Mediating ‘Pulse Demons’ by Eugene Thacker from vol. 9 (2007) Recordings
The following essay attempts to continue some of the conversations begun in volume 9 of Culture Machine published in 2007. Titled ‘Recordings’, it was dedicated to discussing the reorganization of cultural logics by reproduction and recording technologies in the digital age. As Paul Hegarty and Gary Genosko, editors of that volume, explained in their introduction, the contributions stimulated a reflection on the myths surrounding new technology and progress, immateriality, permanence, memory, and creative processes among others, and on how these processes operate in the field of culture through music production and reproduction. A good part of the essays question, from the vantage point of ‘developed’ economies, creative subjectivities, aesthetic interventions and production networks through the use of new (and not so new) reproduction technologies.
One of the pieces, however, stands out from the rest by reflecting on digital technology not as the mediator of cultural displacements, but rather as an affective element in music production that exposes different dimensions of the cultural understanding of sound. This is Eugene Thacker’s ‘Pulse Demons’, an intricate reflection on swarms, their conceptualizations and the epistemological questions raised by our relationship with them as complex organizational phenomena. Thacker contrasts the representational or visual understanding of swarms (commonly seen in cinema) with the phenomenological experience of swarms, most frequently aural at first. The author goes on to discuss the logic of swarms as an organizational idea in the practice of music. This invites a series of questions around the possibilities of representing the sound of swarms or embodying a swarm-like experience through music, questions that Thacker investigates philosophically, hermeneutically and musically.
In ‘Pulse Demons’ Thacker goes on to analyze Japanese Noise and Norwegian Blackmetal, music practices where electronic and digital technology is an inherent part of our experience and apprehension of them. However, Thacker finds it problematic that the linear temporality of these genres of popular music renders the use of technology only as demonic effects – as evident in the quality of distortion and non-human possession often associated with swarming – but does not reproduce the multiplicity and dynamic change of swarms. In addition, he explores the music of composers such as Iannis Xenakis, Iancu Dumitrescu, and Giacinto Scelsi, wherein their compositional systems create, for Thacker, examples of music whose forms are isomorphic with the chaos of swarm organization.
It seems to me, however, that Thacker’s analysis of these examples in terms of their temporality and structural complexities reduces the phenomenological dimension of music and swarms as sound to the discursive logic of its form and content. As he himself asks: ‘is swarming “represented” in music, or is there some way in which the structure of a particular musical composition actually is a swarm?’ (Thacker, 2007). His reading of the works by Xenakis, Dumitrescu and Scelsi focuses on the relation between compositional techniques informed by mathematics or physics (such as spectralism or probability), and the problem of music temporality and multiplicity as sound. Although he proposes that these series of works explore (swarm) chaos as sound at a polysensory, concrete and affective level, rather than at a visual and representational level, his argument is that they do so because of the formal innovations and organizational qualities of the compositional methods the authors developed. By the same token, in the case of Japanese Noise and Norwegian Blackmetal, Thacker recognizes technology as the medium that renders sound as demonic or non-human, thus exemplifying music not only as a formal structure but also as an affective experience – albeit too linear to actually embrace swarming as such.
The questions Thacker raises about representation, content and experience in music are rather well known in the philosophy of Western music, especially of the modern period. Nineteenth century aesthetic discourses around the concept of ‘absolute music’ within the context of l’art pour l’art reflected on similar issues as the industrial revolution had accelerated its influence on music technology and technique. The avant-garde movements of the beginning of the twentieth century took this discussion even further by questioning sound as material support and by interrogating its role in the construction of musical discourse as reproduction technologies became increasingly available.
However, across this array of examples offered by Thacker, the phenomenological perspective is still for me established oppositionally through the distinction between music as a sound object and an undifferentiated, acultural, and even absent, subject of experience. Thacker gives important evidence in his article to show that music makes sense also through its materiality and experience. Yet by confining his analysis to the relationship between formal innovation and sound organization, form and content, the affective and the relational dimension of music, the phenomenology of organized sound that he wants to honour is diluted in the discursivity of the object. If we are to understand music as organized phenomena, how are we then to account for the affective relationships that articulate and make such forms of organization operative? Although Thacker’s contribution does not expand on the cultural politics of rethinking complex interactions and organizational actions as phenomenological experiences, he does pave the way for an engagement with two main debates: first, whether music as a cultural phenomenon is organized through our affective experience of it and not exclusively through its signifying structures, and second, whether the role of technology in music production has an effect beyond aesthetic results by altering creative practices, disturbing social interactions, and ultimately, subjectivity processes.
The sound qualities of technological decay in Blackmetal, or excess in Noise, that Thacker evaluates demonstrate that our understanding of sound goes beyond the signifying practices of musical structures and is actually connected with the aural and organizational experiences those sounds facilitate. His meditation on sound production through new technologies and techniques shows that, while form and structure are part of musical and thus cultural organization, it is its affective dimension, or how we relate to it, through it and within it, that articulates our practices. The affective experience facilitated through technology, and its resulting impact on technique, thus (re)organizes creative processes, music practices and cultural interactions. For me, this is not only a discussion about whether the effect of swarm organization is represented or incarnated in music but also about how such an organization modifies the music practices of creation, hearing, and understanding.
It seems to me, in reviewing Thacker’s examples, that new technologies operating in the field of music make more urgent the call to reconsider cultural logics from a sensible, corporeal and affective dimension and not only through the analysis of discursive structures. They also interpellate us to engage with the phenomenological aspect of culture in a way that recognizes experience beyond the object-subject dichotomy, and that allows for the critical potential of bodily intensities to emerge. This so-called ‘affective turn’ in cultural studies has resulted in an important and fruitful debate in the last decades, drawing on the works of Baruch Spinoza and Henri Bergson, through Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. In the late 1990s authors such as Brian Massumi and Eve Sedgwick came out in full support of affect as a liberating paradigm from linguistic models for cultural analysis. At the same time, scholars such as Clare Hemmings, writing in her critical article ‘Invoking Affect’ (2005), warned us against too celebratory an attitude towards the ontological that would just ignore the contributions of poststructuralism for the sake of individual experience. Jeremy Gilbert’s ‘Signifying Nothing: Culture, Discourse and the Sociality of Affect’, a contribution from volume 6 of Culture Machine in 2004, serves as testimony to this debate. One of the author’s main aims in this meticulous article is precisely to reflect on the experiential aspects of culture as organizational practices – but not only and necessarily as signifying ones.
Not surprisingly, Gilbert also brings in music as an example to highlight the limits of discourse and linguistic meaning structures in explaining human experience, as well as to observe affect’s organizing power and irreducibly social character. Yet, more importantly, he also points at their dynamic relationship as cultural forces. What is critical for the case of music in Gilbert’s argument, is that beyond an analysis of its internal structures an affective vocabulary acknowledges that music is ‘effective at the corporeal level’ (Gilbert, 2004). However, this is not simply to say that the effect of sound on a particular individual is to be considered as part of music’s meaning. Rather, Gilbert’s argument is that within the affective turn in cultural studies it is important to reconsider the deconstructive approach to the sign, in Derrida’s concept of the ‘trace’, that blurs the ‘line between the signifier and the signified’, thus not only converging on the relational experience that precedes signification, the ‘becoming-sign of the symbol’ (2004), but also challenging the individualization of the subject. By calling into question the linguistic condition of the individual subject as the agent of experience, a discursive ontology of experience is also challenged. Experience is thus relational and, for Gilbert, evidently contingent (2004). The trace, i.e. the moment that precedes linguistic formations but still organizes experience, is social in its relationality and without meaning. Affect then introduces a new vocabulary to describe and understand those collective not-signifying moments in cultural practices such as music, in its corporeal, sensuous, intensive and phenomenological dimensions.
To me, this approach is central if we are to understand music in its phenomenological and collective character and to think further about it as a practice and, ultimately, a form of cultural organization in an extensive manner. The relational and contingent character of affect makes collective organization a political ground for culture, an organization that can be negotiated ‘musically’. The affective and not-meaningful have the potential to redefine ethical encounters by revealing that sociability emanates from relations without a traceable centre, as Thacker has suggested in his aural approach to swarms (2007). The affective approach does, however, introduce a series of concepts that demand further reflection with regard to their actual operation in contemporary music practices, such as the status of the body. By locating affective relations and not only signifying structures at the core of a cultural organization, bodies – taken primarily as materialities and not just as discursive constructions – become purportedly the location of sociability and subjective processes. Moreover, it is understood then that relations between bodies are the fundamental articulation of (musical) experience: ‘music cannot be thought without an appreciation of its affective dimension, and to emphasise the extent to which, in the tradition of Spinoza and Nietzsche, this dimension must be understood as bound up with the corporeal nature of musical experience’ (Gilbert, 2004).
However, there is still a lot to examine in the idea of materiality as corporality, especially in music. First, materiality in music is not only about the body but also about sound production, which inscribes affect directly into technological and technical development, and thus into particular conditions of sociality. Secondly, if affect is to be understood as relational and social, that relationality must be extended to the material resonance of discourse the way it reaches back to bodies and sound. Thus, to talk about affect in music is not simply to bring the corporeal experience to the foreground of analysis, but to recognize the organizational power of the cycles of interplay between the ‘unreasonable’ and the signifying, between intensities and discourse, and to acknowledge their mutual involvement in each other’s operability. When thinking music from the standpoint of its technological materiality, affect is not only summoned into the conversation but also problematized in its engagement with signification, sociality and its articulation as a non-linguistic space for critical reflection.
In this sense, returning to the whole volume of Recordings, it seems at first glance that new technologies and reproduction technologies in music in general present themselves as facilitators of the cultural flow and encounter at an affective level. Part of the conceptualization of new technologies is linked to the idea of free speech, promising access, immediacy, liberation, mass impact, the democratization of voices, and contingent encounters. Technology and music would seem to be then an ideal cultural platform for the social as contingent. But is it really so? As the other contributions to the volume 9 of Culture Machine already pointed out, technology comes with legitimising discourses and myths that need to be reviewed against the grain. Looking at new technologies as mediators of social interactions through corporeal and non-signifying practices exerts critical pressure on us with regard to how to think about our engagement with technology as a creative vehicle and also with regard to how affective relations produce music. Additionally, if we reconsider the diversity of geopolitical contexts in which new technologies mediate human experiences then the social as contingent, affective process of subjectivity, and creative practices as politico-aesthetical exercises, need further evaluation.
To expand on this debate, I have engaged in a conversation about the affective turn in cultural studies with two scholars whose fieldwork and reflections on new technologies as used by young adults in precarious conditions, in so called developing countries such Mexico is revealing. Nestor García Canclini and Maritza Urteaga have enquired about the logic of digital technologies operating within limited material conditions of production and creativity in music, visual arts, among other practices in youth culture, and about their impact on the new modes of social organization and subject identification. The full interview can be accessed here. As García Canclini and Urteaga suggest, affect cuts across the uses and interactions of digital technology. The relations between subjects and technological objects transfigure the articulation of presence, movement, location, identification, temporality, spatiality, etc., reorganizing not only how we create objects or goods but also how we create attachments, associations, as well as relations with others and ourselves. We may need not only to think about affect to understand the social but also to think about affectivities and corporealities at large beyond bodies and affects as we know them – producing a hyper-affective turn of sorts.
García Canclini and Urteaga have studied music as a cultural, economic and creative activity through their observations of interdisciplinary collaborative nets articulated through digital media and communications. Their findings reveal that affectivity is fundamental in understanding these communities and their processes. They have found out that the use of technological platforms for production and communication is mobilized at an affective dimension: affirmation, recognition and trust are some of the many relations that articulate these technological creative practices. Particularly in climates of economic uncertainty and commerce, with conditions determined by larger service operators, the construction of affective relations becomes fundamental for the organization of creative fields.
Certainly, for García Canclini and Urteaga, digital technologies are facilitating new kinds of phenomenological experiences within the field of music: these technologies mediate subjects’ interactions with one another, for example, in the way young musicians project their on-line and off-line identity, or the way their position themselves in relation to their followers and the latter back to them. Social and communication platforms are the ground for intensified experiences where bodies are experienced as both extended and ubiquitous. Bodies are not just in one space at one given time, they experience being everywhere and in constant ‘touch’, much like the aural experience of swarms described by Thacker in ‘Pulse Demons’. The individualized body is thus transfigured to become part of other bodies and is overtaken by a collective one. Like a bit torrent, multiple pieces are strewn together across the virtual. This collective body integrated by technological practices resembles precisely a phenomenological meta-swarm where affect articulates a complex social organization, similar to what Thacker has described as ‘emanation without a centre’ (2007), simultaneously everywhere and somewhere.
But this is still only one side of the cultural politics of affectivity, technology, creativity and cultural organization. In ideal scenarios, creativity processes are potentially transformed by technologies in the way subjects interact with each other, produce, rearrange, distribute, relate to and value cultural products. Nonetheless, in precarious contexts, access to these resources is at times limited or discontinuous, and thus creative resources are not always available or are not used with a comprehensive knowledge of their possibilities. At the same time, García Canclini and Urteaga’s findings remind us as well that platforms are designed, administered and regulated not only by institutions but also by the economic and political context of their use. Many of the creative projects in these contexts thus have a fragile temporality and periodicity – which makes them problematic as long-term strategies to overcome precarious conditions. Digital and communication technologies are then not the fluid, unrestricted and far-reaching instruments that they have been represented as discursively: they actually facilitate socio-affective relations as much as they mediate and discipline them.
A deeper critical engagement with the social appropriation of new technologies in cultural creative processes, like the ones offered by the ‘Recordings’ volume and by García Canclini and Urteaga’s research into economies of uncertainty, elucidate that affective and corporeal interactions are fundamental to our cultural understanding of music and sound. They prevent us from reducing ‘culture’ to narratives of power on the basis of a narrow understanding of discursive signification. At the same time, this engagement reveals that a discursive analysis of such practices, that is, of their signifying structures, is equally necessary for a richer apprehension of just how those affectivities may be reoriented and potentially inhibited or disciplined. Musical activity does indeed demand to be understood as a phenomenological experience, as Thacker pointed out with reference to swarms as sound. Nonetheless, the affective dimension of music must be identified beyond the sensuous effect of sound at the level of object-subject perception, and also recognized at the level of creative practices (of production, distribution, hearing, performing, etc.) and social relations it generates. Music is a practice with full capacity to generate discursive meanings, as a wide range of musicological and analytical methods have made it known, but to investigate its actual configuration as a cultural and political space we need to also tune our epistemological efforts to its corporeal, aural and affective dimension in their social character. My concluding point is not that new technologies enable the affective dimension of music but rather that they make the matter of investigating its social organizing force and the potential of experience to generate critical reflection more pressing.
Gilbert, J. (2004) ‘Signifying Nothing: “Culture”, “Discourse” and the Sociality of Affect’, Culture Machine, vol. 6. Retrieved 2014-01-07.
Hemmings, C. (2005) ‘Invoking Affect. Cultural Theory and the Ontological Turn’, Cultural Studies 19.5: 548-67.
Thacker, E. (2007) ‘Pulse Demons,’ Culture Machine vol. 9. Retrieved 2013-11-11.