Indeed, it seems one can only escape complete disorientation by thinking the city as a mobile arrangement of topographical elements with no unifying or centralising structure. It is this amnesic experience of the city that haunts the figures and characters in Patrick Keiller’s films of contemporary British landscapes. As Robinson says: “London is a city of fragments no longer organised around a centre” (London 1991).

The task of the Williams reader therefore becomes the recuperation of materialist critique under the amnesic forces of late capital on the production of culture. First of all, it must be pointed out that Jameson’s description of cognitive mapping begs the Williamsian correlative ‘cultural mapping’. For if we consider the topographical organisation of our lived environment one a series of processes in the production of our culture, along with labour, the family, and the institution, then the temporal phenomenon Jameson describes as a symptom of postmodern capitalism accrues a much wider sphere of operation in the production of our everyday lives. Under what conditions would it be possible for one to know their own culture if we cannot know the totality of relations (material and immaterial) that make up the modern metropolises of our lived environment? Is the loss of communal experience Williams diagnoses as a symptom of a consumer culture which hollows out our relationship with urban spaces to one of temporary exchange ever retrievable? Successive governments in the UK have themselves attempted to come to terms with the destruction of real public spaces and a real public experience with little success, only appealing to the simulacra of a ‘public experience’ devoid of the cultural systems communal experience requires, in favour of the spectre of culture and community represented by corporate sponsorship. It would be pessimistic to reply that the only recourse is to seek the kinds of communal cultures forged “under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery; writing themselves into the land” (“Culture is Ordinary” 11) in those remaining rural and countryside environments which formed Williams’ own understanding of culture, if they even exist. The challenge of Williams’ cultural materialism, rather, is precisely to resist the territorialising of culture by capital – and in that respect practice a truly revolutionary criticism.

Defoe, Daniel. A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain. Ed. Pat Rogers. Harmondsworth, Eng: Penguin, 1971.

Hall, Stuart, and Martin Jacques. “The Meaning of the New Times.” New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1989.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review July-Aug, 1984.

London. Dir. Patrick Keiller. Perf. Paul Schofield. British Film Institute, 1994.

Marx, Karl, Maurice Herbert Dobb, and S. W. Ryazanskaya. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress, 1971.

Williams, Raymond, and John Higgins. “”Culture Is Ordinary”” The Raymond Williams Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

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The Long Revolution. New York: Columbia UP, 1961.

What I Came to Say. London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989.

[1] The Long Revolution, 133.