Attali’s Noise

Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music made something of a stir when it was published roughly a quarter-century ago (it came out in France in 1977, and in English translation in 1985). Noise comes from a time when “theory” had greater ambitions than it does today; it’s an audacious, ambitious book, linking the production, performance, and consumption of music to fundamental questions of power and order in society. I read it for the first time in many years, in order to see how well it holds up in the 21st century.

Noise presents itself as a “universal history”: it presents a schema of four historical phases, which it claims are valid for all of human history and culture (or at least for European history and culture: Attali, like so many European thinkers, consigns everything that lies outside Europe and its Near Eastern antecedents to a vague and undifferentiated ‘primitive’ category, as if there were no differences worth noting among them, and nothing that any of these other cultures could offer that was different from the European lineage). The mania for “universal history” was strong among late-20th-century Parisian thinkers; both Deleuze & Guattari, and Baudrillard, offer such grand formulations. Though I doubt that any of these schemas are “true” — they leave out too much, oversimplify, reduce the number of actual structural orders — at their best (as, I would argue, in Deleuze & Guattari, in the “Savages, Barbarians, Civilized Men” section of Anti-Oedipus, and in the chapter “On Several Regimes of Signs” in A Thousand Plateaus) they are richly suggestive, and help us at least to trace the genealogy of what we take for granted in the present, and to see the contingency of, and the possibility therefore of differing from, what we take for granted in the present. Attali’s “universal history,” however, is much weaker than Deleuze and Guattari’s; it really just consists in shunting everything that is pre-capitalist, or simply non-capitalist, into a single category.

Still, Attali offers some valuable, or at least thought-provoking, insights. Music is the organization of sound; by channelling certain sounds in certain orders, it draws a distinction between sounds that are legitimate, and those that are not: the latter are relegated to the (negative) category of “noise.” Music, like other arts, is often idealized as the imposition of form upon chaos (Wallace Stevens’ “blessed rage for order”). Attali rightly insists that there’s a politics at work here: behind the idealization, there’s an act of exclusion. The history of music can be read as a series of battles for legitimation, disputes over what is acceptable as sound, and what is only “noise” (think of the rise of dissonance in European concert music in the 19th and early 20th centuries: or the way punk in the late 1970s, like many other movements before and since, affirmed “noise” against the gentility of mainstream pop and officially sanctioned rock, or why Public Enemy wanted to “Bring the Noise,” a gesture at once aesthetic and political).

Now, the imposition of order is always a kind of violence, albeit one that claims to put an end to violence. The State has a legal monopoly of violence, and this is what allows it to provide peace and security to its citizens. This is why, as Foucault put it, “the history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning.” Attali draws an analogy — actually, more than an analogy, virtually an identity — between the imposition of order in society, and the imposition of sonic order that is music. Social order and musical order don’t just formally resemble one another; since music is inherently social and communal, music as an action (rather than a product), like Orpheus’ taming of the beasts, is itself part of the imposition of order, the suppression of violence by a monopolization of violence. Music excludes the violence of noise (unwanted sound) by violently imposing order upon sound. And music is addressed to everybody — it “interpellates” us into society. Music thus plays a central role in social order — which is why Plato, for instance, was so concerned with only allowing the ‘right’ sorts of music into his Republic; and why the Nazis paid so much attention to music (favoring Wagner and patriotic songs, and banning “degenerate” music like jazz).

Attali specifies this further by assimilating music to sacrifice, as the primordial religious origin of all social order. I find this a powerful and deeply suggestive insight, even though Attali understands the logic of sacrifice in the terms set forth by Rene Girard, rather than in the much richer and more ambiguous formulations of Georges Bataille.(To my mind, everything Girard says can be traced back to Bataille, but Girard only offers us a reductive, normalized, idealized, and overly pious version of Bataille. The impulsion to sacrifice, the use of the scapegoat as sacrificial substitution, the creation of community by mutual implication in the sacrifice, and so on — all these can only be understood in the context of Bataille’s notion of expenditure, and in relation to Maussian gift economies; only in this way can we see how sacrifice, in its religious and erotic, as well as political dimensions, doesn’t just rescue us from “mimetic rivalry,” but also institutes a whole set of unequal power relations).

In any case: music as a sacrificial practice, and more generally as a form of “community” (a word which I leave in quotes because I don’t want to forget its ambiguous, and often obnoxious, connotations), is central to the way that order exists in a given society. Music is not a mere part of what traditional Marxists called the “superstructure”; rather, it is directly one of the arenas in which the power struggles that shape and change the society take place. (These “power struggles” might be Marxist class warfare, or Foucauldian conflicts of power and resistance seeping up from below and interfering with one another, or indeed the more peaceful contentions, governed by a “social contract,” that are noted by liberal political theory). Attali argues that music is one of the foremost spheres in which the struggles, inventions, innovations, and mutations that determine the structure of society take place; and therefore that music is in a strong sense “prophetic,” in that its changes anticipate and forecast what happens in society as a whole.

All this is background, really; though music’s “Sacrificing” role is the first of Attali’s four historical phases. Attali’s real interest (and mine as well), and the subject of his three remaining historical phases, is what happens to music under capitalism. The 19th century concert hall is the center of the phase of “Representing.” The ritual function of music in “primitive” societies, and even in Europe up to feudalism and beyond, gets dissolved as a result of the growth of mercantile, and then industrial capitalism. Music is separated from everyday life; it becomes a specialized social function, with specialized producers and performers. The musician becomes a servant of the Court in 17th and 18th century Europe; by the 19th century, with the rise to power of the bourgeoisie after the French Revolution, the musician must become an entrepreneur. Music “become[s] institutionalized as a commodity,” and “acquire[s] an autonomous status and monetary value,” for the first time in human history (51). The musical emphasis on harmony in this period is strictly correlated, according to Attali, with an economic system based upon exchange, and the equilibrium that is supposed to result from processes of orderly economic exchange. Music and money both work, in the 19th century, according to a logic of representation. Money is the representation of physical goods, in the same way that the parliament, in representative democracy, is the representation of the populace. And the resolution of harmonic conflict in the course of 19th century compositions works alongside the resolution of conflicting desires through the (supposed) equilibrium of the “free market.” In the cases both of music and the market, sacrifice is repressed and disavowed, and replaced by what is both the representation of (social and musical) harmony, and the imposition of harmony through the process of representation itself. Playing on the multiple French meanings of the word “representation,” Attali includes in all this the formal “representation” (in English, more idiomatically, the “performance”) of music in the concert hall as the main process by means of which music is disseminated. The links Attali draws here are all quite clever, and much of it might even be true.

Finally, though, however important a role representation continues to play in the ideology of late-capitalist society, the twentieth century has effectively moved beyond it. For Attali, the crucial development is the invention of the phonograph, the radio, and other means of mechanical (and now, electronic) reproduction and dissemination: this is what brings music (and society) out of the stage of “Representing” and into one grounded instead in “Repeating.” Of course, Attali is scarcely the first theorist to point out how radically these technologies have changed the ways in which we experience music. Nor is he alone in noting how these changes — with musical recordings becoming primary, rather than their being merely reproductions of ‘real’ live performances — can be correlated with the hypercommodification of music. More originally, Attali comments on the “stockpiling” of recordings: in effect, once I buy a record or CD or file, I don’t really have to listen to the music contained therein: the essence of consumption lies in purchasing and collecting, not in “using” the music through actual listening. He also makes an ingenious parallel between the pre-programmed and managed production of “pop” music, and the instrumental rationality of musical avant-gardes (both the serialists of the 50s and the minimalists of the 70s). But all in all, “Repeating” is the weakest chapter of Noise, because for the most part Attali pretty much just echoes Adorno’s notorious critique of popular music. I’d argue — as I have implicitly suggested in previous posts — that the real problem with Adorno’s and Attali’s denunciations is that they content themselves with essentially lazy and obvious criticisms of commodity culture, while failing to plumb the commodity experience to its depths, refusing to push it to its most extreme consequences. The only way out is through. The way to defend popular music against the Frankfurt School critique — not that I think it even needs to be defended — is not by taking refuge in notions of “authenticity” in order to deny its commodity status, but rather to work out how the power of this music comes out of — rather than existing in spite of — its commodity status, how it works through the logic of repetition and commodification, and pushes this further than any capitalist apologetics would find comfortable.

Such an approach is not easy to articulate; I haven’t yet succeeded in doing so, and I can’t blame Attali for not successfully doing so either. “Composing,” the brief last chapter of Noise, at least attempts just such a reinvention — in a way that Frankfurt School thinkers like Adorno would never accept. Which is why I liked this final chapter, even though in certain respects it feels quite dated. Attali here reverses the gloomy vision of his “Repeating” chapter, drawing on music from the 1960s (free jazz, as well as the usual rock icons), in order to envision a new historical stage, a liberated one entirely beyond the commodity, when music is no longer a product, but a process that is engaged in by everyone. Attali doesn’t really explain how each person can become his/her own active composer/producer of music, rather than just a passive listener; but what’s brilliant about the argument, nonetheless, is that it takes off from a hyperbolic intensification of the position of the consumer of recorded music (instead of negating this consumer as a good Hegelian Marxist would do). As the consumption of music (and of images) becomes ever more privatized and solipsistic, Attali says, it mutates into a practice of freedom:

Pleasure tied to the self-directed gaze: Narcissus after Echo… the consumer, completing the mutation that began with the tape recorder and photography, will thus become a producer and will derive at least as much of his satisfaction from the manufacturing process itself as from the object he produces. He will institute the spectacle of himself as the supreme usage. (144)

Writing before the Walkman, let alone the iPod and the new digital tools that can cut, paste, and rearrange sounds with just the click of a mouse, Attali seems to anticipate (or to find in the music of his time, which itself had a power of anticipation) our current culture of sampling, remixing, and file-trading, as well as the solipsistic enjoyment of music that Simon Reynolds finds so creepy (“those ads for ipods creep me out, the idea of people looking outwardly normal and repressed and grey-faced on the subway but inside they’re freaking out and going bliss-crazy”). And if Attali writes about these (anticipated) developments with some of the naive utopianism that has been so irritating among more recent cyber-visionaries, he has the excuse both of the time in which he was writing AND the fact that his vision makes more sense — as a project for liberation, rather than as a description of what technology all by itself is alleged to accomplish — in the context of, and counterposed to, the previous chapter’s Adornoesque rant. Despite all his irritating generalizations and dubiously overstated claims, Attali may really have been on to something here. The problem, of course, is how to follow it up.

One Response to “Attali’s Noise”

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