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How Our "Sonic Episteme" Reinforces Existing Power Structures


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The New Inquiry has an excerpt from a fascinting book forthcoming from Duke University Press: The Sonic Episteme: Acoustic Resonance, Neoliberalism, and Biopolitics by philosopher Robin James. James observes that neoliberal capitalism, which relies on statistics and data to monetize our social behavior, often translates this numerical information into the language of sound, to make it easier for laypeople to understand. The language of sound – “harmony,” “symphony,” “resonance” – is thus treated as the qualitative analogue of quantitative data. Drawing on Foucault, James suggests that our “sonic episteme” covertly reinforces relations of domination and exploitation, even when it seeks to overturn them. Check out a passage from the except below.

The Sonic Episteme: Acoustic Resonance, Neoliberalism, and Biopolitics is about the neoliberal episteme’s complementary qualitative episteme, which I call the sonic episteme. The sonic episteme creates qualitative versions of the same relationships that the neoliberal episteme crafts quantitatively, bringing nonquantitative phenomena in line with the same upgrades to classical liberalism that the neoliberal episteme performs quantitatively. Like earlier versions of what sound-studies scholar Jonathan Sterne calls “the audiovisual litany,” the sonic episteme misrepresents sociohistorically specific concepts of sound and vision as their universal, “natural” character and uses sound’s purported difference from vision to mark its departure from what it deems the West’s ocular- and text-centric status quo. Whereas earlier versions of the litany claim sound embodies an originary metaphysical immediacy or “presence” that words and images deny, the sonic episteme claims sound embodies material immediacy and the metaphysics of a probabilistic universe, which modernity’s commitments to representationalist abstraction and certainty supposedly occlude.

Appealing to assumptions about sound and music’s “minoritarian” position in Western culture and sound’s inherent wholesomeness, all constituents of the sonic episteme claim their use of sound is both revolutionary (turning Western modernity on its head) and recuperative (recovering what it excluded). In this way, they misrepresent their difference from the Western modern status quo as progress past it. Although the sonic episteme presents these upgrades as fixes for modernity’s bugs, especially bugs related to identity-based inequality, it actually repeats these bugs in a voice that makes those bugs sound and feel like features. Thus, though the sonic episteme’s appeal to sound may appear revolutionary because it frees us from the conceptual and political baggage we’ve inherited from Western modernity, it just remakes and renaturalizes all that political baggage in forms more compatible with 21st century technologies and ideologies—which is exactly what the neoliberal episteme does with its calculative rationality.