05 October 2012

From Bay to Brostep: Neoliberalism from post-cinematic affect to EDM

Steven Shaviro’s Post-Cinematic Affect addresses the way the shift between classically liberal and neoliberal systems of social/artistic organization plays out in film and 4D visual media (And, I'm working with the version printed in Film-Philosophy, because that's what I taught earlier this semester, and that's what I initially prepped these remarks from). 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).

I want to think through his concept of post-cinematic affect in order to figure out what neoliberal cinema and neoliberal pop music have in common, and what they don’t. My initial intuition is that medium matters: post-cinematic 4D media and extra-tonal pop might both be iterations of the same underlying neoliberal program, but the context of their iteration likely alters the program as it is articulated/realized in the medium. BUT, especially given the homologous digital environments in which contemporary 4D viz media and music are produced and consumed, the media—or, at least, the materiality of the media—might not actually be that different. So if there are slight variations between neoliberalism as 4D viz logic, and neoliberalism as 4D musical logic, what’s the cause or source of these variations? I’m thinking the source of differences between post-cinematic and extra-tonal might be the different cultural contexts, habits, practices, etc., that shape the production and consumption of viz and audio media. For example, mainstream audiences can handle much more abstraction in music than they can in visual media, it seems: various genres of electronica and hardcore metal approach “absolute music,” but even something as ostensibly content-less as Transformers still has a nominal plot, characters, etc. But we’ll see if all these intuitions bear out.

First, some terminological caveats: In the case of music, it can be really muddy to call it “post-tonal” affect, because the term “post-tonal” already connotes and denotes 20th c avant-garde art music practices like free atonality, serialism, process music, minimalism, and so on. Because “post-tonal” is already taken, I’ve used the term “extra-tonal” to indicate specifically neoliberal departures from (classically liberal) tonality. But, “extra-tonal” is kinda clunky, so I prefer Jacques Attali’s term “repetition” to describe this regime of musical organization. My essay in The New Inquiry explains the connection between Attalian repetition and neoliberalism. You can read all about that there, so I’m not going to re-hash it here.

I’m going to address specific concepts, breaking them down into sub-topics. This is not really systematic at all, as this blog is, as usual, the first working-through of my thoughts.

The Sine Wave 

Sound and light both exist as radiation, as sine waves. Music, at least when it is heard by un-modified human ears, takes this form. The logic of the sine wave (peak and valley, asymptotes, frequency and amplitude) is also the logic of biopolitical neoliberalism—statistics, data profiles, etc., all these get graphed as curves, like the peaks and valleys of a sine wave. The sine wave just 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).

Shaviro appeals to the logic of the sine wave in his analysis of Grace Jones’s “Corporate Cannibal” video. For example, 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 with in 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). So here code behaves like an analog wavelength—because this logic of the sine wave is neoliberalism’s logic. As Shaviro puts it, “Jones embodies capital unbound, precisely because she has become a pure electronic pulse” (31; emphasis mine). Electronic signals, like neoliberal capitalism, are organized as sine waves. Biopolitical neoliberalism sets/constitutes the “algorhithmic” or statistical grid lays out the “predetermined set of possibilities” within which everything can be contained. So, neoliberal post-cinematic viz media and extra-tonal/repetitive pop music are both primarily digital media, but, because they are neoliberal, the digital is organized or patterned like an analog sine wave. This is one way to read Shaviro’s claim that “digital video is expressed in binary code, and treated by means of algorithmic procedures, allowing for continual modulation of the image (16). Basically, neoliberalism organizes media to work like “an electronic signal whose modulations pulse across the screen” (16) or through the speakers. Neoliberalism, as a biopolitical/statistical regime/episteme, is responsible for this patterning. 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 have asymptotes—upper and lower limits that can be approached in ever-more-exponentially narrow intervals (think Zeno’s paradox), but never touched or crossed. Sine waves bounce between upper and lower asymptotes. Shaviro explicitly identifies an “asymptotic approach” as a “principle behind [the] formal organization of sounds and images’ (88), in post-cinematic film. He also implicitly attributes the idea of asymptote to post-cinematic cinema, speaking of, for example, structures that “ru[n] repeatedly through a holding pattern” (88), or 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” (87). His most evocative description of neoliberalism’s asymptotic logic focuses on the “phase space” or upper and lower asymptotes of a sine wave. A post-cinematic film bounces back and forth between upper and lower limits, producing the 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 and 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”). This ateleological ping ponging also manifests in the smaller scale of the individual radio mix or 12”, though usually EDM-Pop mixes in a little teleology, in the form of the break (the break functions somewhat like a goal or a climax, even though there’s no large-scale developmental arc leading up to it). Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been” is a good example of this, as is Usher’s “Numb.”

Asymptotes are also important in neoliberal music because they the devices used to produce musical/affective pleasure. I’ve talked a bit about this in my New Inquiry essay, but 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 both 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). Sometimes, the song gives us a big hit on a downbeat before the asymptote is crossed; other times (e.g., in Gangnam Style), the song gives a few beats or a measure of silence (implying the percpetual/technological thresholds were crossed) before a big hit on a downbeat. But, the build and hit is the song’s money shot, the big pleasurable moment in the composition. In neoliberalism, or at least in contemporary neoliberal musical practices, aesthetic pleasure is a matter of riding the crest of burnout, of tarrying with upper (in EDM) and lower (in dubstep) thresholds. The asymptote is important b/c it’s the threshold one tarries with.

   So if riding the crest of burnout is a sort of compositional strategy, then we need to think about specific tactics used to carry this out. Here’s where techniques like fragmentation, “compositing” (as opposed to montage), stuttering, modularity, etc., fit in. These are all formal devices that, in classical and Modernist aesthetics, served to interrupt, shock, and critique. But now they’re standard tricks that don’t at all disrupt, interrupt, shock, or critique.


Following Deleuze, Shaviro argues that “modulation…is a basic characteristic of digital processes in general” (15). It “requires an underlying fixity, in the form of a carrier wave or signal that is made to undergo a series of controlled and coded variations” (14). Basically, modulation is the process of introducing superficial variations in a system that is, at bottom, rigid. It gives the appearance of flexibility while requiring an underlying conservatism and invariance. As in Western jazz improve traditions, superficial flexibility and inventiveness requires a rock-solid, invariant foundation. What is distinctive about neoliberal “modulation is that the statistical/algorhithmic grid controls for all possible risk: “no matter what happens, it can always be contained in advance within a predetermined set of possibilities” (14). Biopolitical neoliberalism determines those possibilities—that’s what the asymptotes of the sine wave do: define limits you can approach but not cross. You also see this logic at work in Cage’s Music of Changes: sure, it appears like there are chance events happening, but the matrix Cage made based on the I Ching pretty much determines the range of available possibilities; it’s the “underlying fixity.” So, one thing modulation does is set out a range of standardized deviations—it gives the illusion of autonomy, transgression, etc. Or, as Steve Reich says, “Musical processes can give one…a kind of complete control…By "a kind" of complete control I mean that by running this material through the process I completely control all that results” (MGP). Reich’s 1968 essay “Music as a Gradual Process” actually speaks quite directly to the same concepts and problems Shaviro identifies as “post-cinematic,” so perhaps it’s neoliberalism itself that’s a “gradual process.”

Neoliberalism as a Gradual Process:

Post-cinematic media is generative, unlike cinema, which is indexical. Cinema is a document of what passed in front of a camera IRL, so it “therefore always assumes—because it always refers back to—some sort of absolute, pre-existing space” (17). Post-cinematic media, on the other hand, do not refer their organizational plane to some external sphere, but “generat[e their] own space, in the course of [their] own modulations” (17). (This is also how Deleuze describes the plane of composition, more or less.) Or, post-cinematic media generates its own large-scale formal structure from the unfolding of moment-to-moment details. I totally stole that phrasing from composer Steve Reich, and his notion of music as a gradual process. Reich explains: “The distinctive thing about musical processes is that they determine all the note-to-note (sound-to-sound) details and the over all form simultaneously. (Think of a round or infinite canon.)”[i] So for example take his Pendulum Music. In this piece, a microphone is hung, via a long(ish) cord, over an amplifier, to which it is also plugged in. The mic is a pendulum, which is released to swing back and forth over the amp, generating feedback on each pass. There is no pre-existing score which the sounds then express or represent; rather, the large-scale form of each performance of Pendulum Music emerges from, is generated by the sound-to-sound, moment-to-moment details. So, in post-cinematic media as in process music, compositional logic “can only be apprehended bit by bit…and from moment to moment, through the constructive action of ‘linking’ one space to another, materially feeling one’s way from one space to another” (Shaviro 37). The large scale form is generated by the moment-to-moment details. Is this a general feature of neoliberalism? Well, yeah, I think so, especially b/c you can read Harvey’s concept of “relational space” (which Shaviro calls on in the text) as a similar mode of organization.[ii]

Reich’s “Music As A Gradual Process also has some instructive suggestions about where we find moments of not-already-co-opted/controlled-for deviation. When we take the time to microscopically examine a specific iteration of a process piece (a specific generation), its moment-to-moment details, we can perceive things that weren’t accounted/controlled for in the original algorithm. As Reich explains,
Even when all the cards are on the table and everyone hears what is gradually happening in a musical process, there are still enough mysteries to satisfy all. These mysteries are the impersonal, unattended, psycho-acoustic by-products of the intended process. These might include sub-melodies heard within repeated melodic patterns, stereophonic effects due to listener location, slight irregularities in performance, harmonics, difference tones, etc…That area of every gradual (completely controlled) musical process, where one hears the details of the sound moving out away from intentions, occuring for their own acoustic reasons, is it.

Basically, at the point where data-streams cross—when the sounds generated in the performance meet and interact with material variables (in listeners, in performance enviornments, etc.)—unpredicted effects can emerge. No control system accounts for everything; sure, it can rapidly adapt to and co-opt emergent phenomena, but it can never exhaustively capture each potential variable.

Reich repeatedly emphasizes that these moments of genuinely unpredicted deviation cannot be intentionally produced, predicted or willed: “While performing and listening to gradual musical processes one can participate in a particular liberating and impersonal kind of ritual. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible that shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards towards it.” Part of the reason why these phenomena can’t be intended/willed is because they are not subjective (he, she, you, me) phenomena; rather, they occur at the level of populations, institutions, systems (or, as Deleuze might say, packs).[iii]

Contemporary pop songs are microcosms of larger-scale neoliberal structures

Shaviro argues that the “difficult task, therefore, is to translate…the impalpable flows and forces of finance into images and sounds that we can apprehend on the screen” (37). Contemporary pop genres like EDM and dubstep actually do that work of translation: they articulate or express the very “libidinal flows [that] are coextensive with financial ones” (49), but in very concrete, non-abstract ways. I’m going to be brief and somewhat schematic here:

1.    Because there is no teleological development, just the back-and-forth between upper and lower limits of intensity, there is neither resolution nor harmony (both very important in tonal music, both actually related: harmony is what gets resolved). And it’s not so much a “sense that you never finish anything” or of “endless postponements,” but rather that finishing or postponement are non-issues. It doesn’t feel like a postponement because we’re not expecting/listening for a “finish.” Or, as Shaviro puts it, “Worrying about long-term prospects and consequences is a luxury that nobody can afford. In a world of ‘just-in-time’ production, one cannot make more than ‘just-in-time’ plans” (53). If there’s no large-scale form except what the moment-to-moment details tell us, then we can’t hedge our bets on some future payoff, because the exact texture of that future is not determinable with sufficient precision.
2.    Instead of functionalist hierarchies, modularity: Tonal harmony is a hierarchy of chord functions: tonic, dominant, sub-dominant, mediant, etc. Each chord has a function (resolution, implication of resolution, delay/diversion from resolution, etc.), and functions are all ordered hierarchically in relation to a primary chord. Neoliberal music and cinema, like “financial derivates[,] are ‘functionally indifferent’: they can be used to ‘price,’ and thereby stand in for, the ‘risk’ implicit in any situation whatsoever…Things don’t need to harmonize, or fit together” (Shaviro 53). Basically, by voiding functionality, the hierarchy collapses (or by voiding the hierarchy, functionality collapses). Instead of functional, organic wholes, compositions are arrangements (assemblages) of modules. Modules can be arranged in any order, because there is no hierarchy of functions that demands specific types of organization. With functionality voided, the rise and fall in a song can’t be teleological, because there is no clearly-defined goal or orienting center. In other words, there’s no development, no cause-and-effect-like logic to the song’s unfolding through various different elements/motives/etc. As in all Manovichian new media, “the cutting-and-pasting of elements that are synchronically available in a database replaces the suturing of shots that unfold diachronically” (Shaviro 79). Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been” is a modular song; I discuss it here. Shaviro calls this post-cinematic cutting-and-pasting digital compositing, and I think it’s most evident, musically, in pop dubstep like Skrillex’s. Pop dubstep composition is, in a way, the musical equivalent of Michael Bay’s cinematography. According to Shaviro, “Bays’ films…eschew considerations of continuity almost entirely, in favor of disjunctive cutting engineered so as to maximize shock” (80). This shock-intensifying disjunctive cutting is an equally apt description of Skrillex’s hit “Bangerang.”

Formal Diagram of “Bangerang”:

A: 4 measures
A1: 4 measures plus “shout to all my lost boys:
A2: A1 + additional synth + cymbal roll

B starts w/ first lite-drop



C (soar starts)

D (break)
A1.1 (soar for real)

B (sort of drop, but not really a classic dubstep drop b/c not in the bass bass)


3.    So how is brostep, exemplified here by “Bangerang,” analogous or homologous with post-cinematic film?[iv] Let’s break this down:

a.    The song is composed of samples or computer-generated patterns. Each individual sample or looped synth motive is modular—it’s like the sonic expression of a note written with letters cut out from different printed sources, sorta like the Sex Pistols used on “God Save the Queen”.

There’s no stylistic, aesthetic, or formal reason these sonic modules fit together, other than the fact that Skrillex put them there in that order; the order is, in other words, not following any sort of coherent external logic. As Shaviro explains, this “additive” compositional style “overlays, juxtaposes and restlessly moves between multiple images and sound sources. But it does not provide us with any hierarchical organization of all these elements. Many of the [song]’s most arresting [sounds] just pop up, without any discernible motivation or point of view” (71). There is no centered or centering term; the logic has no internal, inherent governing principle. So, unlike a melody, which has a coherent logic from one moment to the next, “Bangarang”’s main musical motives “read” like a document written with cut-out letters (or, in Shaviro’s terms, with each letter in a different “window” (81). The main (i.e., not percussion) line in the B sections of “Bangerang” are particularly clear examples of this compositing technique/affect. There are wobbled bass effects, snips of vocal samples (a scream, “we rowdy,” “bass,” and, of course, “bangerang”), stuttered synth sounds, treble drops, a whole ton of different sounds and sound effects. Each individual module is neither related nor unrelated to the ones on either side of it, because continuity, coherence, all these higher-order operations aren’t factors in the song’s musical composition. To paraphrase Shaviro, “the [song]’s sheer density of incidents and references baffles our efforts to ‘translate’ what we see and hear into something more abstract, more metaphorically palatable and easily manageable” (78). This means that the song “is entirely incoherent, and yet ‘immediately legible to anyone’” (80); old Western standards of coherence just don’t hold anymore. So, there’s a logic here, it’s just not one that privileges “coherence.” The fact that this logic is so accessible is one thing that allows this form or structure to “globalize” with ease—there’s no need to “translate” it to local pop vernaculars, you can just take the formula and plug-and-chug. It’s a turn-key shell. Similarly, Transformers can be global megahits because of their “incoherence”: As Shaviro notes, “Bay makes films that are utterly disjointed, and yet unfold in such a ‘smooth space’ that these disjunctions scarcely matter to mass audiences” (80).

b.    So neither “Bangerang” nor Transformers fell apart into utterly confusing nonsense; if they were nonsense, they were at least digestable nonsense. What holds them together, or on what basis do these works loosely hang together? Shaviro argues that in post-cinematic media, it’s the soundtrack, particularly, the “spoken commentary [that] weaves together and makes coherent what otherwise would seem to be an utterly random stream of images” (82). In brostep, it’s not speech, but the four-on-the-floor percussion that holds otherwise incoherent modules together. (Hence the importance of the refrain qua, uh, refrain?). Brostep is not truly generative; it’s obviously not process music. Rather, its small-scale (4/4 meter) and large-scale (groups of 3 or 4 four-bar modules) rhythmic and metric patterns that set the conditions/parameters within which anything can happen.

c.     Now, obviously I need to go back and watch Transformers and some other films to hash out further comparisons. But, working from the music end, these seem to be important questions:
                                               i.     Is there a post-cinematic equivalent of “the drop” (build to silence, then a big bass hit on the next downbeat, usually with a pitch flourish downwards). Right now I’m thinking of the skydiving scene in Abrams’ Star Trek, which is both literally a “drop” and perhaps a cinematic drop, especially when paired with “Sabotage”? Again, I need to think more about this. Or, if you have suggestions, that would be great—I’m not at all a cinema person, so my knowledge of potential examples is pretty limited here.
                                             ii.     Is there a post-cinematic equivalent of wobble? Wobbling is a specific form of modulation, one where an oscillator is used to create recurring patterns of timbral distortion. More simply, wobbling is a way to put effects and fliters on a bass signal to create a wob-wob-wob type sound. The oscillation creates the affect of a bass signal wobbling back and forth. This definitely happens in music videos, but movies I don’t know enough to make any claims on this count. This is definitely happening in music videos (Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been” again, Minaj’s “Pound The Alarm”). I don’t watch enough film to know if this is happening in contemporary mainstream cinematography.

So at this point I’m running up against the limits of my knowledge of flim. In general I’m comfortable claiming that post-cinematic 4D media and “repetitive” pop (EDM, dubstep, etc.) follow similar neoliberal logics. The materiality/medium question is going to have to be put off for another post. However, I think that there’s an argument that it’s actually the sine wave that is the medium here—except in a very abstract, “virtual” (in the Deleuzian sense) way—and this medium then gets taken up in different genres (post-cinematic film, dubstep, etc.). So this might then mean that it’s signal itself that’s the medium…which sort of makes sense, right, given the fact that we’re talking mainly about digitally-produced and consumed film and music. Music and 4D viz digi/electro work then become different genres of the same underlying medium, and not so much distinct art forms. If they remain distinct art forms, it’s due more to cultural practice/convention, less to material difference.

[i] http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/draft/ben/feld/mod1/readings/reich.html
[ii] “Processes do not occur in space but define their own spatial frame. The concept of space is embedded in or internal to process…space varies from moment to moment, along with the forces that generate and invest it” (17)
[iii] Improvisation, on the other hand, is a more subjective concept.“The distinctive thing about musical processes is that they determine all the note-to-note details and the over all form simultaneously. One can't improvise in a musical process--the concepts are mutually exclusive.” So it’s not the compositional form that is “controlled,” but the conditions or system in which the compositional form unfolds. This parallels Foucault’s claim in Birth of Biopolitics that neoliberal economists didn’t seek to control the market itself, but the conditions for the market’s functioning. Reich’s claim here also clarifies that “improvisation”—a very beloved metaphor for individual freedom in liberal democracy—doesn’t even make sense in neoliberal systems. Improv happens when note-to-note details ornament a rigid underlying framework (like a 12-bar blues in A); in process music, there is no underlying framework prior to or apart from the note-to-note details.

[iv] There’s also a sociological homology between brostep and Bay’s films: they’re both basically targeting the same demographic, brah.

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