Sonic Pleasure and Post-Cinematic Affect, by Robin James

by Mike D'Errico on July 3, 2013

Sine Wave

Steven Shaviro’s Post-Cinematic Affect addresses the ways in which the shift between classically liberal and neoliberal systems of social/artistic organization plays out in film and 4D visual media. He argues,

Just as the old Hollywood continuity editing system was an integral part of the Fordist mode of production, so the editing methods and formal devices of digital video and film belong directly to the computing-and-information technology infrastructure of contemporary neoliberal finance (3).

Neoliberalism upgrades not just the means of capital production—financial speculation makes commodities (nearly) obsolete (or M-C-M1 is abbreviated to M-M1, to be a bit jargony)—but also the means of aesthetic production. Post-cinematic media, like digital video or mainstream commercial American film, are organized according to the same values, methods, and structures that organize neoliberal society. Echoing Jacques Attali’s claim that “the laws of acoustics” are the common basis for both mid-20th-century European art music composition and late capitalist macroeconomics, Shaviro argues that the values, methods, and structures that organize post-cinematic visual media—and, by implication, neoliberalism—are sonic.1

How can a visual medium (or a political economy) be organized or oriented “sonically”? And what sort of model of “the sonic” are we working with in the first place? In this essay I briefly address these two questions. Neoliberalism naturalizes a specific concept of what sound is and how it works, and this theory of the sonic is the foundation for both contemporary Anglo-American pop music and post-cinematic media composition and aesthetics. It’s the reason your average Michael Bay film works and feels like your average Skrillex dubstep track.

First, what does it mean to say that a visual work is organized sonically?

As Shaviro puts it, “many post-cinematic works [are] weighted more to the sonic than the optical” (PCA 80-1). Sound is the gravitational center that orients us to the visual experience of the work. “Speech,” for example, “guides us through an otherwise incomprehensible labyrinth of proliferating images” (83). But how is it a guide? Sound doesn’t just reproduce “visual” logics in aural media. Sound media have their own discourses, methods, and conventions, which are irreducible to the discourses, methods, and conventions of conventionally visual media, like painting or cinema.

Paintings are traditionally representational, and cinema is conventionally indexical—they re-present objects. Post-cinematic works are “sonic” because they, like music, are not objective; instead of presenting an object (or fragments of an object) that is or was statically present in space, post-cinematic media presents a process, a logic or experience that unfolds in time. “Pars[ing] multiple, windowed images sources as rhythmic patterns and as information fields” (Shaviro PCA 81; emphasis mine), we perceive and interpret post-cinematic visual media like we perceive and interpret musical works. Listeners don’t interpret the objective content of the sounds, but the patterns of relationships among them (their volume, their length, the recurrence of motives, etc.). We’re trained to hone in on specific types of patterns that we recognize as “rational,” and ignore others as “irrational”.2 Because of the increasing influence of Afrodiasporic musical practices, sampling, remixing, compositing, and antiphony have been features of mainstream Western pop music since the 1970s. Our listening habits have followed, and we are quite accustomed to listening to musical works that abandon tonality’s “homogeneous [sonic] field” (Shaviro PCA 81)—literally, its homophonic texture—for the more antiphonic, composited structures of hip-hop, house, and techno. We “listen” to post-cinematic media more than we “see” it because we use the skills and habits we learned by engaging with musical works and apply them to our interaction with visual media.

But what do we “hear” when we watch post-cinematic media? What sort of patterns or processes are tuning in for? What sonic patterns do post-cinematic media follow?

The short answer is: sine waves. A sine wave describes the unfolding, over time, of patterns of peaks and valleys (rather than one atemporal statistical distribution around a norm, as in a bell curve). Sound, light, and electricity can all be modeled as sine waves, just as sine waves can be used to model the probabilistic risk-management algorithms favored by biopolitical neoliberalism.

Shaviro appeals to the logic of the sine wave in his analysis of Grace Jones’s “Corporate Cannibal” video. Even though he’s talking about digital media—binary code, not actual analog wavelengths—the binary code is, in his account, patterned like a sine wave. In the video, “every event is translated into the same binary code, and placed within the same algorithmic grid of variations, the same phase space” (14). Phase space is another term for frequency (on a wave, the space from peak to peak, valley to valley, for example). Here code behaves like an analog wavelength because this analog wavelength (i.e., sine wave) is the underlying epistemological structure that gives shape to both aesthetic production and capitalist production. As Shaviro puts it, “Jones embodies capital unbound, precisely because she has become a pure electronic pulse” (31; emphasis mine). She can simultaneously embody both deregulated capitalism and electronic signal because their material form or medium is the same: a sine wave. So, “Jones’s electronic modulations track and embrace the transmutations of capital” not only because “video modulations and the worldwide ‘culture of financial circulation are both driven by the same digital technology” (31), but, more importantly, because they participate in the same underlying episteme—the logic of the sine wave.

Sine waves bounce between asymptotes—upper and lower limits that can be approached in ever-more-exponentially narrow intervals (think Zeno’s paradox), but never touched or crossed. This “asymptotic approach” is a “principle behind [the] formal organization of sounds and images’ (88) in post-cinematic film. Bouncing back and forth between upper and lower limits produces a paradoxical affective texture

overloaded to the point of hallucination; yet at the same time it depicts a culture drained of vitality and on the brink of death. The movie exuberantly envisions the entropic dissipation of all energy and the implosion of social and media networks into a flat, claustrophobic, degree-zero banality. This end-point looks continually before us, but it is never quite reached” (88).

This could just as well be a description of an EDM club set. In a more conventional house set, a DJ will craft a large-scale arc: starting low, building slowly to a climax, staying up for a little bit, and then coming down at the end. It’s a teleological, developmental logic. EDM DJ sets generally don’t develop, they just ping pong back and forth from high highs (“overloaded to the point of hallucination”) to low lows (“the brink of death”).

Asymptotes are the devices used to produce musical/affective pleasure, which manifests as the “state of teetering on a precipice without actually falling over; or better, of falling over but never finishing falling over, never quite hitting the ground” (Shaviro 87). EDM-pop songs like Rihanna’s “We Found Love” or Psy’s “Gangnam Style” use this technique, which I have discussed in detail here. The basic idea is that rhythm and timbre get exponentially intensified, approaching the upper limit of intensity ever-and-ever more closely.

This limit is physiological–just as we visually perceive 24-fps as one constant image, there’s an audiological point at which we cease to perceive pitch (e.g., sounds so low we only hear unpitched percussive clicks, not a continuous pitched frequency)—and technological (hardware and software have technological limits, e.g., amps don’t generally go up to 11). Most commonly, a song will imply that this threshold has been crossed by inserting a measure of either silence or (relatively) unmusical noise (screams, sirens) before returning to a big “hit” or “drop” on the downbeat of the following measure; both “Gangnam Style” and Skrillex’s “Bangarang” do this.

Some works, like Jacques Lu Cont’s 2012 BBC Essential Mix (see 1:11:00-30, especially 1:11:28-29), or David Guetta’s “What the F***” (see 3:28-30) climax by failing to cross the threshold: you can hear the song climb up to a peak of rhythmic and timbral intensity and, upon reaching the threshold, descending away from rather than crossing it. In both cases, aesthetic pleasure is a matter of riding the crest of burnout, of tarrying with upper and lower thresholds.

This model of aesthetic pleasure is consistent with more general neoliberal ideals, and helps define what a specifically neoliberal concept of sound/the sonic. As Michel Foucualt argues, “the motto of liberalism is: ‘Live dangerously’” (66). Classical liberalism treats danger as something to be conquered and exchanged for security, much in the same way that tonality treats dissonance as something to be resolved into consonance. Neoliberalism, however, treats danger as something to be maximally intensified, pushed to its limit. Danger isn’t caused by disproportional relations (e.g., among sound frequencies and their harmonics), but by poorly calculated phase intervals that would lead you to over- or under-shoot the threshold you’re approaching. Just as it revises 17th and 18th century concepts of danger, neoliberalism upgrades 17th and 18th century concepts of the sonic. Theories of statistically derived frequencies replace theories of mathematically proportionate harmonics, and the hierarchical ontology of the overtone series is replaced with the “flat ontology” of the single sine wave.

The “libidinal flows” channeled by post-cinematic visual media, EDM-pop, and dubstep are “coextensive with financial ones” (Shaviro 49) because they are all manifestations of the same underlying sonic epistemology—the logic of the sine wave, with its peaks and valleys and asymptotes of intensity/frequency. If both visual media and capital are “sonic,” then popular music and sound studies could offer uniquely powerful, productive, and insightful resources for all sorts of scholarly inquiry, from visual studies to political theory to economics. We can only hope the rest of the academy comes knocking at our door, right?

Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte, where she researches and teaches classes in the philosophy of music, feminist theory, the critical philosophy of race, continental philosophy, and sound studies. Her creative research in sound art addresses issues of gender, race, digital technology, performance, and, of course, sound. She is a contributor to _The New Inquiry_, and blogs regularly about her theoretical and creative research at

  1. The musician…tries to understand and master the laws of acoustics in order to make them the mode of production of a new sound matter…he displays all of the characteristics of the technocracy managing the great machines of the repetitive economy.” Attali, Jacques. Noise, p. 113)
  2. Steve Reich discusses the ‘rationality’ of common patterns–like 180 degree, 90 degree, and 45 degree canons or rounds–in his interview here:

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