Beat Blasted Planet an interview with Steve Goodman on “Sonic Warfare”

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Steve Goodman is author of “Sonic Warfare, sound, affect and the ecology of fear”, a book just published by MIT Press. Tracing the politics of sound in ways that develop some of the arguments made in certain branches of Industrial Music and in the darker waves of Techno and Jungle, Sonic Warfare proposes a vivid and demanding cosmology of sound in the present day, written in a style that mixes reflections on music, philosophy, technology, dance, media, politics in a way that is both speculative and in the thick of it.
Aside from writing Steve produces and DJs under the name Kode9 and runs the Hyperdub label

This interview was carried out via email here and there in the closing weeks of 2009 by Matt Fuller.

Q: You set up dread as one of the key vectors in contemporary cultures of sound, whether this is in relation to the military use of weapons like the Curdler, used in Vietnam, or in Grime and Dubstep. What does dread do and how does it differ from, say, terror?

A: I find dread such an interesting vector because it describes one way that the affective tone of fear can be swept up in a regime of power, a regime that operates ambiently, modulating mood in the background and preempting the way in which the future unfolds. Terror is much more spectacular or sudden, whereas the way I understand dread it is more a continuous, existential environment, an ecology of fear that active or reactive forces can tap into like hacking into an electricity network and siphoning off power. So some of the military examples I give are examples of ‘soft’ power, non-lethal weaponry etc. that intervene into collective perception to change the way people feel by deploying ‘bad vibes’ as a weapon. And what do ‘bad vibes’ do – they make you take the future as a threat, as ominous, as dreaded.

Within music, it can operate in a number of ways. In the book, I touch briefly on the kind of ambience produced by overwhelming, suffocating bass. But more generally, I was interested in how ‘dread-full’ urban environments generate music cultures that take this affect, of anxiety or uncertainty about the future, and by distilling it in sound, make it aesthetically productive as opposed to existentially immobilizing. It’s clearly not the only way popular music works emotionally, but it’s an interesting one that brings the nexus of depressed urbanism and aesthetic innovation to the fore. Its a kind of affective realism that has got nothing to do with what is musically expressed representing an exterior world, but rather an affective tone that resonates, intervenes and transforms an environment. Different musics do this differently, and grime and dubstep are two versions of this process, as were reggae, jungle, hip hop etc. I suppose part of it is the ritualization of aggression, depression and desire into an aesthetic mode.

Q: A clear emphasis in the book is on tracking a real materialist politics of sound, this is a big difference to the run of the mill cultural studies approach which looks for signification, of sounds to be like something or to be about something. How does sound itself create politics?

A: Sound, as I describe in the book at least, creates politics primarily by activating space-times and forging or dispersing collectivity. This is a question of affective resonance. The scale which the book is primarily interested in is the vibrational. How does a deployment of audible or inaudible vibration attract or repel a population? Under what conditions do vibrations that cause discomfort or pain or unease switch from activating flight to activating enjoyment? Under what conditions do enjoyable vibrations become toxic? How do vibrations change objects and their activity within a space? So the book is trying to open up this terrain of a politics of frequency which I think tends to be neglected by the cultural studies of music, with its obsessions with music as text, music as sexual pleasure, music as identity etc. or by the phenomenology of sound, of listening. The book tries to install a notion of the vibrational infrastructure underneath these other concerns.

Q: The US Military seems to figure strongly in your account, with Vietnam, Noriega’s Panama, Waco all featuring. Is this something to do with the relative ease of access to information on US military operations, do they have a particular track record of interest and expertise in it, or are there other forces and histories that we should also be aware of?

A: As two of the most technologically sophisticated militaries, the US and Israeli armies do feature prominently in the book. This is partly due to a reasonable access to information on their operations and the fact they are obviously pretty regularly in the media spotlight, so to speak. But there are certainly instances from European military deployments. I think the key thing is really the way recent technological developments in sound systems resonate with a climate in which the use of non-lethal weapons (and invisible weapons) for the control of crowds are en vogue.

Q: What are we to make of the pop classics being played in the entrance to Brixton Tube?

A: I walk to Brixton so haven’t heard that for a while, but no doubt it is some kind of blunt attempt at affect engineering.

Q:You mention the ‘Mosquito’ device that aims to clear teenagers from urban spaces by releasing an unbearable high-pitch noise, one that is indiscernable to adults, it’s interesting to note that this ‘supra-audible’ sound is now being used for ringtones, useful in classrooms for instance . Are there any other examples of such reversals in sonic warfare?

A: That’s why this is such an interesting area. Its not simply a matter of opposing military scientific research, but rather detaching, reversing and disseminating the processes that resulted from the research, just like how fashion reclaimed disruptive pattern material (camouflage) for the civilian world. The history of electronic music is littered with the abuse of, or at least symbiosis with, military machines for popular culture, from the radio, to the vocoder, to magnetic tape and so on. Certainly, some of the directional audio technologies at the heart of the Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) used by the US in Iraq are commonly used in public spaces, from malls to museums etc. But the Mosquito example is key as they took what was being used as a weapon against them, an irritant to individualize them, to make them disperse, and turned it into a secret communication system.

Alarm sounds have this ambiguity – they must be, by definition noticeable, but the very fact that they operate primarily nonconsciously, i.e. their frequencies literally get on your nerves before you register the sound cognitively, means that they offer a potential for a very direct and immediate mode of contact. That’s why alarming, excitational frequencies like sirens and gunshots are so popular in the history of electronic music.

Q: One of the musical configurations your propose in the book is ‘global ghettotech’. this is related to a figure you’re worked with for quite some time at Hyperdub, the maps of sounds moving between africa, the americas, the UK, and caribean. Global ghettotech draws in some way on Paul Gilroy’s image of the Black Atlantic, but working through synthetic musics such as crunk, dancehall, funk, hip hop, miami bass, reggaeton, grime and so on, proposes a new network based on sound. It seems this network is important for the idea of the synthetic, the event of the party and a kind of hedonistic dark futurism. I think this really proposes a new figure of music and how it shapes different places on the planet and links them. How do you see global ghettotech developing? – and what would be its playlist?

A: Thats not my proposition or concept as such but is a tag put forward by DJ/bloggers/critics such as Wayne Marshall and DJ Rupture (other bloggers such as Woebot suggested the name Shanty House) to go beyond the essentialist, and generally lame concept of World Music, and attempt to capture some of the emergent patterns of sound system culture within the urban centers of the Black Atlantic and beyond. In my book, I am partly interested in exploring what a musical war machine might look like (in relation to Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of the nomadic war machine) in contrast to a sonic military machine. I suggest three possible interrelated but distinct versions of what a musical war machine might look like – they all involve, to varying degrees, some kind of simultaneously aesthetic, techno-social and economic (particularly piracy) decoding and destratification and a certain power of vibrational/rhythmic/tonal/vocal/ economic mobilization. In differing ways, each one taps into a kind of popular avant gardism. These three versions relate to Afrofuturism (particularly as conceived by Kodwo Eshun), the hardcore continuum (UK tradition of electronic dance music, so named by journalist Simon Reynolds) and global ghettotech (which is almost like connecting together every country’s distinct version of the ‘hardcore continuum’, a term coined by blogger/ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall that also resonates with the ideas of dj/musician/blogger dj/rupture ). Part of the problem of sonic war machines is how they are always doomed to be temporary, or whether ‘doomed’ is exactly the wrong way round, and if they have anything going for them at all as a model generalizable into non-musical realms, it is their apparent transitory nature, but actual sustainability through mutation and innovation.

Q: You trace the project of Rhythmanalysis from Dos Santos, through Bachelard to Henri Lefebvre, and claim that it comes to something of a dead end, in that it either emphasises continuity or discontinuity, flows or breaks as the basic units of rhythm. To get round this problem of either the beat or the break acting as a basic compositional unit, you propose a reading of Alfred North Whitehead’s work, using the idea of a rippling ‘extensive continuum’, of stable coherent patterns vibrating in, through and amongst each other and through patches of incoherency as forming a spatiotemporality of different kinds of thickness and intensity, offering that sonic warfare works directly at this scale of reality. This is a very compelling figure, but in its emphasis rather towards holism, how well can it make an account of discontinuities, or alternately, isn’t there a risk of working a politics of sound through an image of the composition of the universe in that it may tends to work against artificiality?

A: This whole section of the book revolves around me trying to unpack some of Deleuze & Guattari’s complex ideas about rhythm, particularly in A Thousand Plateaus in ‘On the Refrain’. Now, many thinkers have emphasized the Bergsonian current that runs through Deleuze’s thought. Of course it is there, but not in an uncomplicated way. At the beginning of ‘On the Refrain’ they refer to an essay of Bachelard’s entitled ‘Rhythmanalysis’, which in fact was a chapter in his quite anti-Bergsonian book the Dialectic of Duration in which he kind of argues for a discontinuous Bergsonism. So I’m trying to retain an emphasis on discontinuity, on breaks, on cuts that tend to get sacrificed in more phenomenological or analog fetishist Bergsonisms. But at the same time I found Bachelardian rhythmanalysis too obsessed by equilibrium, symmetries and hierarchy. (This is an example where philosophy can learn how to think better from currents in music than from itself) The question for me is not about naturalizing politics or capitalism or working against artificiality (that’s the last thing I’d want to do), but rather following processes through analog and digital realms without subordinating one to the fetishism of the other.

So for me at least, the cursory amount of Whitehead that I had read seemed to go somewhere else that both deviated from Bergsonian continuity (which seems in part responsible for D&Gs emphasis in ‘On the Refrain’ on rhythm being something that lies between the beats) and on the other hand the Bachelardian emphasis on moments or instants. Personally, I’m not sure I have the philosophical resources nor inclination to adjudicate between Bergson or Bachelard, but Whitehead seemed to be doing something quite distinct in the way he brought together the separate, distinct entities that compose reality (what he called actual occasions) and the processes through which they interrelate, change, perish and so on. In a couple of essays, both myself and Luciana Parisi have found this Whiteheadian concept of the ‘extensive continuum’ a useful way to re-formulate the Deleuzian/Bergsonian concept of the virtual at the same time as sidestepping the en vogue (at least within music criticism) Derridian notion of hauntology by other means, because we have both been more interested in futurity that merely pastness.

Q: Your account of audio branding is very suggestive, in that it brings in a way in which desire, or different kinds of feelings, of excitement or enjoyment, are apparently manipulated by the audio fragrance of a brand. You link this to an idea of time, in which the future in worked on by ‘activating the future in the present’, how does this work?

A: Firstly, I’m interested in the auditory equivalent of deja vu, what I call deja entendu, the already heard, and the weird feeling of time anomaly you get when you hear a familiar sound to which you can’t fully attribute causality or that in fact you could never have heard before. So what happens in the split second when it feels like the sound is familiar. In that split second, the sound seems to resonate with the past (as a vague memory) but is simultaneously coming from the future (i.e. something new you haven’t experienced before). Its a weird feeling, which kind of freezes you or suspends consciousness briefly (Bergson talks about deja vu as something which enduces the feeling of being automated) as you get, to use Kodwo Eshun’s phrase, abducted by audio, abducted into a parallel world. So what I’m interested in in the book is to think through how capitalism inserts itself into these minute slices of time by setting up contagious webs of affective resonance (as well as the more commonly discussed associative chains) to attract consumers towards different kinds of behaviour. Its really just part of trying to understand how sonic branding has spliced 2 techniques of affective control: jingles (in which earworms are attached to specific products) and a kind of perpetual Muzak (producing an immersive mode of sonic architecture or brand ambiences). Brands now have an affective tone in addition to a look and feel. So the question I speculate about is how this mode of sonic capital functions alongside consumer profiling, directional audio systems and algorithmic music to produce a pre-emptive, predatory sonic capital that virally hooks you with vague and illusionary familiarity while purporting to offer up something new.

Q: Recently, some musicians were protesting a bit that their music shouldn’t be used as the sound track for desensitising and disorienting Guantanamo Bay prisoners. What do you make of such protests?

A: Nothing surprising there I suppose as those musicians who are ideologically opposed to the war don’t want their music used in such situations, while others think they are helping the ‘war on terror’. What is more interesting to me is this strange reversibility between music made for enjoyment but used as torture, or on the other hand, the non-standard usage of sounds of war to excite people in a musical context. It’s a situation of mutual abuse that constitutes the sonic dimensions of the military-entertainment complex and confounds a crude behaviorist approach to the relationship between sound and the body. Sometimes I’ve been criticized as a behaviorist for drawing attention to the physiological responses of frequencies etc. as opposed to its cultural discourses, but there is a big difference between behaviorist science that seeks direct relations of cause and effect between stimuli and responses on the one hand, and on the other, theories of affect which are interested precisely in the disjunction between cause and effect, finding instead a potential in between which can be seized upon aesthetically in unpredictable ways.

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