Review: Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear

Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Steve Goodman. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010. Pp. xx + 296.

As a composer, producer, and DJ, Kode9 has been an influential figure in global trends in electronic music of the last decade. His London-based Hyperdub label and webzine are positioned in a widening nexus of transnational media and resonating bodies, proliferating in and mediating an ongoing flux of international dance styles. The label’s key figures – Burial, The Bug, Flying Lotus, Laurel Halo, and Kode9 himself – are popular innovators in dubstep, grime, and a slew of related musical subgenres. Ostensibly centered in the United Kingdom, these producers work in a broad expanse of global cultures, proffering intersecting vectors of affective sound.

In a transverse embodiment, Kode9 is Steve Goodman, theorist and writer of the compelling recent book Sonic Warfare. Informed by Goodman’s varied experiences in electronic dance music cultures, the work is a welcome contribution to sound studies. Drawing more from affect and social theory than from musicology’s sociolinguistic focus, the book navigates the porous realms of music and sound, examining their collective affects and vibrational ecologies. En route, Goodman highlights the ontology, rather than epistemology, of affective sound, situating his analysis in the larger contexts of political and military power, as well as “viral capitalism” (xix). The book’s pivotal force is Goodman’s notion of a “military-entertainment complex” in which sound producing, recording, and amplifying devices with techno-militaristic origins are repurposed to other social or artistic uses (xv). Developing the work of Friedrich Kittler, Goodman examines the proliferation of military optical, audial, and storage devices, including tape decks, VHF, and loudspeakers. These materials, and their further (mis)uses in sonic warfare, speak to modernity’s war-mediated condition. Goodman seeks to address a perceived lack of nonrepresentational sound in recent theory, arguing for and enacting a transdisciplinary methodology to theorize sonic cultures beyond a simplistic silence/noise binary.

Goodman’s experimental text is built from 34 overlapping, honeycombed chapters, each of which focuses on a distinct political event, theoretical concept, or musical subculture. The chapters are atemporally schematized, each headed by a discreet date and theme. The book’s structure deliberately unfolds at once in the past, present, and (virtual) future. Goodman’s dystopian sci-fi bent and offbeat organization reject a chronological or historical narrative of sonic warfare’s technologies and techniques, instead emphasizing a multiplicity of potential entries into the text. The shape Sonic Warfare takes, then, offers a textual “discontinuum” as a figure for the fluid exchanges between vibrations in the bodies, objects, and architectures of urban spaces (xviii). By focusing on the intermodal and ecological, Goodman problematizes sound studies’ anthropocentric and phenomenological modes of critique.

Goodman aims to theorize a “(sub)politics of frequency,” and affect is the key player in his formulations (p. 83). In Sonic Warfare, affect’s vibrational mode is relational – between bodies and objects – and serves as a binding ontological force. Through collective vibratory relations, sound can generate affective tonalities, such as good or bad “vibes,” dread, ecstasy, or fear. Goodman’s interest in African diasporic musics, particularly bass-heavy genres like dub, dancehall, and other Jamaican sound-system styles, lies in their capacity to generate powerfully resonant atmospheres. These turbulent atmospheres are sub- or micropolitical in that they are intensive and collectively individuating. Goodman notes the obvious ambivalence that arises in such a conception; crowds of bodies are no less easily produced and extensively motivated by political or military forces than they are “centripetally” moved to collective sensation by music (11). Indeed, the continuum along which such mobilizations slide figures heavily into Goodman’s theorization of the military-entertainment complex.

In keeping with its interdisciplinary aims, Sonic Warfare deploys an expansive range of theoretical and philosophical approaches that are applied to a broad archive of texts. Kodwo Eshun and Paul Gilroy provide a crucial backdrop to the book’s theorizing of transatlantic sound. Drawing from the former’s notion of Afrofuturist music, Goodman articulates a sharp critique of early twentieth-century futurism of the Marinetti/Russolo stripe, rejecting its masculinist technological progressivism. Against this unilinear telos, Sonic Warfare remains open to virtual futures that Goodman locates in the fluid diasporas of Gilroy’s “Black Atlantic” (34). The Black Atlantic is a key spatial configuration for diasporic musical styles and embodied rhythmic assemblages. With Eshun, Goodman emphasizes the potential latent in plural, polyrhythmic, and “cyclically discontinuous” strands of Afrofuturist sound (61).

Chapters 15-22 contain a key discussion of sonic warfare’s ontological foundations and serve as the book’s theoretical center. Here, Goodman’s training in continental philosophy comes through most clearly, as he builds his arguments from an eclectic ensemble of thinkers. Alongside an interesting discussion of De Landa, Serres, Bachelard, and Lefebvre, as well as the more obvious Bergson and Massumi, the book’s most striking discussion is of the work of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead’s notoriously difficult process metaphysics become a foundation for Goodman’s notion of affective tone’s coming into being. From Whitehead, Goodman draws a concept of “actual entities” as the basic constituents of experience (91). These actual entities are characterized by their being constituted in nexuses of other actual entities which both feel and are felt. In such a view, subject and object partially dissolve into their mutual relation, which in turn is part of a wider continuum of relations. Goodman “recodes” this relational metaphysics through rhythm as a way to potentially conjoin “discontinuous entities of matter,” a material yet transensory process (98).

Goodman persuasively elaborates his concept of rhythm as a nexus in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s topology of “immanent material processes” (115). In this way, he is able to theorize rhythm as resistant to, rather than characterized by, regularized metrical form. Taking the philosophers’ “war machines” as a further point of departure, Goodman speculates on rhythmic figures as at once bodily and sonic. Unlike military machines, which are necessarily violent or conflict-oriented, these sonic war machines can take a range of formations. In advancing this concept, Goodman makes productive use of Eshun’s slippery term “rhythmachine,” which describes the sonic capture of an affective sensorium within which bodies can be collectively mobilized. The rhythmachine works in and on bodies in an amodal state, ontologically prior to sensation, in which bodies as transducers of vibration are networked in surpluses of feeling. Here, Goodman stresses the polyrhythmic tendencies of Black Atlantic diasporas as beyond (or arising out of) the literally arrhythmic noise that Deleuze and Guattari theorize. He allows for the emergence of time in rhythmachines as rhythmically and durationally syncopated, or pulsative. It is hard not to read this portion of the text as influenced by Goodman’s direct experience with the aesthetically mobilizing potential of rhythmic dance music. His view reclaims a sense of dance, collectivity, and rhythm that is subordinated in the Western avant-gardist traditions emphasized in the work of Deleuze and Guattari.

Given its rich theorizations, Sonic Warfare is often unclear about how and toward what collective mobilization occurs. Sometimes it appears that Goodman has specifically aesthetic aims in mind when he writes of the rhythmachine, but, as he acknowledges, a theory of sonic warfare is inextricable from a theory of political power. It remains an open question whether or not syncopated dance rhythms have the capacity to desensitize or to drive populations toward, say, capitalist modes of consumption. To account for this problem, Goodman wants to reroute sonic war and rhythm through the Black Atlantic’s particularly affective and often fraught diasporic musics. Still, agentive human bodies are strangely absent in his discussion. Urban dystopia’s slums and denizens seem mere figures for systems of power, rather than populations of voiced subjects. Minor objections aside, this view is apparently an outgrowth of Goodman’s desire to play down anthropocentrism in favor of a richer ecology. Further, it allows him to more deeply theorize complex layers of affective sound as relational, collective, and themselves potential objects of further feeling.

Goodman’s broader aim of developing a theoretical account of sonic affect is certainly a goal worth pursuing, and his work rewards the close reader. Despite an almost dizzyingly wide-ranging analysis, moments of welcome clarity frequently come through. In chapter 27, Goodman discusses the predatory virology of contemporary marketing, foregrounding the earworm’s addictive, irritating hook. He makes his point incisively: “branding theory has already moved on to invest in the modulation of emotion by nonverbal means, signaling a mutation of capital logic into a more subtle colonization of memory” (148). That modulation of affective tonality takes place preemptively and militaristically speaks to the high stakes at work in a politics of frequency. By the same token, Goodman grants in the book’s final chapter that a fuller discussion of the relationship between power and affective sound in vibrational ecologies requires a greater emphasis on language and political economy. At the very least, Sonic Warfare draws attention to the need for a more encompassing theorization of audio virology and its behavior in global technoculture. One hopes that Goodman continues to explore the intersecting realms of theory and musical practice in his future work.

  Benjamin Oyler