Emlyn Firth recently posted a link about sonic warfare, which set me on a browsing arc that was bound to collide with Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. When researching material for my flatulent Mix-Blog article, I’d completely forgotten reading an interview with Goodman in Wire #303 last spring and Kodwo Eshun’s subsequent review of the book in Wire #311.

Several of the concepts Goodman mentioned in that interview must have lodged in my mind for months, in much the same manner as the types of audio virus discussed in his book, before resurfacing. By less underhand means, long-held obsessions of mine regarding “discovered prescience”, the “punctum”, recording media as “accessory to truth”, semiotics and narrative structure, psychogeography and the palimpsest etc. combined with a general love of music, ambient sound and strange stories of human folly to “narrow” the scope of what I wanted to write about. In trying to give voice to the things that interested me most about sound and music, without time to reign in the topics for discussion under a more coherent heading, it now strikes me that the model Goodman develops in Sonic Warfare could have acted as an essential counterpart to Douglas Kahn’s use of “vibration”, “inscription” and “transmission” from Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avant-garde, when tracking the historical dissemination of sound through various channels.

It may be that my initial blindness to the imminent release of Sonic Warfare was, in part, influenced by the slight allergy I developed to Kodwo Eshun’s prose following his Fear of a Wet Planet article about Drexciya in Wire #167. [Incidentally, I strongly recommend the opening 7 notes of Drexciya's Take Your Mind as an SMS alert noise]. Upon first reading, I remember feeling that – with the elusive duo having “obsolesced biography and personality”, pushing music and myth to the forefront – this really was a prime example of surplus muso froth, merely consolidating the myth in the absence of concrete information about the people responsible for the whole package. Despite being an avid follower of the Detroit techno scene from the early 90s, I admit that I judged much of the text inscribed on certain labels and sleeves as pretty irrelevant, at most an amusing complement to the music. Of particular note were Jeff Mills’ attempts to articulate the power and significance of his earthly sonic mission on his own Axis records imprint, often collapsing under the weight of its own arch nonsense. These words were – to my mind – completely divorced from any meaningful exchange with the majority of those receiving his “life-changing” “transmissions”, typically pumped out at damaging levels to a chomping throng of forward-facing, saucer-eyed, lairy wombats (e.g. common response to “The Bells”) completely disinterested in any highfalutin justification for his “Purpose-Made” beats.

However, there were elements to celebrate in the Underground Resistance and Drexciyan mythologies: a militant refusal to entertain mainstream “programmer” playlists, together with sounds and track titles reinforcing the conceptual development of fictional environments and alternative civilisations. Both expressed a technology-obsessed vision of “Black Atlantic” culture, as a constructive response to the disgusting legacy of colonialism and the slave trade; to be fair and in hindsight, Eshun highlighted elements in this respect that I was formerly ignorant about. First and foremost, though, I liked the aggression of the music and the liquidity of its sounds, as well as the searing chord progressions juxtaposed with occasionally violent acid riffs, without feeling I was a devoted footsoldier… part of some revolutionary mo(ve)ment, quick to align my worldview with something that only had superficial similarities to my own cultural context. This is not to say that I would ever deny the power of music – and the subcultures that develop around particular genres – as a force for social change; nor is this meant as a blanket criticism of those who can and do identify with the beliefs and productions of those who are not part of their immediate environment or historical frame of reference.

Now, with Goodman’s treatise on the “(sub)politics of frequency”, those who lapped up the “hyperstitional” texts of UR and affiliated acts in the 90s as part of their own “war” against the “programmers” have a new bible of sorts, which places their moment of resistance last century in a much wider context – and dare I say it, “‘nuum” – of evolving tactics espoused by all sides in the age of new media. The rest of us can be pleased that an academic theory of “vibrational ecology” has been rigorously evolved, particularly by a DJ, producer and label-owner known to support and release some of the most interesting and fresh mutations of electronic dance music emerging from Britain today – as well as being uniquely positioned to witness its effect on the bodies of the target audience, watching how the shapes they throw bear relation to the Cymatic forms that Hans Jenny observed when frequencies are made manifest. One problem remains: how accessible is this book going to be for those who one might assume would most enjoy it? Rather than attempt a critical review, the following offers a summary of its basic arguments and a taster for those who wish to pursue the themes further.

Anyone expecting a conventional history of sound as a weapon is in for quite a surprise. As it is published by MIT Press, with the subtitle “Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear“, one may be forgiven for assuming the subject matter settles comfortably into a broad overview of various sonic techniques employed by the military-industrial complex. However, by employing a term first hinted at by Bruce Sterling in the debut issue of Wired – and developed by Stockwell and Muir in this article – Goodman sets up his discussion of a “military-entertainment” complex, where the enemy must also be an audience, the audience must also be an enemy. Propaganda in this sense seeks to manipulate opinion by nurturing an “ecology of fear” on both sides; in this respect, the feeling of anticipatory “dread” – relative to propagation of sound – takes on a fascinatingly ambivalent tone when reduced to the raw fact of physiological response to volume and frequency. Consequently, loud, bass-driven music in clubs is one form of “sonic warfare” exacted upon the audience, but here the initial stress response is suppressed, harnessed and results in a gravitational attraction around which whole subcultures form. This is the direct opposite of “less-than-lethal” sonic weapons utilised for crowd-dispersal, although the manner (and medium) in which they operate is identical, albeit at different frequencies and configurations.

Goodman’s use of the term “affect” – bound to the idea of overcoming resistance to motion and the lingering potential of the “conatus” – stems from a tradition dating back to the Stoics (matter as passive, “sure to remain unemployed if no one sets it in motion”), passing through Descartes (classification of inertia, centifugal, and centripetal forces), Spinoza (postulating motion based upon the material as opposed to the mental), Deleuze (bodily absorption of prepersonal, external action as in a “motor effort on an immobilized receptive plate”) to Massumi (“dynamic unity”, “transition”, “relation” and “tendency”). In his attempts to articulate the affective power of sound as music, Goodman places himself in the company of writers like Richard Dyer, mentioned by Jeremy Gilbert, following his remark that “music is not amenable to analysis using methodologies that prioritise language as the model form of communication”.

The arena in which this action-across-distance takes place is labelled the “affective sensorium”. Seeking to tread a productive line between Pierre Schaeffer‘s particular “l’objet sonore” and R. Murray Schafer’s general “soundscape”, Goodman explains how Augoyard and Torgue (note also Andreas Bick’s excellent Silent Listening blog) call for a refinement of our understanding of the sonic environment through their “urban ecology of sonic effects”. This model – where the listener in isolation has become a phenomenological “transducer” “playing” the “effects” of the acoustic environment – is expanded to encompass a broader nexus of cross-modulating, resonating “affects” where the human body is merely one of many conductors, akin to an individual grain of rice on the surface of a Chaldni plate forming part of a wider overall pattern with its neighbours and the air around it. Echoes rely on surfaces and bodies to bounce and be heard, but exist in continuity [Zeno's arrow] across the distance that they require for their realisation: a Bergsonian event propelled by and riding the wave of vibrational force.

“Sonic Warfare therefore is concerned with the generation, modulation, and dampening of vibrational carrier waves of sonic affect.”

Furthermore, Goodman turns to Alfred North Whitehead’s metaphysical process philosophy, itself a modification of Heraclitus’ doctrine of flux, to propose a “rhythmic anarchitecture”. The acoustic environment – the nexus of cross-modulating, resonating affects developed above – is an “extensive continuum”, with nodes of experience realised in “concrescence”: potential subjects and objects unite in this continuum, dependent for their mutual emergence, transformation and destruction in the process of an event. The intersecting, relative trajectories of subject and object are prior to human perception, and yet the nexus itself is not prior to the vibrational affects it “contains” because it depends upon multiple instances of concrescence for its volume and extension; hence, this field of “becoming” is “anarchitectural”. Such a theory acts as an attempt to solve consistent disagreements over the nature of events in space-time as either continuous or discrete, in much the same way that variants of the Pilot Wave theory offer an alternative to the inevitable problem of wave-particle duality and the collapse of the wave function of a particle under observation.

In order to elaborate the way in which bodies are connected, affected and changed within this nexus, Goodman returns to Spinoza to examine the contrast between his theories of the “conatus” (the “modification of a substance” which has “a tendency to persist beyond its current power”) and Whitehead’s idea that an event reaches “satisfaction and then perishing” in order to evolve into “something else”. As a “body” is itself the product of smaller “bodies”, continuous with the larger “body” of interacting “bodies” and the universal nexus of exchange, an “ecology of speeds” is proposed which helps to distinguish how bodies retain degrees of independence from one another. “Speed” in this sense differs from Marinetti and Virilio’s concepts of extreme velocity, being closer instead to Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhythmic consistency of a virtual body”; quoting them directly, “speed [...] constitutes the absolute character of a body whose irreducible parts (atoms) occupy or fill a smooth space in the manner of a vortex”. This conception has parallels with how David Lynch rates bodies and objects on a numerical scale of speeds, as part of a discussion with Mark Cousins about “The Eye of the Duck“.

Finding a path between Spinoza and Whitehead, we are invited to consider a new method for helping us to conceive of the properties, interactions and mutations of matter: expanding upon the ecology of speeds, with the help of Michel Serres via Lucretius, it is shown that matter has a tendency to “curve”, creating eddies and whirlpools that account for a fundamental principle of (meta)physics. Without this tendency – the clinamen – nothing would ever interact, nothing would ever be created or evolve; it is a property that gives rise to gravitational attraction, the creation of order from chaos, the “generation of rhythm out of noise” which “simultaneously blocks flow while accelerating it” as in a vortex. Goodman classifies this method as “rhythmanalytic”, exhibiting the properties of fluid dynamics and turbulence; indeed, it is pointed out that Helmholtz’s investigations into acoustics were considered “as a branch of hydrodynamics”. Naturally, any attempt to map the propagation of vibrational force along these “lines” represents a serious challenge for engineering and computer science. Further research into the etymology of the word “surd” – as mentioned in Sonic Warfare in relation to the indefinable “fuzz” that certain sonic events have in “actuality”, confounding digital encoding – throws up interesting parallels with the difficulty of facsimile representation and notions of the “unheard”.

Not content to side with either analog purists or digital evangelists, Goodman proceeds by investigating how efforts to encode sound – evidently dividing up its fluidity into increasingly discrete units – paved the way for a “sonic atomism of granular synthesis” where rhythm and pitch become indistinguishable, a category of vibration which he terms “molecular texturhythm“. The ability to treat acoustic information this way led to advances in the resolution of sampling, with further possibilities opened up for timestretching audio – now one of the commonest functions of electronic music software – matching the tempo of compositional elements while preserving pitch, or changing the pitch of other elements while preserving the tempo. At the limits of human perception and at these levels of microscopic sound, digital particles unite to form analog waves of rhythm, realised as coherent and mutating events in the vibrational “plexus”. Interestingly, the main pioneer in this area – Dennis Gabor – also invented the hologram.

Having carefully thrashed out this extremely inclusive remit on the ways in which sound resonates and can affect us over the course of 130 pages and countless footnotes, Goodman has reached what appears to be the most elementary (meta)physical level of his model, arming the reader with the tools necessary to visualise the “battleground” that results from instances / instants of sonic effect and affect. Nevertheless, the forms and processes by which sound propagates itself can be seen to be much subtler than centrifugal dispersion or centripetal attraction of bodies, more complex than materialisation through momentary nodes of experience present in a vibrational nexus. As latent paths exist in the field of external relations where the sonic can be given “body” and “voice”, so hidden channels into the deepest recesses of the psyche are both opened and prepared for by varying uses of sound under different – usually sinister – contexts. Setting the tone with Sun Tzu’s quote that “all war is deception”, Goodman’s focus now takes on a much greater political dimension, in the effort to describe a comprehensive “audio virology” that relies upon “affective contagion” for its survival and persistence.

The first major example to be studied in this regard is the story of the Ghost Army, as noted by Philip Gerard (“there’s the one-armer now!“) in his book Secret Soldiers: The Story of World War II’s Heroic Army of Deception. Following this early use of sound as a weapon for manipulation, the march of technology and proliferation of digital media – in tandem with pioneering work in psychoacoustics and greater understanding of neurological auditory processing – has made it increasingly easy to play on our sense of anticipation and to create unease with acoustic techniques. The more obvious forms of manipulation and control are enacted with “less-than-lethal” weapons, from the use of infrasound at 27Hz in Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible to ultrasound that targets unwanted, loitering youths. Both extremes of the spectrum, operating outside the limits of human hearing, are classified as “unsound” – in both senses of the word. When ultrasound becomes directional, or “holosonic”, it can function as a signal carrier implanting subliminal information, as well as a physiological irritant. For this reason, Goodman speaks of “the colonization of the inaudible” and the “policing of the electromagnetic spectrum”.

Audible, directional sound – such as a siren – is emitted from an identifiable source and triggers a conditioned response. Goodman notes that “even ‘non-hearing’ animals (e.g. hydra, jellyfish and sea anemones) possess [stereocilia] as early-warning, directional-pressure sensors”. This bypassing of conscious assessment in a Pavlovian manner means that, even for overt sonic alarms, “the sign of the event no longer has to wait for the anticipated event [...] the sound in fact beckons the event [so that] virtual threats have real effects”. The mechanics of such a fear or “dread”, dependent upon anticipation, relate back to Whitehead’s theories of “prehension” where the immediate present is occupied and informed by both past and future. In the realm of pre-emptive control using “unsound” – this “future feedback effect” is mobilised to induce “abstract sensations [which] cause anxiety due to the very absence of an object or cause [...] without either, the imagination produces one, which can be more frightening than the reality”. Pre-emptive control of consumers seeks to take advantage of this “futurity” for corporate branding – extending from idents and jingles into unsound – by unleashing schizophonic earworms of varying insidiousness.

Taking Richard Dawkins to task for his being “immunised to the very viruses he discusses”, Goodman cites the failure of memetics to account properly for the processes by which sound in particular is infectious, calling for a “full spectrum of affective dynamics” that reaches far beyond AI-orientated generative sound and unleashing of autonomous sonic algorithms. For example, the “viral logic” of sound is present in one context with the prevalence of sampling in modern cultural production, which presents us with “acoustic time anomalies” where film and music cross-pollinate one another and set up multiple instances of “déjà-entendu”. Similarly, in discussing the contagious nature of the dub “riddim” and other percussive “breaks” spanning and spawning musical genres irrespective of geography, Goodman reaches fullest elaboration of the meaning behind the name of his label – Hyperdub – by placing it within a context of “digital replication” and as part of the hotly-debated “hardcore continuum”.

Here too we find the expansive notion of “sonic warfare” come full circle: responses to existential anxiety and an acoustic “ecology of fear” characteristic of modern urban life mirror the way that Jamaican sound systems sought first to dominate one another, then their audience, with overwhelming bass – before uniting them behind a transformative audition of “dread”, arising from reverence for Jah and rebellion against oppression. “The exorcism of this dread, through its preemptive production, has been a central objective of affective hackers […] generating soundtracks to sonically enact the demise of Babylon”. Further connotations with the biblical Tower of Babel and linguistic rupture might be taken further; it strikes me that – in the search for unity through propagation of a collective movement and by seeking to undermine colonial language – the sheer popularity of dub as a “virus” results in a form of multicultural ventriloquism, where – for example – remote colonies of “transducers” are so deeply affected / infected by this configuration of vibrational force (viz. “bass weight”) and its associated semiotics that they begin to adopt the culture (or as much of the belief system as is necessary to legitimise the public smoking of weed) and language of a distant but contagious mindset.

As Goodman points out, mobilisation through affect, by this type of transmission of resistance, can be traced to protest songs and spirituals considered as “sonic weapons”. In response to Simon Reynolds’ claim that the “exaltation of producers and engineers over singers” acted against the interest of projecting oral elements in “roots” music, as part of the “potentially deracinating effect of musical deterritorializion”, Goodman elaborates Eshun’s focus upon Afrofuturist secession “from the human so as to imagine and pursue, in terms of fiction or a sonic machinism, or both, other modes of thought, experience, and collectivity”, as noted in the Drexciyan “posthuman” mythology mentioned at the start of this article. Sonic Warfare subsumes the oral into a wider nexus, in order to make an ecological map of the “frequencies, bodies, feelings, machines, utterances, emissions, codes, processes, affordances, economies, environments” that in turn gives birth to and propagates “politico-linguistic assemblages”. Subsequently, this power of sound to unite along political lines – as part of a “collectively engineered vibration” – is termed “bass materialism”; incubation, transmission and contagion find one fruitful channel in pirate radio and its “bacterial nomadism”, the ability to shift and mutate together with the technological culture that enables broadcast in the first instance. In addition, the complexity of audio virology in relation to piracy and intellectual copyright, Goodman argues, should be considered in terms of “the complimentary, symbiotic functioning of these media ecologies” as opposed to concentrating upon apparent paradoxes.

Throughout this comprehensive, multidisciplinary examination – focused as it is largely upon an understanding of the tactics employed by those controlling the volume fader, as well as providing a philosophical framework for appreciating the wider cultural environment in which the consequences play out – there is only really passing reference to recent work in neuroscience exploring how the brain processes musical input. To be fair, the book contains greater scope and variety in its 250-odd pages than most other works on sound or music that I have previously read; to expect greater scientific analysis into the nature of human audition would be unfair and its presence may well have acted against elements of Goodman’s theoretical narrative. Besides, Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music is as good an introduction as any into this area, which in turn throws up many points of convergence when read in conjunction with Sonic Warfare – most notably: how expectation or anticipation is induced and manipulated by not just pitch succession and “deceptive cadences” in harmonic progression, but also by rhythm; the role of the cerebellum in conditioning responses – particularly in relation to perceived threat – through habituation and the principle of redundancy, as well as how apparent violations of rhythm and metre attract its attention (something all DJs should look into…); how emotional reactions also bypass the auditory cortex and activate the frontal lobes, cerebellum, amygdala and nucleus accumbens, so that dopamine is released under stimulation by certain combinations of sound; how the hippocampus assists with sonic memory, together with the debate over constructivist, record-keeping and multiple-trace memory models of how the brain remembers music; how the temporal lobes respond to timbre; how nature abhors a vacuum and Helmholtz’s “unconscious interference” makes perception a “constructive process”; how certain compositional techniques and atonalism attempt to deprive the listener of traditionally experienced “resolution” as a possible reflection of “existential anxiety”.

Above all, the closest correlation and richest overlap between the two books is evident in Levitin’s discussion of the immediacy of “proprioception“, in relation to how the cerebellar vermis processes rhythms and simultaneously works to help translate sensory information from the inner ear into orientation of the body and its spatial motion; Goodman refers to the “tactility facing inward”, where sensitivity “to intensity minus quality [...] preempts exteroception in that it makes decisions before the consciousness of extensive sensory objects fully emerges. Where there is a visceral perception initiated by a sound and in a split-second the body is activated by the sonic trigger, then the gut reaction is preempting consciousness”. Leaving aside the notion of “unsound”, audible sonic vibration causes hair cells in the cochlea to “parse incoming sound into frequency bands”, in turn sending electrical signals to the primary auditory cortex evolved to map these sounds on a linear scale; musical structure and syntax is determined merely 150-450 milliseconds by the frontal lobes of both hemispheres adjacent to and overlapping Broca’s area (the centre of speech production), whereas semantic interpretation takes only a further 100-150ms to trigger the back portions of the temporal lobe on both sides, near the Wernicke’s area (understanding of written and spoken language), giving some form of “meaning” to the signal that is heard. A full discussion of how the “dub virus” stimulates these different centres of the brain  – in contrast to other musical genres, and in tandem with the political and cultural emphases given by Goodman – would yield quite interesting results. Similarly, contemporary studies into mirror neurons and their role in triggering imitation – specifically the sympathetic activation of motor areas that correspond to activity that is seen or heard – could give us further insights into the nature of audio and cultural virology. Ultimately, it would make me disproportionately happy to discover that someone, somewhere had written a PhD thesis entitled: “Cats, techno and decreased novelty-seeking behaviour: a teleofunctionalist approach to the role played by Toxoplasma Gondii in the popularity of repetitive dance music in Western European society“.

In Levitin’s words, music “involves specialized brain structures, including dedicated memory systems that can remain functional when other memory systems fail [...] Rhythmic sequences optimally excite recurrent neural networks in mammalian brains, including feedback loops among the motor cortex, the cerebellum, and the frontal regions. Tonal systems, pitch transitions, and chords scaffold on certain properties of the auditory system that were themselves products of the physical world, of the inherent nature of vibrating objects.” Taking this together with Goodman’s nexus and concepts outlined in Tayto et Tayto’s Mix Blog article – the “bespoke stealth” of ambience, the generation of “tangential interference” – we can see that the wider “continuum of sound” supports creative opportunities to “interact with and perform the field”, augmenting Augoyard and Torgue’s “urban ecology of sonic effects” well beyond its initial progression from Schafer’s “soundscape”. As a “transducer” and “player”, sensitive to multiple channels of vibration and opportunities for “concresence” – even if never immediately conscious of their activation – it may well be possible to orchestrate a new approach to environmental “deep listening” that does not entail forking out €750 to attend retreats at Nau Côclea. With the “mutual structural influence” of the brain circuit between frontal lobes (advanced cognition, decision-making, social positioning, notions of selfhood) and the cerebellum (timing, spatial orientation, coordination of motor control), we might further probe how who we think we are and who we are endlessly becoming is tightly bound to our ability to process the vibrations that surround us – in how we dance to music that we prefer, or how we might constructively explore environments being led on a “sonic derivé” or “psychoacoustic drift”, like Louise’s “flâneur soundwalk” around Berlin.

Sonic Warfare is classified on its cover as belonging to the category of “new media / music”, yet when I went to buy it in Blackwell’s, the shop assistant had great difficulty finding it. It was not held in the music, media, cultural theory or philosophy sections, but was finally located under computing science. This sums up the potentially broad appeal of the book, as well as the difficulty of situating it – and quickly digesting the diversity of topics it contains. With sentences like “the narrowband of humanoid audio perception is a fold on the discontinuum of vibration”, we are hovering dangerously close to jargon of the Wire journalist variety, which is bound to put quite a few readers off; however, Goodman really is trying to open up new lines of enquiry into the study of sound in the environment, and as such, does extremely well to avoid embarrassing onomatopoeia and flashy neologisms. Short, individual chapters are each headed by the date of a relevant – but not always immediately obvious – “event”, illustrating a landmark for the discussion that follows; although he claims that these chapters may be read randomly in isolation, allowing the core arguments to unfold in sequence paves the way for a secondary scan that reveals even greater internal coherence than is apparent on first reading. One early reviewer attempted to read the book and illustrate its points with reference to the Hyperdub 5 compilation that Goodman put out a few months ago; I thought about standing closer to the car alarm going off outside on the street, to try and really get to grips with my own (un)friendly neighbourhood affective sensorium and “live the book”, but to be honest, a fair degree of silence and concentration was necessary.

In the hope that Goodman is imbued with a clear sense of moral responsibility – keeping material strictly within the audible range and not seeking to capitalise on his studies into “unsound” – we can look forward to a forthcoming DJ set at Numbers next Friday. NB: no rewinds, shouting or moshpit action, please.

A final question remains:

Did Brian Eno actually say “The problem with computers is that there is not enough Africa in them”?

Yes, apparently he did.


Mix-Blog: A bit like a mix-tape but with blogs instead. Read more from the series here.