25 November 2012

Taking MIDIjunkies Into The Death, v 2.0


This is the revision of a previous post, which was a draft of some material I was working on for an article. I've finished a more polished draft (note: not a final draft, or a finalized draft, or my final word on any of this), so I thought I would post the revised version here. I didn't replace the old post because I think it is important, both intellectually and pedagogically, to be really transparent about how thought and ideas develop. As always, I welcome your often awesome, amazing, and super-helpful feedback.

In this section, I discuss a pair of songs on 1995: “Midijunkies” and “Into the Death.” I read these songs as identifying and critiquing the biopolitical management of queer/black/Ostie death (whether or not ATR explicitly intended this interpretation is not my concern). In “Midijunkies,” an allusion to Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus illustrates exactly how neoliberal “control societies” control for biopolitical death.[i] “Into the Death” suggests one way to jam these mechanisms of control. In neoliberalism, death is a specific configuration of data, a precise level of intensity that is either just above or below functionality (overdriven or broken down).  ATR musically intensify sonic overdrive and breakdown; I read this as an analogy for the political embellishment (over- and under-production) of “bare life.” “Into the Death” queers the logic of intensity and neoliberal technologies of investment. 


1. MIDIjunkies

The queer repetition, looping, and electric buzzing that, in classically liberal regimes, were illegible to hegemony, and thus opposites or alternatives to it, are, by the 1990s, registered as deviances that are always-already controlled for. Specifically, they’re preprogrammed right into MIDI interfaces, VSTs, sequencers, samplers, and all sorts of other electronic music media. MIDIs (and other electronic instruments) give easy access to biopolitical death, in the form of both (a) the black/queer critical strategies of repetition, looping, and electronic buzzing, and (b) the ability to use those strategies in ways that mimic biopolitical death. They give us access to intensities that are excessively high or excessively low, what is illegible and imperceptible to neoliberal hegemony, and thus might appear to undermine hegemony’s attempts to manage it. However, as ATR’s song “MIDIjunkies” warns, this is only a faux subversion: it fucks you up, not hegemony.

As Deleuze and Guattari argue in A Thousand Plateaus, drugs can induce a sort of faux-subversion of neoliberal logics of intensity (in Deleuze’s terms, “control society”). According to them, getting fucked up on drugs mimics the experience of radical critique—what they call “deterritorialization.” Drugs “change perception,” alter its speed and intensity, and thus can reorganize epistemic and perceptual frameworks (TP 282), making perceptible what was, in hegemonic regimes, imperceptible.[ii] Psychedelics do this, amphetamines do this, even alcohol and caffeine do this. However, they argue that in drug use, “the deterritorializations remain relative” (TP 285) because highs are finite and everybody comes down sometimes. Human physiology and drug chemistry are hard limits; drug use happens in “the context of a relative thresholds that restrict” drug use to the “imitation” of deterritorialization (TP 284). Drug addiction even further restricts the possibilities opened up by drug use: addicts go “down, instead of high…the causal line, creative line, or line of flight” opened by drug use “turns into a line of death and abolition” (TP 285). In other words, drugs fuck up junkies, not hegemony…The trick is that hegemony convinces these “junkies” that their dejection is actually transgressive, even though it is carefully accounted for and managed. Junkies deviate in ways that are already standardized and accounted for. These loosers fail in hegemony’s terms: as in a video game, losers might have shitty profiles full of losses and deficient in wins, but they still have a profile that the system tracks.

“MIDIjunkies” treats MIDIs as drugs in the DeleuzoGuattarian sense. MIDIs can be used in ways that make artists feel like they’re fucking shit up, subverting hegemony’s arche…but the do so in very carefully controlled and limited ways. One might think these electronic tools allow us to intensify repetition and noisiness beyond the limits of human perception or kinesthetic capacity. However, all hardware and software have limits: knobs only go up to 10, so to speak (and however you measure it, potentiometers do have mechanical and electrical limits). In DeleuzoGuattarian terms, MIDIs make planes of consistency within a plane of organization (i.e., the technological and mechanical limits of the MIDI program, the potentiometers on the control devices, etc.). The most prominent example of this is the song’s use of apparently unmetered sound. To the causal listener, the last part of the song—about 4 minutes in, after the bass drops out and all that’s left are various treble synths—might appear to abandon the song’s solid 4/4 and veer off into nonmetric noodling (the same nooodling, notably, that begins “Delete Yourself”). There is no regular bass or percussion pattern to follow, so casual listeners could easily loose the downbeat. This section seems to exemplify what Deleuze and Guattari call, “a liberation of time, Aion, a nonpulsed time for a floating music, as Boulez says, an electronic music in which forms give way to pure modifications of speed” (TP 267; emphasis mine).


But these sections are not unmetered. The noodling still falls into four-bar phrases: every four bars, the musical motive changes slightly. The song itself is only superficially non-metric. Moreover, most listeners were not casual—they were fervently dancing, pogoing up and down to the beat and keeping meter with their bodies (in lieu of the bass and percussion tracks doing it for them).[iii] This apparent foray into the nonmetric shows that what appears as unregulated improvisation is in fact possible only because of a very tightly managed foundation. Similar approaches are found in African-American music. For example, in the Moonwalker version of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” there is a vocal breakdown that, to the casual listener, is composed of aleatory, non-metric groans and moans. As the video’s staging shows, Jackson is in control throughout, carefully orchestrating what looks like unmanaged chaos (e.g., he keeps time by snapping his fingers or moving his body).[iv] As the music in MIDIjunkies shows, this apparent transgression of metric arche isn’t, in fact, a transgression.

The real junkies here are the ones addicted to classically liberal concepts of death and resistance as negation—the ones who think “flowers in the dustbin” are actually oppositional, and not the compost fueling neoliberal biopower. Non-metrical music is an-archic, and like the Pistols, treats death or negation in a classically liberal framework. Because neoliberalism always-already co-opts death, randomness, and an-arche, these strategies do not challenge biopolitical hegemonies. Neoliberal regimes use biopolitical administration to regularize death; a normalized variable, death is not a form of distortion. The task, then, is to distort death. This is what ATR do on their song “Into the Death.” Here, they use the hyper-intensification of biopolitical or metric regulation to subvert neoliberal hegemony.


2. Into The Death

Drug users believed that drugs would grant them the plane, when in fact the plane must distill its own drugs (D&G TP 286).

            “Into the Death,” can be interpreted as, like Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus, treating critical practice as a matter of “distilling” death, making it too intense. If MIDIs (drugs) themselves cannot significantly affect biopolitical logics of administration and control; however, it may be possible to subvert neoliberal hegemony by intensifying the techniques that MIDIs make possible, pushing them to the point where they’re not distorting sound so much as power—or rather, by affecting power through sound. This happens when the sonic noise ATR produces introduces statistical “noise” into the biopolitical management of life and death. In “Into the Death” ATR attempt to distil black/queer/Ostie death into its most intensified form, what band leader Alec Empire calls “riot sounds.”[v] By distorting death, ATR’s song incites a riot in the management of life; in a sound wave as in a statistical distribution, alterations to the nadir will affect the shape and amplitude of the apex. In this section, I’ll explain what ATR mean by “riot sounds,” and then use “Into the Death” to illustrate how they work.

            If an-arche is the negation of order, “rioting” is the intensification of order. Empire describes “riot sounds” as “functional music,” a sort of biohacking. “With the way we program the beats and use certain frequencies, it has this effect on your adrenaline,” Empire explains.[vi] ATR use MIDIS and other biopolitical/algorithmic tools to produce abnormal, inappropriate effects and affects:

It’s the riot sounds, man…There’s something about distortion when it’s applied in a certain way… that creates these overtones, and it does something with the brain. It triggers certain senses that we can’t explain with normal music science, the way we know it maybe from Western European music.[vii]

ATR don’t reject management—they’re distorting sound waves in “certain way[s]” to hack into and distort brainwaves. Rioting is counter-hegemonic management. It takes the tools biopolitical neoliberalism uses to invest in life, like algorithms (statistical data, synthesizer patches), and applies them instead to death. It carefully, microscopically, and vigilantly intensifies death. So, for example, while neoliberal management strategies invest in promoting flexibility and adaptability, riotous, queer management strategies invest in the opposite—stringent, uncompromising order.

            If, as Steven Shaviro argues, neoliberalism requires subjects to be infinitely flexible and adaptable, rigidity, precision, and exact quantization can undermine this demand.[viii] Neoliberalism uses biopolitical management to optimize flexibility. Musically, this flexibility is evident in Cages aleatory pieces or Reich’s process pieces: strict overarching material or compositional parameters allow for a great degree of variability in each performance of a piece. “Into the Death,” however, is quite rigidly composed in all aspects. For example, the meter is a constant 4/4 throughout; even though the sections without a bass synth on every beat might seem to have a more relaxed tempo than the sections with it, the song’s tempo is a consistent 188bpm. The rigidity allows the MIDIs—or, in this case, the TR-909s—to distill their own drugs/distortions. Machines can be more precise than human perception; they can, as Ronald Bogue puts it, “accelerate (or decelerate) metrical regularities until they” appear to “collapse or run out of control” (97). Blast drumming is a particularly clear example of intensified metric regularity. As Bogue explains, blast drumming is one “tactic of accelerating meters to the point of collapse,” produced through the “cut-time alteration of downbeat kick drum and offbeat snare, the accent being heard on the offbeat but felt on the downbeat” (99). According to Bogue, blast drumming uses ultra-precise rhythmic patterns to scramble listeners’ ability to perceive the established meter. The meter, in this way, distills its own “drug,” its own distortions.


Blast drumming is a common feature of death metal, and ATR use it in “Into the Death.”[ix] On this track, the already-overwhelming percussive “blasts” are intensified and exaggerated even further. ATR uses drum machines to accelerate blast beats beyond what a human drummer can perform.[x] In the version on 1995, hyperaccelerated blast beats appear at: 0:14-0:15, 1:02-1:04, 2:12-2:13, 2:17-2:18, 2:20-1, and at the very close at 3:12-13. The cluster of blasts in the middle of the song coincide with lyrics that critique classically liberal models of resistance. Elias says, “maybe we’ll sit down and talk about the revolution and stuff/But it doesn’t work like that,” the “but” emphasized with the 2:17-18 blast. Because ATR juxtapose them with this critique of traditional leftist ideas, we can interpret these blasts as an alternative model of critical political practice. But what’s critical and political about these blasts?

Bogue claims that blast-style metric destabilization produces Deleuzian bodies-without-organs—i.e., a complete scrambling or roll-back of organizational structures, an-arche.[xi] It has a different effect in “Into the Death.” This song does not produce a body without organs, but a precisely-engineered political tool.[xii] In ATR’s song, dissolution is not the point. The TR-909 never actually devolves the meter into actual or apparent chaos. The drum machine manages rhythm so precisely that it becomes, from the perspective of hegemony, unmanageable. Neoliberalism manages to optimize flexibility; in “Into the Death,” these managerial techniques and instruments work too perfectly, producing rigidity rather than flexibility. This hyper-quantization and intensification of metric regularity articulates a counter-arche. It is a way of queering biopolitical management, managing for ends other than the “normal” ones.[xiii]

How exactly is this hyper-exact management an intensification of black/queer/alien death? This is where the second form of “riot sounds” factor in. ATR’s work remixes or reroutes the networks that regulate the distribution of life-intensity (privilege or death), so that management produces “abnormal” results. They intensify precisely what shouldn’t be intensified—bare life. Hegemony manages death to make sure it stays at a specific level of intensity (e.g., “equalized” in relation to other levels/channels). Instead of plugging death into the intensification of privileged lives, which is what neoliberalism does, “Into the Death” reroutes the engines of intensification and plugs them into death. In the same way that riot sounds are made by rerouting sound signals through MIDIs, samplers, and drum machines, riots are made by rerouting investment from life to death. Rioting is an intentional bending of the circuits of power.


Image posted to Atari Teenage Riot’s twitter account; originally published in 1995.[xiv]

In neoliberalism, the critical potential of queer/black/alien death does is not found in negation, in turning power down or off; rather, it is what arises from following ATR’s command to “TURNITUP!”—it, here, being death.[xv] If “life is like a video game with no chance to win,” then the only place to go, the only thing to do, is go into the death. Instead of playing the game to win (or to lose), you play the game’s algorithms themselves (as, for example, Cory Arcangel does in Super Mario Clouds).[xvi] This involves plugging the resources normally put to capitalization (i.e., winning) back into death, overdriving it so that it does something the original algorithms haven’t or can’t account for. The product is not necessarily chaotic or unintelligible, as non-metric time/body-without-organs would be (aesthetically, Arcangel’s piece is rather conventionally modernist)—it is just not the optimal outcome for maintaining and maximizing hegemonic relations of privilege and oppression. Thus, this intensification of death is what starts a riot. Overdriving death, turning death up, will affect and distort “life”: keeping with the signal metaphor, alterations to the nadir of a curve or sine wave will also affect its apex. If death is something controlled in order to better manage life, then inhabiting death queerly will fuck neoliberal hegemony’s algorithms, fuck its management of life.

In the musical-political moment immediately prior to the wholesale co-optation of black-queer-alien death, ATR’s work explicitly thematizes this sexual/racial/national assemblage’s relationship to biopolitical death, and how, as those the neoliberal state leaves to die, subjects in this assemblage can critique and subvert 90s neoliberalsm. For a while, this mutually-reinforcing queer/black/alien/death matrix could be turned against neoliberal hegemony. This is why they had to be co-opted; “death” can only be tolerated when it is put in service of privileged lives. So, just as mid-20th century blues-rock practices of white hipness fetishize some styles of gendered racial subalternity as means to white bodily pleasure and receptivity, millennial hardcore genres appropriated and homonationalized formerly “queer” death, using it as an index of radical, alterna-boy cred (e.g., in Marilyn Manson, the convergence of goth/industrial with more mainstream metal, etc.).[xvii]


[i] For more on Deleuze’s concept of  “control society” see Gilles Deleuze, "Postscript on the Societies of Control", from _OCTOBER_ 59, Winter 1992, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 3-7.
[ii] Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
[iii] As Empire explains in his AV Club interview, “…And that was when we founded Atari Teenage Riot. That was in the beginning of 1992, when there were a lot of attacks from the Neo-Nazi movement on foreigners and immigrants and stuff.[iii]
[iv] Jackson, Michael. “Smooth Criminal” on Moonwalker, dir. Jerry Kramer. Warner Brothers 1988.
[v] http://www.timeout.jp/en/tokyo/feature/5216/Atari-Teenage-Riot-the-interview
[vi] Hanson, Todd. “Atari Teenage Riot Interview” in The AV Club, referenced above.
[vii]. “Atari Teenage Riot: The Interview” in Time Out Tokyo 11/14/2011. http://www.timeout.jp/en/tokyo/feature/5216/Atari-Teenage-Riot-the-interview Last accessed 10/27/12 1:00pm EDT.
[viii] Shaviro argues: “In the control society, or in the post-Fordist information economy, forms can be changed at will to meet the needs of the immediate situation. The only fixed requirement is precisely to maintain an underlying flexibility: an ability to take on any shape as needed, a capacity to adapt quickly and smoothly ot the demands of any given form, or any procedure, whatsoever” (15).
[ix] This is not surprising, because in the same way “Delete Yourself” is based around the Pistols’ “God Save” riff, this song takes the main guitar riff from death metal band Thanatos’s “Bodily Dismemberment.” Thanatos “Bodily Dismemberment” on Emerging from the Netherworlds. Essen, Germany: Shark Records, 1990.
[x] The copy of the liner notes posted on discogs.com lists them as using a Roland TR-909 drum machine. http://www.discogs.com/Atari-Teenage-Riot-1995/release/123219 Last accessed 10/30/12 10:21am EDT.
[xi] “What death metal musicians seek in this volume is a music of intensities, a continuum of sensation (percepts/affects) that converts the lived body into a dedifferentiated sonic body without organs” (Bogue 88).
[xii] Even though we both agree that death is not nothingness or negation, but “zero intensity,” Bogue and I have different concepts of this null point. He understands death as “the catatonic body’s zero intensity…an ecstatic, disorganized body of fluxes and flows” (105). For Bogue, zero-intensity means dissolution and disorganization. In my view, death is always highly regulated and managed—it is the bare life that biopolitics has an interest in managing, even if indirectly. So, for me, zero-intensity is a carefully produced effect. This effect fundamentally relational—it seems like zero-intensity compared to what, in a specific regime, counts as high intensity. So “death” has no inherent or necessary content or form; anything can be made to count as zero intensity. Our differences can probably be attributed to our different source texts: him, Deleuze and death metal, me, Foucault and digital hardcore.
[xiii] The queerness of rigidity and hyperattentive discipline in neoliberalism seems like a productive lens through which to examine the associations between industrial/EBM masculinities in 1980s/90s bands like Nitzer Ebb and DAF, and masculinities in queer subcultures.
[xiv] http://instagram.com/p/RNAzZKnxdP/ Last accessed 10/25/12 at 10:00am EDT.
[xv] “TURNITUP” is the only lyric n “Cyberpunk Is Dead.” This suggests a correlation, in ATR’s mind, between biopolitical (cyber-) death and intensification.
[xvi] Arcangel, Cory. Super Mario Clouds. 2002. http://www.coryarcangel.com/things-i-made/supermarioclouds/ Last accessed 10/29/12 3:57pm EDT.
[xvii] Homonationalisim is, as Jasbir Puar defines it, a “brand of homosexuality [that] operates as a regulatory script not only of normative gayness, queerness, or homosexuality, but also of the racial and national norms that reinforce these sexual subjects” (2). More simply, it is “homonormative nationalism” (38) or “national[ist] homosexuality” (2). Puar, Jasbir. Terrorist Assemblages. Durham: Duke UP 2007.

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