Loving the Alien

image by imp kerr

Socialist economist Jacques Attali’s 1977 book Noise: A Political Economy of Music (translated in 1984 by Brian Massumi) offered a structuralist “political economy of music.” In the U.S., this explicitly political analysis of music made a splash in “new” or critical musicology, which was then in its infancy. (Attali published a revised version of Bruits in 2001, which has not been translated into English.)

In Noise, Attali tried to account for the hypercommodification of music and our resulting alienation from musical creativity and pleasure. His theory of “composition”—defined as “an activity that is an end in itself, that creates its own code at the same time as the work”—offers a quasi-Marxist notion of a musical utopia that would allow music makers to escape the alienation of their labor and pleasure in commodities and enjoy the creative process unrestricted by predetermined rules or outcomes.

In an interview with Fredric Jameson, Attali describes composition as what happens when “the common people themselves in their creativity and narcissism, who seek their own pleasure and satisfaction—yes, narcissism is the right word here—…want, in short, to liberate themselves.”

Attalian composition seems like a mishmash of different philosophical concepts: there’s a little bit of Herbert Marcuse’s idea of “narcissistic” eros liberated from the performance principle (the imperative to repress and sublimate desire in productive labor), Deleuze’s concept of the plane of composition (macro-organizational rules emerge from the bottom-up, instead of being applied from the top down), and a little bit of Kant’s categorical imperative (work and workers as ends in themselves). It basically involves doing whatever you want for its own sake, with no predetermined purpose or program restricting your creativity. And this is, in Attali’s mind, what liberation sounds like.

Liberation from what, though? Attali explicitly frames composition as the liberation from late industrial capitalism—that is, from mass reproduction. But now, in the 21st century, the so-called developed world has already exited the age of mechanical mass reproduction and moved on to a neoliberal service and information economy. So Attali’s notion of composition sounds overly idealistic and dated at best, if not also philosophically and politically problematic. Writing in Mute, Flint Michigan argues that “Attali has difficulty developing ‘composition’ … beyond individualist dimensions.” If everyone is composing for him or herself, Attali’s project doesn’t leave much room for collective resistance.

As unsatisfying as Noise’s political claims may be, its musical analysis is much more interesting—even and especially for thinking about politics. According to Attali, radical upheavals in 20th century Western art music foreshadow a more fundamental social transformation in which “representation”—his term for the general epistemic paradigm that grounds both classical political economy and tonal harmony—“gives way to statistics, macroeconomics, and probability,” or in other words, to “repetition.”

Though Attali offers repetition as a neo-Marxist account of the regime of mechanical reproduction, it may work better as a theory of the Foucauldian order of neoliberal biopolitics—that is, the statistical maximization of life and minimization of risk or randomness. Foucault and Attali are talking about the same thing—biopolitical neoliberalism. Foucault just does it in terms of power, and Attali in terms of economic models.

As Foucault puts it in his 1976 lectures (collected as Society Must Be Defended), biopolitical neoliberalism—“the power to ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die”—uses statistics to optimize the life of some (privileged) groups, intensifying their access to “life” by deintensifying the access of others. For example, in North Carolina, state employees with a low body mass index can opt for better health-care coverage than “obese” employees, who are eligible for only the most basic plan. Quantitative instruments, Foucault argues, manage the intensity of life to minimize unpredictable, nonstandardizable phenomena, because these drain efficiency and impede optimization. If all a population’s deviances can be standardized, then they can be co-opted as contributions to privileged groups’ quality of life.

Take, for instance, yoga and Zumba—examples of what philosopher Sandra Bartky calls beauty-industrial complexes. Abstracted from the South Asian and Afro-Caribbean contexts on which these practices more or less draw, they can be presented as fitness regimes, easily incorporable upgrades to (Westernized, generally feminine) bourgeois lifestyles. They’re about burning calories, raising heart rates, increasing strength, inches of muscle gained or fat lost, and so on. Instead of talking about cultural differences like Hindu vs. Western philosophical approaches to the body, we talk about exercise and weight loss. Yoga and Zumba become middle-class women’s regimens for self-improvement, segments of the service economy that cater to them.

For Foucault, biopolitical neoliberalism reduces everything to statistical data and then uses this data to distribute “life” to the average and above average, and away from the below-average and the nonstandardizable deviants. As he puts it in Society Must Be Defended, biopolitical neoliberalism is “the power of regularization” that monitors “aleatory events.” In the case of yoga and Zumba, the practices aren’t so much commodified as data-fied, to measure the degree to which they intensify life. The point is to cultivate an above-average level of fitness and attractiveness—to exceed the average without breaking the curve (e.g., by exercising to the point one’s body no longer conforms to recognizable gender ideals).

Like Foucault, Attali treats the biopolitical management of risk as neoliberalism’s defining feature, only he uses the term repetition. Though Attali sometimes frames repetition as copying or looping, he puts more emphasis the “statistical organization of repetition.” A repetitive society uses statistics to manage outliers—whatever can’t be controlled for, whatever breaks the curve. “The administrator in a repetitive society” is tasked with “managing chance,” Attali argues. In a 1983 interview, Attali goes further, arguing that “the aleatory can perfectly well be conceptualized in a profoundly systematic way: indeed, in modern times it becomes the fundamental component of all theoretical systems.”

Attali connects this statistical management of chance to the administration of life. In the political economy of repetition, he argues, “the study of the conditions of the replication of life has led to a new scientific paradigm … Biology replaces mechanics.” By 1977, the “developed” economies of the West were transitioning from a manufacturing economy to a service one. Instead of “making things,” as Jack Donaghy would say, we work on ourselves, on our quality of life … or rather, less privileged people get paid to work on more privileged people’s fingernails, hair, muscles, houses, diets, children, psychological health, online dating profile picture, standardized test scores, and so on. In Foucault’s terms, Western economies shifted from the mechanical reproduction of commodities to the biopolitical intensification (stockpiling) of life. In such societies, success is not measured by having more stuff, but by having, as Rutger Hauer’s character in Blade Runner says, “more life.”

So while Attali says in Noise that the problem with repetition is “proliferation” and “an excess of life,” he frames composition as a solution to a different problem: namely, “alienation” or “exteriority,” the result of commodification and a feature of the society of mass/mechanical reproduction. His concept of composition thus misses what is most innovative about his theory of repetition, the move from mechanics to biology, from commodities to life-intensities.

Composition, then, is not a very compelling response to biopolitical neoliberalism. What’s a better one? To figure this out, it helps to examine some Actual musical practices to theorize political responses to neoliberalism as it plays out in current approaches to making and listening pop music.

To explain how administered repetition appears in music, Attali refers to the “management of chance” in mid-20th century avant-garde art music. In John Cage’s work, Attali argues, “even if in appearance everything is a possibility for him, on average his behavior obeys specifiable, abstract, ineluctable functional laws.” These avant-garde compositions define a system within which chance operations occur, but they do not allow for entirely asystematic events. It’s sort of like a Magic 8-Ball toy: In any given shake, any one of the collected “answers” could appear, but you’ll never get a response not already programmed into the toy.

A similar process of containment is at work with xenomania, Simon Reynolds’s term for hipsters’ taste for ever more exotic non-Western pop musics—their “appetite for the alien,” as he puts it. Reynolds argues that the Internet, with its “infinite choice plus infinitesimal cost” has created a context in which “nomadic eclecticism” is the “default mode for today’s music fan.” Here, the Internet—both in the way its architecture manifests global power dynamics, and in the mp3 format shuttled around on file-hosting sites—controls for “randomness.”

Though Reynolds claims that “all those Analogue Era deterrents and blockages have now been swept aside by the torrential every-which-way data flows of Web 2.0,” the Internet is not a level playing field. It, like everything else, is affected by Western hegemony. Xenomania is the flow of musical data from (post)colony to Western metropolis, and the direction matters. (We don’t call it xenomania when they appropriate us, do we?)

The Internet doesn’t make music into a global free-for-all; there is no actual randomness here. Rather, it standardizes musical, cultural, and geographic deviations so that Westerners can more easily and efficiently plunder the cultural resources of the so-called Third World. The mp3 format makes the colonial expropriation of global pop particularly easy. Western DJs can plug an mp3 file right into Traktor, Ableton, or ProTools—they don’t need the ethnomusicological expertise to deal with sounds that aren’t immediately assimilable to Western musical rubrics, like quarter tones, which don’t exist in Western music and which Westerners can’t generally recognize. As mp3s, songs are predigested for these programs, which can quantize them to Western grids with the click of a mouse. The mp3 is like a one-way musical Babel Fish. “Third World” musicians and audiences still have to learn to navigate globalized Western pop, while xenomaniacal Westerners get a cheat code.

The need for this cheat code, or what Reynolds describes as the “thirst for fresh musical stimuli,” is actually a specifically neoliberal imperative. For the neoliberal subject, the point of life is to “push it to the limit,” closing in ever more narrowly on the point of diminishing returns. Philosopher Shannon Winnubst calls this sort of neoliberal hunger game “the biopolitics of cool.” According to Winnubst, the neoliberal subject has an insatiable appetite for more and more novel differences: “difference…becomes a manifestation of cool rather than a repressed other.”

By transforming alterity this way, the neoliberal individual demonstrates its success: “I, too, can do the hot new thing, and I can do it both better than you, and better than those people with whom it’s originally associated.” Niche non-Western pop genres become supplements Western hipsters use to demonstrate that they are “winning” at life, the avant-avant-garde. Xenomanical hipsters instrumentalize non-Western music in order to show that they are always ahead of the curve.

Jeffery Nealon calls this “the logic of intensity”: Pleasure comes not from assimilating difference (“eating the other,” as bell hooks puts it), but from optimizing one’s individual capacities. This logic of intensity works like a synthesizer, regulating the frequency (the rate at which a sine wave cycles from peak to peak, or valley to valley) and amplitude (the height and shape of a peak or valley) of an audio signal. This is what Attali means when he claims in Noisethat “the synthesizer … can be seen as the statistical instrument par excellence.”

Biopolitical neoliberalism monitors or “synthesizes” the intensity of life. In biopolitics, life’s intensity, like a sine wave, closes in on a limit without ever reaching it. Politically, neoliberalism maintains social stratifications by making sure privileged groups are on the edge of burnout (the upper limit of intensity), while marginal groups are teetering on the brink of death (the lower limit). Adjust the frequency beyond a certain point, and the sound wave becomes another pitch entirely. Similarly, in order to prevent any upset in the overall, population-wide “balance” of privilege, the intensity of each individual’s life needs to remain, like a sound wave, within the statistically defined minimum and maximum appropriate to one’s social position.

Biopolitical neoliberalism manages populations like an audio equalizer manages different signals, maintaining an optimal balance among all signals by keeping each individual one within a narrowly defined range of intensity (e.g., so the treble and bass levels are consistently proportional). Upsetting the balance of intensity, letting people experience life above and/or below their prescribed levels, means distributing privilege and oppression in ways that undermine hegemony (patriarchy, white supremacy, etc.).


Neoliberal approaches to music aren’t limited to hipsters. With the rise of electronic-dance-pop, they have become mainstream. EDM-pop applies the statistical logic of biopolitical neoliberalism—Attali’s repetition—to pop songwriting. Aesthetically, it takes experiences usually reserved for privileged groups—that is, being so ahead of the curve you’re almost burned out—and uses this as a model for musical pleasure. Songs are structured so that rhythmic and timbral intensity are pushed to the upper limits of either/both our sensory wetware and the musical hard/software.

Riding the crest of burnout is associated with privilege. Hegemony reproduces itself by distributing resources to privileged groups; thus, privileged people get to lead the most intense lives, lives of maximized (individual and social) investment and maximized return. Experientially, privilege means being so busy, overcommitted, and invested in your life that you’re always at risk of hitting the point of diminishing returns. EDM-pop songs make that affective experience of privilege a mass-market consumer product. This is why people like it: It mimics the feeling of winning.

So how, exactly, does EDM-pop create in sound the edge-of-burnout effect? This is where Attali’s idea of repetition pays off. Conventional pop is organized harmonically: increasingly stronger dissonances develop to a point of crisis; attenuated dissonance then assimilates back to consonance. (This conforms to the “eating the other” model mentioned above). EDM-pop, by contrast, intensifies repetition to the limit of aural perception; the climax or musical “money shot” comes when this limit is reached or crossed.

For example, the repetitions of a musical event—a word, a drumbeat—will be exponentially increased (eight notes, to sixteenths, to thirty-seconds). This is an intensification of frequency. Amplitude can also be intensified by using effects and synth patches. For example, in gabber, a genre of hardcore techno, the bass is modified so that it’s a square wave on the attack, instead of a regular, curved sine wave. Most EDM-pop songs will combine both: There will be an increasingly dense rhythmic texture, accompanied by pitches and timbres that, in Dan Barrow’s words, “soar.”

Since the subject of the New Inquiry’s music issue was failed utopias, let’s take two dystopian tracks as our examples. First, LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” whose video parodies zombie apocalypse stories. The main “soar” starts where the female vocalist enters with her “get up”s (around 4:25 in the video), and ends when the chorus returns (around 4:55). The female vocalist’s part is a simple, clear distillation of the logic of intensity. She says:

Get up, get down, put your hands up to the sound (x3)
Put your hands up to the sound, put your hands up to the sound
Get up, get up, get up, get up; Get up, get up, get up, get up
Get up, put your hands up to the sound, to the sound,
Put your hands up, put your hands up, put your hands up, put your hands up

Ever smaller chunks of text are repeated at increasingly higher rates. Similarly, in the second half of the line of “get ups,” you’ll hear a synth that rises in pitch, soaring us to the last “put your hands up.” The same thing happens in Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” whose video is about dystopian post-industrial Britain. The main “soar” begins right after the repetitions of the titular line, “We found love in a hopeless place” (1:44 in the video). The percussion lines become increasingly more rapid (from eighth-note triplets to sixteenth notes), and several treble synths soar upward in pitch as their timbres are modified. This all leads up to a big hit (2:00 in the video).

In both songs, rhythmic and timbral intensity are pushed to the limit. Riding the crest of auditory or machinic burnout, these songs mimic, in music, the generalized affective experience of privilege in neoliberalism. Listening to this music, people get to feel something like privilege, even and especially if they’re not privileged. Yet at the same time, by tarrying with burnout or, more important, zero intensity (what philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life”), EDM lets listeners experience what feels like risk, indulgence, and excess but is actually very tightly and carefully controlled. All excess, all deviance, is always already accounted for in the statistical, asymptotic logic of the sine wave. Take the bass too low, for example, and it just sounds like percussive clicks, not a pitch. As Attali argued, what seem superficially  like chance events are the products of careful management, which ensures against the emergence of actual chance occurrences or nonstandardizable deviances.

Neoliberal hegemony manages chance. No longer a matter of the alienation Attali sought to remedy, it co-opts (standardizes) deviation rather than oppressing or repressing otherness. How, then, do you resist it? Is there any room for real deviation, and if so, how do you put it into practice?

What counts as deviation depends on what level of intensity hegemony has assigned you in the first place—what frequency range your life is tuned to sound. Producing—getting behind the glass, in front of ProTools—is thus a more useful metaphor for resistance than Attali’s composing. Production is also tends to be a more collective endeavor than composing, a collaboration of knob-tweakers, engineer, and performers. Resistance involves a collective project of rejecting the presets, digging into the advanced settings and modulating frequencies, tweaking amplitudes, and retuning the mix.