Performance and Enaction in Writing Sonic Materialities OR The writing of having written: writing about (writing about) sound

I’m working on something like a “position paper” for an upcoming roundtable where participants are asked to consider how their writing engages the materiality of sound. I’d love any comments or suggestions for the following; while the language is perhaps excessively declarative in its rhetoric, I hope that the contents of this rhetoric might be taken up in our discussion as probes rather than declarations. That is, I don’t really believe what I’ve written, I just don’t think it’s wrong either.   

[with apologies for incomplete and missing citations]

The very question of writing the materiality of sound implies a logically fallacious distinction, specifically one that begs the question. That is, the challenge that inheres in such writing is an assumed sound/vision distinction that it is the goal of the challenge to articulate: the challenge rests on the assumption that there is a there there to write about. And truthfully, I expect there isn’t, which is to say that the basic principle behind Seth Kim-Cohen’s polemical non-cochlear intervention in the discourses of music and sound art is to a certain extent irrefutable: insofar as any knowledge of sound is routed through the logic of knowing itself, it is necessarily discursive (and specifically grammatological).[1]

And yet—as Levi Bryant reminds us in a different context—the irrefutability of grammatology need not close the door on other approaches: Bryant points out, for example, that “no one has yet refuted the solipsist, nor the Berkeleyian subjective idealist, yet neither solipsism nor the extremes of Berkeleyian idealism have ever been central and ongoing debates in philosophy.”[2] In this, Bryant maps Marshall and Eric McLuhan’s citation of Max Planck’s well-known view on scientific progress into the register of philosophy, arguing that “new innovations in philosophy do not so much refute their opponents as simply cease being preoccupied by certain questions and problems.”[3] In short, the task at hand is less to disprove Derridean grammatology than it is to explore the affordances of other approaches (or perhaps other affordances of grammatology), even if such endeavors remain contingent. As Niklas Luhmann argues, even if any signifying instance is finally undecidable, systems nonetheless decide.[4]

Being logically untenable, then, is not the end of the story of writing sound but instead its beginning, as discourses always modulate according to forces in addition to those of reason. Put differently, this is just to insist again on the performative dimension that has always invested deconstruction, and which indeed was the most crucial (and most vexing, logically) component of grammatology’s intervention into the Humanities.  In this light, we can note that sound’s extra-discursivity is different than vision’s (even if it remains, like vision, ultimately and logically extendable to either the sublime or the transcendent). That is, sound’s “extra-discursivity” remains as impossible, provisional, and contingently constructed as any claim to discursive evasion, but nonetheless offers a rather different clew to continually unravel and ravel again in our ongoing enaction of the system-environment difference that is embodiment. In short, the initial gambit of writing the materiality of sound must—to my mind—entail a shift from categories to operations. In this, the challenge of writing the materiality of sound is itself re-written: no longer a matter of representation or even conveyance, the task at hand instead becomes one of accounting for the agential cuts that are enacted in any coming-to-sound. The task is less one of representation or apprehension—with the entire “ecology of the mirror”[5] that such a perspective suggests—than one of expansion and intensification.

Thus, to engage the challenge of writing about sound is less to move towards the truth of sound and more to speculate about the specific methodologies that are caught up in “knowing” sound in the first place. Put differently, writing about sound is a methodological challenge, where a methodology constitutes a set of mechanisms that reiteratively construct and sustain a system/environment difference. Indeed, no matter how open it may be, a method is always a system: it is a means of separating what can cause activity in a specific way from what can only catalyze such causations, where that distinction is continuously drawn by the system through its ongoing articulation of its boundaries (i.e. of what is included in the system).[6] In this case, individual thoughts and activities can catalyze our method for writing about sound, and this activity can lead to changes in the method itself, but we ourselves can’t directly and willfully write the materiality of sound except insofar as we are part of that materiality.

Put differently, writing about sound begins with a set of principles that will, in a sense, write for us (and for which we will write). Moreover, the method is an archival one, in that it is less a matter of tracking our listening experiences (which are, in any case, always-already tracked insofar as they are experienced) and more one of recording this track. As a result, any method for writing sound must start by acknowledging that it is already written (in the broad sense), and also that there is a rich history of recording this writing.

Perhaps the most literal such history flows from the technical artifact of the phonautograph, a machine invented by Leon Scot in 1857 to quite literally write sound (or rather, to have sound write itself). Importantly, one use of this device—a device that introduces what Jonathan Sterne calls the “tympanic mechanism” as a synecdoche for listening—was to help deaf people to learn to modulate their voices to sound more like oto-typical people’s voices.[7] That is, by comparing their own inscriptions to those of people with typical hearing, deaf people could modulate the timbre of their voices in response to visual differences. Speaking is externalized and “captured” in the form of this machinic writing, with which individuals can couple in a kind of pedagogical feedback loop in order to “smooth out” aural differences that are inaudible to the speaker.

Sterne notes that this technical feedback loop is markedly different from contemporaneous approaches based on bodily reproduction tuned to the level of the phoneme. That is, the emphasis had been on reproducing movements of the lips, tongue, et cetera, in order to recognizably reproduce phonemes, thereby emphasizing the communicative capacity of speech over its sound per se.  With the phonautograph, though, the communicative goals of this project are supplemented (or perhaps even displaced) by an effort to eliminate the aural marks of a deaf person’s difference. This technical development thus folds aesthetic and political values into its purview in a perfect demonstration of what Kittler calls the “immaterial origins of science.”[8]

While obviously problematic, the values built into this technical writing of sound are worth noting because the fact of their enaction—if not the values themselves—is a fact of working methodologically: insofar as they hold steady against the tide of madness, methods must always decide in advance what will and will not count as data. In this way aesthetic judgment is built into the foundation of methodologies, in the sense that the former is precisely about the “threshold of the (im)possibility of measure.”[9] Sound must necessarily pre-exist itself in order to be written then—it is written in and as a grammatological “always-already.”

This aesthetic component of the phonautograph is crucial to note because it highlights an original (which, like any origin, appears as the original) as opposed to an historical moment of sound. That is, the shift from a unit-based communicative model (based on phonemes) of spoken sound to a normatively driven aesthetic model of sound per se moves the multiplicitous and nonlinearly related histories that are packed into this sounding beyond the pale of reasonable consideration into the creative enclave of aesthetic speculation. Specifically, (as Sterne argues) this invention ultimately charts an inversion “of the general and specific in theories of sound” such that “speech and music become specific instances of sound, which is a reproducible effect” (i.e. rather than speech and music being different things altogether).[10] In other words, a given sound is no longer treated as a thing-in-itself that is tied to its conditions of production, but is instead understood as an effect that is theoretically separable from those conditions (this, of course, is famously articulated in other settings as well, including Schafer’s notion of ‘schizophonia,’ which serve to departicularize sounds into Sound). In short, categorical distinctions about sound are put aside in favor of operational ones: sound is an effect of behavior rather than a resemblance.

Sterne (like others) is in some respects critical of this, of course, but the broader point is irrefutable: in order to properly understand sound and its reproduction we must take the time to chart the complex imbrication of social and technical forces that are built into our understanding. Echoing Donna Haraway, what is called for are histories without origins. What complicates this endeavor in the case of sound, though, is its particular mode of sedimenting the myriad (and often contradictory) histories that inhere in and as its materiality: the oft-remarked ephemerality of sound means that even as it collects these histories it does so precisely in the form of disappearance. Indeed, this is simply another way of stating the basic schizophonic premise: whatever one’s opinion about how sound should be, the schizophonic fact is that this rhetoric of ephemerality (i.e. of constant disappearance, of ontic evasion) is as inseparable from the histories sound collects as light is from vision. Vision illuminates, and sound is a shadow; to close one’s eyes and listen to sounds (i.e. to attempt to meet sound strictly on its own terms) is thus to search for a shadow in the dark.

Thus, any method for writing the materiality of sound involves an ambivalent relation with the material in question: on one hand, insofar as a method is undertaken it involves the writer being taken up into the systemic operations through which sound recognizably appears (i.e. the writer catalyzes a sonic system, such that it performs its system-environment differentiation more intensely). At the same time, though, since this sonic system consists precisely in a performance that includes the writer this externalization into aurality is simultaneously an internalization of a sound’s multiplicitous material-semiotics into the scale of lived experience. Both the writer and sound disappear to the other.

Put differently, writing the materiality of sound requires one to think through a part of oneself that is non-thinking, but that nonetheless couples thinkingly. And indeed, this is the case with any method, which is to say that methodology itself is a kind of (Deleuzian?) machine for medial translation, whether it be from sound to writing specifically or from “experience” to “having experienced” more generally. This is not a particularly new thought, and myriad artists and scholars have spilled much ink on the folds, erasures, and lines of flight that belch from aural metaphors.[11] Importantly, what underwrites these approaches—as different as they are similar—is the necessity of relating practice and research. While this is a proximate concern in any field, I would argue that it is amplified in the case of sound precisely because aurality’s “extra-discursivity” is always a movement towards a specific and immediate particularity (as opposed to standing in representationally), precisely because sounds are not even provisionally “present” (in the categorical sense).[12]

Thus, though methods always involve a degree of mechanized medial translation this translation is fundamentally informed by practices in the case of sound. If writing (in the full sense) is characterized by a bilateral theory/practice causality that is always-already performative, the functional norms of this relation are inverted in the case of sound: whereas a key intervention of grammatology was to draw out the absences that inhere in any figuration of presence, in thinking/writing contemporary sound practices the challenge seems to principally be one of making present something that is manifestly absent (i.e. in its ephemerality).

However, this isn’t quite the case either; instead—and this is where I will close—the challenge of writing sound is that of making present the fact of having made sound present in experiencing it, which is the challenge of reco(r)ding any relational phenomenon. Alexis Madrigal makes an analogous point with respect to social networks when he notes that it is manifestly not the case that Facebook allows us to exchange personal data for the ability to share information, since sociality was built into the Internet from the start. Instead, with Facebook we exchange our personal information for a record of our having shared, so any cost-benefit analysis (i.e. any method for assessing whether such an exchange is desirable, or more broadly any means of registering Facebook activity as ‘sharing’ in the first place) must account for this.[13] The point, in writing about sound, is that this reflexive component is part of the materiality that such writing seeks to code.

Finally, then, it strikes me that the pertinent question is less how to engage the materiality of sound and more that of exploring the power dynamics that are called upon and cultivated in any such engagement. Paraphrasing Madrigal, in writing about an aural practice it isn’t the case that we give up the particularity of our experience in exchange for the ability to share this experience, as experience itself already does this. Instead, we give up this particularity—we externalize ourselves into a system of writing—for a record of having shared, which is to say in order to lay claim (however provisional) to an origin of sound. This, quite simply, is a problem…and specifically one that can only be accessed through aesthetic vectors.


[1] Kim-Cohen, Seth. In the blink of an ear: toward a non-cochlear sound art (New York: Continuum, 2009).

[2] Bryant, Levi. The Democracy of Objects (Michigan: Open Humanities Press, 2011), 29.

[3] Ibid.

[4] For an excellent introduction to the relationship between second-order systems theory (SOST) and deconstruction, see Cary Wolfe, “Meaning as Event-Machine, or Systems Theory and ‘The Reconstruction of Deconstruction:” in Emergence and Embodiment: New Essays on Second-Order Systems Theory, edited by Bruce Clarke and Mark B.N. Hansen (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), pp. 220-245. Luhmann situates SOST as “the reconstruction of deconstruction.”

[5] Hiebert, Ted. “Delirious Screens: flesh shadows and cool technology” in (2008).

[6] Bryant also has a relatively simple gloss of SOST here:

[7] Sterne, Jonathan. “A machine to hear for them” fill out complete bibliographic info.

[8] Kittler, Friedrich. GFT (find page number).

Indeed, Sterne shows how later developments in the phonautograph technology are made possible by changes in the Anatomy Act in Massachusetts, changes that were themselves modeled after the British Anatomy Act of 1832 which “offered to medicine [i.e. medical students] any corpse that would otherwise have to be buried by the British state” (e.g. people dying in workhouses, or who could otherwise not afford burial services) (274).

[9] Chun, Wendy. Find bibliographic info.

[10] Sterne, 279.

[11] For myself, I have charted these protuberating vectors along four lines that combine to produce what I call the “sonic effect,” namely sound’s tendency to be differential, relational, semiotically parasitic, and multiplicitous. See Cecchetto, David. Humanesis: Sound and technological posthumanism (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 1-4.

[12] Oddly enough, in this view particularity corresponds the (in)famous claim that music is entirely abstract, since this is simply another way of noting sound’s apparent tendency to disappear at the very moment of its appearance.

[13] Madrigal, Alexis. “Dark Social: We have the whole history of the web wrong” in The Atlantic (12 October 2012; accessed January 2013).

Preemptive Glossary for a Techno-Sonic Control Society (with lines of flight) Pt. 1

The following provides a first attempt at devising terminological coordinates to apprehend the complex entanglements of sound, technology, and control. In addition to the foregrounding / delimiting / naming function they provide, these terms also allow for lines of flight, methods to induce other sonic realities (to actively change reality) by incorporating this complex web of interferences and contingencies into its purview from the get-go. These 21 terms are radically provisional, aimed at capturing confluences of the moment, but they can productively dissolve at a moment’s notice, or mutate into a form which is unrecognizable. This glossary can be entered (and exited) at any point. This will be the first of three posts. – Couroux

CYBERAFFORDANCE: The condition of cybernetic capitalism which actualizes the future in the present, effectively (but stealthily) closing off any options which the system cannot “afford“, pretending to openness (and convincing the subject of this) while operating within a set of clearly delimited boundaries. Norbert Weiner‘s first-order cybernetics aimed to predict the movement and behavior of enemy aircraft during WWII, by continuously gathering information about the opponent and feeding it back into the system, gradually improving the latter’s predictive ability. After the war, the Macy Conferences provided the impetus for an improved, second-order cybernetics, now to be applied to the social realm, in order to keep the death drive from exploding into actualization again. (Cybernetic = kubernesis = piloting). At the same time as communication technologies drastically improve and mass media acquires an ever-vaster purview, capitalism moves into its late, post-Fordist, just-in-time phase, which requires such a cybernetic system of instant feedback in order to minimize stockpiling and continue accumulation. This predation should not be too flagrant, lest the consumer develop the ability to critically resist it. Instead, the constant extraction of information from every aspect of an individual’s life (which occurs most often in the background of daily activities) operates to preempt future “outside” initiative by constantly predicting his/her next consumptive move, embedding the subject ever deeper. (Noise, especially of a “critical” variety, far from being a nuisance to the system, is in fact essential to periodically restart it. There is no failure, only feedback. The hunger of capitalism should never be undererstimated, nor its skill at capturing the opponent’s point of view and refiguring it as its own.) This condition becomes synonymous over time with the notion of “system immanence” (Hullot-Kentor), or the inability to grasp the nature of the system one is in, by being completely isomorphic with it, through the subjection of every infinitesimal aspect of daily life to analysis, calculation and prediction. (One only has to read a random selection of abstracts from any conference organized by the Society for Consumer Psychology to get a sense of micro-strategies of predation, fine-tuning the feedback loop by accounting for any possible noise that might temporarily detour it from its goal). Dixit Reza Negarestani: “Affirmation does not make you open to the world but closes you progressively through the grotesque domestications of economical openness, makes you more solid and economically open, more moralized and more ideal for the boundary whose uncontrollable machinery is based on transforming openness to affordance, and loyalty to survival economy.” Dixit Nick Land: “The only way to get more tight-feedback under current conditions is by splitting, in every sense. That is the overwhelming practical imperative: Flee, break up, withdraw, and evade. Pursue every path of autonomization, fissional federalism, political disintegration, secession, exodus, and concealment. Route around the Cathedral’s educational, media, and financial apparatus in each and every way possible. Prep, go Galt, go crypto-digital, expatriate, retreat into the hills, go underground, seastead, build black markets, whatever works, but get the hell out.”

PHONOGRAPHIC INCORPORATION: The internalization by an individual of long durations of auditory material (most often of a musical nature), which can be recalled at will, instantiations assuming the form of  internal “playback”. (Subjects have reported internalizing up to 30 minutes of material.) Details regarding frequency, rhythm, signal/noise ratio, depth (space), timbre and associated effects are all “audible” and accurately reproduced on repetition. Musicians constitute the greatest percentage of individuals disposed to phonographic incorporation, being in the habit of memorizing a large amount of musical works of extended duration for public performance. A particular instantiation of the incorporation will often be triggered by an environmental factor—linguistic, musical, affective—a lived situation which engenders inner listening (a process known more commonly as phonomnesis). Phonographic memory is essential to entrainment (see Latching Coefficient). Some speculation suggests that attempting to hum/embody/rebone a phonographic-incorporation-in-progress short-circuits its continuance, though this is difficult to square with the continuing potency of embedded superearworms in “primers”, who persist in maintaining an accurate reproduction despite surfacing it repeatedly through humming. Baddeley suggests that the recorded material might be incorporated via a “sub-vocal rehearsal process” which continuously refreshes the memory trace through the use of one’s “inner voice”. This process appears indispensable in extending the length of the incorporation beyond that afforded by the capacities of the “phonological store“, which can only maintain 3-4 seconds of material in active memory before decay sets in. (Echoic memory on the other hand is limited to retaining the just-heard—fragments less than 1000 milliseconds long—which is more than sufficient to successfully lodge timbral splinters which characterize the new mode of hyperforeshortened brand predation.) (see Primers)

PHONOEGREGORE: An occult, corporate cabal seeking control over a given population through the use of schizophonic magick. Edison is said to have expressed his fear of such a shadowy entity gaining access to the disembodied, objectified words of an individual. His fear was well founded. The schizophonic properties of recording technology were indeed appropriated by the few to gain power over the many—see Hitler’s use of live radio broadcasts (and Roosevelt’s fireside chats) and the use of fake broadcasts (by a tiny militia funded by the CIA, run by future Watergate co-conspirator E. Howard Hunt) to induce the fall of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 (among many other examples), the inspiration for which may well have come from Orson Welles’ hyperstitional broadcast of the War of the Worlds in 1938, a möbius-event which began as a standard Mercury Theater realization, slipping into what appeared to be a real-life invasion (see Technoablation). Pierre Schaeffer, a French telecommunications engineer, believed the world could be altered if one brought its sounds into the musical realm (echoing Cage’s move), developing the technique of “reduced listening” after WWII to aid in emptying the worldliness, the discursive realm out of perceived sound; to expunge the distorting, controlling effects of language which received an awesome boost in power through the appropriation of technologies of sound reproduction and transmission, employed to horrifying political ends. Like post-Darmstadt composers—but in a far more powerful fashion, for having the insight to employ the technology of his time as medium for psychic transformation (as Burroughs also understood)—Schaeffer sought to hollow/zero out in order to fill, this time squarely within the totalizing and stabilizing machine of music, in a preemptive one-upping of Jacques Attali, regarding the latter’s theory of the cyclical sublimation of the death drives of the time to the sacrificial order of music.  (The meditative, mind-voiding calm of reduced listening replaces the hyperdiscursivizing of sound excited by fear and anxiety—much better to musicalize those strange night sounds into harmlessness than to afflict them with shadowy motivations). It wouldn’t be surprising to discover that Dr. Ewen Cameron utilized some of this emerging theory in his brain-emptying experiments (which, according to Alfred McCoy, “laid the scientific foundation for the CIA’s two-stage psychological torture method”) at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal in the 50s and 60s (after Schaeffer had done his most important work). In fact, though confirmation has long been sought, no conclusions can yet be drafted. (It’s not surprising that Burroughs‘ insistence on the functionalizing of art in its capacity to produce changes in reality was deliberately downplayed. Genesis P-Orridge recounts a story of Burroughs casting a spell on an eatery that had maligned him by walking back and forth outside of it while playing at barely audible level a recording cutting in violent sounds to the sounds of and outside the restaurant. A few weeks after the action had begun, the joint closed without explanation. With the volatility (and accessibility) of schizophonic practices thus exposed—their capacity to fold time and space—it was deemed preferable to contain/defuse Burroughs within the equivocating realm of postmodern stylistic experimentation, rather than encourage any mass dissemination of the principles of techno-actualization.)

MÖBIUS MODALITY: The regime under which the emergence of a new system of domination cannot be apprehended by dint of the individual’s submission to an endless succession of presents, a steady progression through control and communication feedback processes. The möbius strip is a paradoxical entity with only one boundary, simultaneously one-sided and two-sided: one can trace a straight, continuous line on its surface and end up on the other side of where one started (after one “loop”), and continue until reaching the starting point (the second “loop”), all accomplished without ever actually leaving the initial “side”. This condition makes possible imperceptible transitions from one condition to its diametrical opposite, through a creeping process the increments of which appear to confirm the status quo (lack of palpably discrete change). The möbius modality is the means by which an individual, a culture and a society become system immanent. Only in retrospect is one able to discern the monumental flip that has taken place, by which time the new condition has become normalized. However, an understanding of the shifty, time-dependent operations of the möbius modality (and the normalization effect) shows up the boundaries of the (cyber)affordance model and its upgrading of fictional entities to the status of inviolable fact, which leaves open the potential for synthetic constructs to inflect the feedback loop through insinuation (illapsus). A conception of noise which ducks beneath integumentary exchange to operate parasitically, forcing the distorting operations of time into consciousness.

PHONOCHASM / HYPERPHONOCHASM: The (extreme) separation of a subject from its broader acoustical context. Reclusive pianist Glenn Gould undertook a series of phonochasmic experiments in the mid 1970s (by which time he had completely withdrawn into the realm of reproduction), in which he aligned an array of microphone pairs extending from the interior of the piano (close mic) to the back of the hall, allowing for a cinematic telescoping and zooming towards and away from the musical object of attention. A total zoom-in donates a sense of contextlessness, an intimate closeness, while telescoping to the widest angle lets in ample context, reverberation. If one thinks of the term reverberation in more than its acoustical sense, as a state-of-affairs in which the progressive distance from an event practically guarantees (in direct proportion) the introduction of noise (rumor, rumori (Italian) = noise) and intermediating/détourning factors (discursive and perceptual), then one most assuredly has an interest in controlling the amount of reverb one lets into any experience. (What is likely to be “taken up” and re-injected into actuality once the original signal has died off.) “Critical distance” (how far you are from the immediate field of emission) takes on another meaning here. The hyperphonochasm is a more recent development; its exacerbated, foreshortened character more suited to the rapid-response feedback of viral media. Such a weapon was deployed by corporate media in the aftermath of the pre-election Iowa caucuses of 2004, in which Democratic contender Howard Dean had finished third. Despite this poor showing, Dean’s natural response to his supporters’ enthusiasm was to rattle off a wishlist of states-to-win, finishing off with a primal yelp. From a cellphone recording of the event taken by one of these supporters, one can easily discern the context of what came to be known as the “Dean scream“: one of mutual excitement, in which the ultimate utterance functioned simply as peremptory punctuation. Which media outlet actually carried out the hyperphonochasm is not clear. One of them (Fox, perhaps?) originated a version of this particular event in which the output from Dean’s microphone had been amplified, and the context dampened, in order to donate the impression of a ranting madman, inappropriately content with a miserable electoral outcome, obviously disconnected from reality, preaching to what sounds like a small crowd, ultimately unsuitable for high office. After some 700 iterations of the scream across the 5 major US television networks (pre-YouTube), Dean’s campaign was effectively deactivated.  The cellphone recording’s evidencing of the immersive nature of the event—its perspective lacking critical distance—is countermanded by the hyperphonochasmic version, a post-event “reverberation” (a re-perspectivized reinjection into the folds of the real) which ironically suppresses acoustical reverberation (sense of context) to insinuate its distorting imperatives. (The phonocollapse is the underused opposite of the phonochasm, in its attenuation of an object or individual’s pre-emininent position within a context, dissolving a stand-out part into an undifferentiated (virtual) whole. A re-emphasis on the messiness and non-linearities of a social movement rather than its clean encapsulation and teleological catalyzing in the words and actions of its heroic leaders is a frequent trope in revisionist history.)

INCONGRUITY INDEX: The degree of deviation from a normative melodic, harmonic, rhythmic condition which induces excess cognition on the part of the listener, absorbed in the effort of identifying the anomalous nature of the mysterious event. This surplus effort to “pull back” perceived incongruity into an existing category induces an earworm—a more or less deeply lodged fragment, most often of music, which appears to have no purpose other than its obsessive reenactment in the mind of the afflicted individual—which is why sonic branders (inspired by the work of Dr. James Kellaris, among others) are interested in mathematising a particular hook’s deviation in order to more effectively abduct. (In addition, formulas exist which calculate the average amount of repetitions needed to “naturalize” a deviation, depending on its incongruity index. This naturalization process is tantamount to the psychic half-life of the deviation, its gradual decay into the normative where it can do no more direct harm (but by the same token determines future potential by its withdrawal into an expanding virtual). Types of deviation include: an awkward melodic leap which appears unattractive at first, an unexpected harmonic modulation, rhythmic asymmetries and foreshortenings etc. These deviations are often pulled back into controllable territory by the conscious mind without undue effort and without lasting parasitic effect, which is why the magickal art of deviation requires constant practice and update in line with current sensible distributions of cultural matter (branding agencies have sizable research wings).

CHRONOPHOBIA / MYSOCHRONIA: Fear of time / Hatred of time. Just-in-time capitalism, functioning by instant feedback control and communication, replaces just-in-case, which allows for potential future consumption of a stockpiled good. Preempting the future in the present (see Cyberaffordance) occasions a never-ending series of present “projects” with no end in sight (Kafka’s indefinite postponement and Cazdyn’s Already Dead chronic case, not to mention Muzak’s Quantum Modulation, which proliferates an endless variety of surfaces while subtending / unifying them with rigid affective prescription). Greenberg‘s Augenblick: the totality of the art work is accessible in the blink of an eye, before cognition takes things up. If you can preempt consciousness by affective formalist means, you can delimit the range of possible experience. Tony Conrad’s Bryant Park Moratorium Rally (1969) goes one better: the mediated, televised coverage of the rally appears to precede / preempt the actual event taking place a dozen blocks away. L. Ron Hubbard defines a “Clear” as one who thinks in instantaneous bursts, without the deleterious ramblings of an inner voice, i.e. without time, without deliberation. Francis Bacon conjures paintings meant to explode “violently onto the nervous system”. Control requires time for its feedback operations, but needs to conceal this fact through the parcellization of time into manageable units, lest the enslaved subject appropriate its modulatory (and inertial) effects to foster  embodied continuities self-ejecting from the communicative bind with capitalism. Minimalists wanted to let time back into the experience. As Christoph Cox has pointed out, Michael Fried’s Art And Objecthood (1967) was more concerned with the messiness of temporal experience (and Minimal art’s indistinction from experience of the world in general) than with the condition of “theatricality“. (More importantly, the essay inadvertently galvanized the Minimalist project, appropriating Fried’s language to carve itself a theoretical basis.) Instability, process, change take on greater meaning in the late 60s as minimalist artists militate against institutional structures. Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), hailed as an “homage to time” is in fact the work of a profoundly mysochronic sensibility: a replication of the institutionalized, spatialized time of control, with images and sounds indexed to the time of day, synching viewers up with chronometric, regimented time, freezing the latter’s wayward potential in a series of unending presents. Time indexed to function: a Time and Motion Study for the 21st century.

cont’d in Part 2

– Couroux


Levi Bryant’s August 2010 post about “Experimental Metaphysics” was brought to my attention the other day via an NYC yoga instructor’s stumbling across the entry and adding a comment that a few days ago automatically fed into my email.

Mistaking the post and its subsequent discussion as recent, I added my own thoughts on what an experimental metaphysics might entail.

Bryant basically asks how activities seemingly tangential to the task of doing metaphysics come to inform the latter. For example, how does the smell of damp soil and the observation of sunlight’s path across a patch of tilled earth find its way into one’s thoughts about the stuff of being? The post is mostly suggestive and ultimately quite modest in its proposals.

While I think there’s definite merit to what Bryant asks, and an obvious implication that circumstances are an ineliminable part of the way a broader reality is taken up by an individual and related to others,  the idea of the experimental here is rather conservative in its aims. Specifically, I think the way that Bryant frames the experimental is assuming in its orientation towards a real whose existence matters as fact. That is, what’s being assumed by the experimental activity here is a reality whose status as “real” is determined in advance. The experiment here is more an act of discovery than one of invention, and in a sense, it’s an act the outcome of which is something to know.

My comment (reproduced below) suggests that the “experimental” be considered less as a method for pondering “the resistance of the real” and more a way of being concerned with the creation of realities.

Response to Levi Bryant’s “Experimental Metaphysics?” (posted 11 August 2010).

(February 27, 2013 at 4:53 am)

I’d love to see “experimental” considered here in a sense that is closer to the way the term is used in the arts. I’m thinking specifically of the way John Cage defined the experimental “not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown.” If we take “experimental metaphysics” in this sense, then aesthetics truly becomes first philosophy. The practice of philosophy, and the elaboration of a metaphysics, could be understood, then, as an event-driven act, an event/act whose duration may span a lifetime, and, as Fabio puts it, whose aim resides in the “development through time of the [philosophizing] itself.” This is to say that an experimental metaphysics would see itself chiefly as an aesthetic project whose article of creation—its “ontology”—is no less fabricated than, for example, experimental music’s “compositions,” or experimental fiction’s “novels.” What’s important to an experimental metaphysics of this kind is making sense, which is to say, making particular activities function in a way that lures attention into the ambit of an effective difference—namely, the difference that an argument, along with its concomitant rhetoric and style, makes. Like any artwork, the sense a metaphysics makes needn’t be true or even, in the extreme, coherent. A(n experimental) metaphysics just needs to be persuasive, or more importantly, it needs to be interesting in its invention of a conceptual domain. I’d suggest a metaphysics is also experimental not only when the practices that inform the collection of ideas are spotlighted or emphasized, as they would be—discomfitingly perhaps—at a conference that asks its participants to cook, fold paper, etc., but when an effort to create concepts and to forge new ways of thinking is done without knowing what sense their being done will make. This, however, would be incredibly difficult to image because it risks undermining the cogency that makes philosophy a robust form of knowledge and not mere prattle. (Perhaps this is what Guattari was up to. Levi suggests in another post that he finds G. thinks “too quickly.” It’s possible that Guattari was not thinking too quickly so much as he was doing exactly the kind of experimental thinking that I’m relating here.)

– Priest

Thoughts on creative practice and research

I set out to offer some initial thoughts in this post on a practice-informed research project I’ve been messing around with for the last couple months called FATHEAD, which basically amounts to a wearable microphone/headset that simulates how the world would sound if the wearer’s head were 1000 feet wide. Before I got to discussing the project itself, though, I found myself needing to explicitly note my hesitation around the term “practice-informed research,” and that note ultimately swelled enough that I thought it could probably constitute a short post unto itself. So, in the near future I’ll offer an account of FATHEAD that will include the source code, materials list, instructions, and some reflections on the emergent theoretical questions that the piece yields; for the moment, though, I want to offer a few thoughts on the relation between practice and research.

My skepticism about “practice-informed research” (as well as its various discontents such as practice-based research, research-based practice, etc) comes from a number of places, of which I’ll mention only two. Firstly, to my knowledge the term initially gained prominence in the context of the UK’s ideologically-motivated emphasis on measurable outcomes in University research and teaching. This emphasis is at best spurious, and is part and parcel of a neoliberal politics that is probably the most proximate danger to the tiny element of intellectual diversity that can still be fostered in universities. Despite being a (probably) necessary tactic for that particular political battle, this in no way means that such a terminological expansion should take hold as a strategy as that battle’s purview expands. That is, an effective detournement of liberalism’s emphasis on proceduralism doesn’t necessarily translate to a desirable plan to contest the values that underwrite that system.

Secondly, and relatedly, I’ve always wondered about the implicit value that seems to be given to ‘research’ in this arrangement. In the case of practice-based research, for example, I find it hard to understand how this formulation is anything other than an authorization of creative practice via the assumption of value in research; is such an authorization really necessary? This reeks to me of the same logic that suggests listening to Mozart because it will make you smarter. In any case, research in itself isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but I suppose my hesitation lies in the fact that arguments in favor of PBR almost always lay claim to attending to “other forms of knowledge and knowing” which to me is the exact opposite of what is exciting about artistic practice, in so far as knowledge (when it is treated as an identifiable thing) premediates the vagaries of practice. Institutionally-recognized knowledge is, by definition, a reification, and is thereby oriented towards certain kinds of exchange. Do we really want to frame the contingencies, wonders, and ephemeralities of artistic practice in this way? (To be clear, I’m in no way suggesting that we just accept that these features of artistic practice have necessary and a priori value in themselves and are therefore beyond the pale of consideration, I just can’t believe that institutionally-sanctioned research is the most interesting way to approach this.)

Obviously, the very fact that these questions matter to me speaks to the fact that the problem of insisting on practice is one that I feel merits attention. (I’ll also note that I recognize that these questions won’t matter to many, as these are questions whose relevance is greatly amplified by the context of working in a university.) For myself, I’ve approached this problem in part by thinking of the practical component of my work as splitting along three lines. There are, firstly, my creative works that are worked towards completion in the conventional sense, and that subsequently circulate in the economy of art and music worlds. These works are rare for me—and increasingly so—precisely because I find it hard to accept the trade-off of my having to hustle the work in order for it to speak in this register…in the absence of any real belief in ‘great works,’ such activities—which are necessarily quotidian for professional artists—feel disingenuous to me when I undertake them (though only for me,  I know that most artists don’t feel this way and probably shouldn’t…and also that hustling is as much a part of giving a paper, teaching, and myriad other settings I’m engaged in where I am ultimately willing to make the trade-off).

Secondly, I often like to make or do things just for the sake of it, buoyed by the assumption that the process of doing so will ultimately spur some fresh pathways or tendencies in my daily thinking and living. This kind of work (of which FATHEAD is an example, as is to a certain extent Exurbia) tends to take on what might charitably be called a DIY aesthetic, but what really is just the look of incompletion. Schematically, I tend to think of such projects as catalyzing (as opposed to causing) research, where, the distinction between catalysis and causation is simply meant to suggest that they activate a system (my thinking) that operates according to a logic that is distinct from their own. (Causation and catalysis are of course never completely distinct.) In these sorts of projects I often intentionally make the work such that they aren’t really viable art objects: FATHEAD, for example, can’t easily be displayed, shown on stage, documented, circulated, et cetera.

Finally, I think there is a place for practice-based methods in answering research questions that predate them. These sorts of projects, in my case, proceed by answering a question that can’t be answered except in its execution; that is, the types of questions that tend to be answered in the form of patterns, tendencies, and accruals rather than synchronic analyses. If you’ve heard me talk about Skewed Remote Musical Performance, you’ve probably heard me talk about this.

To be clear then, I’m in no way undermining the value of practice, nor suggesting that there is no place for practice in conventional research settings. With that said, though, I’m appalled how often PBR is used as an alibi for activities that don’t succeed according to the demands of either term separately, and whose peculiarities are—by virtue of being framed as PBR—collapsed into the institutional procedures that subtend Art and Research (uppercases intentional). It strikes me as crucial to keep in mind that even though creative practice and research might be equally valuable (if we’re being generous to research), not everything matters in the same wayand acting as though everything does has a better chance of undermining the vagaries of creative practice than it does of introducing any cracks in the foundation of research complexes.

That said, I know that many of my friends and colleagues disagree, so I’d love to better understand why if anyone cares to comment.

– Cecchetto

To make a better crease

Hyperstition, that word to left of this entry and just a little ways beneath the excessively stylized header, stands as a key term for this blog because each of us shares the belief in the power of belief, or more specifically, the power of the false, the not-necessarily-true, and lies, to govern coincidence in a way that makes fabula effective and real. In other words, we’re hyperstitious because it’s apparent that reality is capable of being changed in conformity with the will.

The term, however, is not ours. Nick Land is largely responsible for its coinage and for its common conceptualization as an inhuman, apocalyptic power from the future. In some sense, hyperstition is Land’s radicalization of Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis of capitalism which regards certain of the latter’s productive tendencies as evidence of an agency belonging to the system rather than those who are subject to it. Yet whereas Deleuze and Guattari are content to let the anomalous powers of capitalism remain ontologically indeterminate, Land interprets them in very literal ways to give his writings their distinctive fantastical and horrific flare. (See for example: “Meltdown.”) Basically, Land’s hyperstition is a methodological term that describes a form of “concept engineering” or idea wangling to account for the way things that are not necessarily true seem to have an effect on things in a way that perpetrates or conditions their own realization. In Land’s model reality is not a fixed object but a fluctuating environment of signs, affects, percepts, and behaviours that is continuously being designed, effected, and, more importantly, fought over. Something is therefore “hyperstitional” when causal links are made between a fiction’s semiotic field (which includes the special case of “art”) and the real’s effective terrain. This “fiction making itself real” can be understood as a form of classic occult causation, or, if you want to invoke Land’s terms, a case of cybernetic action wherein “reality” and “fiction” are both elements of a closed signaling loop that feeds change back into a system to regulate its constraints, potentials, and tolerances. (For Land, the “system” is no more than the productive pressure which matter’s self-differentiation produces in excess. Matter (material) is the process of individuation and synthesis, and thoughts (concept) are its effects, effects stripped of their transcendence.)

In this respect, hyperstition appears to be a type of formal or plexive causality that refers to the way effects implicate themselves within events to decline them away from expressing authorized—transcendentally coordinated—versions of reality. Things become hyperstitious when counterfactual propositions fold semiotic patterns and intensive regularities into a semblance of the real that is, while effectively virtual, indistinguishable from what it simulates. The consequences of this “verity swerve” are several, the least of which is that hyperstition confounds the categories of true/false, real/unreal. Perhaps what’s most interesting about the collapse of the distinction between the real/unreal is that postmodernism’s knee-jerk ontological skepticism is now the authorized response to hyperstition. Simulation is fact. The Real is fiction. But hyperstitions confound this formula because they don’t occasion a dispute—the absolute immanence of all transcendentals is prima facie. For the hyperstitious, the terms of debate have shifted to from substantiating the constructedness of the real to waging war over its invention. What this means is that hyperstitions leverage the “efficacy of the virtual” to re-version the real. Reality is not only plastic through and through, but everything about it folds into its expression, its process of self-differentiation. Writing, speaking, dancing, being bored, hesitating, forgetting, symbolizing, withdrawing, dying. Each of these acts executes a tendency that engineers what Land calls “zones of plexivity”—( ), (( ))), ((( )))))))))where versions of the real compete to make a better crease.

Although every “thing” has an active function in the perplex of the real, only some things are sanctioned as operative. It all depends upon the tolerances of the current cultural Speculative Regime (ccSR)—the controlling system that commands the conjectural remit of any given version of reality. However, just because something is not sanctioned does not mean that it has no influence or lacks a measure of affect. For example, while the therapeutic efficacy of certain herbs that resemble the parts of the body (the “doctrine of signatures”) do not possess the overt correspondence between effects and signatures that would validate the reality of the doctrine, the mnemonic system that herbal signatures and discernable remedial effects produce cannot be denied. The curative signature of herbs has, then, an effect that produces changes in the real—the doctrine is a memory machine. But these effects are occulted, they are dissembled and rendered merely expressive of a “mnemonic device” for attributing which medical action corresponds with what herbs. The doctrine of signatures is a gateway through which modes of health may become real, and in this respect it is not a superstition but a hyperstition. It is a fiction whose speculations envisage a salubrious reality yet to come.

* * *

If contemporary culture is no longer superstitious because it believes in the certainty of its own programming, then as it gains awareness of its mediated constitution it is now becoming actively hyperstitious. The social construction of reality is beginning to look less like a theoretical gambit and more like an ontological model. Perhaps where superstition functions as a technique used to seduce specific results from a reality believed to be unruly and, paradoxically, “already written,” hyperstition is a practice for, as Ccru puts it, “propagating escape routes” and “charting a flight from destiny” (LTW). As a technique, superstition, despite its occult causality, continues to endorse the claims of the ccSR because all that it evokes are possibilities, pre-established future paths that short circuits any attempt to escape the ccSR. But hyperstition has no truck with the ccSR. Results for the hyperstitious are not something to be endorsed, they are something to be achieved or accomplished, regardless of their ontological status. To be hyperstitious is, then, to believe in the reality of the impossible and to execute the invention of the unfathomable. Land invokes Lovecraft’s  “Old Ones” to depict the degree of hypsersition’s relevant unfathomability. As an absolute exteriority whose nature is so alien and ancient, so outlandish and inexplicable, the Old Ones represent the conjectural limits of the ccSR and thereby escape, at least symbolically (which is not nothing), the latter’s powers of domestication. The point is that one cannot plot or reason one’s way out of the ccSR, for plot and reason, even so deviant a strain as Land’s, belong to its remit. The outcomes of tactical subversion, logically composed nonsense, or even some form of auto-extinction, are fated to reiterate the concerns of the ccSR. The only way out is to lie, to make the counterfactual effective.

WellI’m not entirely certain about any of the above. I think, however, what matters is for hyperstition to be understood as the production of sense that Deleuze identifies as the boundary or surface between propositions and things, a metaphysical surface from which the various modes of relationality find their power to differentiate and thereby organize into realities. As sense, hyperstition is not peculiar, but where sense runs amok, where surfaces multiply exponentially as we’ve been taught has already happened, then the efficacy of the virtual is something that is being constantly leveraged to engineer all manner of realities, from the grand designs of “global terror” that mobilize affections such as dread to manage the expectations of large populations, to the unassuming busker who hopes for a moment to capture a single listener long enough to sympathize and attune his/her temporary local reality. Additionally, multiples of sense create time anomalies and future memories, for the surface which “turns one side toward things, and another side toward propositions” (Deleuze) describes a spiral of coincidences that bring distant surfaces into effective proximity. Lies, then, are not false so much as they are exemplars of hyper-sense. Lies make sense, and the sense they make cleaves fact and fiction to the same expression. But the latter (expression) is itself just the surface of another series of sense that manners its own relay of signs, affects, percepts, and behaviours into a potentially functional reality.

For The Occulture, hyperstitions locate senses that stick, or show the promise of sticking, of becoming realities that will have been versioned. Perhaps you could say that because The Occulture is interested in hyperstition, it’s in the business of making sense.

eldritch Priest

Listening as sympathy

First off, I want to preface my (relatively brief) post by saying that this space, for me, is a chance to hash out ideas as much as anything else. As such, I hope it goes without saying that many of the things I write about are as much a product of conversations I’m having and books that I’m reading as they are indicative of any ‘original’ thinking. To be clear, I don’t mean this as an apology and certainly don’t mean to suggest that my formal (scholarly) writing is somehow the product of a single author, but I want to make the point nonetheless because (while I’ll make every effort to cite appropriately) the great affordance of this space, for me, is to be able to ‘simply write’ (if not, alas, to be able to write simply).

This non-apology is particularly apt for this first post of mine because I’d like to think a little about modes of concentration, and I owe a lot of my thoughts in this area to eldritch Priest (who will also be posting here regularly, and who has a fantastic book called Boring, Formless, Nonsense: experimental music and the aesthetics of failure out with Continuum/Bloomsbury). To my mind, a corollary to McLuhan’s famous (and problematic) conception of technology as an ‘extension of man’ is that the senses are themselves technological, or perhaps medial. That is, we might understand (in the context of a distributed notion of cognition that we might call ‘affect’) technological extension to mean that to speak of hearing or seeing or touching et cetera is more to acknowledge a quality of attention than it is to define a discrete site of perception. This is why, for example, one can speak sensibly of seeing with one’s ears or hearing with one’s eyes: what is called forth is not so much a metaphor (though it is that, too) as it is set of affordances and constraints emphasizing certain distinctions over others. Or, put differently, each of what we think of as our five senses (or seven, if you include premonition and proprioception) is a kind of stand-in for a different way of articulating the ongoing system-environment difference that is embodiment. So, my aural body is different than my optical one (and, indeed, neither are properly ‘mine’), raising the question: in what does this difference consist? There are (of course) numerous answers to that question, but also (paradoxically) none that are categorically true precisely because sense-differentiation is operational rather than categorical, as I’ve just alluded to.

All of which doesn’t really matter, except in so far as this operational emphasis allows us to think about listening itself as a mode of concentration without erasing the material differences that obtain between sound and vision; that is, without adopting a necessarily anthropocentric perspective. There are any number of ways to pressure this operational difference (Marc highlighted eight in his post), but for the remainder of this post I’d like to focus on one: sympathy.

As Aden Evens points out in Sound Ideas, listening always involves attending to a differential play. Evens notes (as others have) that we don’t hear air pressure, but rather air pressure changing; to hear a ‘constant’ pitch is literally to hear something that is nothing but constant change. That is, despite sound waves travelling longitudinally (rather than transversely, as with a ripple on a pond), sound is resolutely not found in the particular air that impacts a resonant surface, but rather emerges from the pattern of the impact. Thus, we are always listening durationally in the doubled sense that to hear is: (1) to compose a succession of particular impacts into a pattern that is directed towards meaning; (2) and to exist outside of any fiction of a ‘pure present’ such that this direction towards meaning is always also a misdirection, since there is not even the fiction of a fixed referent.

This is actually a remarkably disturbing (in the best sense) observation—despite its simplicity—because it means that to ‘listen to’ is always to ‘feel with’ (to sympathize), to be attuned to the dynamics of a process that at once exceeds and composes oneself (composes because this process of attunement enacts a system-environment difference). Put differently, listening composes a form of relating that does not establish a subject/object distinction but rather an immediate (!) dynamism. In this, it is dramatically different from vision, which requires a minimal distance in order for light to be reflected.

(As an aside, I came across this podcast of a lecture by Daniel Black—who I don’t know at all—some time ago; he makes the crucial point that since nanotechnology is smaller than the wavelength of light it is constitutively invisible. As a result, visual nanotech interfaces are not so much magnifications—as we are invited to believe—as they are material translations that introduce qualititatively different parameters of potential manipulation…a point which is always true of magnification to an extent, but which is radicalized in that case. Thacker’s Global Genome similarly unpacks the radical material slippages that are collapsed into the concept of DNA.)

Moreover—and more politically—we might say that to listen is to draw proximate to the risks of entrainment. That is, in so far as listening entails a kind of primary relationality—i.e. a relation that logically precedes its relata—a position of critical distance is no longer possible (indeed, I have it in the recesses of my memory that the etymology of the word critical may in fact tie it to separation…). While this is perhaps simply another articulation of thinking politically after the transvaluation of value, it is nonetheless particularly pertinent today: as Hayles (and others) have argued, the ubiquity of technological networks compels us today to move beyond the psyche, the body, and even the social as the privileged sites of nonconscious activity. In short, Hayles’s project describes the myriad ways that we are persistently and relentlessly entrained by and through ubiquitous technologies, an entrainment that is typically unilateral because such networks are constitutively outside the realm of our conscious knowledge (she argues, for example, that 99% of all communicated language is machine to machine data that is unintelligible to humans). To listen, then, is to risk further immersion in precisely such networks.

This risk, though, is also listening’s potential, its political gambit. That is, if listening collapses (in advance) the spatial distinction between subject and object, it also temporalizes the relation that it posits: listening is dynamic. Thus—to return to the question of attention—the great possibility that listening presents is that one might attend to sympathy itself, to the possibilities that emerge in relations that cannot be traced to their constituent parts. Thus, for example, to learn to play a drum roll is not a question of learning to play faster, but rather of bringing the resonant potentials of all of the relevant actors (the drum skin, the sticks, one’s hands, et cetera) into sympathy with one another. Importantly, the argentine shimmer that makes a roll a roll emerges as a qualitatively different vector than any intensities found in the individual parts: it’s not just a question of speed. And crucially, such sympathies gain intensity over time: the roll might swell or compress, but it does so precisely because its status as a roll continually accrues.

In broad strokes then, perhaps we can say that to look attentively is to attend to a world that will persist in precisely the same manner independent of our attention. Unless we are solipsistic, we assume that objects persist even when we look away. To listen attentively, though, is to attend to a world where resonances are continually established, maintained, and broken; paraphrasing McLuhan, the question of solipsism is not intelligible to the ear. In listening, then, what Hayles calls the ‘technological nonconscious’ is still not brought into the light of conscious thought, but perhaps conscious thought itself might learn how to entrain bilaterally, which is to say to act.

– Cecchetto


First post: towards an unsound occupation

I’d like to kick off this blog by insisting on the oft occulted area of tactical implementation of theoretical speculations, as a prelude to the work we’ll be doing in the context of An Unsound Occupation. There are many reasons why these speculations prematurely abort before sedimenting into application – chief among them perhaps is the sinking feeling that any tactic which circulates in cybernetic capitalism has the potential to strengthen the latter, to become indistinguishable from a product of a research and development wing for the “creative class”. Recall Cazdyn and Szeman’s critique of new economy guru Richard Florida in After Globalization. Dixit Florida: “I define the highest order of creative work as producing new forms or designs that are readily transferable and widely useful – such as designing a product that can be widely made, sold and used.” And this: “We have evolved economic and social systems that tap human creativity and make use of it as never before. This in turn creates an unparalleled opportunity to raise our living standards, build a more humane and sustainable economy, and make our lives more complete.” This grotesque line of argumentation connects with the seemingly progressive project of the Italian Autonomist movement (especially Negri), in reappropriating Marx’s Fragment on Machines from the Grundrisse in which the notion of “general intellect” is introduced as a means to a liberation from exploitation—”tapped into” in order to donate means by which the multitude can auto-poietically constitute itself—but occulting the fact that late capitalism is first and foremost an information, communication economy which vampirizes on intellectual, emotional, affective strata, capturing the individual even more securely into the folds of cybernetic logic. (Not to mention that Autonomist thought a fortiori restricts its critique to the level of production and leaves untrammeled consumption and eternal accumulation unexamined.) (For the moment, I’m not dealing with the claim that immaterial labor is itself nothing new, and has in fact always been an integral part to the production of value within capitalism.  Anarchist theorist David Graeber has written on this.) As sociologist Maurizio Lazzarato points out, the individual is now ensconced in “machinic enslavement” which “consists in mobilizing and modulating the pre-individual, pre-cognitive and pre-verbal components of subjectivity, causing affects, perceptions and sensations as yet unindividuated or unassigned to a subject, etc. to function like the cogs and components in a machine.” This connects very much with the notion of pre-individual capture (the future preempted in the present) as dealt with by Brian Massumi and Steve Goodman among others, which seems to constitute one of the primary territories of struggle nowadays. I’m summarizing here, but the main question which has haunted my activities as of late remains: To what ends can creativity be “tapped” without unwittingly serving the very system one wishes to interrupt and defunctionalize? Here, as in all too many instances where the question of “what to do?” comes up, and despite rigorous, careful analyses, a dearth of concrete, actionable mechanisms makes its void painfully felt. My goal is to discover, through dialogue, whether heretical strategies from the past can be reappropriated (somehow divested from capitalist entanglement – Tony Conrad talks about the “excesses” in works which, because they are somehow occluded by historical, cultural “distributions of the sensible” prevailing at the time of their enactment, are therefore available for future use, when the time is ripe to skim them off) or whether heretofore unsuspected methods are what is needed. So I’d like to dedicate each post to a particular theoretical perspective – present or past – the tenets of which might illuminate a current conundrum.

With this question in mind, I delved into Tiqqun’s 2001 L’hypothèse cybernétique, which exists in a fair English translation. The first seven sections establish the coordinates of the cybernetic capitalist system we find ourselves in today, throughout flagging and dismantling most critiques of it as wittingly or unwittingly complicit in its continuing power, while the remaining 5 sections propose strategies for resisting and ultimately defeating this paradigm.

Briefly put, cybernetics, a wartime development tasked with the prediction of enemy action (and concomitant preemption) is quickly put to postwar use in manners defined by the annual Macy Conferences held in NYC, with the explicit aim of preventing any future social trauma and mass destruction by regulating i.e. controlling social behavior (the continuation of war by other, political means). (Lutz Dammbeck’s The Net fully exposes this history which involves figures such as mathematician Von Neumann, biophysicist Von Foerster, anthropologist Bateson, cybernetician Weiner, father of information theory Shannon, psychologist Lewin – an interdisciplinary crowd if ever there was one, and certainly a substantive bolster to anyone who is susceptible to conspiracy theories). However for all intents and purposes, the intentions of the Macy participants revolved around the establishment of a lasting social peace (without of course attempting to substantively deal with the real social antagonisms suppressing its appearance—gender, race, class, capitalism).

At the same time as this is happening, consumer culture is exploding and proliferating, partially due to the astute application of propaganda (now retitled “public relations” to distance it from Goebbels’ use of the term) techniques developed by Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays (see Adam Curtis’ The Century of the Self) geared towards the “manufacture of consent” and the emphasizing / capitalizing of desires over real needs, to ensure constant circulation and accumulation. Thanks to the roughly contemporaneous development and implementation of technologies of real-time communication and information, the feedback model of second-order cybernetics becomes the ideal template shepherding capitalism into its “late” stage. Cybernetics is the response to a desire for order, certitude – and what better way to tap into this than to preemptively stage the future in the present, to actively close off potential future disruptions to ensure an ever-smooth space for commodity circulation.  (“For cybernetics it is no longer a question of predicting the future, but of reproducing the present.”)

Tiqqun reminds us that the word cybernetic derives from the Greek kubernesis, literally the act of “piloting a vessel” and refers us back to Foucault’s 1981-2 courses on self-regulation and governmentality as the emerging tenets of a new neoliberal order (astoundingly, Foucault is one of the first to deal with neoliberalism, naming it as such in his 1978-9 courses before almost anyone else, during which time Thatcher acceded to power in the UK and shortly before it was effectively put into practice in the US by Paul Volcker, then chief of the Federal Reserve, when he raised interest rates on October 6 1979 (during the Democratic Carter administration), provoking a recession and installing the new policies of austerity). Social scientist Karl Deutsch recommended abandoning the concept of “sovereign power”, to be replaced by a governance which would consist in “a rational coordination of the flows of information and decisions that circulate through the social body” – a submission of what Lyotard termed the “libidinal economy” of free-floating desires (in his “evil” book of the same name, which he himself later repudiated) to cybernetic control. Deutsch underlined three conditions which would need to be met to actualize this new form of decentralized power: “an ensemble of capturers would have to be installed so that no information originating from the “subjects” would be lost; information handling by correlation and association; and a proximity to every living community.” In this sense, a mastery of uncertainty would arise from the “continuous extortion of information” (now increasingly possible due to new instant-feedback technologies – just think of the Amazon recommendations based on your own purchasing history, memorized and represented back to you, or any type of barcode scan at the checkout counter, which is fed directly into the just-in-time models which overwhelmingly characterize late capitalism.)

“Cybernetics transports the rationalization process common to bureaucracy and to capitalism up onto the plane of total templating (modeling).” Not only have we NOT been liberated by post-Fordist restructuring of labor, but even our so-called leisure time (if we’re not plugged into work all the time to begin with) is being intensely monitored and capitalized by perpetual communication. (Radical economist Gary Becker was one of the first to theorize this total capitalization of existence in “The Economic Approach to Human Behavior” in the mid 70s). The Big State, equally decried by both late 60s student revolutionaries AND emerging neo-liberalists, is replaced by “micro-mechanisms of control”, AKA devices, “nomadic forms of control” which continuously collect information about our needs, desires, opinions (Tiqqun insists on the necessity within cyber-capitalism of constant TRANSPARENCY). Capitalist accumulation can only survive in the wake of the dissolution of mass-production Fordism if the production-consumption cycle accelerates. Accordingly, as Deleuze pointed out in his prescient Postscript, nothing is ever finished in societies of control, following Kafka’s notion of “indefinite postponement”; there are infinitely untapped methods by which the individual can be mobilized as a consumer (because capitalism, however rabid its deterritorializing impulses cannot in the end do without humans, its effects radically RE-territorialized into affects and bodies).

This is a gross summary – and it brings me back to the initial question of how, in this context, a tactical approach might be still able to circumvent capitalization.

Throughout the speculative remainder of the text, Tiqqun outlines general properties of a “successful” resistance:

a) Active Experimentation: “Attacking the cybernetic hypothesis…doesn’t mean just critiquing it, and counterposing a concurrent vision of the social world; it means experimenting alongside it, actuating other protocols, redesigning them from scratch and enjoying them.” AND: “Experimentation, which does not consist in completed experiences but in the process of completing them, is located within fluctuation, in the heart of the noise, lying in wait for the bifurcation.” (The latter notion which they crib from Prigogine and Stengers’ chaos theory discovery of “thresholds from which a new system status is possible”).

b) Intervention/Insinuation from within the logic of commodity flows: Tiqqun believes that Marx and Bataille both erred in “situating the power to overturn the system from OUTSIDE of the system of commodity flows.” This recalls Cildo Meireles’ Intervention into Ideological Circuits, in which repurposed mass produced commodies (assisted ready-mades) were reinserted into the system, their disruptive logic stealthily metastasizing. They define INSINUATION, “the illapsus, according to medieval philosophy – a strategy consisting in following the twists and turns of thought, the wandering words that win me over while at the same time constituting the vague terrain where their reception will establish itself.” Insinuation (read: duplicity) is posited explicitly AGAINST the logic of transparency. This leads to the necessary correlate of…

c) Contagion: Pace Burroughs (in the Invisible Generation), “What’s at issue in any enunciation is not whether it’s received but whether it can become contagious.”

d) Noise: Tiqqun defines noise as that which “is non-enrolled into the valorization circuit”: “The overproduction of bad feedbacks that distort what they’re supposed to signal and amplify what they’re supposed to contain — such situations point the way to a pure reverberatory power.” (It remains to be seen whether noise still has this capacity, given its genrification and valorization – remembering that this text was written in 2001). At its core, noise is the non-trackable, a movement which oscillates indeterminately between 0 and 1 (off / on).

All this is vaguely poetic and somewhat under-determined.

I’d like us to think about the following points and their potential grafting onto sonic practices, given our area of tactical focus. For the moment, I’m going to refrain from critiquing them (I’m expecting and hoping critique will occur). Note that these 8 points are not outlined as such in the text, but have been isolated by me – as such there are overlaps. Also, one should read the following remembering it was written in 2001 (before Sept. 11, an event which apparently brought about the dissolution of the group.); as such, you may find that 12 years makes a big difference.

1. “Fabricating the real instead of responding to it.” (Deleuze)  This involves an experimental actualization of heretofore unsuspected “forms of struggle” and the transformation of the “interplay of lifestyles/forms-of-life into information.” It’s an “extended line of flight that seems to spread outwards from me”, which spreads a form of informational sabotage (or disinformation, or “hyperstition”), which could also be understood as a contagious spread of alternative models. It is important to have a consistent multitude of discrepant actions so as to produce an illegible overall effect (no clear mandate) and “produce invisibility in the eyes of the enemy”.

2. This fabrication and consequent dissemination of sabotage must be accompanied by a counter-movement, a folding back, a retreat from oppressive feedback circuits which would “attempt to encircle me/figure me out; like Bartleby, I’d “prefer not to””.”The resistance of lifestyles/forms-of-life to being made into information. Deleuze: “The important thing is maybe to create vacuoles of non-communication, interrupters who escape control.” “Extending the background interference that imposes itself when the feedback loops are triggered, and which makes the recording of behavioral discrepancies by the ensemble of cybernetic apparatuses costly”.

3. Consequently, ZONES OF OPACITY need to be established “where people can circulate and experiment freely without bringing in the Empire’s information flows”. Emphasis on the production of “anonymous singularities, recreating the conditions for a possible experience, an experience which will not be immediately flattened out by a binary machine assigning a meaning/direction to it, a dense experience that can transform desires and the moments where they manifest themselves into something beyond desire, into a narrative, into a filled-out body.”

4. In order that offensive opacity zones can form and be reinforced, there need to be planes of consistency, which connect deviations together, which work like a lever and fulcrum to overturn fear. “In order that behavioral fluctuations become contagious, it is necessary that they first attain a “critical mass,” which pace Prigogine/Stengers is “thus determined by a competition between the (cybernetic) system’s ‘power of integration’ and the chemical mechanisms that amplify the fluctuation within the fluctuating subregion.”

5. SLOWNESS is to be privileged over speed (given capital’s mobility and will-to-efficiency, cf. Taylor’s Time and Motion studies). “Slowness is also necessary to putting lifestyles/forms-of-life that are irreducible to simple information exchanges into relation with each other.  It expresses resistance of relations to interaction.” ” Speed upholds institutions.  Slowness cuts off flows.” So one must (somehow) fight against a temporality of urgency.

6. The POLITICS OF RHYTHM. On the one hand, the politics of rhythm is “the search for a reverberation, another state, comparable to trance on the part of the social body, through the ramification of each body.” (Cf. Canetti Crowds and Power) Shades of Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis and Eshun’s invocations from More Brilliant than the Sun: “political kinetics can be better understood as the politics of rhythm.” (Recall Goodman’s accounts in Sonic Warfare about transindividual vibrational encounters).

7. At the same time, the “binary techno-rhythm imposed by cybernetics must be OPPOSED by other rhythms” which would be “profoundly dis-integrating, rather than merely noisy…rhythms of disconnection.” They stipulate that “the collective conquest of this accurate dissonant tempo must come from a prior abandon to improvisation.” (see 6.)

8. “HAZE disrupts all the typical coordinates of perception.  It makes it indiscernible what is visible and what is invisible, what is information and what is an event.” “To say that revolt must become foglike means that it should be dissemination and dissimulation at the same time.” Contra myths of transparency which the cyberworld is predicated on (“direct democracy”).

I’ll leave it there in order to think further about how sound might help actualize some of the above, especially given how sonic metaphors are already employed throughout.

I’ve posted some links to some of the texts above on the Asounder website here, and here.


summary reading list (see aaaaarg if not linked):

Edward Bernays – Propaganda

William S. Burroughs – The Invisible Generation

Elias Canetti – Crowds and Power

Eric Cazdyn and Imre Szeman – After Globalization

Tony Conrad – Is this Penny Ante or a High Stakes Game?

Adam Curtis – The Century of the Self

Lutz Dammbeck – The Net – The Unabomber, LSD and the Internet

Gilles Deleuze – Postscript on Societies of Control

Michel Foucault – The Hermeneutics of the Subject (1981-2 lectures)

Steve Goodman – Sonic Warfare

David Harvey – A Brief History of Neoliberalism

Brian Holmes – Filming the World Laboratory – Cybernetic History in Das Netz

Maurizio Lazzarato – The Machine

Cildo Meireles – Intervention into Ideological Circuits

Benjamin Noys ed. – Communization and its Discontents (essay by Alex Galloway on The Cybernetic Hypothesis)

Tiqqun – The Cybernetic Hypothesis