Few disciplines have drawn as much inspiration from Bruits as have music studies. For historical musicologists in particular, Attali’s insistence that music be situated at the center of social history represented a clarion call upon the book’s publication in 1985, made all the more resonant by musicology’s stubborn attachment to ideals of aesthetic autonomy that other disciplines had long since discarded. Yet it is not just the conjugation of music history with social history that explains the fascination Bruits holds for music scholars. It is also the manner in which these two spheres are conjoined. In Bruits the relationship conventionally held to exist between musical and socioeconomic spheres is inverted. Music no longer functions as a medium that passively registers the influence of extrinsic forces but as an augur, its sonic patterns providing a presentiment of some future socioeconomic order. “Music is prophecy,” he declares at the opening of the book (N, p. 11). And in the chapters that follow he endeavors to make good on this claim, most notably in his attempt to limn the contours of an emerging society of composition toward the end of the book. Yet this is only the most striking instance of a provocative gesture that Attali performs repeatedly in the pages of Bruits as he turns the traditional Marxian understanding of the relation between base and superstructure on its head. Music, long seen as standing at a remove from political economy, is instead placed squarely at its center.
Since 1996, the Belgian team of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have made seven theatrical fictional feature films for which they are willing to claim authorship. There are other fiction films—Falsch (1987), the short film Il Court, il court le monde (He’s Running, They’re All Running) (1988), and in 1992, Je pense à vous (You’re On My Mind)—but they have in one way or another distanced themselves from these. In the case of the last they have disowned it, furious at studio interference with the final cut. A new film, Deux Jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night), was recently released to enthusiastic reviews.
All of the films revolve around a basic moral question usually having to do with responsibility; they often involve some sort of recovery from a wrong committed by the wrongdoer against the one wronged; and they all manifest a heightened sense of the complexity of how we might come to understand the characters dealing with such a question. In several films, part of that complexity has to do with the fact that our attention is constantly drawn to the connections between a character’s psychological turmoil, stress, and confusion, on the one hand, and the quite distinctive characteristics of the social world in which they live, on the other. More to the point of the following, I will claim that various cinematic properties of their films involve ways of rethinking and challenging basic issues in our conventional understanding of the relation between agent and deed in ordinary action and in action explanation, and so they intimate an unusual picture of human subjectivity. This bears on another issue: what we need to understand in understanding another and how we might come to understand another in a new way. This of course involves a very big question: what is it to call these aesthetic objects “ways of re-thinking”? In the present context I will limit myself to selected details and hope that a possible form of cinematic intelligibility will start to emerge.
In May of 2012, at the height of the longest and largest student strike in Canadian history, the city of Montreal banned the wearing of masks at protests, enforceable at the discretion of the police with a fine of up to three thousand dollars. The bill foreshadowed a Canadian federal ban on masks that would be passed in the fall of 2012 criminalizing mask wearing at protests, with a maximum penalty of ten years in prison. The timing of these laws was no coincidence. While the situation was sparsely covered in the North American media outside of Quebec, the Quebec student movement had not only succeeded in shutting down most of the colleges and universities in the province for up to six months, it had also repeatedly mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters in the streets. At the height of the strike, approximately 230,000 students were on strike, nearly three-quarters of Quebec’s postsecondary student population. Organizers estimated that the largest street march was attended by as many as 500,000 people.
The strike had been sparked by the government’s acceptance of what they called their “Fair and Balanced University Funding Plan,” in which tuition increases of 75 percent were proposed, alongside the privatization of research that would thereby increasingly be tied to industry. This privatization of the cost of education came precisely at a time when young people were already squarely in debt or “squarely in the red” as it became anglicized in Quebec from the French phrase “carrément dans le rouge.” For six months, Quebec—in particular, its largest city, Montreal—was red with hundreds of thousands of red squares pinned to lapels and school bags, draped across trees, and painted on signs. What had begun as a protest against rising tuition had become, for many, a protest against austerity measures prompting the defunding of public services, leaving individuals to fend for themselves without the economic resources to do so. As images of police brutality flooded the media, with daily pepper spraying and reports of injuries from police batons and rubber bullets causing at least one student to lose an eye, the protest was also, for many, a fight to maintain freedom of assembly and political expression.
Branded in 1934, Muzak later became an all-purpose epithet for generic elevator music. Its critics heard it not as elevating but as irritating—a soft totalitarian project of massified mood control. In 1987, Muzak merged with its smaller rival Yesco Audio Environments and eventually switched from providing vocal-free background music to a product line of one hundred channels of “audio architecture” often barely distinguishable from existing FM radio stations. The latter approach had defined Yesco’s alternative model of curated foreground music. In 2011 a young Ontario-based corporation bought Muzak Holdings and “the largest music library on planet Earth” for 345 million dollars. The Mood Media Corporation’s slogan —“Mood: By Design”— crystallizes how today’s Muzak functions within a multisensory ensemble of branded mood products. The business aims its marketing expertise at brick-and-mortar retailers eager to establish and maintain a calibrated architecture of affect for maximizing consumer spending and brand identification. Amidst intense competition from online-only merchants, multisensory marketing specialists like Mood Media promise special enhancements for terrestrial stores through the careful integration of sights, sounds, smells, textures, and expertly curated music. Mood Media’s acquisitions included companies holding contracts with aggressively stage-managed destination stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, the Hard Rock Café, and Whole Foods Market. Affect theory in the humanities should pause to consider such developments in the business of mood. While strong theorists enunciate gorgeously abstract and ontologically ambitious visions of affect, the public and private life of affect at ground level has been quietly taking on a new shape as a richly industrialized concern of the digital era.
What is biometrics exactly? In this article I discuss it from the perspective of its present usage. Biometrics is the archiving of biological data, based on the surveillance and control of bodily images in public space. The last three decades have seen the development of automated facial recognition and voice recognition systems, and improved identification based on fingerprints, DNA, and iris scans. Computerized recognition systems that translate biological data into metrics are becoming common in biometric databases used around the globe—at border crossings, immigration offices, police archives, military command centers, hospitals, and banks. Many of us have already seen this technology reshape our driver’s licenses and passports. The global proliferation of such systems adds a new component to everyday life, increasing the growing fusion of security, information, and identification systems. At the same time, laws protecting personal privacy have been rolled back. If Benjamin identified physiognomy as the inherent measure of modernity, the biometric system seems like ours in the age of control. But unlike the earlier examples, the digital data system cannot be dissociated from its usage and method of operation, carrying the name of democracy but used for antidemocratic purposes.
One of the richest veins of Hannah Arendt’s contribution to American literary theory has been her image as an intellectual exile (her own reticence about the term notwithstanding), as the paradigmatic figure of the “placelessness of those who no longer harbor the possibility of having a home.” Not only in her descriptions of the “multiple estrangements of secularized Jews who have conflicting identifications” and of the “self-conscious pariah” but also in the formal “complexities of her ironically charged lyricism,” Arendt is held out as the exemplary writer of a poetics of statelessness and diaspora. The narrow emphasis on Arendt as a thinker of displacement, however, threatens to overshadow the ways in which the role of estrangement in her poetics was always a dependent one, a sensibility which taken in isolation threatens to destroy the poet’s very capacity to create. To be sure, being ill at ease with one’s place in the world was never far from the center of Arendt’s understanding of poesis, but even before The Origins of Totalitarianism the exilic perspective was always tightly bound to another, seemingly dissonant discourse, a narrative about the dependence of poetry on a profound investment by humans in their places. From its first appearance in her earliest writings, this necessity of locating and investing oneself in a particular public space turned on the fraught relationship between poetry and politics.