Sonic studies, the term for the social study of auditory engagement and experience, has emerged from a striking discrepancy.(1) On the one hand, it has had to stake out its position against a history of extensive epistemological neglect. The academy continues to associate modern, scientific rationality and knowledge with an ideal of “transparency supposedly guaranteed by the visual” (Martin 2011: xviii),(2) even where the utopian, transformative promises once associated with that rationality lie abandoned. Academia understands and honours seeing and finds support for this in a body of theory that has accumulated with few hiccups at least since the fifteenth century of Leonardo’s Paragone. It has given noticeably less attention to listening, whose place within modernity’s changing configurations of knowledge and experience remains comparatively unthematized. Tellingly, in an important effort to buck the trend, Gemma Corradi Fiumara (1990 [1985]) argued back in 1985 that philosophy had lost its sense of the receptive act of listening that had once been semantically associated with logos (the Greek term for knowledge and speech and the root of our disciplinary –logies).(3) We have inherited, she claimed, a “limited, reduced-by-half concept of language” (2). And this epistemological neglect of listening, she argued, has had a drastic social correlate: a “rapidly escalating self-affirmation of logos” within and beyond the academy that crowds out listening and “finally constitute[s] itself as a generalized form of domination and control” (9, 2).


Fiumara’s world without listening is a dystopian nightmare. Antagonism, born of indifference, corrodes human relations. Deafness to the augurs of climate change leads to ecological breakdown (6). Yet, in retrospect, her analysis reveals a fundamental misjudgment. Listening may have fared poorly in the annals of philosophy and academia more generally. But in the world at large it is noticeable on a massive, probably unprecedented scale – thanks at least in part to the hugely successful mass-marketing of mobile, personal audio-player technologies in several waves since 1979. This is the other side of the discrepancy to which sonic studies responds. If the eye has reigned in the academy, the ear now reigns on the street, where what it perceives is able to be overlaid, even saturated, by a controllable sonic reality oriented toward individual, affective satisfaction. The general push of sonic studies has hitherto sought to reintegrate aurality within academic epistemology (Erlmann 2004: 3-4). The social life of the ear, by contrast, seems in large part to be marching in the opposite direction: away from experiential knowledge of the world and toward more individualized and onanistic forms of sensory stimulation.


What does one make of this concurrent lack and excess of listening? What might it tell us about the political valence of listening today and its place in neoliberalism? I wish to approach these questions here through a partial inversion of Fiumara’s thesis. If listening is the “other side” of logos, the necessary counterpart of speech, then their implied conjunction lies in making oneself heard. This, however, is hardly a point of symmetry. Making oneself heard emphasises the power of the speaker. It seems to annex listening to that power. Yet making oneself heard can never be the act of one alone. It always takes the form of an interaction; it always rests on the interdependency of the agent of logos and the one who would listen, and this interdependency is regulated to a high degree by social and legal norms (cf. Foucault 2010). The phrase “to have a voice” captures the semantic overlap of voice and suffrage and illustrates well the profound intimacy between expression and the systems (or dispositifs) of receptivity it enters into (Poizat 2001: 298-302; see also Dolar 2006: 105-124; Rosenfeld 2011). However, “having a voice” also implies a degree of control, on the part of the one who “possesses” it, over when and how the voice will enter into a space of audibility. (Indeed, were this not the case and the balance of power tipped entirely toward the listener, we would have a situation of pure auditory surveillance that would be even more controlling and domineering than the one evoked by Fiumara.)(4) We need to think through both “sides” of the interaction: how each implies, shapes, and depends on the other.


With this in mind, the following discussion is structured around the two poles of listening and expression. The first section is devoted to an exploration of what I call the sound of the bios politikos. It is about the intersection of sonic and political expression:(5) their overlap and indistinction. Aristotle identified bios politikos, or political life, as one of three bioi (forms of life) in the Nicomachean Ethics (1984: I. 5). It is the qualified form of life that engages in the sphere of politics – with ‘qualified’ here meaning that restrictions are placed on it in line with the structuring of the political domain. But this form of life is also self-qualifying: bios politikos entails an articulation, manifestation, or some other movement or extension of life into the realm of the political. We have no theoretical account of the sonic identity of this qualified and qualifying political life. No mention of it is made in R. Murray Schafer’s (1994 [1977]) charting of the soundscape. When Schafer wrote of “sounds of life,” he meant the sounds of birds, insects, and fish: he meant “natural” life (29-42). His omnivorous ear heard humans imitating those sounds as well as sounds from the voice and body – crying and copulating, the ruffling of linen suits, lighting of cigarettes, and tapping of work shoes at the regular hours. His ear heard ritual through church bells, history through material changes in manufacture, and the law through the pealing of police and ambulance sirens. It heard nature, God, technology, and the death-knell but never bios politikos


Perhaps this can be explained in political terms though. Giorgio Agamben (1998), drawing on the work of Hannah Arendt (1958) and Michel Foucault (1978), has argued that the blurring of politically qualified and animal life (bios and zōē) has constituted the basic trajectory of modern (Western) politics. This blurring produces what Agamben calls “bare life,” the subject and object of a relatively new system and logic of “biopolitical” governmentality (as Foucault described it in his writing from the mid-1970s onward: 1978, 2008). In the first part of this essay, I examine a number of examples of expressive culture that I consider highly suggestive of the sonic status of the bios politikos and its relation to listening over the course of the twentieth century. Each, in its way, exposes some form of difficulty, complication, or impasse relating to the gesture of ‘making oneself heard’ and seems to affirm Agamben’s insight concerning the blurring of political and natural life. 


With a degree of caution, the examples chosen might be described as “meta-expressive.” While I treat them as evoking sonic expression, and undeniably, they are themselves expressive entities (though not purely sonic ones), they also meditate on expression at a certain remove from its direct enactment. The first example is a photographic image by André Kertész, Arm and Ventilator (1937). It has no sonic profile to speak of, and yet, as I read it, it invokes human sound. Much of the thinking behind this essay was sparked by an encounter with this image at a retrospective of Kertész’s work at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in early 2011. I was struck by the image’s proximity to aspects of Walter Benjamin’s contemporaneous writings, which lie at the origins of the theoretical discourse on biopolitics, and I wanted to register the force of this encounter; it said something to me of the relationship art could hold with knowledge in our time. Yet what the image presents is privation and withdrawal, more than sonic exuberance. In it, creaturely life appears on the verge of disappearing. 


My subsequent examples are less unconventional. In the work and writings of Iannis Xenakis (notably, 1992 [1963]: 9), the sounds of political protest are called upon as a reference point for judging the musical ear. These sounds prove comprehensible to Xenakis, however, only through a process of abstraction and naturalization that, I argue, violates their political makeup. The gesture of politicization in Xenakis’s work thus reverses into a depoliticization that leaves the technical and the natural indistinguishable. Federico Fellini’s film Roma (1972) repeats this gesture, as the sounds of political protest are shown being annulled by the forces of nature. Here a counter-scenario appears though, as Fellini casts his gaze back to historical Fascism and the context of Kertész’s work. Now, grotesquely infantile forms of dissent prove more than capable of wreaking havoc on culture, though without having the slightest hope of attaining political emancipation. 


These examples span almost four decades, from the 1930s until immediately prior to Foucault’s earliest discussions of biopolitics. They provide a glimpse not only of the extraordinarily rich cultural pre-history out of which those discussions emerged, but of a continual, highly self-reflexive linking of the biopolitical figure of ‘natural’ life with an intensive questioning of the political valences and possibilities of expression. Behind them, I suspect, lies a rather different story of twentieth-century culture from the ones we are accustomed to telling.


The second part of this essay turns to the social topology of listening – the “other side” of expression. I focus on the two paradigms that I consider to be the most significant for unravelling what is specific about the relationships formed between artistic (sonic) culture, knowledge, and society in the era of neoliberal biopolitics: firstly, the white cube of the art museum, insofar as it is increasingly the preferred space for creative practitioners exploring new relationships between knowledge and the sonic; and secondly, the private, yet mobile, auditory “bubble” of portable stereo and headphone or earplug listening, the ubiquitous affect-circuit, which is probably the quintessential quotidian form of contemporary biological self-regulation. These paradigms are already familiar; the latter in particular has received much attention from a range of disciplinary angles – and notably in Elen Flügge’s (2011) contribution to the last issue of this journal. I try to gain a new perspective on the political significance of these paradigms by asking how they structure the relationship between cultural experience and social authority. My orientation comes from Benjamin’s and Martin Heidegger’s work from the 1930s, as well as Peter Bürger’s much later analysis of the “failure” of the historical avant-garde (1984). In different ways, each of these authors articulated a crisis in art’s relationship to society. This perceived crisis was, I believe, directly linked to modernity’s transformation of bios politikos into bare life, and its legacy urgently needs to be rethought accordingly. I can only take a few small steps in that direction here by emphasizing how the two paradigms problematically project notions of commonality and by sketching the interplay of norm, anomie, and the assertion of authority that has shaped them. 


Throughout what follows, I pursue two closely interrelated arguments. They are meant to extend Fiumara’s insight into the imbalance between speech and listening but also to bring it down to earth to speak more directly to social reality. The first is that the gap or disturbance of expressive exchange that Fiumara indicated has long been a fixture of our cultural imaginary. The failure to listen has already provoked us to change the way we speak and what we speak of, precisely because it has transformed the possibilities of making oneself heard. The second argument is that listening has also adapted (as it were) to the situation. Listening has found new spaces to project aesthetic commonality, without, however, necessarily being able to transform these into spaces of actual political commonality. These points seem to me to be crucial for grasping the political significance of listening within neoliberalism and the stakes and potentialities of (sonic) expression today. But rebalancing the relationship between speech and listening will not be possible from one side or the other. It must be done from both, and it must be done politically.

(1) I would like to thank a number of friends and colleagues for reading and commenting on this essay in draft form and for pushing me, in various ways, to make it what it now is. Justin Clemens, John Deathridge, and the anonymous referee at the Journal of Sonic Studies all encouraged me to clarify different aspects of my thinking in the essay, while ongoing dialogue with sound artist Lauren Brown motivated me to approach the politics of listening and expression together. My greatest thanks, however, go to Anthony Gardner, who saw the Kertész exhibition and watched Fellini and Almodóvar with me, who I have pestered extensively about the material in this essay, and who has patiently helped me to iron out my prose. Here as elsewhere, expressive production has been thoroughly dependent on the receptiveness of others.

(2) In contrast, see Veit Erlmann’s (2010) unique project to articulate the otherwise neglected significance of resonance and aurality in the modern philosophical conceptualization of rationality.

(3) Fiumara was following Martin Heidegger’s (1976: 63; see also Clark 2002: 82-84) argument that the meaning of the verb legein, etymologically related to logos and usually translated as to speak, had once also meant to gather and to lay or let lie.

(4) Pushed further, one arrives at the argument made recently by Justin Clemens in his paper “Agamben, Torture, Oath,” presented at the Birkbeck Law School on 11 January 2012: that torture itself takes the form of a violent “elicitation of speech.” 

(5) I prefer to use the term expression in this essay, rather than logos, which indicates reason and truth as much as speech. If, as Hannah Arendt insisted, human plurality is the “conditio per quam...of all political life” and speech (Arendt 1958: 7), this conflation of meanings proves problematic, if not unworkable. The plural and the universal collide in the semantic shadow of logos. And while insight into the originary form of the political contract may lie concealed within that collision, for the purposes of this essay it has made sense to distinguish the expressive dimension of speech and keep the problem of truth at arm’s length. Expression, moreover, designates a much broader – indeed, essentially unlimited – field of communicational and presencing activities than speech. However, it too comes with problems, particularly where it carries naturalistic overtones. I treat expression as a matter of technical construction (cf. Klossowski 1997). I will refer to artworks as expressive entities, but not in the sense that they directly express some elementary feeling or desire of their makers; the passage of the expressive gesture into the social and technical matrices that receive it is too complex for expression to be conceived in such a way, as the latter part of this essay should make clear.

                        The Production of Listening:

       on Biopolitical Sound and the Commonplaces of                                                Aurality

Huw Hallam

Part I. The sounds of bios politikos

 1. The ventilator and the storyteller

 1. The ventilator and the storyteller

Arm and Ventilator, a striking 1937 image by the Jewish, Hungarian-born photographer André Kertész, shows an arm protracting from between the blades of a ventilator. The details are enigmatic. The arm – the right – is lean and masculine, with a cotton sleeve rolled up past the elbow. But what this most functional of limbs is doing is not apparent, and the rest of the image sheds no light on the matter. Outlines of a forehead and eye cavity are barely perceptible in the darkness behind the ventilator; any intention behind the gesture remains caught in obscurity with them.


The image was taken shortly after the photographer’s emigration to the USA, in flight from the anti-Semitism of European Fascism and in search of economic opportunity. It marks the threshold of a change in his creative output. His image world had hitherto teemed with bodies, vibrant in their fragility and the transience of their gestures. Now, gradually, it would empty itself of indexes of bodily life, settling instead with empty rooftops and vacant gardens. 


It may be that Kertész’s gradual – never absolute – turn away from human presence in his later (non-commercial) photographs had something to do with the way bodily vivaciousness and vigour were taken up in the aesthetic canons of German Fascism. Certainly, the remarkable, yet unostentatious, vitality, manifested in such early works as his Underwater Swimmer (1917), would be reduced to almost nothing next to Leni Riefenstahl’s spectacular league of diving angels at the end of Olympia (1938).

But absence had already been an important ingredient in Kertész’s work in the 1920s. In the exquisitely minimal image Mondrian’s Glasses and Pipe (1926) two pairs of round-lensed spectacles accompany a pipe and ashtray on a light bench whose corner forms a vertex near the centre of the top edge. The composition dialogues in jest with the painter’s own recent “lozenge”-shaped works and with his “neo-plastic” aesthetic philosophy of giving “truth in the way of beauty” (van Doesburg 1992: 281) through the organization of pure abstract forms that bypass representation. Kertész, instead, gives us Mondrian through his attributes: a Mondrian, moreover, who relies on tools to see and whose sense of spirit may well come with the rush of tobacco. And this remarkable meeting of portrait in absentia and still life is performed with a tightness of focus that, in leaving the upstanding arms of one pair of spectacles in a gentle blur, ensures the photographic mediation of the image will remain clearly perceptible.

The arm that reaches through the ventilator in the 1937 image, that grasps without graspable purpose, promises that even Kertész’s later unpeopled roofscapes, with their own semi-anthropomorphic ventilators and chimneys, may conceal subterranean life. But I suspect the ventilator, like the pipe, had a more direct symbolic resonance for Kertész with the breath and, by extension, the voice and its metaphysical underpinnings.(6) With hand and breath, but neither purpose nor intention, the allegorical figure is almost certainly a musician – one of Kertész’s favourite earlier subjects. But he is, of course, mute and as much a figure of withdrawal as of presence.


1937 was also the year Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” (1992: 83-107) appeared – if that is the right word – to barely a handful of Swiss subscribers to theologian Fritz Lieb’s journal Orient und Occident. The previous edition, bearing the title Die biblische Botschaft und Karl Marx (“The Biblical Message and Karl Marx”), had seen the journal banned in Germany, and earlier financial and political difficulties had caused it to fold temporarily in 1934 (Rohkrämer 1993: 190-1). Via subsequent redactions and translations, Benjamin’s “Storyteller” has become one of the foundation stones of biopolitical analysis; its formative influence is clearly registered in Arendt’s (1958: 50) and Agamben’s (1993: 15) writings. The essay turns a celebration of the literary work of Nicolai Leskov, over forty years after his death, into a eulogy for storytelling as a social practice. Its real subject though, like that of Benjamin’s most famous, and roughly contemporaneous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1992: 211-44), is the transforming relationship between social authority and the cultural mediation of experiential knowledge (Erfahrung) – a topic made urgent by the rise of totalitarianism. And so, despite the journal’s minimal readership, the contrast Benjamin draws up in the opening pages is stark. On the one hand, there is the storyteller, the figure of the past, glimpsed for the last time through Leskov. The storyteller “exchanges experiences.” He “takes what he tells from experience – his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale” (1992: 87). On the other, is the unmistakable figure of bare life: proletarianized, and bereft of all capacity to translate reality into experience. “Never,” Benjamin exclaimed,


has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body. (84)


There is, I believe, a profound kinship between this “tiny, fragile” figure of bare life and Kertész’s allegorical coupling of arm and ventilator. It is a kinship no doubt informed by overlapping reactions to Fascism and experiences of flight; and it is the product of penetrating reflections on the technical and aesthetic dimensions of photography, in both cases occurring through a semi-detached proximity to Surrealism. But it is also an accidental kinship – not least because Kertész’s image emerged from a chance encounter, and Benjamin’s essay would have surely disappeared into obscurity, had his work not infected the few who knew it with a will to disseminate it further, as the best storytellers’ words always do. The kinship rests on the double aspect of the two figures: the contradictory meeting in them of privation and liberation. 


To be sure, this meeting is more explicit in Kertész’s image. The arm and radial blades of the ventilator form a closed system, each limiting the movement of the other. The human figure is truncated and shorn of all markers of sociality, but the foreground drama of blockage, evasion and risk distracts from his reduced form. Moreover, despite the arm’s partial resemblance to cinema’s grisly, undead excrescences, to a limb breaking free of its resting place, it appears to be relaxed. Muscles are untensed, fingers inactive. It seems to have stolen itself away from labor for a moment – made an eternity by Kertész's camera – like the readers in so many of his photographs who appear lost in books and newspapers while everyday life quietly awaits their return (see Kertész 1971). Benjamin’s figure, by contrast, is made tiny through suffering of such magnitude that it makes comprehension [or: that comprehension is rendered] impossible. It is the object of trauma, and one wonders how the counsel of a Leskov could even begin to palliate its ills. This, in part, is Benjamin’s point though. The tiny, fragile body is the distilled form of life in – and produced by – modernity. Its emergence would seem to preclude a return to the structuring of social authority associated with storytelling. The reciprocity of telling and listening, ‘the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled’ (91), has been shattered. Its necessary requisite, boredom, “the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience,” has lost its nesting places in the industrialized world (90). What is left is like the eye of a storm or an untouchable pearl. And a dangerous promise of nirvana comes with the stripping away of social authority. The “artwork” essay encapsulates this a little more clearly in its account of the (again double) deracination and liberation of images from their social embedding – the counterpart to the decline of art’s “auratic” authority, which Benjamin saw as a parallel process to the disappearance of storytelling (Adorno and Benjamin 1999: 140). It is dangerous because the dissolution of traditional modes of authority all too easily allows new ones to be violently asserted in their place.


What supplants the lost reciprocity of telling and listening for these two figures? How different is the extinct dream bird of boredom from the purposeless gesture and the eye of the storm? Clearly, the topologies have changed. The “distance” of social exchange enacted through storytelling – a distance intimately bound up with the many factors shaping both the telling and listening as they come to generate opportunities for thoughtfulness (1992a: 90) – has fallen prey to historical distance. Our two figures, compact singularities, are extreme products of this contraction of social exchange. Yet though they make no demands, they appear to be figures of dependency. In them, bios politikos appears decidedly mute. But still, in silence, doesn’t it call for a listener?


2. The human river and its stochastic laws


Muteness has had more than a cameo role in the concert halls of art music since the end of World War Two and not only in the more famous “silent” works of John Cage, Mauricio Kagel and György Ligeti. Where the listener’s place is molded into the architectural structure of a concert hall, though, sound is expected and listening taken for granted too. The social significance of listening need not come into question if listeners are simply there. Nevertheless – or perhaps because of this – we find that, since the 1950s, the ear has constantly been made recourse to as a regulatory principle in compositional discourse, able to trump any other ideological contention. In the example discussed here, bearing on Iannis Xenakis’s work, it is specifically the ear’s political clout that matters – though the broader trend towards a biology of music is not without significance for understanding the relationship between culture and modern biopolitics.


There are two moments of critique I wish to focus on. The first took place in 1955, in the opening pages of the first issue of the Gravesaner Blätter, a journal that proved a hive of activity for the West European exploration of electronic music during the subsequent decade. Xenakis’s article, “La crise de la musique sérielle” (1955), lambasted contemporary serial composition for generating forms of linear polyphony so complex that they could only be perceived as statistical sound masses and not polyphony at all. Aurally, his assault ran, this music betrayed the basic aesthetic thought that guided its construction. He hammered the point in his subsequent 1963 collection of writings, Formalized Music, accusing serial composers of “walk[ing] on [to the stage of modern music] with ears shut and proclaim[ing] a truth greater than the others” (1992 [1963]: 5).


By the early 1960s, one might have thought the terms of the attack passé. Stockhausen, for one, was already describing aspects of his own compositional method as “statistical” (Stockhausen 1963: 235). Yet Xenakis clearly still felt compelled to differentiate his ‘stochastic’ approach to composition. This time, however, he threw a more potent ingredient into the mix. Immediately following the dismissal of serialism’s “auditory and ideological nonsense" (1992 [1963]: 8), he segued into politics:


Everyone has observed the sonic phenomena of a political crowd of dozens or hundreds of thousands of people. The human river shouts a slogan in a uniform rhythm. Then another slogan springs from the head of the demonstration; it spreads towards the tail, replacing the first. A wave of transition thus passes from the head to the tail. The clamor fills the city, and the inhibiting force of voice and rhythm reaches a climax. It is an event of great power and beauty in its ferocity. Then the impact between the demonstrators and the enemy occurs. The perfect rhythm of the last slogan breaks up in a huge cluster of chaotic shouts, which also spreads to the tail. Imagine, in addition, the reports of dozens of machine guns and the whistle of bullets adding their punctuations to this total disorder. The crowd is then rapidly dispersed, and after sonic and visual hell follows a detonating calm, full of despair, dust, and death. The statistical laws of these events, separated from their political or moral context, are the same as those of the cicadas or the rain. They are the laws of the passage from complete order to total disorder in a continuous or explosive manner. They are stochastic laws. (9)


This evocation carries biographical weight that cannot have been lost on those who knew Xenakis by face and had seen the traces of that biography in the deep scarring and through the glass eye of the left side (many published photographs of the composer reveal only the right). In Athens, from 1940-44, he had been part of the Communist National Liberation Front against Fascist occupation during the Battle of Greece. He then joined armed resistance against British efforts to restore the monarchy, sustaining major shrapnel wounding (Varga 1996: 16-20). These experiences, he claimed during the course of his career, were fundamental to how he engaged with sound:


During the occupation, the demonstrations against the enemy brought together hundreds of thousands of people in Athens who shouted slogans, who planted mines. Apart from these scenes that marked me politically, the sound phenomena are engraved in me. During the street fighting of 1944 there were scattered explosions, tracer bullets, bombings: extraordinary sounds. (Xenakis et al 1987: 21)


Xenakis fled Greece in 1947 using a fake identity. He had been sentenced to death by an anti-Communist military tribunal (Varga 1996: 19-20). His distinction within a milieu of young composers who had mostly spent their formative years in Nazi Germany or Vichy France could hardly have been starker. When he accused them of having shut their ears and then evoked the scene of the political crowd to justify his own work, this distinction was being called up between the lines to affirm the superiority of his ear.


The second critique came from R. Murray Schafer fourteen years later. Quoting the above passage in his seminal work, The Tuning of the World (1994 [1977]: 158-9), he submitted the political farrago described – and by implication Xenakis’s aesthetic – to a series of distinctions he had developed over the course of his soundscape analysis: hi-fi vs. lo-fi, figure vs. ground, gesture vs. texture. “Gesture,” he wrote, “is the name we can give to the unique event, the solo, the specific, the noticeable; texture is then the generalized aggregate, mottled effect, the imprecise anarchy of conflicting actions” (159). The crowd, like the compositional aggregate it models, is texture, he argued. It is not to be understood as a sum of singularities nor as a new singularity in itself. Rather, it is a muffling of singularity: a masking of the soloistic gesture beneath a sonic blur. “We are not looking for anything and we find it. We are not listening to anything but suddenly, out of the commotion, a sound jumps forward to become a figure.” (158) By Schafer’s analysis, the hubbub engraved in Xenakis’ ear was no different from the din of the polluted, lo-fi soundscape where unfocused listening reigned. His composition was just “a reflection of this crowding” (158).


The problem is that this brusque maligning of Xenakis’s example as an “imprecise anarchy” is the closest Schafer came to addressing the sound of bios politikos (159).(7) His own project of clairaudience – or “ear-cleaning” – though political in its call for humanity to liberate itself from the indeterminate cacophony of postindustrial living, was grounded in an essentially erotic account of listening. “Listening to beautiful like the tongue of a lover in your ear.” (12) It was nursed by a naturalist metaphysics and struggled with the craft of human expression – as if the intercourse of tongue and ear could go unmediated by sonic construction. 


Yet there was already a singular violence in Xenakis’s claim that political action is ruled by the same stochastic laws as cicadas and rain. So many performances of his works convey it: in the petulant percussing of mono-rhythmic passages or the sudden explosions of orchestral sound into masses of caustic shards. Music, he said, is more like “a highly complex rock” than an expressive language: “With ridges and designs engraved within and without, that can be interpreted in a thousand ways without a single one being the best or the most true.” (Xenakis et al 1987: 32) The hardness of rock and of the stochastic law correspond in his work to a hardening of time. It freezes the here and now into an eternal crystal of virtuality, wrenching it into the Platonic realm, “outside-time,” only to squeeze it back into the transient world of actuality through the fragile rasping of bows on strings or the ecstatic jousting of trombones. Xenakis was [or: made] clear that this was the utopian dimension of his work:


Creation thus passes through torture. But a torture which is sane and natural. That is what is most beautiful: to decide at any moment, to act, to renounce, to propose something else. It’s great. The joy is the fulfilment of living. That’s what it means to live. (Xenakis et al 1987: 45)


Divesting the political world of potentiality, the very space where a common ground might be fought out and won or lost through the reciprocity of speech and listening, Xenakis offered his listeners a forced purification of the absolutely impure. A fractured oracle, escaped from the future, whose hieroglyphs were not to be read, but chanted by children in play.


3. Arrivals in Rome


“We are not listening to anything but suddenly, out of the commotion, a sound jumps forward to become a figure.” (Schafer 1994 [1977]: 158)Schafer's model of unfocussed listening could have been drawn from a viewing of Italian neo-realist cinema as easily as from Xenakis's work. In Federico Fellini's Roma VideoObject 1: Roma (1972), a Communist demonstration is shown as Fellini's film crew arrives at the modern metropolis via the autostrada. Whether by accident or design – for it is impossible to gauge, watching Roma, what has been planned – Fellini outdoes Xenakis's comparison between the sonic morphologies of the rally, the cicadas, and the rain by arriving in a downpour. As the traffic flow gradually grinds to a halt and the din of car horns crescendos, the sounds of protest are engulfed. They emerge in comprehensible form only in momentary waves as the crew's mobile environment gradually changes. 

The complete submergence of comprehensible sound transmutes the everyday reality caught on screen into a series of mime acts. Immediately before the protest is revealed, a sequence of mute tableax-vivants appears: individuals, illuminated by the interior lights of their cars, framed by their windows. Images converse with one another without clear meaning; faces commune as reflections on glass. A woman gesticulates curtly to a man in another car; several men beat their heads in time to an unheard music. A man in shades rotates his thumb and forefinger at an unseen observer (is it the camera?); a female passenger looks past him intently; another applies makeup.


This becomes the context of the demonstration. As horns blur into thunderclaps, the camera's pan reveals a row of riot police. Somebody is apprehended. Figures with hoods and partially clad faces run frantically between cars. Finally, banners come into view, and the familiar chant rhythm of 'The People United Will Never Be Defeated' emerges, decrying the reign of the bourgeoisie. A black Mercedes passes under the arc of a red “No al potere borghese” banner; its inhabitants wear top-hats and clerical attire. The sequence ends in a blaring, but stationary, jam outside the colosseum: a frozen arrival into the modern city.


Gilles Deleuze has described Fellini's work as a cinema of entrances (1989: 88-90), and this could hardly be more true of Roma. This frozen arrival is one of multiple routes into the city that delay any expected picture-postcard consummation. An earlier arrival of the director has already been shown: an arrival back in time, as a young man during the Fascist era. Later, an archaeological entrance through the subway mines uncovers, and irreparably damages, frescoes buried since antiquity. The present is continually folded back into the past, up until the spectacular climax of the film: an ecclesiastical fashion-parade where the Catholic Church decks out its pretense to eternality in the most thinly transient garb of haute couture. Only then does Fellini give a glimpse of Rome's nocturnal life, before a hoard of bikers rips through its historic centre in the dead of night.


These entrances into the city and into filmic presence can be thought of equally as entrances into expression. When the polluted air of modernity devastates the subterranean frescoes – a member of Fellini’s crew shouts in horrified recognition, “é l’aria!” (“it’s the air!”) – the association of presence, expression and breath returns. What distinguishes Fellini’s approach, though, is the way it registers consequentiality: here with shocking directness, but with fabulous humour in the fashion-parade scene, where the charismatic force of papal chic seems to blow the audience back into their chairs. This presentation of consequentiality is possible because both sides of expression appear in Roma. Scenes of spectatorship abound: the child Fellini’s exposure to pornography during a history lesson; the young adult’s measuring up of prostitutes parading their wares. And this would seem to be because for Fellini, the object of his portrait, the city, is ultimately that particular, historically shaded facture of conditions against which life both flourishes and suffers.


Deleuze, who did not seem to notice this doubling of entry with receptivity, nevertheless drew attention to two discrete temporal (“musical”) forms in Fellini’s work (and cinema more generally) which shape their interaction. The first, the gallop, Deleuze explained, “accompanies the world which runs to its end, the earthquake, the incredible entropy, the hearse” (93). The gallop hurtles inexorably toward a catastrophic future. It is an automatism of perpetual motion; Fellini writes: “The apocalypse impends everywhere” (1995: 84). The echoless chants of the demonstration are consumed by this calcified, and calcifying, careen just as they strive to name it. 


The ritornello, the second form, immortalizes beginning. It transmutes the given into a seed of vital energy and potential. Fellini’s tracking shot, like his temporal displacements, is a methodology of the ritornello: it amasses constant arrivals within its frame: faces and bodies that enter into the camera’s gaze before disappearing, but rarely departing.


A musical ritornello, composed by Fellini’s long-term collaborator, Nino Rota, also pervades the film, inflecting the present with historical reminiscence.

Its languid, modal caresses are heard in the first scene as a modestly shawled woman sings from her window and then breaks into laughter when an elderly man insults Mussolini in front of a class of school-boys. Again, in the penultimate scene, the melody sounds forth from a demonstrator’s English flute after the blows of police batons have dispersed a gathering. Rota’s melody, transferred between past and present, is more than a simple Leitmotiv. The Leitmotiv belongs to a synchronic world, where temporal form is fixed in advance according to a lexicon of signs (Adorno 1981: 33-50). Rota's melody has nothing to do with that world. It survives time; but it also hints at another time: an alternative to the impassive relentlessness of the gallop.(8)


The scene that takes us full circle, back to the context of Benjamin and Kertész, takes place in the “Barafonda” variety theatre during the Fascist period. Instead of attentive listeners, Fellini shows an audience of self-appointed performers who mock and abuse the acts on stage – and each other – with appalling bigotry. One man repeatedly yells “stronza cavallina,” an idiosyncratic, barely translatable insult. Asked why, he shouts that he likes the sound of it. Two forces intersect in these listeners: a repulsive, narcissistic immaturity and a seemingly irrepressible joie de vivre. The first clearly bears the mark of Fascism, which, Fellini observed in connection with his next film, Amarcord (1973), “always lies waiting in ambush within us” when a Catholic education “place[s] the individual in a condition of psychological inferiority... corrode[s] his integrity, deprive[s] him of any sense of responsibility, [and] nail[s] him to an unending immaturity” (Fellini 1995: 85). On the other hand, the “effervescent” energy – to borrow from George Bataille’s lexicon (1979: 81) – made audible through the listeners’ commotion, hints at an escape from such a stranglehold. The thoroughly unruly would become their own sovereigns; but in a Hobbesian state of nature – Fiumara’s nightmare – where listening is practically impossible. Here, then, is the inversion of the demonstrators’ impotency: the “listener” who refuses to let anything be heard. The energy that should liberate instead spurs disaster’s gallop; meanwhile, the strange, impersonal force of the ritornello weaves together what fails to organize itself – its recollections of beginning thereby constantly reminding of that failure. Thus in Fellini, as in Xenakis and Kertész, the bios politikos appears unable to make itself heard. This is how they express its form.

(6) In Hebrew, both breath and air share the word ruach with the Spirit of God, Ruach Elohim. The ancient doctrines of pneumatology understood the breath, the staple of the voice and logos, to be the medium of transmission between the human and the divine, and this idea is to be found carried in various forms through each of the three monotheistic religions.

(7) Remarkably, he followed it by extolling the rich, illusion-inducing sonic texture of tape recordings of waves made for his work Okeanos (1971) with Bruce Davis (Schafer 1994 [1977]: 159-160). Nature was to be praised for such sounds – not bios politikos.

(8) Even the form of the melody seems to prefigure the way it will float in and out of Roma. It contains merely four distinct pitches. E and B outline a fifth that gently rocks up and down each bar. The pitches a tone lower, D and A, elaborate this oscillation, each in alternate bars, into a simple arabesque. Thus bar by bar, a held E finds its answer in a three-note undulation around B. In the fifth bar though, this pattern of pause and release gives way to a simple flow of movement. Through minimal variation, the bar is filled out with all four pitches, and what had been a two-bar structure gently opens into a three-bar structure, like a flowering of time through the ritornello’s constant returning and beginning again.

Figure 4: Nino Rota, “Aria di Roma.” Author’s transcription.

Figure 3: Mondrian's glasses and pipe

Figure 1: Arm and the Ventilator

Figure 2: Underwater Swimmer

Video Object 1: Roma trailer

Part II. The common places of listening

From the “other side” of expression, we might object to an apparent conflict of interest behind the representation of the mute bios politikos. Isn’t that muteness precisely the basis of the artist’s licence to take bios politikos’s place in public? Isn’t such a representation, then, also a form of self-authorization for the artist? A sovereign coup that steals its defence from the very people it claims to serve?


Such objections require care. At least two problems overlap in them. There is the question of the representation’s validity – whether bios politikos is indeed unable to make itself heard. And there is the question of how producing such a representation contributes to organizing and arranging cultural authority and knowledge. We can get a preliminary sense of the answers to these questions by looking at the structuring of contemporary spaces of audibility and how they condition bios politikos’s capacity to make itself heard. Fellini has already summoned up a number of such spaces for us. I will limit myself to discussing two that I consider particularly evocative of the transforming configuration of artistic creation, knowledge, and the social during the past three decades: the art museum as it is colonized by sound art; and the auditory-bubble of the mp3-player (or walkman) as it introduces layers of private experience into the public domain. The brief critical reflections offered here, made during a period of political and economic turmoil, do not fully plumb the rich complexity of these examples. Yet I think even the relatively simple act of contrasting them gets us some way toward appraising the prophetic muteness of the figures of bios politikos we have already seen.


1. The publicity of experience


The “sovereign freedom” of the artist, Boris Groys has written, while “obviously non-democratic,” is nevertheless “a necessary precondition for the emergence of any democratic order” (2010: 61). Democracy, he argues, always has its origin in revolutionary violence; its laws are founded through the breaking of laws, and the first legislator acts from a space outside of the order he or she constitutes (59). By analogy, artistic activity, traditionally occurring in private and answering to no one, can provide the backdrop of a construction of “public” experience when it enters an art museum or otherwise “goes public.” Private, sovereign activity occasions the coming-together of a multitude of spectator-visitors. It provides a distorted mirror through which a haphazard cluster of individuals can contemplate and glorify itself as a public. 


This would seem to be why so many contemporary artists make gestures of turning their authority back over to their spectators or to other artists, through relational and quotational practices or by mimicking the work of the curator (Groys 2010: 58; cf. Bourriaud 2002, 2000). At the crest of this trend are a number of contemporary sound practices devoted to facilitating listening experiences. These practices explicitly invert the traditional (pre-Cagean) idea of the musician as a specialist sound organizer or producer; the listening artist is a more functionary, more social worker. The “audio-activist” art group Ultra-Red exemplifies this. As the global financial crisis erupted in 2008-09, Ultra-Red released online a four-volume compilation of some sixty activists and artists or groups responding, through one-minute recordings, to its question, “What is the sound of the war on the poor?” Obviously, the coherence of such fleeting, individual responses would be outweighed by the heterogeneity of the net result, making the basic epistemological thrust of the project less than straightforward. But this at least may have brought into question the relationship between the artistically enfranchised and the newly dispossessed.

Audio Object 1: Ultra-red, ‘En la frontera’ (Fifteen Sounds of the War on the Poor, Vol. 1 2008)

The conflicted relationship between art, knowledge, and authority, evident in Ultra-Red’s work but typical of so much more contemporary (sound) art, has an historical dimension that we already ran into in the discussion of Benjamin’s “Storyteller.” In close synchrony with Benjamin, Martin Heidegger was working on almost exactly the same problem from the other end of the political spectrum. In his lectures on Friedrich Nietzsche of winter 1936-37, Heidegger sketched a critique of the entire history of (Western) aesthetics. He contrasted two paradigmatic relationships between art and society: one in which art contributed to the formation of a social ethos in which knowledge and experience were tightly bound (again Erfahrung was Heidegger’s key term); and one in which the experiential economy of art was instead sensation-based (designated by the German term Erlebnis), engendering individualized, affective responses that were essentially transient and non-transformative (Heidegger 1981: 77-91). The first, the art of ethos, Heidegger associated with the “great art” of antiquity as it shone forth, by his characterization, with ‘luminous knowledge’ (80). He insisted that this art had no need for the discursive mediations of philosophers or critics, though remained at a loss demonstrating how it functioned socially (unlike Benjamin in his analysis of storytelling). The other art, of pathos, was a product of modernity. It was caught up in modernity’s characteristic double-movement of delinking and reconstruction: gradually shedding its dependency on religion and tradition, and becoming the centrepiece of an unstable social economy of aesthetic taste. This art fell prey to the torrents of modern nihilism, as Nietzsche had argued of morality and philosophy. Under the bustle of discursive mediation from philosophers, critics, and historians, the art of pathos lost its grip on Erfahrung – and with that, Heidegger claimed, its essence (83-4).


Modern art’s law would be the law of no law. But if we follow Peter Bürger, it was not Heidegger or Nietzsche who revealed this. It was the historical avant-garde itself (i.e., the Dadaists, Surrealists, Futurists and Constructivists). The early twentieth-century avant-garde not only became aware of the nihilistic dimension of the stylistic movement of nineteenth-century “autonomous” art – aestheticism, or l’art pour l’art – pushing it, in the case of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), through extreme reduction to a point of terminal blankness (Groys 2011: 14-19). It recognized the political dimension of style as something imposed by an artist-coterie on society. The face of authority, of art as a social institution, had become exposed in the “autonomous” work and contradicted its basic ideology. The Achilles’ heel stood revealed. And so, by Bürger’s argument, the avant-garde sought to finish off what had already been started by destroying the institution of art and reversing the separation of art and life (Bürger 1984: 22). 


It failed. Its gestures of negation were too closely dependent on what they ridiculed (52). Moreover, in trying to expose the lawlessness of art’s institutionalization and shatter the tenuous logic of a singular art history, the avant-garde handed over to its would-be institutional protectors and historians good reason to ramp their defences. Thus the story continued with the incorporation of the avant-garde into the museum and the history books. A postwar neo-avant-garde would respond to the avant-garde’s gestures as if they too belonged to the natural history of stylistic development, thereby sealing the “institutionaliz[ation of] the avant-garde as art” (58). 


Unsurprisingly, a number of prominent critics and historians invested in articulating the neo-avant-garde’s historical claims took umbrage at Bürger’s argument (Buchloh 1986; Foster 1996: 8-15). They insisted that this later art had indeed improved upon the critical strategies of the historical avant-garde, moving beyond the “nihilistic attack” on artistic conventions toward a sharper, more serious epistemological analytic and deconstruction of the spaces – phenomenological, social, political, etc – of art (Foster 1996: 20). That same autonomous motor that both Heidegger and the avant-garde charged with leading art away from social utility into a purified domain of reduced formalism was, it seemed, now chugging back through the realm of self-critique toward Erfahrung. Major strands of the contemporary art “world” were being reinvented as sites of public knowledge where the aesthetic, the epistemological, and the political could be assumed to overlap. The emergence of sound art as a distinctive, institutionally bound phenomenon in the final decades of the twentieth century is easily framed within this narrative as the consequence of an opening out of the optical into an expanded sensory field.(9) Yet, many of its practitioners have migrated from the domain of music, rather than being ‘visual’ artists who became interested in sound; something has provoked a lateral shift in professional identification and institutional affiliation. This shift is part of the storyteller’s reincarnation. But now arguably anchored to a specialist network that tends to prize presence over recollection and whose architectural nodes suggest enclosure rather than the radial dissemination of repeated tellings, how much of Benjamin’s Leskov actually remains?


In part because the Theory of the Avant-Garde left it underdeveloped, Bürger’s critics failed to grasp the structure linking the lawlessness of art’s history, as revealed by the avant-garde, and the superimposition of norm in which their own work, as critics and historians, was implicated. Pierre Bourdieu (1993) almost captured this structure in an extraordinary essay on the 1863 Paris Salon des refusés. Relating how the French Government had sought through its patronage of the salon to quell growing dissent concerning its monopoly over aesthetic taste, Bourdieu explained that his influential artistic “field”-concept, according to which different agents compete for authorization of a society’s artistic “nomos,” was not an abstract universal (as it is generally interpreted to be; Born [2010: 178] describes his approach as “relentlessly, clinically structuralist”), but rather an historical state of affairs. It was constituted, at least in part, by an “institutionalization of anomie” (1993: 250-2). I think we can further unravel this relationship between anomie and law as it propels the operation of art’s institutional spaces. Though it is not Bourdieu, but Agamben, through his extraordinary analysis of the political state of exception (2005), who offers the conceptual tools needed.


A state of exception occurs where a sovereign body suspends the normal application of law in order to confront anomic forces that threaten it (either from within its jurisdiction or from external antagonists). It is frequently justified – even, paradoxically, enshrined in law – as a matter of necessity: so that a legal constitution can be protected, it is suspended to allow exceptional measures to be used against the force deemed to threaten it. Rather than treating the state of exception as a necessary crisis response, however, Agamben insists we conceptualize it as “the opening of a fictitious lacuna” (31, my emphasis) within a political system. This allows us to understand it as “a technique of government rather than an exceptional measure” (6-7): the state of exception violently re-enforces the application of legal norm; yet at the same time, Agamben notes, its implementation implicitly acknowledges a growing separation between norm and application (40) – and with every reassertion of sovereign power this chasm grows. Thus exposing its concealed historical dynamic, Agamben echoes Benjamin’s eighth thesis on the concept of history (1992: 248; Agamben 2005: 6): that in modernity, exception is becoming rule. 


The institutional network of contemporary art has long been irrigated by a structurally identical chasm. The Duchampian and Beuysian promises that anything could be art and anyone an artist has been a welcome threat to institutionalizing bodies that know their true claim to power lies in selection – that if everyone were an artist, no one would stand out and be heard. These networked bodies insist on norms – historical, epistemological – so that they can appear not to insist at all. And so we find the weight of distinction tipped toward the artists thus crowned, who in turn, in many of the most interesting contemporary art practices – and especially those concerning listening – play at passing the crown back to their publics.


But the public the artworld appeals to is itself a selective construction, a complex, heterogeneous interest-group, spiked with the financial concerns of private collectors and other arts professionals. Almost a century after the provocations of the avant-garde, the institutional authority of art almost manages to pass itself off in practical terms: as a gate-keeper, helpfully marking out possible courses of receptivity within a cultural domain that otherwise threatens to become buried by a surplus of trash. Generously, undogmatically, different institutional voices suggest we – Groys’s spectator-multitude – listen through them. Because, they nudge, trying to hear by ourselves just isn’t realistic.


2. The sociality of privacy


Things are a little different on the streets. Writing in this journal, Elen Flügge (2011) has expertly characterized how mass-marketed developments in mobile audio-playback technology have yielded a culture of acoustic “self-determination.” Increasing numbers of individuals habitually modulate their auditory experience in public, blocking and overlaying what they would otherwise hear with sounds – usually musical – of their choosing.(10) These “personal sound spaces” have costs as well as benefits, as Flügge makes clear. Quite apart from the literal commodity value of the technical devices that generate them – which, though marketed and consumed as fashion items at one end of the price spectrum, are integrated in some form into the cheapest mobile telephone technology at the other – the social costs, Flügge suggests, may be substantially more significant. The mobile audio-player/headphone dyad creates a “bubble” of privacy within public space.(11) Its listeners enter into “the non-communicative isolation of sonic cocoons” and retreat from what Flügge (following Odland and Auinger 2009) calls the “sonic commons.” 


The retreat Flügge describes fits a pattern of decommunalization associated with neoliberalism. This pattern goes beyond the state privatization and corporate remodelling of public utilities and services, including health and education, according to the rationality and regulative principles of the market (as implemented from the 1970s onward under Augusto Pinochet, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan before accelerating across the globe, spurred notably by the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989-1991; see Munck 2005). It extends the gesture of privatization into the realm of inter-human relations, directly penetrating its social fabric, as the neoliberal vision of society, as a population of myriad entrepreneurial monads, is gradually cast into actuality (despite the apparent conflict between this individualizing vision and the oligopolistic realities of neoliberal corporate advantage). While individual economic behaviour is moralized as the primary basis of one’s sense of social satisfaction or failure, the spontaneous civil bond is eroded and the political space of collective decision-making and determination falls into desuetude (Foucault 2008; Brown 2005). 


The mobile audio-bubble emerged almost in synchrony with the global spread of neoliberalism. It would be unduly deterministic to treat it as a direct consequence of the political transformation; nevertheless, I think that its rapid and ubiquitous colonization of daily life can be taken as symptomatic of neoliberalized social aggregation. Considered in this way, the audio-bubble displays on a simple affective level what has been observed in much more menacing guises in recent, explicitly exclusionary and segregative architecture: an impulse on the part of the individual to protectively immunize him- or herself against social contamination. Both respond to the same inflationary surfeit of fear, as Zygmunt Bauman (2007: 71-93; see also Ellin 1997) describes it, which the process of decommunalization lumps on the individual. However, at the press of a button, anywhere, at any time, the audio-bubble is able to massage that affective state – which is why it deserves recognition as one of the most significant tools of biopolitical self-regulation.


The audio-bubble – its ubiquity – seems more symptomatic of the commons’ ongoing political corrosion than to be a temporary retreat from it. It belongs within this corrosion, as the profile of the audible world is transformed into a constellation of contiguously occupied soundscapes,(12) rifted with privative disjunctures, indifferent sonic bleedings, and ominously noisy impositions. The audio-bubble comes with a twist though.


While private in spatial or phenomenological terms, at another level the affective experience percolating within the audio-bubble will generally be saturated with sociality. As Rey Chow argued long ago, its “miniaturized” music of “dehydrated, condensed, and encapsulated” emotions, cut from the plenitude of performance and its resonatory atmospherics, becomes for the listener a kind of excessive “part object whose field is always elsewhere”: pure surplus experience (1993: 164, 161 – my italics). We find hints of how this imaginary social dimension works in the overlapping meanings of the word popular as both an abstract descriptor of whatever happens to be widely liked and a particular, mass-marketed music-industry style and genre category. The challenges of internet piracy have sparked new marketing and distribution strategies in the last decade and a half that may be profoundly transforming the way the social is experienced through music. These strategies have attempted to harness, extend, and capitalize on the element of social gregariousness often exhibited in illegal file-sharing activity by encouraging – and developing ways to facilitate – the legal (profit-generating) creation and sharing of music playlists (cf. Attali 2001: 241-267). New social arenas are thus emerging in which complex forms of self-presentation occur in the guise of organized compilations of the already multiply elaborated, socially encoded work of others. Popularity is becoming practice, realized through an infinite number of individual consumer-experiences. And there is an implicit promise in this way of engaging with music that absolutely anything could be socially appropriated as popular, irrespective of style or genre.


Through these marketing and distribution strategies, the conjured up listener-consumer sports regal garb. The paradigm of listening they massage appears to be the polar opposite of the art institution’s. They plead for the autonomy of the listener in the name of the popular, heralded as a vehicle for the individual’s negotiation of a place within an aesthetic community. An imaginary socio-aesthetic commonality is thus invoked at the same time as the private audio-bubble continues to erode the common.(13)


However, a common world need not – and perhaps should not – be thought of as a space of identity. It is important that we are clear about this. Common is constructed and maintained so that a community can live together in difference. Arendt, the great critic of totalitarianism, expressed this clearly when she wrote that the essence of the common was not that everything within it was viewed from a shared, single perspective, but that it allowed all whom it gathered within it to “know they see sameness in utter diversity” (1958: 57). By Arendt’s account, the common is the core site of a community’s political life, at once the space of its appearance and the appearance it takes in space. As this implies, it has an aesthetic dimension, which can be said – if Heidegger’s influence is drawn out – to shape a common ethos,(14) and which requires political negotiation (1961: 219-223). A community “imagined” from the standpoint of an identical aesthetic judgement – the “community of fans,” so often invoked in sociologically oriented discussions of popular musics – is obviously quite different. In it, the political task of fabricating a world of commonality in diversity is erased. But before we hurtle towards the conclusion that a self-tuning circuitry of affect has not only displaced the political common but come to mask the melancholia generated through its loss, a further problem juts its foot out. Who, today, would embody Arendt’s community? In a world of waning sovereignty and global migratory flows, must we turn back to the spatially demarcated territories of city and state to find it, as the extreme right would have it? With the common, conceptual clarity over the constitution of community has also slipped away under neoliberalism.

(9) Brandon Labelle (2006: 75-86), for instance, takes Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961) as one of the signal, originary events in his history of sound art. This is the standout example of sound erupting in an eloquent, brilliant epistemological gesture into a space of art hitherto considered narrowly optical (the minimalist box being nothing but a blank colour-pixel turned sculpture/object). The term ‘expanded field’ is drawn from Rosalind Krauss’s (1979) essay of almost two decades later – an essay influenced in no mean way by Morris’s gesture.

(10) A qualification needs to be made about choice. Certain forms of music are clearly better suited to overlaying other sounds. A repetitive pattern with a strong beat forms a semi-porous sonic netting that suffers less from a passing truck, when listened to by a busy road, than a podcast lecture on history does. Trying to listen to the late work of Luigi Nono on a bus, I have been startled by sudden, violent sounds long after forgetting that my audio-player was on. Listening to Luc Ferari’s work in the open air, meanwhile, gives me a sense of mild psychosis. Style and function overlap in the personal sound space. Far too little has been made of this (but cf. Sterne 2006: 835-6).

(11) Michael Bull (2003: 367) has used the term “bubble” (borrowing from Jean Baudrillard) to describe the semi-private (or privatized) aural space created by car stereos. Bull writes of a ‘compensatory metaphysics’, whereby the “aural habitation” of an automobile transforms the potentially lacking experience of travelling into something meaningful. Though the social implications of what Bull discusses are surely less dramatic than the privatizing bubble that crosses directly through shared, public space without the enclosure of metal and glass, one of Bull’s insights may hold striking relevance for conceptualizing the latter bubble: namely, that the automobile-habitation is a technical/imaginary extension of the home. 

(12) I follow Arjun Appadurai’s (1996: 27-47) use of the suffix –scape here to designate complex and heterogeneous fluid “sites” of disjuncture, instability and contradiction, from which different actors are able to draw different potentials. 

(13) There is direct coincidence here with academic cultural studies’ traditional emphasis on the autonomy of the (preferably working-class) consumer-as-social-agent. A decade ago, writing about Friedrich Kittler (well outside of the influence of Michel de Certeau, one might have thought), Geoffrey Winthrop-Young historicized this emphasis in generational terms, as part of a “venerable rebellious belief in the emancipatory destructive potential of counterculture” that was the ’68ers way of coming to terms with its failure to bring about real revolution (2002: 854). Whether one agrees with Winthrop-Young’s historicization or not, it is important to at least try to get some perspective on this confluence of economic and ideological motivations, as it transforms musicological activity in increasingly decisive ways (see especially the discussions of the treatment of popular music in Cook and Pople 2004; also cf. Shelemay 2011).

(14) This ethos, as a politically elaborated style of being together in difference, should not be conflated with the notion of “urban ethos” introduced by Adam Krims in his recent study of music and urbanity (2007). As I understand it, for Krims an ethos is the impression made by the range of musical “representations” of urban life being produced at any given time (7). These representations, as Krims describes them, are mostly generic (not specific to place) and often pure fantasy (as in Kylie Minogue’s videoclip for “Can’t Get You out of My Head” [Fever 2001]); whatever political determination might be behind them is thoroughly concealed. 

To be sure, a critical analysis of certain forms of rap (the real hero of Krims’s book) and other strains of contemporary popular song as they relate, on the one hand, to realist aesthetics (and their Marxist interpretation by figures such as György Lukács) and on the other, to the pre-modern practices of minstrelsy, the griots, and other musical “storytellers” (so linking them all back to test the Benjaminian eulogy) could provide major insight into the particularities of the contemporary arrangement of the culture/social authority/knowledge triad that I have attempted to get a little closer to here. I have approached the matter from a different angle. The gains and losses of this will remain to be seen.

By way of concluding: amplifying breath.

Having proceeded through disparate artistic evocations and contradictory paradigms of listening, in a discourse of political failure and loss, what might now be offered by way of a conclusion? I began with a demand that listening and expression be understood in their codependence, only to draw from the expressive imaginary of the twentieth century examples of their breakdown and stalemate. When I sought neoliberalism’s places of listening, I found a mess of authority and a pseudo-common, which at best clarified that the status of such a place is deeply unclear. My two spaces of listening, paradigmatic of biopolitical neoliberalism – the museum cube and the portable affect-circuit – make acts of listening observable to others, but they are hardly places of common. Neither takes making oneself heard as a universal right, nor reciprocity as a duty. I have argued that sound, listening, and epistemology are far more problematically tangled with power than is usually assumed in academic and art-theory discourse. Relinking aurality and Erfahrung will not be possible through the academic exchange of individual listening experiences. It requires the construction of a (sonic) common; but the makeup of the community that would achieve such a thing has become obscure in our era of accelerated, transnational economics and communication.


So I conclude on a different note, in search of insight from one last expressive example. Again film – though also dance and song: Pedro Almodóvar’s Hable con ella (“Talk to Her” 2002). 


Three scenarios interest me:


  1. While the film’s main narrative moves around different couplings of four individuals – Marco, Benigno, Alicia and Lydia – it centres on the problematic relationship between Alicia, in an extended comatose state, and Benigno, her nurse. Benigno claims to fall in love with Alicia, rapes and impregnates her. He is imprisoned and eventually suicides; miscarriage awakens Alicia from her coma. 
  2. In the opening and closing scenes of the film, excerpts are presented from the great German choreographer Pina Bausch’s productions Café Müller (1978) and Masurca Fogo (1998). In the first, a man (playing a set designer) clears space on a stage cluttered with empty chairs for an apparently somnambulant dancer (Malou Airaudo). In the second, a woman lowers herself onto the supporting arms of a row of men, lying on their backs. She holds a microphone to her mouth and k.d. lang’s “Hain’t it funny” (Drag 1997) is heard (“Made love last night, wasn’t good, wasn’t bad, intimate strangers...”). But it quickly becomes apparent that the microphone only amplifies the woman’s breath as she fills her lungs and exhales.
  3. Around thirty minutes into the film, a space opens in the narrative. A swimmer glides across a swimming pool, his body distorted by the play of light in the water in exactly the way Kertész’s swimmer’s had been 85 years earlier. This is the prelude to a portico performance by Brazilian Tropicália star Caetano Veloso of Tomás Méndez Sosa’s song Cucurrucucú Paloma. The scene, like the Bausch performances, brims with allegorical value and is eventually revealed as a site of reminiscence and mourning for Marco – but it lingers long enough to stand out as something irreducible. With the voice of an angel, Veloso sings of a dove of which it has been said may be inhabited by the soul of a man who perished on account of his passion. It is a song of displacements, circling the exquisite, ineffable plaint: cucurrucucú.

Each scenario concerns expression. In Alicia’s case, there is an obvious problem. The beauty of her body impresses itself on Benigno, who believes she loves him. But any conventional expression of sexual consent is out of the question in her comatose state. He acts where she cannot.


Masurca Fogo metaphorizes the relationship through the microphone. It shows a technical presentation of a life force that would otherwise have no tangible reality: expression as an amplification of breath.


Veloso’s cucurrucucú toys with the intelligibility of the amplification. Pure, sensuous sound and grief are enfolded and unfolded through the displacements related in his song. By dressing up the dove’s cry in a history of references, Veloso’s song proceeds to denude it, exposing what is most fragile and irreducible in it and exposing this exposure.


And what is most fragile is its dependency on those others who spin the stories of their lives around it. Or on the supporting arms of male dancers. Or on the care of the nurse. Or, finally, on the set designer, who literally makes space for the somnambulant self’s flight into presence.


Almodóvar’s film makes scenario four. It shows all of these things, but does so by opening its own spaces for the expressive work of others. When the camera pans across Veloso’s audience in Hable con ella, in search of Marco, it lingers for a moment, finding instead actresses Cecilia Roth and Marisa Paredes, major presences in Almodóvar’s oeuvre. For a fleeting moment a tiny glimpse of the social economy surrounding the film passes into the frame as Hable con ella takes on the configuration of a gift – through Veloso, through Méndez, through the dove, its mournful soul and so many others – of listening.


This, as Agamben (2000 [1992]) has been hinting for some time, may be where the biopolitical revolution begins: when the gesture that brings life to form and form to life rediscovers, and learns to cite, its technical dimension as gesture, thereby offering itself, opening space, for a possible relationship, without function, without cost, but with all the fragile interdependency demanded to set out in common.

VideoObject 2: Cucurrucucú paloma


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