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Sonic Fiction and Five Fragments of Interpol

in Ark Review/Essays/Musings by
Cover of William Gibson’s Neuromancer—An influential novel in the formation of theory-fiction

My academic research is into a practice called sonic fiction. On occasion, I also write some myself too. Sonic fiction is a type of music writing that seeks to flatten the relationship between music as something of sensation and experience and something that can be a source of intellectual exploration. It was borne out of the practice of theory-fiction, which was itself developed from a collision of speculative science fiction and the strange theories of knowledge found in postmodern French philosophy1. Theory-fiction is a way of flattening the relationship between the kind of thinking that takes place when one tries to use a contrived structure to explain something in reality (we could call this theory) and when one tries to use a contrived structure to explore something in reality (we could call this fiction). I have previously written in more detail about the practice and some of its more disturbing implications but, suffice to say, this methodology and its practitioners are not the panacea to all the questions of knowledge production we find ourselves still wrestling with today. That said, and this is a discussion for another time, what theory-fiction has contributed to this debate is difficult to ignore.

Sonic fiction adds another dimension to this: the problem of music. The discussion of music through linguistic semiotics (writing or talking about it) has long been hampered by music’s particular material and temporal character; to hear it is to instantly only remember hearing it, to pause a moment is to transform it into repetition. Music can only exist in relation to change, performing it or performing its absence. This becomes more complex still as music is inherently social in its definition. This is not to say that all music has an explicitly social function rather, that the concept of music can only exist with reference to social forms of life. The ratios of musical harmony may be underpinned by some universal law but this is the universal significance of vibration. While not unrelated to music, music is a concept that gains its significance from society.  To this end, Theodor Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory that “Music betrays all art”. What he means by this is that music operates by default at such a level of abstraction and without the need for direct representations that these abstractions themselves can be reified despite appearing resistant to such a fate. While most art, for Adorno, could only hope to attain the level of formal abstraction that music has from the outset, which could then be dialectically synthesised with the otherwise inexpressible truth content and thus become an emancipatory work of art, music, in its socialisation, has betrayed this goal.

This image of theory-as-headmaster is what more than anything theory-fiction and Eshun’s sonic fiction seeks to break down. This does not mean losing the rigorous commitment to theoretical analysis but rather dehierarchialising it. There is a danger in theory that it can be mistaken for something other than it is.

 

Kodwo Eshun

Long gone now are the kind of categories and the kind of categorical thinking, at least in progressive academic circles, that made Adorno’s view of music such a drag. A view—the insights of which into music’s social function and entanglement with capitalism—that is today so difficult to appreciate as it buries itself under ignorance of its topic and unacknowledged racism. After years of philosophical developments, the media’s saturation of culture and rapid technological change, Kodwo Eshun, the originator of the term sonic fiction, expressed are more complex version of Adorno’s frustration with a great deal more clarity and fun in his soon to be republished masterpiece, More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction in 1998. For Eshun, rather than the artwork being a locus of potential social change, the artwork had long since dissolved into the social. Because, after Deleuze and Guattari, there was desire and the social and nothing else. Nowhere was this more apparent than the nexus point that is music. Here technology, mass culture, fine art, capital and (post-)human expression come together in such a way that illustrates the folly of allowing the labels of these things make us believe they were ever distinct.

Eshun’s work attempts to provide a route through three impediments to engagement with music: The first is logocentrism, expanded to include the emphasis placed on the semantic structures that are embedded in western understandings of musical harmony. A school of musical understanding that places value on meaning and comprehension over sensation, experience and materiality. The second, however, are those that assume music with a focus on rhythm and materiality has somehow transcended intellectualism. In other words, the colonialism of an Oxbridge student2 after spending a summer by the Ganges. These are the targets of the opening shots fired as Eshun writes:

“Respect due. Good music speaks for itself. No Sleevenotes required. Just enjoy it. Cut the crap. Back to basics. What else is there to add?

All these troglodytic homilies are Great British cretinism masquerading as vectors into the Trad Sublime. Since the 80s, the mainstream British music press has turned to Black Music only as a rest and a refuge from the rigorous complexities of white guitar rock. Since in this laughable reversal a lyric always means more than a sound, while only guitars can embody the zeitgeist, the Rhythmachine is locked in a retarded innocence. You can theorize words or style, but analyzing the groove is believed to kill its bodily pleasure, to drain its essence.

Allegedly at odds with the rock press, dance-press writing also turns its total inability to describe any kind of rhythm into a virtue, invoking a white Brit routine of pubs and clubs, of business as usual, the bovine sense of good blokes together. You can see that the entire British dance press – with its hagiographies and its geographies, its dj recipes, its boosterism, its personality profiles – constitutes a colossal machine for maintaining rhythm as an unwritable, ineffable mystery. And this is why Trad dance-music journalism is nothing more than lists and menus, bits and bytes: meagre, miserly, mediocre.” (-007)

Eshun’s third impediment is theory itself as the great explainer. It’s not enough to simply understand that existence is made up of more than language and that, furthermore the non-semantic can be intellectually pursued, one has to realise that this pursuit is not towards a finally analysis but, instead, the energy the propels and an ever-accelerating vortex of intensity. As Eshun explains:

“In CultStud, TechnoTheory and CyberCulture, those painfully archaic regimes, theory always comes to Music’s rescue. The organization of sound is interpreted historically, politically, socially. Like a headmaster, theory teaches today’s music a thing or 2 about life. It subdues music’s ambition, reins it in, restores it to its proper place, reconciles it to its naturally belated fate.

In More Brilliant than the Sun the opposite happens, for once: music is encouraged in its despotic drive to crumple chronology like an empty bag of crisps, to eclipse reality in its wilful exorbitance, to put out the sun. Here music’s mystifying illogicality is not chastised but systematized and intensified – into MythSciences that burst the edge of improbability, incites a proliferating series of mixillogical mathemagics at once maddening and perplexing, alarming, alluring.” (-004)

This image of theory-as-headmaster is what more than anything theory-fiction and Eshun’s sonic fiction seeks to break down. This does not mean losing the rigorous commitment to theoretical analysis but rather dehierarchialising it. There is a danger in theory that it can be mistaken for something other than it is. Some reify theory, thinking it the abstraction from which all empirically based experiences and practices are little more than pale corruptions. Whereas theory is merely a best-fit fudge we can use to perhaps glimpse something of the deeply complex connections that structure our world.

Sun Ra—Avan Garde jazz musician and pioneer Afrofuturist aesthetics

For Eshun, and many of sonic fictions original practitioners, this practice was something that allowed music with a focus on rhythm and texture rather than lyric melody or traditional harmony to have their depths exposed (not explained). In particular, the practice added a great deal to the aesthetic practice of Afrofuturism, which resituates the position of black diasporic peoples as one of problematic but thrilling possibility rather than one over-determined by historic and contemporary plunder. That all said, this practice is not exclusive to these forms of music. Despite, as Eshun rightly points out, the music press has always given too much attention to what could be called white guitar music, I would argue that even here the kind of analysis on display is one of superficial sonic semiotics and lyrics as overblown poetry.

So with that in mind, I want to look at five songs, Interpol, as they titer between the kind wry wit of an overly acclaimed New Yorker short-story and a sublime desperation that makes words of explanation seem obsolete. A band that dress like the depiction of investment bankers in a manga, who to me produce images, through their music and visuals, of a life that has accelerated into the commodity fetish, into the object cause of desire, and that is now left to reverberate in the in the cavernous emptiness therein. The fascination for me is that there is no redemption here. If there is a beyond is only just visible in the distance and made ever more distant but the erotics of the reflective surfaces of the chrome and glass that surround you. These are quick sketches that need to be developed into something more complete. But what they try to do is delve into these works not as stylistic enigmas to be solved but the initiation of something: the movements of a machine that can give temporary form to a momentary affective resonance. These are not full sonic fictions yet but rather the coalescence of kernels from which full fictions may grow. 

 

Five Fragments of Interpol

Obstacle 1

For when the comfort runs dry there will be a club you half-remember with doors open before you. A place where companionship does not mean nothing per se, but what it means here is so utterly incompatible with the something everyone else takes it to mean. And what is love here, when it is so engulfed by desire? Not as some crass opposition but as parallel drives powered by images of your own imagining and also everyone else. Every major is also minor. Let’s dance until our feet bleed and dry lips crack and sweat stings in our eyes. If this could last forever it would offer no thrill. Because destruction is boring if it’s total. Because something needs to be left if we are to feel a sense of loss. A landscape needs a mark if there is to be a sense of scale.  

Evil

This is the moment of temporal compression you have never wanted to feel. But the faces around you tell you that this is normal. Not ideal but normal. Or that it should be. It is far too late now anyway. Pleasure becomes a drip feed because too much fun is an ever more real threat. It that a real tan, Rosemary? But no, just go with it go with it. Speak about travel. You have your whole life ahead of you, for whatever that’s worth. And now, where has all this sentiment gotten you? Everywhere you have been, everything you have done, and now all there is to ask is: can this hurt not be stopped? This incessant gnawing? But of course, it can. 

No I in Threesome

It did not seem possible that they were just words. But now it is abundantly clear that this is exactly what they were. Signifiers that went nowhere once our matter began to degrade. Let’s not pretend things are the same. What good would that do us now? Yes, it is an undeniable shame in some way or another but is it also not time to leave this kind of petty possessiveness behind? To whom are we trying to prove piety now that it is already so very late? Almost too late. We should try almost anything to keep this working but already there may already have been too much said. To many glances noticed and too many that went unnoticed. There was never enough time.

Barricade

Oh, to be politically engaged. Perhaps that would get me off the hook for my (our) issues. Something else to saturate. The mistake was pursuing understanding when they mysticism of wry wit was serving so well. But everything is images, no?

All The Rage Home

The sky stretches out before you in a manner that used to give you hope but now can only trap you in a memory. A memory that takes but a few moments to fall back into as visceral sensation. But something of that is always missing. Something always differed. Lacking. Postponed. Euphoria is becoming little more than a substitute, which is so much sadder than when it was simply unavailable to you.  A choir of dulled voices reminds you are moving ever further away from the only place where connection was not an object to be sought after but an assumption. With all the ease and horror usually that assumptions always bring.

 

Works cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet Books, 1999.

  1. Theories that problematise what constitutes knowledge. Rather than knowledge simply being what one can reason and empirically observe, postmodernism argued that knowledge is historically contingent and dependent on systems of power and communication for its constitution
  2. Eshun is an Oxford graduate himself.

Macon has spent the last four years trying to shoehorn Infinite Jest into a PhD about popular music and capitalism. He managed to do this by making it about something called sonic fiction. He is one half of the podcasting team and the reason why the critical theory section is an odd mix of Adorno and Deleuze & Guattari. For many months he was mistaken for a ghost that had decided to haunt the store, but it was just him editing his thesis and/or the podcast. Here he writes about things which might be true or are entirely made up.

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