Society for Philosophy and Culture seminar, held at McMaster University, Canada, in January 2013, as part of our series "Crossing Borders". Marcus Boon speaks on "The Politics of Vibration" with responses by Barry Allen and Ken McLeod.
Steve Goodman's recent book Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear proposes an ontology of vibration, drawing on readings of Gaston Bachelard, Henri Lefebvre and Alfred Whitehead as well as the music-focused work of Jacques Attali. Goodman's important work is part of a broader turn towards an analysis of what Jane Bennett calls 'vibrant matter' and what Graham Harman and others have termed 'speculative realism' and/or 'object oriented ontology', exploring the peculiar agency that nonhuman objects have, their role in politics and aesthetics. Until now, little attention has been paid to music and/or sound as objects in this sense, or what the relation of object or sound to vibration might be at the level of an ontology.
There are questions about Goodman's approach however. Using evidence drawn mostly from contemporary musical subcultures, Goodman focuses almost exclusively on an "ontology of vibrational force" conceived of mostly in military or counter-military terms, and therefore in terms of violence. In this paper, I explore the possibility of other genealogies of vibrational ontology, that take into account the compelling association of music, sound and vibration with violence. Through readings of Sigmund Freud, Erwin Schrodinger, Julia Kristeva and Roberto Esposito, I present a different model of vibration as a fundamental constituent of what is, one that acknowledges the problem of violence but pays equal attention to an erotics of vibration, built around intimacy, solidarity and awareness, qualities often cultivated by those who participate in subcultural music scenes. I look at some examples of thinkers who have articulated a specific politics of vibration, including Wilhelm Reich and Amiri Baraka, and I explore the challenges of drawing specific political principles or conclusions from an affirmation of the fundamental nature of vibration.
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