Sonic Affects: Complicity with Sonic Matter and its Political Complications


Both Magnifico’s interpretation of the Slovenian musico-national character and Janša’s chauvinistic reinterpretation of it are based on the premise of the existence of specific Slovenian sounds that are linked to a set of emotions and mental states. The argument goes that the Slovenian musico-national character can be summed up by referencing the genre of Slovenian folk pop music. The constituted emotional states of this genre are happy and joyous on the level of its musical organization. Following Massumi’s distinction between emotion and affect, traceable back to Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptualization of affect (Deleuze and Guattari 1996, 2004), wherein emotion “is qualified intensity, the conventional, consensual point of insertion of intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions, into narrativizable action-reaction circuits” (Massumi 1995: 88), it is important to address the entanglement of sound and affect in the ideological construction of the Slovenian musico-national character. In this section, we will theoretically ground this endeavor with an emphasis on the affective power of music and sound. Two lines of thought regarding the ontologically intimate relation of sound and affect will be stressed. The first will allow us to state the affective nature of sonic matter, as such positioning it outside of the subject. The second accounts for the mediating function of the affective nature of sonic matter in the modulation of collective desire and historically codified emotions.


In Non-cochlear Sound: On Affect and Exteriority, music scholar Will Schrimshaw asserts — in the line with the non-correlationist thinking of Quentin Meillassoux (2009) and Christoph Cox’s sonic materialism (2011) — the existence of sound independent of the listening subject and its (emotional) coding regimes.


Counterpoint to [subjective] affirmation, independence and autonomy describe the pre- or a-subjective exteriority of what remains in excess of both perception and affirmation. (Schrimshaw 2013: 31)


This is a way to claim the impersonal and non-anthropocentric matter of affect, which, in this case becomes equivalent with sound itself, revealing sound’s affective potential in the first place, and its privileged position regarding affect. To do so, the ontological reduction—not only of music to sound, but also of sound to vibration, and of vibration to inaudible sonic matter—has to be carried out. In the introduction to Sonic Warfare Steve Goodman develops a theoretical account of the politics of frequency based on the notion of affective tonality:


From vibes to vibrations, this is a definition that traverses mind and body, subject and object, the living and the nonliving. One way or another, it is vibration, after all, that connects every separate entity in the cosmos, organic or nonorganic. (Goodman 2010: xiv)


If sound is thought of at the level of vibration, then we are left with the intensive quantity, constituent of “the capacity to affect and be affected that are dependent upon degrees, strengths or amounts of [sound’s internal] force” (Schrimshaw 2013: 36). This does not only assert the objective existence of sonic affect, which is to some degree captured by the subjective (semiotically expressive) coding apparatus, but it also states that physically perceived sound and its characteristics, and emotions in the form of social relations, are always already immanent to sonic affect. Therefore, it is important to understand the way certain music and sound activate their sonic affect. To put it more precisely, we need to understand what sonic affect puts in motion and in what ways. Besides that, the impersonal and objective definition of sonic affect emphasizes its inherently collective nature, meaning that it forms a collective on its own account. This collectivity is still traditional in the form of identity politics (e.g. folk pop music), but it also disrupts older forms of social and political allegiance (Thompson and Biddle 2013), as is the case with popular or experimental music.


Another line of thought regarding the affective nature of music and sound is therefore of particular importance for our case. In “Romance With Affect: Sonic Politics in Time of Political Exhaustion,” ethnomusicologist Ana Hofman situates the importance of the notion of (sonic) affect in the reconfiguration of political and economic matter over the recent decades in the context of the corresponding crisis of political agency. This reconfiguration has largely been preoccupied with the materiality of sensory experience and the economic valorization of affect. The latter testifies to the importance of different interpretations (that of the political left and right), of passions and emotions in contemporary capitalism (Krašovec 2018), and the universal and autonomous characteristic of affect. For Hofman, this means that there is a lack of historical perspective in the way affective intensities are employed or produced differently in different historical moments, different social settings, or different musical genres. Hofman’s counterexample is the reactivation of popular partisan and socialist songs in the post-socialist and post-Yugoslav context, primarily by the Slovenian singing collective Kombinat (Hofman 2015), whose mode of recalling the socialist past can be interpreted as an affect of political exhaustion in the neoliberal (ideological) de-politization. 


Such an interplay between affect and ideology demonstrates that what we usually subsume under ideological politics and affective politics, needs to be situated and contextualised within a concrete historical and socio-cultural environment. For post-Yugoslav activists, ideology is an experiential category attached to a concrete historical period – the socialist past (often also used as a synonym for state-socialism or more precisely, Yugoslav socialism). Collective singing (and listening) and its role in building socialities is definitely a field where affect is politically efficient; but this does not exclude ideology as an affectively charged concept. (Hofman 2020: 311)


This does not mean that affect has been captured by ideology, but it reveals that ideology is nothing more than affect. Nevertheless, Hofman’s argument still resides in the emancipatory and leftist deployment of sonic affect in the post-Yugoslav era. In a way, the romance with affect goes on. However, if we take into account the impersonal and collective nature of sonic affect we need to acknowledge that it can be, and usually is, both exclusive and territorial. It can wage sonic warfare (Goodman 2010) and it can accompany war. The Balkan wars, following the breakup of Yugoslavia, are a good case in point, as they were quite literally accompanied by the music of nationalist popular singers such as Thompson in Croatia and Roki Vulović in Republika Srbska. Affect can thus stick to the construction of national identity in the post-Yugoslav context. Accordingly, sonic affect became increasingly entangled with popular music genres; it became a sonic politics, as the Magnifico case revealed.