Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare sound, affect, and the ecology of fear (2009) [A review]
Goodman is probably better known by his DJ/Producer alias Kode9 and as head of the Hyperdub label. His influence in the worlds of dubstep, and electronic music in general, is undeniable, but with Sonic Warfare, Goodman has shown that he is as ferocious a thinker as he is a beatmaker. Sonic Warfare is written on the interstices between philosophy, aesthetics, cultural studies, history and acoustics. In other words, it is another prime example of the interdisciplinary nature of Auditory Culture, a field of research which in the last decade has been growing into a more fully fledged academic field. His style of writing and willingness and capability to cross disciplinary boundaries can be traced to his own music, and more specifically to his label, where every strand of electronic, bass oriented, music finds a home.
Let me turn to the content of the book, its title gives a good overview of the concepts with which Goodman is concerned, but the two key areas of interest highlight better what is at play in this book. First of all the military-entertainment complex, which itself has a twofold meaning. It means that ‘target populations in wartime are also media audiences’, but at the same time it ‘refers to the migration of technologies and processes developed in the military sphere to everyday culture’. Although Goodman may seem to be mainly interested in the military and war aspects of sonic cultures across time and space, his main interests centre around the second aspect of the military-entertainment complex. The influence of sonic warfare, of uses of sound in different shapes and forms, on the everyday life of human beings and their environment. This is where the second key area comes into play as well: affective tonality. Defined as ‘dimensions of mood, ambience and atmosphere’, affective tonality is the theoretical concept through which Goodman attempts to go beyond investigations into sound as text. Instead, he wants to focus on ‘sound as force’, listening to sound on a scale from ‘attractive’ to ‘repulsive’. To be able to listen to sound as force Goodman relies heavily on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who analysed power relations through rhythm. This method, which runs through twentieth-century French philosophy from Gaston Bachelard to Henri Lefebvre to Deleuze and Guattari, aims to analyse spaces through the human, technological and concrete rhythms that flow through them. With Bachelard and Lefebvre the rhythmanalytical method remained strangely static, with a focus on the equilibrium as the proper state of being for the different rhythms at play at any one time and place. Deleuze and Guattari added another dimension in the sense that in their work rhythm becomes a state of flux, in which the relations between different environments and milieus erupt from and end in rhythm. This state of flux is what interests Goodman, and with Michel Serres he is able to make from that state a ‘vorticist twist’. In doing this the rhythm becomes a constant form of change and transformation, continuously destroying and creating.
Through examples which range from soundbombs and reggae soundsystems to earworms and animé, Goodman lets his readers listen in on a world in which sound, and rhythm specifically, carries through every fibre of existence. The past, present and future are filled with noise and silence, sound and unsound, creating an ever vibrating nexus of points to which we can hold on and let go at any time. Philosophically, this means that the Cartesian duality of reason is undermined. Rhythm is not binary or singular, it brings with it a vortex of different sounds and silences. Using both Spinoza – the first to refute Descartes’ duality of reason – and Alfred Whitehead, Goodman further cements his sonic theory in the history of ideas. But more than focusing on historical events – interesting as that may prove to be in further research – Goodman’s ear remains closer to the present and the future.
Again following Deleuze and Guattari and Whitehead, one of the strains that runs through Sonic Warfare is about the way the future is prehended in the present, and the past will always continue to exist within both present and future. The temporal interplay between these three stages do not lead Goodman to divert his attention to grand and global politics, the focus, instead, is on what he terms subpolitics. Just like the music which he creates as Kode9 belongs to many a different subgenre of electronic, or even bass, music, the examples in his book deal with forces of power that deal with a micro scale of politics. Sound is used as a means of warfare, but it does not mean that every war becomes sonic. Goodman treads carefully to prevent his sonic explorations to take to the global stage, while at the same time he highlights how, in different areas and ways, across the world, sound has always been a force of power.
The advent of technology has certainly increased the level of noise in the world, and sound maybe a more powerful force now than it was in the sixteenth-century, but Goodman points out that analysing sound and rhythm along a noise-silence axis, leaves the subpolitical out of the equation. Noise and silence, whether perceived as forces of control or enjoyment, are playing exactly on that grand and global scale that leaves out what is going on inside every vorticist twist. The (micro)rhythm changes in frequency and amplitude even when it is merely perceived as noise or silence. When something becomes so loud, or so quiet, that the transformations in the sound are no longer perceived, the politics involved are lost as well.
Sonic force has the power to disrupt or build the social, political arena. The way it does this differs at each and every instant, exactly because its rhythms are transformative in nature. The power of control and the power of enjoyment are in place in every sound, and the deployment of sound in its social and political context will define how it ends up being used and perceived. This exemplifies the strength of Sonic Warfare: that it relates different modes of thinking and examples from warfare and popular culture in the everyday through the way each deploys sound. The sonic is not only the subject of this book, it also becomes a method through which the subpolitical can be understood. Whether it is the emergence of dubstep from the interplay within the cultures of the African diasporas and London’s street culture, or the use of a sonic bomb by the Israelis against the Palestinians, a focus on sound allows these things to be researched from inside the power relations at play.
Been thinking about putting this up here for a while now, and just decided to do it. Let me know what you thought of the book.