Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance - Brandon LaBelle. London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018.


by Johnny Herbert 


For Brandon LaBelle, sonic agency is “a means for enabling new conceptualizations of the public sphere and expressions of emancipatory practices” (p. 4). One of the challenges LaBelle sets himself in this book is how to prise listening practices away from an embeddedness within a deliberative democratic framework and toward a redemocratized “listening from below” – an anarchic practice attending to and imagining the nonsensical and insensible by listening “in, towards, against, and with” (p. 25). To do this, Sonic Agency does not tease out a sensuous and imaginative capacity in the social or cultural mediation of specific listening situations – e.g. technological intertwinement of listening habits or specific listening practices of certain communities – but ambitiously asserts that it is the ontological affordance of sound that can inform practices of listening and engender a “deep and generative” (p. 8) ethics of entanglement. A further important aspect of sonic agency for LaBelle is, then, the intensification and utilization of this empirical affordance of sound and listening: a force of entanglement, one might say. A criticism of such an ontological claim could be that, as the book draws from queer theory and, more extensively, from thought emerging from (study of) the African diaspora, an appeal is made to that which was violently excluded previously.[1] If we are to read with Sonic Agency, we can understand this entangled ontology as not only being greatly disturbed by the imagination – no longer discounting the seemingly nonsensical and insensible – but also drawing from ideas related to quantum physics and what I am tempted to call verifiably unstable thought. In this sense “ontology” as a category has altered. Karen Barad’s work on the ethics of entanglement is not directly referenced in Sonic Agency, but many of her ideas – e.g. “intra-action” (instead of “interaction”) signifying the (always already) mutual entanglement of “agencies” – are very much in congruence with LaBelle’s.[2] 


To outline the fundamental conceptual framework of the book, LaBelle takes up the idea of the public sphere and Hannah Arendt’s notions of “space of appearance” and “speech and action.”[3] The inclusion of Arendt’s work is somewhat confusing: although acknowledged as an important point of departure for the book and certainly giving torque to LaBelle’s ideas, her work receives little critical reflection and is given only a small exposition. Given that Arendt’s work has been widely criticized for its antiquated ideals of a public, ideas that seem in tension with LaBelle’s,[4] their lingering presence troubles the ontological underpinning of the book. The attention to work around the idea of the public sphere is also brief but does engage with some more recent literature (e.g. Nancy Fraser’s critique of Jürgen Habermas’s conception of the bourgeois public sphere and her assertion of the importance of re-terming it a transnational public sphere). Reference to Michael Warner’s idea of “counterpublics”[5] and Fraser’s somewhat awkward qualification of “subaltern counterpublics”[6] show (mostly by inference) Arendt’s (and Habermas’s) public sphere to be not only agonistic but exclusionary and inaccessible as well. This is to say that the listening happening within a discursive, democratic public sphere must contend with, if you will, a specific amphitheater’s exclusionary and attuning acoustic – a negation and regulation working to the advantage of dominant groups in society with which listening must contend. It is here that we can trace how such conditions of negation and regulation lead LaBelle to augment his ontological claim with what he illuminatingly calls “negative aesthetics” (p. 56). Practices of negative aesthetics attend to the nonsensical and insensible, sounding out entangledness. It is here that the reader is reminded of the “emergent forms of resistance” named in the subtitle of the book; resistance involves practices informed by negative aesthetics. 


The four central chapters of the book dovetail to varying extents, but each offer a “sonic figure” to think through: “The Invisible,” “The Overheard,” “The Itinerant,” and “The Weak.” Each chapter can be considered as highlighting a specific aspect of practices informed by negative aesthetics that look to grapple with the negating and regulating attunement of how a public (sphere) is usually conceived. The first figure, “The Invisible,” is most straightforward in this aspect. It develops from the idea that appearance, as in Arendt’s “space of appearance” (but, again, still within Sonic Agency’s ontological purview), is premised on a set of habits and social norms that structure some things as appearing and other things as seeming not to appear but which in fact structure appearance itself (we could think of signal/noise here). This invites the reader to think of negative aesthetics, then, as evident in practices of entanglement that complicate conditions that make something “a thing” rather than many or, even, coherent as “a thing” at all. The next figure, “The Overheard” looks to “intensify” these relations of entanglement by considering listening via a crosshatching of distraction and surveillance, sensuous drift and covert invigilation. Reference to Michael Warner’s idea of “stranger sociability” is most convincing here (in which I also hear Adam Phillips and Leo Bersani’s more psychoanalytically inflected idea of “impersonal intimacy”[7]): 


Network sociability is a noisy production of overhearings whose figures and voices are proximate and distant at the same time. From such a position, public power is founded on being able to move between multiple polarities: between the virtual force of the network and the intensities of social contact, this stranger sociability. (p. 82)


What is termed the “new moral challenge” (p. 80) for listening is how it can adapt to a public sphere inclusive of the digital commons, its refiguring of cognitive focus, and an emphasis on a notion of participation (fully compatible with Arendt’s “speech and action”), where neither listening nor inaction (nor ineffective or unnoticed action) are considered as particularly formative of a public sphere. The “unhomed” (p. 63), dispersed subjectivity, radically open to contingency, is taken further in “The Itinerant.” Here, the reader can follow a number of resistant practices that have developed, I would assert, because of certain ontological tendencies in thought (and ideas such as Arendt’s), the claims of which emerge from and further perpetrate conditions and logics in which some people are regarded as objects, goods, and instruments. Referencing Édouard Glissant, some of the resistant practices of these people are understood as being driven by a “poetics of relation” (p. 98, 106, 107, 113, 115) that enriches ontological entanglement, necessitating, for LaBelle, a transnationalization of the public sphere. It is again Glissant to which the chapter turns for its key conceptual foothold of “creolization,” defined as a “lingual-practice” that is a way of “speaking and writing over and through the dominant order” (p. 98). Here, itinerancy-as-poetics is a means of survival and a mode of transport (to invoke Nathaniel Mackey and also Fred Moten, for whom an idea of fugitivity is crucial). This poetics is outlined in the chapter by way of allusion to echoes and reverberation and with reference to Homi Bhabha, who describes such practices as “critical mimicry” (p. 102): the “restaging of colonial cultures by local bodies, whose replay is never quite right, and therefore exceeds the limits of an appropriate rendition; a performativity, a rhythming, that works to slacken or tense the master language” (p. 103). I am reminded here of a typically ebullient essay by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak entitled “Echo”[8] in which she traces the figure of Echo in Ovid’s myth alongside the psychoanalytic figure of narcissism, gesturing towards a possible psychoanalytic figure of echo (also as perhaps parallel to the voluminous reflections on “the other”). Less optimistic than Bhabha, Spivak argues that mimicry, if we can still call it that, is not necessarily “critical” but must wait until something to be echoed offers an opportunity for a more pronouncedly imperfect response to another’s desire: “Choice in no choice, attendant upon particular articulations of narcissism, ready to await the sounds to which she [Echo] may give back her own words.”[9] Spivak makes explicit that gender and ethnicity tune the echoic in which an “I” is echoed back to itself, an observation similar to a consideration of the public sphere as an exclusionary and attuning amphitheater.


Feeling less enmeshed with the other figures, “The Weak” turns, like “The Overheard,” to moral concerns. LaBelle’s main idea with this final figure is “weak-strength”: “a resistant stance, an articulation of responsibility and conscientiousness, and one that may instantiate another understanding of strength” (p. 129). I frequently found myself circumventing the weak/strong pairing, which seems caught in judgmental accusation or attribution of physical force, by transposing both to (ethical) sensitivity/insensitivity. Concerned with the ethical and moral grounds for agency and “emancipatory practices,” it is here in a rendering of the resistance and “moral strength” (p. 156) of the non-violent acts of the 1960s American countercultural protests that we find Sonic Agency’s most developed case study. In this extended reflection, LaBelle cites, for the second time in the book, Asef Bayat’s notion of “nonmovements,”[10] the “collective actions of noncollective actors” (p. 118) within publics and/or situations. Thinking with LaBelle, I might imagine that everyday speech and action are given an “acoustic” by the attentive listening of others, being “carried” and cared for by them. This care is termed “loving relations” later in the chapter but is to my mind most succinctly articulated earlier with reference to Didier Anzieu’s concept of the “sonorous envelope”: “[t]he sonorous envelope, by bathing and trembling us with its oscillations, leaves a deep impression upon the psyche, placing sound within a matrix of sensuality, desire, and psychic intensity” (p. 128). 


When considering a networked “stranger sociability” and “emergent forms of resistance” in terms of agency, it is surprising that “The Weak” chapter does not involve a consideration of mental health (the context from which the Anzieu quote emerges). As stated in Sonic Agency’s concluding chapter, “Poor Acoustics: Listening from Below,” the “emancipatory practices” central to the book are “positions and practices, capacities and imaginaries given traction by the freedom of listening, by listening to oneself in order to deepen one’s conscience and consciousness, and from which to hear others, as they resound with particular indignation or hope” (p. 162). Can we not, then, consider listening as not only working toward an increased or recalibrated sensitivity to a milieu but also toward a recalibrated sensitivity to a self?[11] In short, I would propose that self-determined agency, like speech and action, has a surround of self-determined, ambivalent, and non-self-determined incapacity. With listening as crucial to its practice, psychoanalysis’s attention to such incapacity – related to what is called resistance in psychoanalysis – renders it an intriguing model and set of theoretical tools closely corresponding with LaBelle’s enticing notion of negative aesthetics. One must, of course, be careful not to turn social life into an analysand; however, as an example, the concepts of negation, repression, foreclosure, disavowal, condensation, and displacement[12] of Freudian psychoanalysis do seem to offer resources to develop the sonic figures and idea of negative aesthetics in Sonic Agency, as well as potentially helping an understanding of where “emergent forms of resistance” fall short of “emancipatory practices” (and even where a lure of “emancipation” is part of the problem[13]).


The broad set of references and overlapping thematics make Sonic Agency rich and intellectually accessible. Having again read LaBelle’s Acoustic Territories recently, it is fascinating to see how Sonic Agency, clearly entwined with LaBelle’s anarchist and non-violent politics and ethics, not only takes up and expounds upon a few of the ideas briefly mentioned in the former but also acts as an enriching theoretical companion to the earlier book’s more socio-historical focus. In this sense, one might do well to read ideas in Sonic Agency back into LaBelle’s previous work. It is clear that convincing readers of the persisting importance of specific concepts or terms in the book is not LaBelle’s central concern. Even with its political and ethical attachments, Sonic Agency refuses to enter into or comment on specific socio-political theoretical arguments, but imagines itself elsewhere, at many places simultaneously, like a weave of transcribed overhearings. Readers desiring a more conventionally academic, politically didactic, or philosophically rigorous book – or, for that matter, a book “about” sound – will perhaps have to use Sonic Agency as a synthesizer of ideas or as a catalyst to attend more thoroughly to some of its sources. Of course, any loose ends are there to be interwoven or patched into other material, and the sprawling weave of references, although occasionally troubling some passages by their brevity and slight incongruity within the book’s specific political dynamic, nevertheless offer an articulate account. The writing in Sonic Agency, as ever with LaBelle, is generous and exploratory: accommodating in its aspect-shifting argumentation yet not afraid of following its own sound towards an incantatory turn of phrase. The introduction – “Unlikely Publics: On the Edge of Appearance” – and conclusion – “Poor Acoustics: Listening from Below” – are lucid and provocative, both opening the book up for a reader and out towards gesture. The ontological and ethical claims in the opening chapter of the book could be queried further but are nevertheless developed within a political framework that is dynamic in emphasizing the role of an ethics of listening – a “freedom of listening” (p. 87, 160, 162, citing Kate Lacey) and a “listening activism” (p. 9, 39, 160, 161). This ethics of listening creates the conditions necessary for a transnational public sphere constructed from that to which we are currently insensitive or do not consider sensible/logical – to go “out from the outside,” Fred Moten might say. And, as Jean Toomer knew, “there is no end to ‘out’.”[14]