Music a Predictive Science? Attali & forecasting

from Robin James @
“For as influential as Attali’s Noise has been, most scholars have sidestepped its central claim: “music is prophecy” (11). It feels really undersupported; Attali asserts that music anticipates or foreshadows social change, but he doesn’t seem to provide anything more solid than correlations as evidence. As Eric Drott says in his just-published article in Critical Inquiry, “the book never fully spells out the mechanisms by which music performs its prophetic function” (725). I think Attali does spell out this mechanism. Music is prophecy because its physical structure–sound waves–is isomorphic with the physical structure of economic forecasts (probability functions, which are graphed as sine curves). Attali thinks both music and statistical forecasts are made of the same stuff, so thus music is predictive in the sense that Amazon’s recommendation bot is predictive.
I’ve been revising this article on Noise, Foucault, & biopolitical neoliberalism for my next book project. My analysis focuses on the Attali’s claim that the logic of the market, as understood by 1970s macroeconomic theory, is isomorphic with the logic of sound waves. Macroeconomics and acoustics study, essentially, the same phenomena. As Attali puts it, ‘non-harmonic music’ (Noise 115) makes ‘the laws of acoustics. . . the mode of production of a new sound matter’, and in so doing, ‘displays all of the characteristics of the technocracy managing the great machines of the repetitive economy’ (113). The laws of acoustics are isomorphic with the “rules” of biopolitical governmentality and financialized political economy–that is, with statistical forecasts. The mechanisms introduced by biopolitics” to understand and manage populations “include forecasts, statistical estimates, and overall measures” (SMBD 246). Similarly, the methods economists use to understand the “repetitive” (Attali’s term for late capitalism) market include “macrostatistical and global, aleatory view, in terms of probabilities and statistical groups” (Attali, Social Text, 11). The logic of forecasting and financialization mimics the logic of auditory signals (at least as contemporary physics understands this latter logic)–for example, both probability functions and sound frequencies are visualized as sine waves. Just as harmonics emerge from dynamically interacting frequencies, predictable, reliable ‘signal’ emerges–as life, as human capital, as a data forecast, a data self–from dynamically interacting streams of data.
So, because he thinks sound and statistical forecasts are more or less identical in structure, Attali can then argue that music is predictive, that “our music fortells our future” (Noise 11). Lacking databases and distributed computer processing, Attali uses music, which, like big-data number crunching, “explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code” (Noise 11). Music, for Attali, is like an algorithm predicts where society will go next: it crunches all the variables and figures out which combination is most probable. Writing in 2014, Attali further explains that this ability to crunch variables and determine the most probable outcome is what makes music similar to finance: “We could also explore the reason why music could be seen as predictive: as an immaterial activity, it explores more rapidly than any other the realm of potentials. In that sense, it is not far from another quasi immaterial activity, finance, which is also very often an excellent predictive tool.” In 2014, Attali gave a lecture titled “Music As A Predictive Science” at Harvard. There, he talks about Noise, his intentions in writing it, and whether his claims about the future were accurate. He repeatedly refers to his project in Noise as “forecasting.” Forecasting is the same term Nate Silver uses to describe what big data analytics does. In a sense, Attali scooped Silver by more than 30 years; Noise uses music in the same way that The Signal And The Noise uses data.
This is widely (and rightly) taken to be the point where Noise jumps the shark into pseudo-rationality: music seems no better suited to predict the future than astrology is. But data forecasting is also pseudo-rational. Attali’s method seems obviously outlandish because it, unlike big data forecasting, can’t hide behind the mantle of scientific objectivity. Privileging noise, understanding music as a market that is predictable and whose future can be forecast, Attali’s analysis of the history of western art music employs some of the central principles of neoliberal economic theory. In other words, Noise’s method is itself neoliberal.”
thanks to katsypline for the link

2 responses to “Music a Predictive Science? Attali & forecasting

  1. Very interesting, and a good clarification of *what* Attali is exactly getting at in his book on noise. I would like add just a few thoughts (KP, you probably have a far better understanding of Attali than I do, so let me know if I’m off base!)

    “In other words, Noise’s method is itself neoliberal.” Reading Noise, I’ve often wondered to what extent his method of analysis can be interpreted in regards to his own position in regards to capitalist governance – or, more directly, is Noise less a reflection of militancy and more a reflection to particular strain of post-socialist leftist capitalism? We can note that Attali finds himself as part of the Eurozone’s technocratic class, given his position as first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (oriented towards the utilization of public funds to foster market competition via infrastructure development), his influence on Sarkozy’s deregulatory policies, and his role as an economic adviser to Mitterand, himself a socialist-turned-neoliberal. Attali, like Mitterand, is best described as belonging to the “Third Way” tendency, which attempted to reconfigure leftism to market imperatives through social responsibility, environmental protectionism, and the promotion of technological development. The Third Way, in one sense, is rather Promethean, putting its faith in technocratic sciences as bringing society to its highest stage of development, and in another its the idealistic face of Western society by seeking to position the market as the proper, egalitarian alternative to socialism.

    Towards the end of Noise, Attali tells us that music projects a time in which “there will be no more society without lack”. It all appears rather utopian, in which the Marxist contradictions of use value and exchange value cure themselves through technology – and in good Third Way fashion, Attali mentions state policies helping foster this evolution. Musicians will be liberated from the demands of the industrialization of music, and the consumers will no longer have to sacrifice time and labor to experience the sonic as bodily pleasure. No more music without alienation. The “jongleurs” of the Middle Ages return, and musical expression becomes an affair of nomadism and adventurism. “Music is no longer made to be represented or stockpiled, but for participation in collective play, in an ongoing quest for new, immediate communication, without ritual and always unstable. It becomes nonreproducible, irreversible.”

    It’s easy to read through this an anticipation of the current crisis of capitalist cultural production – namely, the difficulty of the profit motive to adjust to interact with communication-information technologies that allow the sharing of musical, literature, and film outside the “culture industry”. Any person with a computer and an internet connection can experience culture without recourse to exchanging money (a container of time sacrifice); at the same time, how truly emancipatory is this? Even we’re evading cultural expression’s monopolization, to what degree as we still circulating this culture by transmitting the capitalist codes present in?

    This points to one of the other tensions presents in Attali’s writings (though this may stem from my own confusion with the text, but given his pedigree I think not) – just whose music is being analyzed here? More specifically, whose cultural expressions anticipates the future? It seems to me that Attali is written an extremely Western-centric interpretation of development, right up to his return of figures from the European Middle Ages.

    Globalization and the proliferation of information technologies was billed as something that would usher in a brave new world of hybridity and cultural transmutation (see,for example, that Third Way bible written by Alvin Toffler, “The Third Wave”. More critical approaches, such as Hardt and Negri’s “Empire”, take this as truism and assert it as a new means of control (globalized capitalism utilizes hybridity as its motor). Neither seems accurate – instead of producing radical hybridity, and opposed to the notion of non-Western cultural forms ‘contaminating’ Western culture to the point of its much-needed transformation, what we get is the Westernization of all cultures. Western music does not change, it simply overcodes non-Western music with its own stipulations. Far from dispensing with sacrifice it compounds it, Insofar as difference exists, from the perspective of the culture industry it becomes a simulation of difference, a simulacrum of hybridity. And even if its harder to ensure the traditional modes of growth, the culture industry is able to insert itself well into what McKenzie Wark calls the “vectoral class”, profiting directly from the flows of information and vectors of communication.

    Even still, we see the disciplinary arm of the state apparatus being leveraged in full. Even as things like Spotify worm their ways around the contradictions, torrent sites like the Pirate Bay find themselves the subject of immense repression. Music blogs are shot down by the FBI. This seems to me to be a continuation of Western overcoding. For example, Spotify’s algorithms tend to prioritize the ‘mainstream’ of cultural expression, and only venture into the borderlands to a certain extent (very much akin to the Googlization of internet traffic into commerce). Also, consider some of the more infamous music blog take-downs – Holy Warbles, for instance, specialized in music that could only be described as radical alterity to Western ears: forgotten sounds from ages gone by, stuff that existed outside copyright, sonic artifacts of cultures non-coded to Westernized standards. If circulation of Holy Warbles-type platforms were compounded instead of dismantled, what possible future cultures could we anticipate? Seeking to preserve industry practices, as we all know, is as much about foreclosing possible futures as it is about extracting profit.

    All in all, this is a lot of rambling, but these are things I would like to approach Attali’s “Noise” in relation to – ultimately, is music-as-statistical forecasting (and the supposition of an age of ‘composition’) a case of confirmation bias for the ‘superiority’ of Western developmental processes?

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