This might be a little out of left field, but I recently presented at a conference regarding music and its power in resistive/countercultural movements. Hopefully a slightly modified version of that paper will be interesting, and help explain what it is I think about when I hear music.


The Social Power of Music: Counterpublics and Countercultures

Talk of music, fashion, food, and the various artistic genres traditionally understood in conjunction with pop culture make even the simplest descriptive statements impossibly ambitious. Who can meaningfully finish the sentence: “Music in the 1960s was…?”  In this sense, there is a dilemma is present in any academic pursuit: make too broad a claim, and run the risk of redundancy; make too narrow a claim and run the risk of irrelevance. In another sense, this balancing act is especially difficult in instances of pop-culture critique because theorists must regulate both the scope of their academic claims and their cultural focus. The difficulty in this endeavor leaves ample room for later theorists to combine and reorganize theories that seem dissimilar when they overlap either in theoretical approach or cultural focus. Pursuant to a discussion of music and social organization (particularly countercultural organization) Michael Warner (social theorist and founding voice in queer theory) and Jaques Attali (french economist and social theorist) both address resistance and aesthetic movements in pop culture despite drastically different academic focuses. An integration of Attali and Warner lends credence to the idea that countercultural groups use and are often centered around aesthetic movements. Both theorists are engaged in an account of how resistance happens on a cultural level against the backdrop of a society hostile to specific ideals and modes of expression. Both theorists also understand artistic and ideological production as important to the work of a resistive culture. While neither theorists can be held to account for answering the questions of the other, it seems as if each one leaves off where the other picks up. Attali gives an account of music and power in a societal context, and Warner describes how countercultural movements are formed, sustain themselves, and actively engage with the larger hegemonic context in which they exist.

Jaques Attali: Power and Musical Composition

Jacques Attali claims, in Noise, that “everywhere codes analyze, mark, restrain, repress, and channel the primitive sounds of language, of the body, of tools, of objects, of the relations to self and other.”[1] While codes provide the order necessary to establish society, Attali claims that music is unique in its ability to channel power through the manipulation of ritualized and repetitive sounds. Music’s capacity for regulation is unique insofar as it denotes the boundaries of societally sanctioned methods of noise production. Attali writes, “music, prior to all commercial exchange, creates political order because it is a minor mode of sacrifice […] the ritualization of a murder substituted for the general violence, the affirmation that a society is possible if the imaginary of individuals is sublimated.[2] Music thus has a double purpose. First, it provides for the regulated expression of violence and stands in as a simulacrum of ritualized sacrifice. When violence is coded into auditory space, it is no longer permitted or necessary for individuals. The violence necessary to establish a state and civil society is thus coded into the permissible noise of that society. Second, music already incorporates a sacrifice of freedom into its production whereby it represents the violence and the relinquishing of that power. Composers are (in most cases, with notable exceptions) forced to ‘play by the rules’ in how they code noise. Musicians give up physical violence with a twofold purpose: to reintegrate violence back into society through societally sanctioned auditory channels, and to engage in the suppression of that violence through willful submission to musical standards of measure, and meter, and rhyme.

Attali breaks down the power music displays in society into three separate zones. “Music is used and produced,” he says, “in an attempt to make people forget the general violence […] to make people believe in the harmony of the world [… and] to silence, by mass producing a deafening, syncretic kind of music, and censoring all other human noises.”[3] He summarizes these purposes of music by saying that music can “Make people Forget, make them Believe, Silence them. In all three cases, music is a tool of power.”[4] Music already, Attali suggests, has the double purpose of representing and regulating sacrificial violence. In these passages, he likens the representation of violence to forgetting where music stands in for ‘real’ violence. He compares music’s regulation of that violence to believing where music enacts social order. The third category he introduces, then, is silencing. Silencing dissent is achieved through representation, repetition, and stockpiling.

Representation, repetition, and stockpiling each include different aspects of the cultural appropriation of sanctioned types of music. Attali says, “in representation, a work is generally heard only once–it is a unique moment; in repetition, potential hearings are stockpiled.”[5]  While repetition and stockpiling are closely related, the difference between the two is worth noting. Representation may very well be a tool of the state for the regulation of auditory space, but it remains localized (as in live music). In repetition, music is recorded and reproduced in such a way as to make it into the background against which auditory lives are lived. Silence, he remarks, does not need to be literal silence so much as “silence in sound”[6] whereby the state can down out dissenting voices. Stockpiling, a relatively new feature when Attali wrote Noise in the 1970s, is the practice of producing, reproducing, and storing more sound than one could ever hope to listen to or utilize in a lifetime. For Attali, the practice of vinyl collection represented the height of this mode of power exercise. In the mid 20-teens, not only with the advent and adoption of digitally stored, but now digitally produced music, such stockpiling is truly normalized. Stockpiling, however, also introduces the first hints of Attali’s revolutionary message and points the way toward later social theories of aesthetic resistance.

Attali first says that music is in the business of “stockpiling memory, retaining history or time, distributing speech, and manipulating information.”[7] Importantly, while most music achieves these ends for the purpose of regulation and the construction of a coherent society, that is not necessarily the case. The history, speech and information stockpiled by music need not be hegemonic. There are, Attali suggests, types of music that reject the sacrificial in favor of subversion. He writes, “a subversive strain of music has always managed to survive, subterranean and pursued, the inverse image of this political channelization: popular music, an instrument of the ecstatic cult, an outburst of uncensored violence.”[8] Certain types of music, in their confrontation of the audience, are capable of a truly novel subversion. Some music refuses the rules of the society that produced it. This music carries the potential to subvert the current political economy through the use of unconstrained or atypically organized noise. He claims this type of music is produced by ‘real’ composition.

Composition, according to Attali, is “first of all to take pleasure in the production of differences.”[9] Composition is a multifaceted project that disrupts old economic modes, unifies the producer with the fruits of their labor, and breaks with traditional organization in favor of so-called real creativity. The feature of composition important to a conversation with Michael Warner, however, is the communal aspect. “Composition does not prohibit communication. It changes the rules. It makes it a collective creativity,” says Attali, “to express oneself is to create code, or to plug into a code in the process of being elaborated by the other.”[10] Already in this passage, Attali outlines the ways that musical composition, in a real sense, pushes back against traditional liberalism and rejects the tendencies of old economic models to isolate individuals.

In summary, Attali believes that music is unique in its ability to encode, replace, and simultaneously suppress the violence necessary in creating society. This power is represented in three separate zones which map onto three distinctively musical features. Music makes people forget the old violence, believe in the new social order, and silences dissent through the repeated, and stockpiled representation of sanctioned organizational codes. Importantly, however, composition allows for those features of music to produce, foster, and encourage countercultural messages. Music’s ability to encode, represent, and replicate social order makes it an ideal tool for the same purposes in dissent.


Michael Warner: Counterpublics and Public Construction

Michael Warner differentiates between three distinctive uses for the world “public.” In one sense, the term is synonymous between its uses to denote a public and the public.[11] In this sense, public stands in as symbolic of “a kind of social totality,” that is “thought to include everyone within the field in question.”[12] In another sense, public can refer to “a concrete audience, a crowd witnessing itself in visible space, as with a theatrical public. […] a performer onstage knows where her public is, how big it is, where its boundaries are, and what the time of its common existence is.”[13] Finally, a public might refer to “the kind of public that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation.”[14] It is this final sense of publics that interests Attali and his discussion of musical circulation. These kinds of publics share a set of features.

Publics that emerge in and through a shared text are (1) self-organized, (2) represent a relation among strangers, (3) include simultaneously personal and impersonal address, (4) constituted through attention, and (5) a social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse.[15] Although this list is not exhaustive of Warner’s analysis of publics and counterpublics, it includes the information relevant to Attali’s genealogical account of countercultural music. These features are common to both publics and counterpublics, but the actual ideological construction of publics differs between publics (however large they may be) and real counterpublics. All publics organize themselves and all publics differ from simply groups or clubs insofar as they permit a certain degree of anonymity between members. All publics for this reason address the members of that public specifically, and yet construct discourse in such a way as to include future members, and the public among potential recipients. Publics are constituted through attention, much like a readership of a specific book or type of literature is constituted only by active members. Finally, publics create social space surrounding a certain discourse and set of texts. This space is monitored and controlled by members of the public, as well as the relation of that public to the public. Legitimizing this annexation of social space is a difficult proposition, even for publics that are not knowingly constructed in resistance to the public.

Warner describes the ways in which publics are legitimized through institutional systems of power. He says, “a public […] depends on institutionalized forms of power to realize the agency attributed to the public […] Some publics, for these reasons, are more likely than others to stand in for the public, to frame their address as the universal discussion of the people.”[16] Warner stresses the similarities between the public and counterpublics, saying that “Counteprublics and publics, too. They work by many of the same circular postulates. It might even be claimed that, like dominant publics, they are ideological in that they provide a sense of active belonging that masks or compensates for the real powerlessness of human agents in a capitalist society.”[17] Counteprublics make no attempt to stand in for the public, and instead operate comfortably outside the realm of dominant discourse. The central feature of counterpublics is the way that they actively mark themselves as different from the public in a mutually exclusive way. Counterpublics, unlike subpublics or specialized publics do not construct themselves as a subset of the public. Counterpublics mark themselves off against dominant publics and “the conflict [with the dominant public] extends not just to ideas of policy questions but to the speech genres and modes of address […] the discourse that constitutes it is not merely a different or alternative idiom but one that in other contexts would be regarded with hostility or with a sense of indecorousness.”[18] In this sense, counterpublics, are not simply different from the public, but are hostile to it. They seek, as Warner later says, to not just transform policy, but the space of public life itself.[19] In fact, the central problems and projects for a counterpublic are remarkably similar to Attali’s understanding of the problems and projects of a real composer.


Attali and Warner: Composition of Counterpublcs

            Publics, Warner argued, include a set of shared features. While Warner’s own book Publics and Counterpublics addresses the way that already existing publics operate, it might be worth examining the ways that musical composition can account for (and constitute) most of these distinctively public features for counterpublics. Publics are (1) self-organized, (2) represent a relation among strangers, (3) include simultaneously personal and impersonal address, (4) constituted through attention, and (5) a social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse. While Warner suggests that publics of this kind (centered around texts) are distinctively different from musical/theatrical publics, the worries about musical distribution and stockpiling that Attali raises make music a perfect example of public-constitution. In a time when music is not (primarily) experienced by theatrical publics, certain genres of recorded and distributed music become constitutive of publics and counterpublics.  Musical audiences are self-organized: the audience of a band or artist, insofar as it extends beyond the audience of a concert, is self-organized. Musical subcultures are relationships among strangers. Listeners, could not hope to personally know the whole of a musician’s audience, yet feel a connection to them regardless of interpersonal distance. Music is also ideally suited for the simultaneity of personal and impersonal address. Musicians compose music for their audience personally, and people feel that music touches them on a personal level. However, simultaneously, a musician is constantly seeking to make their music understood to people not as of yet incorporated into their listening public. Audiences are, with music as well as texts, constituted by attention (often in the interim between album releases, or tours).

The claim that a connection between Attali and Warner seems to hinge on is the idea that uniquely resistive and truly compositional music can be constitutive of musical publics. Warner recognizes that publics (counter, sub, or the) are constitute of a social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse. This key feature of publics seems to disqualify a large amount of music from performing the way texts do in publics. Indeed, Attali argues that the vast majority of music is situated in a capitalist and individualist mode of production that precludes interpersonal interaction in the creative and performative process. Stockpiling is the height of the impersonal musical economy. People who will never bond over shared musical experiences buy music from artists that they will never listen to for the purpose of propping up an industry built on keeping performers as far from fans as possible in the pursuit of fame. Real composition, on the other hand “does not prohibit communication. It changes the rules. It makes it a collective creativity […] to express oneself is to create code, or to plug into a code in the process of being elaborated by the other.”[20] This kind of radical musical production is perfectly suited in at least two ways to constitute a counterpublic. First, it is able to constitute a public because it pursues communication and collectivizes creativity. The code that musicians of this type “plug into” is shared by their subculture and actively negotiated by its members. Second, it constitutes a counterpublic insofar as such musical production always establishes itself in opposition to traditional societally sanctioned methods of noise production. It helps to construct a social space (for Attali) through its regulation of the permitted noise, and constructs it against hegemonic auditory codes by its rejection of individualist and isolating modes of creativity. Just as counterpublics “provide a sense of active belonging that masks or compensates for the real powerlessness of human agents in a capitalist society”[21] compositional music in Attali’s sense provides the same break with capitalism through the construction of alternate social spaces regulated by different kinds (and codes) of noise. Such music is met with the same kind of hostility that countepublics are.

Briefly in conclusion: Attali and Warner seem to be getting at the same anti-capitalist, anti-hegemonic social-space creation but in two radically different ways. Attali has chosen to focus on a genealogical account of music, one that stresses the virtues of composition and collective creativity. Warner stresses the way that counterpublics are met with hostility through their rejection of individualist and isolationist economic forces. Both theories place importance on the ways that publics self-organize and mediate or regulate their social/auditory space. In an overly simplistic way, it just seems like Warner needs to be more open to the idea that music (rather than texts) can create a public (or counterpublic). On the other hand, it seems as if Attali needs to develop a keener account of how composition happens and to what end it occurs, and Warner’s counterpublics provide the missing social link to that argument. Given space and the influence of this paper’s public, examples might be provided of overlap between Warner and Attali. Writing in 1977, Attali’s theory (and certainly Warner’s theory from 2005) seems well-suited to address punk rock movements given the encompassing social features distinct to such musical movements.

[1] Attali, Jacques. Noise. Translated by Brian Massumi. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 7.

[2] Ibid, 25-26.

[3] Ibid., 19.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 41.

[6] Ibid., 123.

[7] Ibid., 87.

[8] Ibid., 13.

[9] Ibid., 142.

[10] Ibid., 143.

[11] Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books, 2005. 65.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 66.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 64-124.

[16] Ibid., 117.

[17] Ibid., 113.

[18] Ibid., 119.

[19] Ibid., 124.

[20] Ibid., 143.

[21] Ibid., 113.

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