Sept. 27 Readings--Attali

Jacques Attali’s book Noise: The Political Economy of Music is often described as a cultural historiography of the relationships between music and societal structure. However, this placid description does little to capture the tone and substance of this volume, which engages with not only music history and historiography but also cultural theory, economics, art history, communications theory, Marxian and post-Marxian dictums, etc., etc., etc. In short, to describe the book in Attalian terms, it commits violence upon the reader, drawing myth with a pen of hyperbole in order to rupture the harmonic arrangements of musical and social thought and expose the fact that nothing in the world of music is “innocent.” Frederic Jameson offers a concise statement of the ambiguity of music's social potential in the foreword to Noise: "Music, unique among the arts for reasons that are themselves overdetermined, has precisely this annunciatory vocation; and that the music of today stands both as a promise of a new, liberating mode of production, and as the menace of a dystopian possibility which is that mode of production's baleful mirror image." (xi)

The book itself is divided into six chapters. This response addresses the first three: “Listening,” “Sacrificing,” and “Representing,” each with different goals. In the first chapter, Attali introduces a number of premises (addressed below) about the nature of music and its place in the world; he asserts that Noise is essentially a map of the networks through which music has rendered (anticipated) social structures and the changes within them. "In this book, I would like to trace the political economy of music as a succession of orders(ie., differences) done violence by noises that are prophetic because they create new orders, unstable and changing" (19). The four musical-social orders, or networks, described by Attali (chapters 2-5 of the book address each) are: 1. music as ritual sacrifice for the mitigation of the violence of noise (establishing social order); 2. music as spectacle is representative of social order and the harmony of Law (ie., the absence of "noisy" disorder); 3. music as a mode of bureaucratic normalization via repetition, ie., the silencing of "noisy" opposition within the social structure with recording technology and production industry; and 4. music as a modality of freedom and self-communication within the social structure via the process of composition (negotiation of differences/noises - generation of new orders, codes).

The second chapter begins in a broader way to elaborate on the concepts that Attali introduces into the first chapter, especially drawing parallels between music and economics and focusing in on idea of music as “ritual murder.” In this chapter he also elucidates his usage of the term "codes" in describing musical communication. Although he posits that music is a "channelizer" of violence (noise) and a mode of ordering information, he makes clear that music is not a language; in fact he disagrees with Derrida's assertion that before language, music did not exist: “if [Derrida's hypotheses] were accurate, music would not only necessarily be a transcribable, thus readable, discourse; but in addition all music separate from speech would have to be judged ‘degenerate’.” (25) Music, unlike language according to Attali, "has neither meaning or finality." (25) His argument is that, in various ways throughout large periods in the history of the human race, music is the (ever changing) network of codes that sublimate the "noisy" tendencies of our social imaginary and that it is a centralizing force for civil society that manages our differences and heralds new possibilities for human organization. This is an interesting duality that music channels noise, and is the centralizing voice of civil society. It is as though music has entropic power, propelled by people listening to it and creating it.

The third chapter traces music and its place in Western society through the early recording era, leading us up to the fourth chapter (“Repeating”) which examines more closely the impact of recording on the place of music in society.

It is perhaps easier to read the structure of Attali’s book by examining the contents of each chapter within the framework where they are initially introduced in the first chapter. This is where Attali’s presents a panoply of important ideas discussed throughout the volume. It begins with one of several of Attali’s astonishing pronouncements: that the world “is not legible, but audible.” (4) With this quasi-introduction, Attali briefly introduces a number of interrelated concepts of noise, music, and their relationship to the world:

1) That music, “the organization of noise,” is not only crucial to understanding the “manufacture of society,” but to predict the path that society will take—music is prophetic. (4) He goes on to suggest that music both reflects and embodies the structures of society (for example, the discussion of Mozart and Bach, Joplin and Hendrix) in social themes and the structure of its composition, but also in harmonic format. He discusses this idea at great length in the third chapter, drawing parallels—for example, between the patronage system and the harmonic structure of Bach, or between the conductor’s role and growing societal individualism. While Attali's writing is definitely not the easiest to follow, it is when he gives these specific examples that his ideas are most successful and intriguing. The third chapter uses historical examples most regularly, such as the connections between French history, the social position of the bourgeoisie, and the economic status of musicians and composers, and the second chapter on Sacrificing could have used more examples.

2) That music is a prophet, capable of predicting the future—not only that it reflects society, but that changes in musical structure prefigure changes in social structure. Music, in this case, no longer simply acts as a reflection of society but serves as a way of perceiving the world and observing social evolution. It functions as an outlet in which one can analyze the past as well as the direction of future changes within political economies. Music has prophetic power because it has no concrete meaning. Musicians can use music to truly represent how people and societies feel in a way beyond words, with perhaps a greater degree of accuracy because of this lack of denotation. Attali's discussion of music as prophecy often focuses on the musical sound. "It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible, that will impose itself and regulate the order of things; it is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future" (11). Rather than a focus on the audible music, would it not be advantageous to focus on the musicians who are creating this new world of the future through music? Although the musician is discussed by Attali, his focus remains on the music and its potential to be prophetic. These are two different ways of looking at this same issue. Is the music changing the political and social landscapes, or are the people creating the music truly the ones who are creating (foreseeing) social change?

3) That music is “originating in ritual murder.” This concept, discussed theoretically throughout the second chapter and illustrated historically in the third, originates with the distinction between noise (simultaneously functioning as raw and as unauthorized sound) and music, its domesticated brother. Attali’s comparisons between music and murder, though quite diverse in implications, focus around human unity, guilt, and the codification and maintenance of social functioning. Through the domestication of sound through societal order, one produces certain accepted codes that govern music and form a network(society). Musicians here are used as a kind of scapegoat in which they channel noise in order to reduce the threat of raw uncontrolled noise/violence and in doing so illustrate the structure of power. Noise, still existing on the outside, is a force that can be used to disrupt, morph, or destroy the codes, network, society, music. In this sense, noise is akin to raw energy, and music is the energy that safely transmits through power lines. A lightning strike of noise may not have the same amount of power as music flowing through power lines, but it can easily disrupt events.

4) That changes in music, politics, and economics are closely linked; music’s value (both in the sense of use and the sense of profit) can be direct, exploitative, and alienating in a Marxist sense. He draws the distinction between productive and unproductive producers of music (39), noting the differences in the production of capital when an experience of music is sold and it is a product itself. Thus, the production, exchange, and consumption of music is always a political act. Attali does this very thoroughly in Chapter 3 with his discussion of copyright in France, where copyright protections were first affirmed. He says, "In the beginning, the purpose of copyright was not to defend artists' rights, but rather to serve as a tool of capitalism in its fight against feudalism" (52). He goes on to explain the important role copyright played in the transition from court patronage to freelance employment in a capitalist system.

5) That something peculiar happened with the advent of recording, repetition. He seems particularly fearful of this change—music distributed without context, without limitations of origin and the approval of a single regime. Attali explains that without this context, music loses meaning and becomes nothing more than an effect of mass production and repetition. The musician is no longer the channeler but a faint memory of something that simply serves as a template or mold for replication. This “crisis of proliferation,” while threatening a “meaningless, repetitive, mimetic society,” can lead to a destruction of previous codes (societal rules) and an overhaul of all these interlinked systems through composition. (45)

6) That the power of music (and noise) before this violent destruction of codes can be used for the purposes of power: “eavesdropping, censorship, recording, and surveillance.” He asks, “Who among us is free of the feeling that this process, taken to an extreme, is turning the modern State into a gigantic, monopolizing noise emitter, and at the same time, a generalized eavesdropping device. Eavesdropping on what? In order to silence whom?” (7)

7) That the book as a whole is “a call to theoretical indiscipline” (5)—referring to its structure, content, and style.

Overall, an area of discussion on Attali’s work should also include the provocative language he uses to create his argument. Use of the terms “sacrifice” and “violence,” and the concept of music as “ritual murder,” are in and of themselves shocking to the reader. The use of these powerful and thought-provoking (as well as emotion-provoking) words immediately creates tension in his writing. This is in no way a coincidence. The use of such terminology shows the weight of his argument, and how important music is within social structure. As stated earlier in this response, Attali himself uses the book to “commit violence on the reader,” using this provocative language to destroy the way we currently view the marginalized nature of music in society.

There are many other themes explored in these initial chapters; however, looking at these points alone presents a provocative take on music’s role in society. Although one could ask many questions, some that seem particularly pertinent for our explorations might include:

1) Does the structure of music (not societal, but technical) really represent society as closely as Attali suggests? Can music tell the future? How would it be said to do so?

2) What is the relationship between music, its production and consumption, and the ordering of society? How has it changed with recording?

3) How might one elaborate on Attali’s censorship/surveillance argument with the advent of cybermusic technologies? Is his apparent paranoia justified?

4) What happens to Attali’s conception of music’s relationship to society and history if one were to include more modern examples, or draw from sources outside of the Western classical tradition?

5) What does “theoretical indiscipline” do for Attali and this book? How much of his style and arguments should be viewed as purely metaphorical, and how much as literal? Does it work? How and why?


Composition – The final network of music that heralds the arrival of new social relations (20). Music is “performed for the musician’s own enjoyment, as self-communication, with no other goal than his own pleasure, as something fundamentally outside all communication, as self-transcendence, a solitary, egotistical, noncommercial act” (32).
-nourished on the death of codes

Harmony – Originally rooted in the idea of order through the endowment of noise with form (60). Conceptually linked to either nature or science.

Music – Noise given form according to a code that is theoretically knowable by the listener (25). The formation, domestication and ritualization of noise as a simulacrum of ritual murder.
-a metaphor for real
-a dialectical confrontation with the course of time
-an inscription between noise and silence (social realm)
-reflects the manufacture of society
-the sound form of social knowledge
-organizer of differences (noises)
-money (power, value, exchange)
-“…like drugs, is intuition, a path to knowledge” (p20)

Noise – A weapon. Violence.
-the primordial Chaos
-carrier of new information
-destroyer of codes

Repetition – A network in which music is mass produced. Produces less and less use-value. In this network, “music ceases to be catharsis; it no longer constructs differences. It is trapped in identity and will dissolve into noise” (45). Used by power to silence people.

Representation – A new network of music as spectacle attended at specific places (31), in which the value of music is its use-value as spectacle. Music as enactment, used by power to make people believe. Emerged with capitalism, in opposition to feudalism (41).

Sacrifice – A type of codification that “gives music a meaning, an operationality beyond its own syntax, because it inscribes music within the very power that produces society” (24). Used by power to make people forget. Inherently connected to the definition of music as a simulacrum of ritual murder. (I feel this is the most problematic term Attali uses –TS)

Ritual Murder – a substitute for general violence (26)


In Chapter Four, Attali explores the social-musical framework ordered by the paradigm of “repetition.” This network is characterized by the “stockpiling of memory” (87), or in economic-jargon, by the reproduction and fixing of use-time in sound-objects. Attali indicates that music’s symbolic power is objectified through repetition, rendering it suitable for reproduction. A central theme of this chapter is the crucial role played by the advent of recording technology in the 19th century, an objectifying technology which Attali argues had precipitated the shift from the representational order (ie., music-as-ritualized-spectacle reinforces hierarchical social structures) to an increasingly globalized (cosmopolitan? bourgeoisie?) society in which “music has become an element in the normalized reproduction of the labor force and of social regulation” (120). In this modality, Attali indicates also that individual imaginaries are not only sublimated into the social order by the ritual and symbolic codes, but that the modality of repetition and the consumption of replicas effectively destroys meaning, identity, difference, autonomy.

Attali's discussions of repetition and mass production in this chapter appear to be presented in a somewhat negative light, as one might expect coming from someone who views music's role in society as being of such importance. The relation of these items to music's value and meaning are of high importance to the discussion, and as Attali states, "mass production erases value-creating differences; its logic is egalitarian, spreading anonymity and thus negating meaning" (106). If mass production erases difference, and thus meaning, it would be viewed as being less important to society than other music. His classification of its logic as "egalitarian" is the most interesting aspect that I feel needs to be dissected. Is there an argument in this chapter that egalitarianism is a bad or flawed philosophical thought, at least in reference to music? Can a music, or musical industry, be egalitarian and still produce music that has value and meaning? Or does music only retain its meaning when it is separated from mainstream society? It is sometimes difficult to grapple with this concept while reading Chapter Four for those who study music, and in particular, popular music.

Throughout the chapter, Attali surveys the dialogic co-development of the record industry (the reproduction of music-information objects) and radio, as the locus of repetitive information dissemination, and concludes that the mass-production and -distribution of musics resulting from this “double repetition” ultimately results in 1) the loss of meaning in music-as-object and 2) in the proliferation of noise as music-without-meaning. He posits that repetitive society is constituted by a fundamental paradox, a “crisis of proliferation”: once an object’s utility is exchanged for increased accessibility (an excess or proliferation of that object in the market), more effort/labor is require to generate the demand for its repetition/reproduction. In other words, an increase in the quantity of available objects is directly correlated to a decrease in (a diffusion of) the meaning ascribed to each object. Moreover, this crisis threatens difference (noise) itself; the differences (noises) inscribed within the previous social structure by ritual and symbol are reproduced in this order to the point of being devoid of meaning - they are silenced. The following passage by Attali articulates this dialectic of repetition, access, and silence (and it is a testament to his outdated-yet-insightful perspective):

"Today it has become possible for each listener to record a radio-broadcast representation on his own, and to manufacture in this way, using his own labor, a repeatable recording, the use-value of which is a priori equivalent to that of the commodity-object, without, however, having its exchange-value. This is an extremely dangerous process for the music industry and for the authors, since it provides free access to the recording and its repetition." (99)

How then, does music herald the next social order, “composing”? How does Attali’s perspective above resonate with our experiences of music and sociality within contemporary cyber-realms? What are the observable inaccuracies in his description, if applied to our contemporary ways of “musicking”?

In his concluding thoughts on “repeating”, Attali poses some interesting questions of his own and sets us up to consider his next musical-social order:
Must there be an effort to restore the usage of things (ie., past musics)?
Should socialism delay the destruction of commercial codes that capitalism is so good at carrying out?
Or would it be better to allow the general breakup of the old codes to play itself out, so that the conditions for a new language (might “order”, “network” be clearer here?) may arise?

Attali restores the autonomy of the individual (destroyed by repetitive society) in the final chapter by exploring the modality of composition. In one of his many definitions of music, he articulates the context in which music heralded a shift from the meaningless consumption of replicas to the recreation of differences in composing: “music is a foretoken of evolution on the basis of behavior in the human world, in a crisis announced by artists’ refusal to be standardized by money.” (136) Attali locates “composing” to be outside the grid of repetitive society; in composition, a musician creates not for meaning, identity, or difference primarily, but for a pleasure which is both associated with and transcends these functions. He explores the emergence of free jazz as an exemplar of a compositional break with the modalities of repetitive society.

In the concluding pages of his book, Attali highlights several fundamental ambiguities or apparent contradictions that structure the order of “composing”:
1) that noise, although it is a primordial form of violent difference, is also a field of potentiality out of which future orders are rendered,
2) that noise, meaning, difference, is (paradoxically) permanently fragile and relentlessly contested by new and highly individualized musical codes (orders)
3) that truly revolutionary (prophetic) music exposes itself as a lack (as noise!?), by addressing what it silences and does violence to by its articulation

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