James helpfully highlights the importance of meticulous listening as both a general form of resistance and one that’s central to her field.
Like many academic books in the humanities, The Sonic Episteme: Acoustic Resonance, Neoliberalism, and Biopolitics is decidedly specific. The newest monograph from UNC-Charlotte Associate Professor of Philosophy Robin James (even her title is decidedly specific!), it crafts an argument about connections between popular music and sociopolitical realities that goes something like this: Contemporary systems of governance (which she calls “neoliberal”) rely on statistics to inform their decisions. These are quantitative measures, which gauge one approximate frequency against another, but their qualitative analog is music, which is also all about relationships among various frequencies. This means that sound and music play an increasingly prominent role in our contemporary globalized reality and end up guiding our thinking, even if we’re not fully aware that this is the case.
While this might seem a groundbreaking development or even a total transformation of sight-based liberalism into sonic neoliberalism that breaks down previous systems and their prejudices, The Sonic Episteme argues that the transition from one style of regime to another actually ends up reproducing pre-existing biases. This is most clear in the realm of statistics, where, for example, decisions about education funding are based on supposedly objective relationships (between things like average test scores and student body population) that actually just reproduce troubling assumptions about culture and race in the guise of harmless calculations. James’ critical intervention is to extend this to the realm of music, where the same troubling assumptions rear their ugly head in determining which artists become commercially successful. The book goes on to examine what kind of frequency ratios constitute acceptable, chart-ready sound and the relationship of those frequencies to treacherous logics of white supremacy and patriarchy.
If the above already seems a little bit complicated, The Sonic Episteme intensifies this effect by detailing connections to thinkers like Jacques Attali and Michel Foucault. It’s from the latter that the book gets this concept of “episteme” (jury’s still out on most fun way to pronounce that one—epi-steem? epi-stem? epi-sta-me?), which James defines as “a group of intellectual, economic, and political practices that are tied together by common behind-the-scenes methods, logics, and values.” The sonic episteme, then, relies on sound as a binding mechanism to decide what constitutes normality and aberration.
It’s equally useful to trace her title’s other key terms (all certified Scrabble winners), a process James herself enacts in the book’s introduction. We’ve covered neoliberalism, which has nothing to do with common conceptions of conservative versus liberal politics, but instead describes a condition of all-market everything. In the realm of music, it’s most interested in songs that show potential for short- and long-term capital gain. “Biopolitics,” like Drake, emphasizes more life, but only if that life can be shaped to fit into the goals and projections of state and corporate entities. In other words, it seeks to exercise control over life, including those elements of ourselves that initially seem to resist quantification (our musical and sexual preferences, for example). Finally, there’s “acoustic resonance,” the most music-specific of her key terms. James argues that resonance is contemporary society’s “basic unit” and has to do with the way in which frequency ratios communicate as consonance (rational) or dissonance (irrational).
James’ combination of these terms, while insightful and informative, paints a fairly bleak picture of the world we share. She suggests that this world loves to wear terms like “diversity” and “resistance” on the sleeves of its seemingly soft tee while its practices fit people—especially queer individuals and people of color—into the chainmail straitjacket of white supremacy. It’s a #postracial reality, emphasis on the insidious falseness of that hashtag.
Thankfully, James combats this expansive form of repression, disguised as newfound freedom, by pondering possible alternatives. The term “in the red” is incredibly important in this regard. Referring to the ways that music software and digital instruments use the color red to indicate excess or even incorrectness (sounds that are too loud, not right), “in the red” becomes for James a purposeful expression of outside-ness or illegibility that contemporary black female artists have used to explore spaces that neoliberalism can’t quantify or contain.
This is where the specificity of James’ writing comes most in handy. Her analysis of particular songs—from Pet Shop Boys’ “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” to Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money”—is admirably precise. She maps out the structure of each song she takes up and describes at length their particular instrumentation, as well as their links to music videos and other visual contexts (such as live performances and promotional materials). These close readings are significant for not only illustrating key aspects of her argument but also focusing on specificity to resist the neoliberal tendency towards emphasizing nameless, featureless algorithms. So, even though she trashes songs like Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” (for representing “uncool” as an alternative to the constraining logics of “cool,” when in fact this position is only available to white, privileged subjects), James’ goal isn’t to tell us what we should listen to and what we shouldn’t: it’s to demand that we listen closely and consider how the resonances of a given song pertain to corporate logics of acceptable sound.
James helpfully highlights the importance of meticulous listening as both a general form of resistance and one that’s central to her field. What makes The Sonic Episteme an impressive accomplishment is its academically acceptable reliance on Philosophy combined with a crucial gesture, beyond Philosophy’s purview, to commercially successful pop music, which has the potential to present a crucial something else. She can clearly work within the limitations and required idioms of her field and also communicate to wider audiences. Even if the book is much closer to the former, it’s worth the time to work through its arguments and polysyllabic neologisms for the sake of expanding our often-limited views of what constitutes musical or sonic opposition. It should be essential reading, especially for music writers (in academic and/or popular realms) looking to make sense of a sonic landscape that’s equal parts overwhelming and streamlined, thrilling and kept in check.