IASPM-US Interview Series: Robin James, Resilience & Melancholy

by Victor Szabo on March 5, 2016

Robin JamesR&M

In Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, neoliberalism (Zer0 2015), Robin James listens to popular music to hear how it sounds resilience–a performance of feminine overcoming that ultimately feeds and strengthens white supremacist patriarchy–then locates popular music that is melancholic–a failed overcoming that routes power and wealth away from white supremacist patriarchy. She builds her argument by combining close readings of critical theory with close listenings of popular music: it is, as she puts it, “both philosophy of music and philosophy through music.” Not for nothing, it’s pop music analysis that should be a crucial part of what we do in popular music studies moving forward, as James’s theory of soars and drops both informs our understanding of early ’10s music and creates a template that could shape similar theoretical filters we can use to better hear pop and related genres in critical theoretical terms. James, who has upcoming presentations at PhiloSOPHIA in Denver (1:15-3, Saturday 12 March…and then don’t miss her DJ set from 9-11 that night), as part of Columbia University’s Center for Race, Philosophy & Social Justice Speaker Series (12:15-2, Friday 25 March), and at the annual POP Conference in Seattle (9am, Saturday 16 April), spent some time talking in detail about Resilience & Melancholy with IASPM-US.

IASPM-US: The two main ideas that frame the book are your theorizations of “resilience” and “melancholy” (hey, nice title!). Without asking you to rewrite the book, could you give us a brief rundown of these two terms and how what you do with them departs from colloquial usage of the same words?

Robin James: Yeah, you’re right–these two concepts, which I’m using in a quite technical and specific sense, are the phenomena I see tying some particular aspects of contemporary gender politics to some specific pop music aesthetics and practices.

Resilience is the practice of making evident a lot of noisy damage so that you can then spectacularly overcome it in a way that produces surplus value for both you (in the form of, say, human or social capital) and for society as a whole. You can think of it like shock-doctrine capitalism for the individual psyche, especially the individual psyches of people from oppressed groups. Resilience is a specific type of therapeutic overcoming. It has three steps: (1) perform damage so that others can see, feel, and understand it; (2) recycle or overcome that damage, so that you come out ahead of where you were even before the damage hit; (3) pay that surplus value–that value added by recycling–to some hegemonic institution, like white supremacist patriarchy, or capital, or the State, something like that. This isn’t just coping–it’s a very, very specific form of coping designed to get individuals to perform the superficial trappings of recovery from deep, systemic issues, all the while reinforcing and intensifying the very systemic issues it claims to solve. Resilience is how patriarchy hides behind superficial feminist liberation, how white supremacy hides behind superficial multiculturalism.

IASPM-US: These last couple of sentences have me thinking of resilience as essentially a PR campaign for MRWaSP. Like, “Look, I overcame!” is the equivalent of “What can White (Supremacist Patriarchy) do for you?” It seems to be a way of quashing radicalism by demonstrating how the system is not so bad after all.

RJ: Melancholy is the term I use to describe some strategies I’ve noticed Rihanna use to evade or sabotage resilience discourse. In particular, what she does is cope with personal trauma in ways that don’t scapegoat black men as solely responsible for that trauma. For example, Rihanna was famously beaten by her then-boyfriend Chris Brown. People were REALLY upset that she didn’t perform a resilient overcoming of her abuse, and her abuser. She didn’t turn either her damage or her recovery into spectacle, and most importantly she didn’t do what Bey and Gaga did in “Telephone” and “Video Phone”: she didn’t cut misogynist men of color (Brown) out of her life. Melancholy can look identical to resilience in its first two steps (damage, coping), but the main difference is in the third step: melancholic strategies do NOT support or amplify hegemonic institutions.

This is a really different definition of melancholy than the one we get from psychoanalysis. Freud defines melancholy as the failure to get over a loss, to come to resolution. But neoliberal structures of subjectivity don’t require resolution or wholeness in the first place; instead, they require continual self-investment and intensification. In this context, melancholy is the failure to successfully or profitably invest in yourself, to invest in a life that doesn’t fit dominant models of viability or health.

IASPM-US: Before we go much further, there’s a main character in your book we need to know. Could you introduce everyone to MRWaSP?

RJ: So, bell hooks has long used the phrase “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” With MRWaSP, I’m trying to indicate a specifically neoliberal, post-identity version of that: Multi-Racial White Supremacist Patriarchy. The “a” is in there to make the anagram pronounceable–plus, it calls on the idea of WASP, which is definitely part of white supremacy. The “MR” works both as an anagram of “multi-racial,” and connotes “Mr,” and thus patriarchy.

What’s specific to MRWaSP is that it allows relatively privileged members of formerly excluded groups–white women, people of color–nominal access to privileged institutions and positions of privilege. They do this because it allows white supremacist patriarchy to work more efficiently: putting white women and people of color at the center of white supremacist, patriarchal institutions obscures the ongoing oppressions and allows them to run all the more efficiently. As I emphasize in the book, this inclusion is always conditional and always instrumental: the moment this inclusion becomes a bad deal for MRWaSP, it ends.

MRWaSP uses resilience to cut the color line, and the gender binary, and the line between homonormative and queer, and so on. Resilient people who can overcome their damage in socially profitable ways move closer to the center of MRWaSP privilege, whereas less resilient, precarious people move further and further from this center. Rather than tying, say, race status directly and primarily to phenotype, and then regulating on the basis of racial identity, resilience frames race as an effect or outcome of one’s response to underlying, background conditions.

IASPM-US: You talk about soars and drops as compositional techniques integral to the performance of resilience, and you suggest they achieve the same basic ends. How does this work?

RJ: So this same structure–make a lot of damage or noise, transform the noise into signal, and have that transformation be a huge sonic/aesthetic payoff–this is behind two common compositional features in contemporary pop music: the soar and the drop. Soars are really common across the pop landscape, from explicitly EDM stuff from Calvin Harris, to more traditionally “pop” songs like Katy Perry’s “Roar,” to Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” Soars generate damage by building rhythmic and timbral intensity either to or beyond the limits of human hearing–they make ‘noise’ or unintelligible sound. There’s usually a pause or a shout or a siren, something to represent overdriven sound, and then a big hit on the downbeat of the next measure. Soars intensify damage as a way to further intensify the pleasure of returning to regular signal on the downbeat. Drops work similarly: they are the noisy damage that makes the return to signal feel that much sweeter. Shocking, grating noise is now central to mainstream pop music composition and aesthetics.

This represents the co-optation and domestication of practices of resistance that minority artists and cultures used throughout the 20th century. Just as Poly Styrene’s scream at the beginning of “O Bondage, Up Yours!” presented a rejection of 1970s-era ideal feminine demureness and beauty, Atari Teenage Riot’s digital hardcore noise–what they called “riot sounds”–presented a rejection of mid-90s incitements to “life” and vitality by sonically intensifying what felt and sounded like death. Or, as Tricia Rose talks about in her canonical book about Hip Hop, Black Noise, the techniques of cutting, looping, and going into the red (i.e., overdriving sound), these once were oppositional aesthetic strategies used by black artists. Now, all these noisy disruptions actually feed white supremacist patriarchal hegemony.

IASPM-US: You use the term upgrade often to describe the difference between classically liberal methods of maintaining power imbalances and neoliberal maintenance of the same. Why is upgrade the appropriate term here? Or, perhaps, what work does upgrade do that evolution, adjustment, co-optation, or some other similar term cannot accomplish?

RJ: Ooooh, this is a great question! (Is this a setup for a punchline on ‘up-date’?) So, neoliberalism doesn’t replace classical liberalism–the classical stuff is still there as the basic infrastructure–but upgrades it to work more effectively and efficiently. So, when I update an app on my iPhone, I keep the same general platform but get (nominally) better features and design. Or, my iPhone 6 is an upgrade on my iPhone 5 because it’s basically the same, just with more powerful and efficient design and engineering. So, for example: classical liberalism prizes the individual and individual autonomy above all else. Neoliberalism still takes the individual as the sine qua non of society, but organizes everything so that the classically liberal emphasis on individualism is even more intense. Obesity discourse passes off structural issues of political economy, class, race, and a whole bunch else as failures of individual responsibility for health, exercise, and diet, for instance.

Update is different than evolution because evolution is teleological: each stage builds on the previous one toward some end point (be it “fitness” or “success” or whatever). Upgrades don’t forge new ground so much as they intensify what already exists. Co-optation implies stealing something and using it for an end other than it was originally intended. Neoliberalism isn’t aiming for different ends than classical liberalism: both really are ways of organizing society for the benefit of white supremacist patriarchy.

IASPM-US: Speaking of upgrades, I’m curious about this one. In your discussion of Rihanna’s melancholy–her refusal to properly overcome–on Unapologetic, you have this passage about the work blackness is supposed to perform for neoliberal regimes:

So blackness…is still instrumental, but it’s a different type of instrument. It “works hard/plays hard,” amplifying the intensity of whites’ affective comportments; black culture workers are like sous chefs, making white affective economies…work more efficiently for whites/white supremacy. With their “work hard/play hard” and “living life on the edge” tropes, black artists like Ludacris on “Rest of My Life” amplify white listeners’ affective experience of “winning”–i.e., of privilege.

This strikes me as perhaps an upgrade on something like “hipness,” which you’ve written about elsewhere as a performance that allows “the white masculine subject to experience aesthetic pleasure in a properly ‘virile’ fashion.” Hipness becomes a way to “experience and control pleasure,” which doesn’t sound too far from something like “work hard/play hard,” where part of the logic of working hard is to better control the pleasure available to oneself. My question is something like this: what’s the relationship between hipness and “work hard/play hard?” They both exist in a neoliberal context, but perhaps “work hard/play hard” is still an upgrade on hipness? Or is there some other link between the two?

RJ: Yeah! I hadn’t been thinking explicitly in those terms when I was writing the book, but I think there’s definitely a connection. Right before that passage you quoted I talk about how Anthony Appiah has described blackness as an “otherness machine”–in (post)Modernity, white hipness is the appropriation of blackness as otherness. The perceived otherness of blackness is what they use to disidentify with mainstream whites and establish themselves as an elite class above that mainstream. But now that we’re all good post-racial citizens who value diversity, now that hip hop is mainstream pop, otherness isn’t what whites are looking for in appropriating blackness (like, I don’t think Iggy Azalea is presenting herself as oppositional; her appropriations are an attempt to appeal to Top 40 tastes). I think what whites are looking for is for blackness to filter risk, the kind of risk that entrepreneurial subjects are supposed to bet on and embody. Work hard/play hard is a risky way of living–you’re pushing yourself to your limits, and may crash before you break even. Black culture workers do that in two ways: like Luda, they perform profitable risk so it’s easily appropriatable, sorta like how a sous chef preps stuff so the chef can focus on more ‘important’ (i.e., profitable) work; or, like Rihanna, they perform unprofitable risk and then get rejected, quarantined, punished. Just as neoliberal political economy makes risk a regressive phenomenon (banks are too big to fail, whereas individuals assume all the risk), MRWaSP culture makes risk similarly regressive: whiteness is insurance against losses from insufficiently rewarding risk.

What distinguishes hipness from other kinds of cultural appropriation is that it uses racial identification as class dis-identification: eliteness among whites performed as an identification with blackness and/or femininity. So here’s my hunch, with the qualification that I want to think this through more before fully committing to it: this newer, neoliberal phenomenon I’m talking about isn’t about carving out a group of hyper-elite whites, but about carving out a group of hyper-oppressed blacks. Jared Sexton talks about how the white/non-white racial binary has shifted to a non-black/black one: it’s not about maintaining the purity of whiteness as privileged, but the purity of certain kinds of blackness as what must remain excluded from the post-racial multicultural mix. By making risk something that black cultural workers disproportionately assume, this does the work of weeding out profitable from unprofitable performances of blackness at black artists’ expense. At the same time, whiteness becomes something easily financializable because it’s too big to fail.

IASPM-US: Let’s return to one of those kinds of unprofitable performances that come at black artists’ expense: melancholy. As you mention above, early in the book you discuss Atari Teenage Riot and their creation of “riot sounds” as divestment in MRWaSP. One of the big takeaways from this is that ATR’s riot sounds could work in the 90s in a way the Sex Pistols’ 70s strategies no longer could. And now, in the 10s, ATR’s riot sounds are no longer divestments but are rather capitalizable by MRWaSP, so melancholy can now disrupt in a way riot sounds can’t. If no anti-MRWaSP strategy is fool-proof, and context determines what works when, then melancholy would work sometimes, but not always. Do you hear other melancholic music out there besides Rihanna? Or music that’s starting to capitalize on melancholy the way riot sounds or Poly Styrene screams have been (the discussion of Miley Cyrus in the epilogue seemed different than her capitalizing on melancholy)?

RJ: So, YES. That’s exactly right, I think. It’s right for this reason: as I say in the book, at the formal, material level, at the level of technique and practice, resilience & melancholy can often look identical. They’re just performed by different types of bodies, bodies situated differently in relationship to MRWaSP power and privilege. For example, Katy Perry’s “This Is How We Docelebrates the “kids buying bottle service with your rent money,” whereas countless internet memes condemn so-called “welfare moms” for the same sorts of supposedly economically irrational and irresponsible behavior. Same behavior, but differently racialized, classed, and gendered subjects. So what matters isn’t the behavior, but who’s doing it. Or, to turn an old feminist phrase, it’s not about resilience or melancholy, it’s about power. So, to refine what I say in the book somewhat, I’d say that melancholy is how songs like Rihanna’s feel for audiences who expect and want resilience. When people who are expected to perform resilience don’t…that’s melancholy.  

Or, to put it another way, resilience is just one strategy that MRWaSP uses to reproduce and enforce itself. Melancholy is a response to this particular articulation of white supremacist patriarchy. Will it get co-opted? Sure, duh, of course, sometime. But MRWaSP, or some other, newer, articulation of white supremacist patriarchy will be there still, and we’ll find ways to challenge it. I don’t think melancholy is a solution to MRWaSP resilience–it won’t fix the problem, it won’t get rid of it. Melancholy is one way to live with and against it.

I haven’t thought about music that’s already co-opting melancholy. I wonder if this is a way to talk about Lana Del Rey. She’s definitely a “bad girl”–but in spite of how dirty and depressing and tragic her lyrics are, her songs are…boring (as I mentioned in the beginning of my piece in this collection, “boring” was the general critical consensus about Ultraviolence).

I HAVE been thinking about other examples of melancholic music. Brooklyn band bottoms, with their 2015 EP “Goodbye” (Atlas Chair), performs something like queer melancholy. Damage and death are called out and recalled, but this damage–queer damage, damage tied to HIV, to the dissatisfaction a transperson feels in their cis body–is neither cause of aesthetic illegibility (which is what Lee Edelman means by queer negation) nor is it overcome in a performance of resilient homonormativity. In particular, their song “My Body” stands in stark contrast to Trainor-style feminist body-positivity anthems. What does it mean when a self-described “shitty drag queen” sings “I hate my body/don’t wanna live/In this body”? The explicit claim to hate one’s body, uttered in an androgynous and/or genderqueer voice, points out the cis-normativity of post-feminist body acceptance narratives. To have “all the right curves in all the right places,” as Meghan Trainor sings in “All About That Bass,” is to have a cis-female body, a body not so fat as to obscure its proper gendering. Moreover, bottoms’ “shitty” drag queens perform bodies that are far from ideally or exaggeratedly femme–their “shittiness” seems to indicate the genderqueerness they perform and embody. It’s this shittiness that distinguishes their drag from, say, Conchita Wurst’s polished Eurovision perfection. When Conchita sings “Rise Like a Phoenix,” she performs the feminine resilience that we expect–this is part of her drag. bottoms, however, fail to perform that femininity, so, their drag likewise fails. Their gendered damage doesn’t get rolled into feminine resilience.

They describe themselves as a “gender-problematizing goth dance band”–unlike Gaga, who uses goth signifiers like monstrosity as part of a narrative of rather homonormative, post-feminist resilience, bottoms treat goth damage (like the image of the masturbating skeleton that’s the song’s SoundCloud avatar) as something that is not spectacular. In their interview with Vice, they treat identity-based damage as an ongoing experience: “It’s a part of our world,” Dibeler said about the lyrics’ grim subject matter. “All the death and the sex and the disease and the despondency and the fucked-up childhood stuff is natural to all of us.” Identity-based damage isn’t there for overcoming; its in these songs for other meanings and other purposes than homonormatively gendered subjectification. Damage isn’t recuperated in a stereotypically masculine or feminine way. It’s not stated as something that happened in the past, it’s not overcome, and so there’s no profit from its sublimation. Regardless of how I feel about my body, I can feel pleasure with and in it. Damage coexists with pleasure without being sublimated into it. I might not want to live in my body, but I certainly would want to move that body to this groove and experience that dancing as a source of embodied pleasure. Damage is, as they suggest on their song of this title, boring (and banal)–everyone can join in and clap along because they hate their bodies–dancing, however, that’s fun.

In Vice, Mitchell Sunderland describes this as “clashing energy.” Similarly, JD Samson describes their music as “being angry and happy at the same time.” Damage is not overcome–it persists–but at the same time it doesn’t mask pleasure. This “clashing energy” is what I mean by melancholy.

IASPM-US: In chapter 3, you have a subsection titled “Q: Are We Not Human Capital? A: We Are Diva.” in which you talk about…

Hold on, I’ll come back to the question in a minute, but first this: when things are hard – like, when life doesn’t make sense, and you’re lying awake in bed at night with that anxious feeling – do you just think to yourself, “That diva title. I wrote that,” and then all your worries float away and everything is right with the world again?

RJ: LOLOLOL. It’s sort of the opposite. Like, I feel that my writing career is over, that I’ll never write anything as good (if by good you mean nerdy) as that.

IASPM-US: Okay, back to it. In chapter 3, you have a subsection titled “Q: Are We Not Human Capital? A: We Are Diva.” in which you talk about Beyoncé’s disruption of MRWaSP by means of posthuman strategies. I have a couple of questions about posthumanism, if that’s cool with you, but I wanted to start with the “post.” Throughout the book, various post-ideologies seem to be poor tools to use against neoliberalism. Postracial reinscribes white supremacy, postfeminism supports patriarchy, post-goth is just another way to perform “Look, I Overcame!” What is it about the kind of posthumanity that Robo-Diva Beyoncé performs that allows her to actually king on resilient human capital–destablizing it, making it too queer to be bankable as “human capital”? What’s different about this particular post-ideology?

RJ: So I think–and Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus implies this–that Afrofuturism is actually not a post-humanity, but a non- or a- or extra- humanity. By which I mean: as Charles Mills and Kodwo Eshun and Sylvia Wynter all emphasize, the concept and category of “the human” was never, ever meant to include black people and white women–in fact, it was specifically designed to dehumanize them. If you never were human, it seems inaccurate to describe your alternative and/or critical strategies as “post-” human, right?

So there’s that. But also, a lot of what counts as “posthumanism” in contemporary theory–dear new materialism/vital materialism, I’m looking at you right now–that’s just an attempt to upgrade theory to fit the ideological and practical imperatives of the neoliberal university. It’s “post-human” in relation to the “humanities” in the same way that “post-feminism” is “post” feminism–that is, it’s the same old system of institutionalized oppression gussied up in terms that seem more sanguine and just, but are for that reason actually much more violent.

Beyoncé’s performance, at least in this instance, is a dis-identification with “the human”–a gendered, racialized dis-identification. Rather than attempting to overcome the limitations of black femininity (which is what resilience would accomplish), Beyoncé’s Diva character amplifies that gendered, racialized damage to the point that it blows up the main technology neoliberal MRWaSP has for subjectifying women as human.

IASPM-US: Your discussion of “Diva” in the book sent me down a YouTube rabbit hole. Care to join?

RJ: Those are my favorite!

IASPM-US: You mention two specific connections that got me looking for more. First, there’s that cyborg glove, which you note shows up in “Single Ladies,” then returns in “Diva,” tying these two tracks together. A third Beyoncé video calls back to the cyborg glove without showing it, and that’s “Flawless.” Here, Yoncé performs the notorious “woke up like this” move, a flick of the wrist that echoes the “Single Ladies” wave, and she makes a few references to her rock as well. In “Diva,” the explosion and Nomi wear are the key visual moments of Beyoncé’s posthumanity; her play on Wayne’s alien sound does the sonic work. I’m curious about the possibility that the glove can fold all three of these videos into a larger posthuman collage, even if we don’t have the other visual and sonic markers that show up in “Diva.”

RJ: Yeah, the “Flawless” hands are definitely variations on the “Single Ladies” hand. Is there a fragment of the robot glove right around 0:54 in the video, where she sings “not his little wife” and holds up her left hand to show her rings? I think it’s on her middle finger? Even if she’s not wearing a piece of the robot glove, this gesture establishes, really early on in the video (before the song proper even begins), the single ladies connection. One thing this does is retroactively confirm that “Single Ladies” really is a feminist critique of “put a ring on it” culture. The explicit feminism in “Flawless” clarifies the robot glove’s Afrofuturist feminism. In a way, “Diva” is one of the first peeks we have of Yoncé, right?

So, “Flawless” is about the way patriarchy constructs women as the “Other” to patriarchal Absolutes–”woman” is whatever lacks patriarchal/masculine privilege. The framing device–Bey’s Star Search performance–is all about the value of white masculinity (those rock dudes!) over black femininity (hip hop) (they got a perfect score, whereas proto-Destiny’s Child got a solid B). The Adichie quote is all about the way girls become devalued in patriarchy–how they assume the flaws of femininity, femininity as flaw, by performing feminine gender. (Also: there’s a soprano singing in the background while Adichie’s talk plays–what’s she singing?) So, the claim to flawlessness is not about beauty (or, physical appearance is just a metaphor for something else). It’s a claim about the structural position of women/femininity in patriarchy. In this context, the statement “I woke up like dis” has to be heard as a response to Beauvoir’s famous line in The Second Sex, “One is not born, but becomes a woman” (and, can we pleeeeeease not think Beyoncé is not “educated” enough to know this reference?). Waking up flawless is a sort of opening your eyes to feminist consciousness, to the fact that the flaws patriarchy attributes to femininity aren’t really flaws. Flawlessness is the refusal to become a “woman”–not the rejection of femininity, but the rejection of the tie between femininity and structural feminization.

IASPM-US: Rihanna and Beyoncé have dropped some fairly epic work since you finished R&M. You’ve written quite a bit about “BBHMM” already, but I’m curious how you hear ANTI- fitting into Rihanna’s performances of melancholy, reverse pornotroping, and general anti-MRWaSPness; the sound is certainly one Rih hasn’t explored this extensively before, but I suspect she’s messing with some of the same themes that propel her bangers. And Beyoncé, of course, broke the internet again when she hit us with “Formation” the day before the Super Bowl. The song and the reception have been written about and think-pieced extensively, but I haven’t read much about what it actually sounds like, and you seem just the person to ask: does “Formation” resonate alongside some of Beyoncé’s other posthuman (and squarely Southern) songs like “Diva,” “I Been On,” and “Flawless”?

RJ: Yeah they have! To be honest, I’m still taking my time working and thinking through ANTI- and “Formation”; I have some general observations and questions. ANTI- has a lot of great ideas, like synth hooks and guitar licks, but the ideas feel underdeveloped, like the songs could be real bangers if only they spent more time fleshing out the idea’s full potential. I think my concept of melancholy might be a productive way to think about that aspect of ANTI-. As far as “Formation” goes, I am disappointed that nobody’s talking about how it sounds. For example, even though the video focuses on New Orleans, the sounds in the song are more pluralistically Southern: there’s the trappy vocal introjections from Swae Lee, and in the Super Bowl performance, it gets mixed into the part of “Uptown Funk” that Mars and Ronson (eventually) bought from fellow Atlanta rapper Trinidad Jame$ (I guess it really is true that even Beyoncé wants his shit?). And then there’s the form! You’d think form would be a focal point for a song called “Formation,” right? It’s basically AABB form, with the repetition of phrases within each section doing most of the work. Like, I almost want to think about foreground, middleground, and background at the level of repeated formal chunks. So the question “What does the musical form of “Formation” contribute to its meaning?” is what I’m trying to figure out right now.

IASPM-US: [eagerly refreshes its-her-factory.com in anticipation of these figured-out ideas] It’s been a year since R&M hit us. What are you working on now?

RJ: Lots of stuff. Mainly I’m working on the manuscript of the idea that I thought was part of R&M but realized was actually a separate book. It’s about sound and neoliberalism, but it’s more focused on broader theoretical structures rather than the specific concept or practice of resilience. I’m calling it, for now, The Sonic Epistme: acoustic resonance & post-identity biopolitics.

The book argues that many early 21st century theories that call themselves some variation on “neo-” or “post-” form an episteme, and that this episteme is grounded in a sociohistorically specific notion of the sonic: acoustic resonance. Neoliberal political economy, post-identity biopolitics, new materialist posthuman theory, “new algorithmic identities” and algorithmic culture, even popular accounts of string theory, all these theories appeal to a notion of acoustic resonance, conceived either as a ratio expressing a frequency, or as generative processes in which signal emerges from noise in the same way harmonics and partials emerge from interacting sound frequencies. Tracking the sonic episteme across neoliberal theories of the market, biopolitical neoliberalism’s political ontologies and theories of subjectivity, new materialist ontologies, as well as astrophysics and data science, the book shows that “sound” as acoustic resonance is a theoretical and practical tool that helps us embody the power relationships most conducive to post-identity biopolitics. Acoustic resonance is an appealing concept because it naturalizes a sociohistorically local variety of white supremacist patriarchy under a dehistoricized concept of sound. This way the sonic episteme appears to overcome or avoid identity-based domination, when in fact it just shifts it to a different register. That’s the book’s main argument.

I’m also following up on some of the threads from R&M, looking at various ways musicians respond to post-feminist pop. That’s what I’ll be talking about at EMP and IASPM this year.

IASPM-US: Ooooh, Ima read that book. Ima take that book to college. Ima use that book for knowledge. Thanks so much for being willing to spend so much time chatting about R&M; I can’t wait to read The Sonic Episteme!


Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She has published in venues including The New Inquiry, Noisey, Hypatia, Popular Music, JPMS, and is a regular contributor at SoundingOut! in 2016. She is also a member of the IASPM-US Executive Committee.

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