Living in Abstraction: Sonic Aspects of the Spectacle

The most famous of the dictums to be found in the Situationist’s oeuvre is from Debord’s Society of the Spectacle: “The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes images.” In Debord’s days, it was hard to miss this fact, as the Fordist regime of production had reached its threshold, ushering in the new era of advertisement and marketing, penetrating the streets (the heart and soul of the social) through billboards, magazine ads and proclamations to consume that screamed from the sides of taxi-cab rushing past; and also penetrating the household through the permanent fixture of the television set in every living room. Capital’s ancillary apparatuses, the Statist war machines and political propaganda efforts, followed this same room – the competition between political opponents had become more and more reliant on capital transmuted into image-based campaigns, and the war in Vietnam was being beamed directly into the eyes of nearly every family in America, thanks to an ever-present media camera pointed directly at the carnage. Meanwhile, everyday life was under the increasing scrutiny of the electronic panopticon, with the present of video surveillance technology deployed by power to keep the subjects that operated under it in check.

Of course, times have radically changed since the days of Debord and Vaneigem and their comrades. The Spectacular Society has only increased, particularly in regards to a changing technological-media ecology through the evolutionary leap from analogue to digital platforms. With this came the increase in the levels of abstraction of life; television, as a “cool” medium, still relied on human to human relations – humans, with technology in hand,   captured the image, edited the image, transmitted the image, and on the reciprocal end, the human received of the image. Granted, this was this a profound human-machinic interaction, but with the proliferation of digital technology the interaction is forever more machinic in nature. Life itself becomes rendered as successions of binaries, codework.

The postmodern spectacle is capital accumulated until it is a vapor, a free-floating metaobject that represents nothing other than its own control codes. While the postmodern spectacle has brought an increase in the aestheticization of life, it is a  mutable aestheticization that does not discriminate between image and other forms; unlike the human factor, the digital (at this stage) does not have the ability to register the affective. It doesn’t know what an image is or what the wind feels like, it only knows its code. Under the gaze of control technology, life itself is cold, detached from its basis – the financial trader staring at his computer screen can only see the image of money circulating the globe, without the basis in human production or the ecological ramifications this swirl. Of the same token, the pilot of the drone is not only spatially detached from the battlefield, but the actual, visceral experience of combat is indistinguishable from modeled videogame representations of war.

I decided to play a little with the images that have become commonplace in our life, primarily the familiar advertisements that we encounter on the television, on the computer, on the street, in our thoughts. These advertisements too are the product of digitalization, be it through the captured creative efforts of computer-design artists or the skillful computerized editing of photographs. This play was with the mutability of digital information, how quickly it can shift from one form to the next, break itself down and be rebuilt in seconds. With a few keyboard strokes, what was previously image becomes sound. And it is sound that is perhaps more defining that image at this point in the Spectacle’s evolution: we find that the entirety of our waking lives we’re immersed in a sonic ocean, a full-body sensitive and emotive experience that hangs in the air, washing over us and crawling deep within us. Contemporary music is frequently chopped-up, remixed, dubbed out, lifted from one source or the next, plagiarized – precisely the tactics that the Situations wanted to deploy against the spectacle, and the methods through which so many subaltern peoples in the Global North and Global South utilized to create cultural hybridities. If anything, these mutations give us a chance to pause and reflect on just how abstract the world we live in has become.

I experimented with various programs; without any real music background (besides dabbling with noise music), I stuck to the basics. The first was Audacity, a free music editing software. The result was a barrage of white noise lasting not more than a second or two. Each program produced a vastly different result, an excellent illustration of how just separated abstract informatics can be from one another when viewed through different lens, producing our fractured and fragmented world. I finally chose a basic synthesizer program. After all, as Deleuze and Guattari wrote in A Thousand Plateaus, the assemblage of the abstract machine is the synthesizer:

By assembling modules, source elements, and elements for treating sound… by arranging microintervals, the synthesizer makes audible the sound process itself, the production of that process, and puts us in contact with still other elements beyond sound matter. (pg. 343)

As the image to convert to sound, I chose the following ad for Apple’s iPod, for it produces an emotional response through digitally-rendered representations of the human form, and the production of a fluid and non-rigid body through music – an experience that can only be had, presumably, if one buys the commodity:


And here is the sonic tapestry of this image:

Apple Ad (it may be loud)

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12 Responses to Living in Abstraction: Sonic Aspects of the Spectacle

  1. noir-realism says:

    Oh interesting… I was rereading one of my old favs Herman Hesse’s playful and ironic, even comic The Glass Bead Game tonight which portrays a satirization of the ultimate secular academy of the arts: protected, excluded from the everyday work of the world, a perfect world of scholarship, art, and mind. Musicology and the soundscapes of the mind are at the heart of it, and also lead its protagonist to escape its perfection back into the waters of life… Thomas Mann wrote of Adrian Leverkuhn during that same era describing the spectacle of our Faustian culture… both writers centering on that art of sound rather than the visual as their main leitmotif.

    Cutting edge music in our time seems to be fragmenting like crystalline figures in pure soundscapes, sculptures that the mind must reweave… otherwise we have the common culture of repetition and sorrow, the melancholy of our real lives in this dark age. What’s even sadder is one cannot even afford most of the tickets to go to concerts anymore, so the working class is left out in the cold once more. When are these artists going to get down off their pedestals and joint us again? Yea, I know there are a few here and there…. but dang I grew up in the sixties, seventies, eighties when one could still sneak into a concert .. those days are gone, too bad to… the music of protest seems a thing of the past now…

    • edmundberger says:

      “Cutting edge music in our time seems to be fragmenting like crystalline figures in pure soundscapes, sculptures that the mind must reweave… otherwise we have the common culture of repetition and sorrow, the melancholy of our real lives in this dark age. What’s even sadder is one cannot even afford most of the tickets to go to concerts anymore, so the working class is left out in the cold once more.”

      Yeah, the sky-rocketing price of concerts can be attributed to the neoliberalization of music, and the rendering of music as simple “entertainment” as an art form… Concerts today are a media game, an opportunity to sneak in massive corporate advertising campaigns by riding the crest of individuality and the tastes it is asked to develop – tastes, I might add, that largely come from the large media combines which select what will be popular and when. Even “indie” music, which in the 90s prided itself on developing a musical subculture rooted in networked meshworks, is now a subsidiary game of the “mainstream.”That said, I disagree with the stance that this line of thinking can quickly lead to: the “culture industry” postulated by the Frankfurt School. Even if concerts are advertising spectacles that take place in semi-controlled spaces (arena venues), pre-mapped existential territories, can become spaces full of chance encounter and spontaneous movement by the virtue of existing at the center of multiple flows – sonic flows, the flows of bodies…

      We’ve also seen that the corporatization of music into a one-way media show has led to a rise in non-corporate music spaces. Small venues or non-venues allow for an evaporation of the line between “band” and “audience,” through either the diminishing of stage size and height (implying the hierarchical separation of the two), and through an increase in “audience participation.”

      What interests me at this point is the example that music can show; we live in an abstract world, true, and this abstraction serves as the base for the society of control. Yet take for example the sound I derived from the Apple advertisement – if I wanted to, I could take the sound sample and alter it, blend it with other sounds (detournement), or reconstruct its own structure by speeding it up, slowing it down, inverting it, etc. Can we not appropriate the abstraction itself, use it to our advantage and map out new territories or non-territories? Deleuze and Guattari speak of living in cybernetic systems as a system of machinic enslavement, where our pre-emotive affects are captured and our production of subjectivities is mobilized in defense of the “higher unity” of control. At the same time there is possibility of remapping our machinic contours, to understand the machine not as a fixed object but as a multiplicty, and re-engage this process of subjectification. Right now, in Turkey, digital media networks (Twitter and other social networking tools) are being used to wage a revolt; machinic openings against the machinic enslavement that utilizes the media complexes the promote the Spectacle that the government is promoting (one of peace and order). What other ways can we find to spin the fragments, grasp abstraction for our own vitality, our own paths in the modeled world?

      • noir-realism says:

        I like it… everywhere they solidify and present order let’s liquefy and insert disorder: wasn’t this pataphysics in intent? Not just a reversal, but a sideways leap out of the circle altogether. The neoliberals are like bad sorcerers weaving their power lines around us, while we should be merciless at coming behind them and unweaving the matrix at every turn. Yet, I still think we need to leave our abstract worlds and go down into the dirty gumworks of life again at some point…

  2. edmundberger says:

    @Steve/Noir… A definite ‘concrete’ approach to tackling the issues in front of us is a necessity, I agree; things like the ongoing ecological catastrophe, labor exploitation, the privatization of knowledge, etc., demands a very physical manifestation of the will to be against. But at the same time, I don’t think that the abstract world is in any way separate from the “real”: the megamachine we’re dealing with, postmodernism/Control Society/transnational neoliberalism,whatever, is a machine that operates in the circulation of both ‘abstracted’ (digital) information and the harnessing of affects, which are pre-subjective, mutable. Subjectivity itself is a process, a liquid, it changes – and the abstract machines of control (the protocol) demands a physical ‘form’ to be applied in order for the machines to work, but they are artificial forms, shallow reflections. Hence, I believe, the need to look past the uncrossable chasm between theorists like Deleuze/Guattari and Baudrillard, for only then can we start to grasp how this abstract exchange unfolds in our so-called physical reality. Liquefying the artificial forms, be they a taylor-made and flexible “individual personality” or the modeled control spaces that umbrella everyday life, is a pataphysical proposition existing beyond reason, yet is “reason” not the ultimate justification for protocol itself? What is needed is to liberate the processes that are inherent of existing within a complicated living system from the machines that subvert them. If becoming a swarm undoes solid structures, and the swarm has become the logic that produces these fragile structures, then the solution is not to return to the solid structures: it is to accelerate the swarm, build structures that are as flexible as Control arrogantly presupposes itself to be.

    • dmfant says:

      what do you imagine the means of transmission/reproduction of such “abstract machines” to be exactly and what/where are their operating systems?

      • edmundberger says:

        Hi DMF, I think that instead of trying to cram an adequate response into the space of the comments sections, I’ll put up a post in the next day or so to elaborate my thoughts on this…

      • dmfant says:

        that’s very generous, thanks

    • noir-realism says:

      Yea, looking a preview of World War Z (which was a novel I have not read) it appears like the zombie virus? is like a swarm eating away at capitalism and consuming the very material worlds of its main tenants. I agree that their sense of abstract machines (think nanoites?) melting everything into a structureless structure portends a classless society.

      • edmundberger says:

        Yeah, I read a little thing about that movie that talked about how the behavior of the zombies in the film was based on swarming behavior found in nature – schools of fish, ants, etc… exactly the things that both the Deleuzeguattarian “rhizome” and the military’s own destructured swarm tactics are based. Combined with the fact that the form of the zombie itself exemplifies living in the the post-Fordism moment where the “outside” cannot be found (there’s a good article on this at e-flux,, we can see how contemporary cinema is once again holding up a spectacled mirror to our amorphous zeitgeists.

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