Printer Friendly Version Code Drift: Essays in Critical Digital Studies: cds003
Date Published: 5/20/2010
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors


A Sonic Economy

Steve Kennedy

A Sonic Economy is a methodology that allows for critical engagement with, and the identification of, the heterogeneous apparatus (or dispositif) of politics and power that is operational at any given time. [1] As industrialism morphs into an information society wherein the dispersion of discrete elements is manifest but not always clearly visible, an appropriately dynamic, mobile mode of analysis is required: one not tethered to representation, one that can accommodate an almost perpetually shifting ground.

Bestowing materiality on that which cannot be actualized visually, whilst recognizing the influence of Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach" and Bataille's concept of "Base Materialism" -- insofar as it is a materiality that resides in the day-to-day rhythms of the urban milieu -- is not an act intended to represent a new kind of truth that heralds particular ends or beginnings. Instead it raises the dilemma that when you look you can't always see the connections between people/institutions/events that common sense tells us are separate and unrelated, or at least belonging to different realms and operating according to different rules; but if you listen you can hear the politics!

Listening then becomes a strategy for political engagement, a means of making connections across time and space between people/institutions/events/phenomena. It is sometimes, but not always, literal insofar as it proposes the strategy be employed to demonstrate the interrelationship of factors that don't necessarily or exclusively reveal themselves on an audible sonic register.

As an approach it is necessary because, as has been stated by the online music and media distribution organisation Slow to Speak,

Life in its truest form is a kind of music; characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre. Implied is a series of balancing acts. It must always be disciplined -- but never driven -- by formulas, agendas, or sheet music. It must always be pushing outward, forward, upward -- and therefore, inevitably, against complacency. Slow To Speak exists to run parallel with life's music. Slow To Speak aims to offer its own distinctive melodies, rhythms without pretense and the entrapment of modern life. It is a groove that ignites passion -- hot beads of sexual excitement, a groove that is gravitational -- creating the sweet funk of action and influence. Slow to Speak is raw, convicting and at times uncomfortable -- setting itself apart as a media outlet subsisting on truth and its convictions.
slow to speak is taken from a Bible verse found in the book of James, 1:19. It reads, "be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger." This is the approach we are taking to compiling and sequencing music. It is one that begets genuine appreciation for the work, its presentation and the audience. [2]

The term "Sonic Economy" operates in accordance with this statement. It sets out a mode of thought in which multiple aspects of production, communication and exchange are assigned and/or assume interrelated value, duration, and speed/tempo. As an approach it imbues notions of rhythm and harmony with a materiality not present in much of contemporary analysis. Hence, "Political Economy" as an approach to understanding the complexities of the contemporary technologically mediated environment is reconfigured using approaches that have hitherto resided in the apocryphal realm of music or sound more generally.

The term Political Economy is used here to describe an amalgam of factors relating to the systematic management, production, and distribution of goods and services/information/data, and both the formal and informal political environment in which that process takes place. Too often, previous attempts to understand the complexity of such arrangements have done so in a manner characterised by neat periodizations with attendant beginnings and ends, as well as clearly marked lines of demarcation between specific spheres of activity. [3] The largely static nature of such analyses, however, relying as they so often do on representational certainty and dialectical rationality, cannot adequately account for the seemingly relentless drive towards ubiquity of the now not-so-new and converging communication technologies, or their coming into being.

The emergence and continued development of such technologies is a story that is not easily told. Formal narrative structures that employ a beginning middle and end are unable to account for the complexity of this particular tale. When The Guardian newspaper reported, "In 1994, say those in the know, the world will fast forward into a high-tech future that will alter the way we think, talk and live..." [4], it did so in a manner that simultaneously heralded the end of one particular time and the beginning of a new one. In doing so it assigned an abstract neutrality to technology that failed to address its genealogy and the complex contrivance of interrelated factors that only a sonic methodology could potentially account for. [5]

Dialectical and representational approaches that ignore such complexities serve to fix and represent spatio-temporal phenomena according to a particular logic. They do so with a claim to authenticity that endures until an acceptable challenge is instituted and sanctioned. History and progress are set out in a linear succession of periods or blocks that subsume all in their continuous path. Heidegger called it ontic knowledge -- a kind of ordering principle that could explain the world and our place in it to a degree -- a primarily visual degree that had come to dominate Western thinking since the time of Plato. But what of the invisible, the things that exist in the folds, the things that fail to conform to conventional explanation? Are they simply not there, or, more worryingly, to be classified as unimportant or as statistical anomolies? And finally where does it leave sound? What about phenomena that reveal themselves to the ear but not to the eye? In the multimedia, technologically mediated environment that we currently inhabit, the importance of sound as well as other sense stimuli needs to be restated. [6]

But the call for a sonic method is not simply promoting the case for an alternative -- one mediated via exposure to the forces of negation to produce a concrete new implacable method -- but rather is intended to set method free in the digital sense of multiple possibilities for connection across space and time. It does not for instance call for a dialectic struggle between formal political/economic and creative sectors as was the case recently with the Demos Report on Cultural diplomacy. [7] The Report advocated a modified form of economic and political imperialism that embraced and took seriously the power of contemporary British cultural products -- in this particular case, highlighting the diplomatic potential of the band Razorlight as a means of advancing Britain's standing on the global stage. Simply putting music into the equation is not the same as a sonic economy.

Finally the term "sonic," with its connotations of speed and movement, is conjoined with "economy" because of the already-stated interest in material exchange value and reciprocity which, whilst dealing with issues of ontology and/or metaphysics, is, as well as being a philosophy of historical movement and connectivity, also an economy of immanent relations of exchange with lines of flight as trade routes and feedback loops forming sonically actualized activity that operates in relation to the management of, mismanagement of, or outright failure to manage, resources, physical and otherwise, in a manner that goes beyond the formally political or economic without leaving them behind. It therefore considers factors not accounted for in the strict parameters of Political Economy.

The sounds that resonate in certain specific political locales or milieu can tell us something significant about a particular place and time, and arranging political, economic, technological, and cultural factors, into "harmonious scores" will be beneficial. Music/sound/noise should therefore be regarded as important in and of themselves and also as interrelated frameworks for understanding complex historical machinations in which timing replaces time in a space in which diverse statements are arranged into discourses or agendas.

The notion of an agenda is posited here as an arrangement of often disparate elements, or an interplay of harmonies and melodies, across time and space. They operate sonically, picking up mood, rhythm, timbre and tempo, and then sit out a few bars in silence as other, momentarily more apposite, factors take their place. An agenda is not a hierarchy but a bringing to order; not always logical or possessed of clear motive, an agenda is always demonstrative of a process of power in operation. [8] Accordingly, practically distinct spheres of life such as politics, philosophy, art, and science, can and do exist within and between agendas, and are not subsumed under a universalising meta-narrative or ideology that can be readily identified or represented. They exist in their own right, as Political Economy approaches have shown us, but they also exist in relation to one another. Like distinct items on an agenda, or aspects of a musical arrangement, they play off each other. For this reason we need to be in a constant state of readiness in our assessment of which line is resonating with which others and when.

A sonic examination of such agendas can assist us in making sense of the complexities of contemporary technological environments when simply looking may not be enough. [9] The task of arranging the sometimes invisible -- which finds its theoretical ground in Heidegger and later in Deleuze & Guattari, as will be shown below -- draws together two aspects of Foucault's work, namely Discourse and Luminosity.

For Foucault, "...the term discourse can be defined as the group of statements that belong to a single system of formation; thus I shall be able to speak of clinical discourse, economic discourse, the discourse of natural history, psychiatric discourse." [10]

Laclau and Mouffe describe a similar category that they call articulation. In a manner that directly echoes Foucault they say, "We will call articulation any practice establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified as a result of the articulatory practice. The structured totality resulting from the articulatory practice, we will call discourse." [11]

Thus it might be asked, is it now possible to speak of a discourse on technology? One that is multiple and dispersed, that cannot be seen but can be heard? In this respect I draw again on Laclau and Mouffe, who have pointed out Foucault's rejection of four hypotheses in relation to principles around which discursive formations might cohere. They are:

reference to the same object, a common style in the production of statements, constancy of the concepts, and reference to a common theme. Instead he makes dispersion itself the principle of unity, insofar as it is governed by rules of formation, by the complex conditions of existence of the dispersed statements. [12]

Such dispersal renders certain phenomena invisible. "Technology," for instance, is not a specific object that can be seen; it is present and spoken of in a number of forms that in turn are not stylistically uniform. Many concepts are drawn on: historical, scientific, artistic, and philosophical. In terms of themes, again these are multiple: political, socio-cultural, economic, human/post-human, etc. The process of bringing them together and making connections is what is being described here as sonic. That discourse can be identified in different forms in different dispersed locations is the very point that demonstrates its significance as a category, but this also makes it difficult to identify specific discourses using conventional means. This difficulty is raised by James Faubion in his introduction to Foucault's Death and The Labyrinth, in which Faubion highlights the way Raymond Roussel's literary cosmos is shown to operate as one of thresholds and parentheses in which elements (or discourses) get closed off but then suddenly open up in relation to other elements to create a kind of unity. Once more, however, it is a unity that is not always clearly visible: "It is a place of relentless spectacle, of sheer visibility, but of a luminosity so intense that it can be disorientating, even blinding. It is thus a place in which what is most fully exposed has perhaps the best chance of remaining secret." [13]

Hence the trade and communication between discrete elements or discourses needs to be established using a sonic methodology that highlights the extent to which multiple discursive practices moving at varying speeds or tempo periodically cohere to form a "refrain," in the sense that Deleuze and Guattari use the term. Accordingly, phenomena such as technological development, or technology as discourse, can be said to be set to a particular score -- synchronized and harmonic.

Reference to Deleuze and Guattari in relation to this matter assists us in a questioning of Heidegger's essentialism and the ultimate dialectical choice between modern technology and a return to a kind of reconceptualization of technology that embraces poiesis, as set out in his The Question Concerning Technology. [14] Heidegger's phenomenology/ontology of Being is useful in moving us beyond Platonic knowledge based on the primacy of visual stimuli, stating as it does that just because it can't be seen doesn't mean its not there, or that it does not possess materiality. But perhaps of more use in this respect is the concept of the refrain -- not as metaphor but as an operational mode of analysis making multiple connections within a rhizomatic "world wide web of significance."

"Of The Refrain" [15] sets out the way in which sonic milieu components consist of sounds that perform a specific function -- marking out the availability of food, warning of danger, etc. They are the noises our world makes. The refrain, on the other hand, organises sounds together, bringing order to chaos. It can be, but is not always, sonic. It consists of organised rhythms and patterns, daily routines and habits, the justification for which has long been forgotten. It marks out the territories that we recognise as our own or as belonging to others. It creates a sense of familiarity and belonging, yet can also bring about alienation and a sense of detachment. It is our local neighbourhood, our political system and our state. Music/sound/noise, according to Delueze and Guattari, can deterritorialize this ordered terrain -- disrupt the rhythm, creating a momentary energy field that distorts the dominant order of things as specific spheres or milieu in Roussellian parentheses, open up, creating thresholds for movement and connection with the outside. As Delueze says,

Thus philosophy, art, and science come into relations of mutual resonance and exchange, but always for internal reasons. The way they impinge on one another depends on their own evolution. So in this sense we really have to see philosophy, art, and science as sorts of separate melodic lines in constant interplay with one another. With philosophy having in this no reflective pseudoprimacy nor, equally, any creative inferiority. Creating concepts is no less difficult than creating new visual or aural combinations, or creating scientific functions. [16]

The concept of the sonic then operates on two levels here: as a philosophy of non-representation that embraces movement and fluidity, and at the level of music/sound/noise as significant sites for investigation. [17] In doing so it echoes Jaques Attali's Noise: The Political Economy of Music, insofar as it concentrates its attention on that which is often marginalised in relation to more "legitimate" political and economic concerns. Attali has stated:

"Today, our sight has dimmed; it no longer sees our future, having constructed a present made of abstraction, nonsense, and silence. Now we must learn to judge a society more by its sounds, by its art, and by its festivals, than by its statistics." [18]

As useful as Attali's work is, it still operates, as the title suggests, at the level of traditional Political Economy. Its principal claim is that an analysis of music from a political and economic perspective will allow us to identify the future of the wider political landscape. The point of a sonic approach, however, is not to necessarily privilege sound, art, or festivals, but to place them in relation to other phenomena in such a manner that emphasis (on value/duration/speed/tempo) is constantly shifting. That is to say, to engage political economy sonically. It is necessary to apply sonic thinking to the statistics as well as to festivals. To do so will require that Jaques Attali's Political Economy approach be augmented. This can be achieved by introducing what Pauline Oliveros calls "Deep Listening." It is a process that unifies the senses in acoustic space, and which facilitates an awareness of the present and the immediate as well as trajectories and sequences in relation to other phenomena across what she calls the space/time continuum. Oliveros goes on to make the further very important point that Deep Listening might be usefully applied to aspects other than the audible -- to urban environments and broader political economies, as well as to sound. In doing so connections can be made between dispersed phenomena -- without privileging one over another -- across time and space that might not be visible to the naked eye. As Oliveros says,

The level of awareness of soundscape brought about by Deep Listening can lead to the possibility of shaping the sound of technology and of urban environments. Deep Listening designers, engineers and city planners could enhance the quality of life as well as sound artists, composers and musicians. [19]

Such an approach can tell us something about politics, power and resistance -- music and sound existing not simply as metaphor but as significant nodal points in a complex contrivance of interconnected factors, each inhabiting an expanded, wider, and deeper political terrain in which we must listen to dispersion. [20] If looking confirms abstraction then listening establishes connections. It is this musical principle, the arrangement of resonant phenomena, that is being proposed here and which constitutes a means of sonic critique that supplements all the other senses. Life in its truest form is a "kind of music," made up of immanent and material relationships between dispersed phenomena.




[3] Habermas draws a distinction between what he calls "System" and "Lifeworld" as independent spheres of activity.

[4] The Guardian 1.1.1994

[5] The problems associated with the strict assignment of beginnings and ends are discussed by Jean-Francois Lyotard in Soundproof Room: Malraux's Anti-Aesthetics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 2-7 and also by Gilles Deleuze in Negotiations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995),121-122

[6] In doing so it is useful to reflect on McLuhan's concept of Acoustic Space:

"Acoustic space is a complete contrast to visual space in all of its properties, which explains the wide refusal to adopt the new form. Visual space, created by intensifying and separating that sense from the interplay with the others, is an infinite container, linear and continuous, homogenous and uniform. Acoustic space, always penetrated by tactility and other senses, is spherical, discontinuous, non-homogenous, resonant, and dynamic. Visual space is structured as static, abstract figure minus a ground; acoustic space is a flux in which figure and ground rub against and transform each other." (Marshall & Eric McLuhan, Laws of New Media: The New Science (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 33.

[7] The relationship between formal political/economic factors and the "creative sector" can and should be related to the distinction, mentioned above, that Habermas draws between "System" and "Lifeworld"

[8] In previous research the term "The Technology Agenda" (S. Kennedy PhD thesis 2003) has been used to describe how disparate statements, in the Foucauldean sense of that term, across a range of mediated forms and emanating from distinct spheres of life -- politics, economics, as well as the media and the arts -- could be somehow sutured together to give us a better understanding of the way in which discourses work to normalise technological life, or in this particular case the utilisation and adoption of developing network technologies.

[9] In the same way that listening to the stars can reveal something deeper than just observing them, listening to political, economic, technological and cultural shifts will reveal something significant about the movement and intensity of power and resistance

[10] Michel Foucault. The Archaeology of Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2004), 121.

[11] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, (London: Verso, 2001: 104)

[12] Ibid, 105.

[13] Michel Foucault. Death and The Labyrinth (London: Continuum, 2004), vii.

[14] Martin Heidegger. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper Row, 1977)

[15] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus (London: Continuum, 2004)

[16] Gilles Deleuze. Negotiations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995),125.

[17] This paper supports the methodology being proposed for a research project, provisionally entitled Sonic Economies: The politics of the Motor City, that will examine confluences between Coventry and Detroit from the point of view of music and industrial decline. A study of Coventry and Detroit can tell us something simple about the way in which creative sectors came to represent significant economic importance in crumbling cities. But if approached from a sonic perspective they reveal so much more about a politics of affect, about connection and movement of both people and sound, as well as resources. The stories of Coventry and Detroit are important narratives in trying to understand the shift from analogue to digital -- from concrete jungle to technopolis. It is best told as a story without beginning or end, and through sonic means where visualisation fades to reveal intrigue, betrayal, political action on a Machiavellian scale, heroes and villains, and the most stunning soundtrack.

[18] Jaques Attali. Noise. The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 3.

[19] Pauline Oliveros. Deep Listening (New York: iUniverse, 2005), xxv.

[20] Dispersion is a concept that applies readily to music, with technology allowing for the movement and reconnection of musical fragments across time and space in the form of samples and the multiple generic arrangements so common in electronic music. Listening to such dispersed fragments implies the creation of a narrative that, when it is listened to deeply, goes beyond music to allow connections to be made with all other aspect of life so that a unity of narratives without specific beginnings or ends can be formed. This relates to Foucault's work in Death and The Labyrinth, and also to Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Soundproof Room: Malraux's Anti Aesthetics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).


Stephen Kennedy is an academic at the University of Greenwich, whose main research interests reside at the intersection of theory and practice in relation to the political economy of contemporary communications technology. He is currently in the process of producing a book on this topic entitled The Technology Agenda. He is also a practising musician and DJ with a number of successful releases under the name of One Deck & Popular. Recently the realms of academia and professional practice have come together in the shape of a major new research initiative The Motorcity Project, which proposes the comparative study of musical phenomena in Coventry and Detroit from a geo-philosophical perspective.

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