Cities can be shaken
Plato insisted that slaves, allowed full access to musical and artistic expression, might bring down Athens. Though it was clearly a turn of frenzied hyperbole on his part, he also appears to have seen a genuine danger, not just in the underclass’ possession of music, but in its ability to change it.
“Musical innovation is full of danger for the state,” he wrote, “for when the modes of music change, the laws of the state always change with them.” Or, in its catchier, vulgarized version, “when the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.”[i]
Cities are built with a conceit of impregnability: made by history, towering over history, making and withstanding history. They are human beings’ monuments to themselves. For a city to be shaken implies a drastic change in history’s course.
Lately, the Anthropocene reminds us of this more than anything. Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States, submerged. The suburbs of Boston flash-frozen into an ice rink. San Juan, as well as the entirety of Puerto Rico, thrown backward in time by Hurricane Maria; deliberate and outright colonial neglect amplified by climate catastrophe. Cape Town, a city of 400,000 people and the second largest in South Africa, without water.
The manifestations of these disasters always endure, even if underneath attempts to obscure them. For every touted neoliberal effort at “revitalization,” there are countless lives destroyed and displaced into tent cities, under bridges, into slums, existing like deep gouges running through the edifice, reminding us how tenuous the grasp on stability is.
With no corner of the planet able to shield itself from the dramatic warp of the climate, an uneasy question is posed: In what form will these massive and intricate monuments survive the literal “end of history?”
Cities have rhythms, and neoliberal cities have neoliberal rhythms
Capitalism has a rhythm, a relationship with time inculcated by FW Taylor and Henry Ford, illustrated by Marx and EP Thompson. The slow and methodical contemplations of the farm and countryside are obliterated by the mechanical rhythms of factory and commodity. The output of every hour, minute, second is doubled, redoubled and redoubled yet again as the factory’s machinery is updated and replaced, the commodity’s manufacture atomized, divided and re-divided.
Neoliberalism’s ingenious connivance is in convincing us that these rhythms don’t exist. The neoliberal city is one that sees itself as floating above time. Houses built yesterday that mimic the style of the previous century. Office buildings built fifty years ago intended to prefigure the future.
If cities are concentrations of capital, then this clumsily authoritarian, disjointed pastiche necessarily mirrors the hyper-anarchic flexibility of neoliberal capital accumulation. The decline of wages, the atrophy of unions, privatization, casualization, the elimination of social services, all experienced in a new normal of profound and daily instability. The exhausted panic invoked by them is amplified by the emergence of profit extraction into spaces of leisure through house-share, ride-share, and the logic of “do what you love.”
Today, more common space – virtual or terrestrial – is enclosed into private hands than in the history of the world. More than 2011, still more than 1979, 1968, 1917, 1871 or 1848. In the age of the algorithm, new commons can be created almost overnight, but they immediately drag behind them the certainty of reification, of being transformed into dialectically hollow versions of themselves. In these spaces, we no longer walk with steady purpose. We hobble and limp erratically as without warning any force might push or pull us out of direction.
Radical urbanist and pioneer of rhythmanalysis Henri Lefebvre would describe this temporal experience as one of “arrhythmia.” Both human and urban body are sick and feverish in this state. Public spaces are designed to usher both workers and consumers out of them, to discourage if not outright forbid rest, reflection, congregation.[ii]
Music, as an aestheticization of time, exists under neoliberalism to aid time’s subjugation to geographic space
Popular music’s emergence was in tandem with industrial capitalism. In his “On Popular Music,” Theodor Adorno noted this, and heard a bleak future sketched out in it. One in which leisure time, time “away” from work and exploitation had the logic of exploitation implanted into it. The steady pulse and hypnotic syncopation of “the groove” further trained the mind to be at ease with the rhythms of the commodity and the assembly line. All time, including leisure, is in this way metabolized into consumer capitalism. Individual participation in the musical process becomes an illusion.
Consider the content of the pamphlet from Heartbeats International, a consultancy firm that has worked with Coca-Cola, Breitling, and Waldorf Astoria Hotels. Their 2011 “Uncovering a Musical Myth: A Survey on Music’s Impact In Public Spaces” includes findings for corporations such as…
Playing the right music in your business makes consumers stay longer…
Music played in a business affects consumers’ opinion of the brand…
The wrong music played too loudly makes consumers leave…
Music enhances wellbeing at work…
Music makes employees more productive...[iii]
...and so on. This is the aestheticization of time deployed in service of the aestheticization of economics and the space in which they take place. The space cannot be reshaped or repurposed through the participation of those who occupy it; rather their aims and behaviors are manipulated in order to optimize its intended use.
We see it in the use of sound and music in the regulation of public space too. Where hostile architecture designs a public square – spikes embedded in flat surfaces to prevent sitting, benches designed to discourage lying down – busking is either forbidden or by license only. Bus stops have benches removed, and after midnight train stations play classical music over the speakers to chase off the lingering riff raff. Police use “sound cannons” to disperse demonstrators.
The ability to grasp a futurity and reinvent one’s surroundings is stymied and replaced by a monolithic already-existing. If democratic use of space is impossible without first confronting time, neoliberalism thoroughly reverses the dynamic in the name of its own authority.
Social space is no longer fully social, and the rhythm this creates is an increasingly anxious one in which, as Fredric Jameson describes, space dominates over time.
Our relationship to neoliberal arrhythmia is expressed in the privatization of the musical experience
Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism of a student of his who wore headphones constantly, even when they weren’t playing music. He asks: “Why wear the headphones without playing music or play music without wearing the headphones?” and answers: “The use of headphones is significant here – pop is experienced not as something which could have impacts on public space, but as a retreat into private ‘OedIpod’ consumer bliss, a walling up against the social.”[iv]
Fisher illustrates the temporal existence of young working-class people as one of “inability to synthesize time into any coherent narrative,” relating it to the Lacanian schizophrenic whose sense of time is a mash of ahistorical, unconnected presents.
Seventy-five years ago, music was necessarily an open-air experience. But the emergence of headphones – first as components of hi-fi systems, then part of portable music players – reflects the exile of music into the private sphere and tightening squeeze of capital over public space.
When we put in our earbuds while going to work or returning home, now potentially accessing the entirety of recorded sound through smartphones and streaming services, we are shaping our inner world because we have acquiesced the potential to collectively transform the world at large. And the rhythms we each employ are ultimately out of sync with one another.[v]
Counter to the enforcement of authoritarian space and empty time, popular music contains the potential for immanent critique
Adorno’s diagnosis was far sharper than his prognosis. If the culture industry regiments time and our lives then we must inevitably ask what liberated time looks, how it feels, and finally how it sounds.
The answer to this must start with the actually-existing, even if only to reject it. Workers power, the democratic control of production for need rather than profit, seizes the means and invents from them; the new vision is worked out from within rather than imposed. Degradation and commodity necessarily contain the seeds of their reversal.
Can the same dynamic be found between the commodification and liberation of music? Mark Abel, in his 2014 book Groove: An Aesthetic of Measured Time, provides a potential answer, and a rebuke to what some consider to be Adorno’s one-sided analysis. Yes, the rhythmic structure of popular music does provide a glimpse of how the abstract time of commodity production reaches into the structure and function of leisure through consumer culture. But like all cultural spaces, the groove is contested, providing a potential space of dissent and critique of capitalism.
“Groove’s political charge,” writes Abel, “lies in its ability to turn measured time against itself. Groove is the dialectical negation of abstract time.”[vi] The assembly line worker or food delivery driver finds their power by pushing back and reasserting control over the time that has until now asserted control over them. The musician, in the creation of aestheticized time, in the bending and experimentation with it, potentially finds power over it.
Key in Abel’s analysis is Alfred Schutz’s concept of “vivid present.” There is an overlap in Abel’s understanding of this “vivid present” and Henri Lefebvre’s conception of “presence,” of Walter Benjamin’s jetz zeit (“now time”); something that can only be observed past the simulacra of capitalism through the observation and internalization of the rhythm. We see not just the moment in relation to the beat or note that came before it, but the potential for that moment to go in any number of directions after it has passed. The aestheticized time of popular music, therefore – its deep metricality, its hypnotic syncopation – is a figuration of the mass reshaping of time’s experience.
This is not to say that what Adorno says about the rhythmic qualities of popular music lacks descriptive power. The musical streamlining of exploitation and consumption is very much a real phenomenon, as is the sonic regimentation of space. But to deny that there is a difference between a Katy Perry song on one hand and a Godspeed You! Black Emperor song on the other is to ignore just about everything in their songs. One appeals to spectacle, employing a narrow variation in rhythm and arrangement, exhibiting rom-com notions of human relationships, setting like a lubricant into the cracks and contradictions of the moment. The other possesses a vast variation in sound and rhythm, unpredictably switching between modes, exploring the chaotic and uncertain, plunging deep into the contradictions, prodding us to notice how unsustainable their existence is.
The geography of the neoliberal city anachronizes an ever-growing segment of its population
The domination of space over time is one in which segregation is geographic but also temporal. What does it mean for a population to be “underdeveloped” by capitalism, to be exploited and also held back by that exploitation? What does it mean for Europe to underdevelop Africa? Or for capitalism to underdevelop Black America?
There is naturally a valence of oppression here, where race, gender, histories of colonialism and objectification interact with those of class and exploitation. Manning Marable pithily referred to the existence of an impoverished Black America as “the highest stage of underdevelopment.” He illustrates this with juxtapositions that, when the book was first written thirty-five years ago, were shocking. Now relating these gulfs, the proximity between unabashed wealth and unforgivable deprivation, is impossible without a reference to Blade Runner.
The Capitol Building, the heart of world empire in Washington, DC exists mere blocks from some of the lowest incomes in the country and one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.[vii]
Los Angeles’ Skid Row exists literally in the shadow of the glittering skyscrapers of the city’s central business district, largely financed, appropriately enough, through real estate speculation. In both instances, the difference in racial and ethnic makeup is hard to miss.
Obscene wealth next to dire poverty. Placed side-by-side as they are, they read as different times and places, different planes of existence, but we know that each is contingent on the other. And yet, the rhythms and synchronicities required to achieve and maintain equilibrium for those living on Skid Row are quite different from those for the residents paying $100,000 a month to live at the Ninth and Olive.[viii]
This is the stuff of arrhythmia. Of a city that is out of sync. Where the abundance of resources and opportunities for participation of one are reliant on their denial for many others. For the privileged and powerful to sit on the prow of history’s potential, above the consequences, of time, the rest of us must exist in a vicious circle.
Underdevelopment, on any scale, requires anachronism. And capitalism requires underdevelopment, be it on an international scale or between blocks of the same city. It is obvious then why so much music of the exploited, the cast aside, the anachronized, frequently features themes of escape from geographic confines. Consider how often trains and the abandonment of an old life show up in country blues lyrics,[ix] or the Afrofuturist overtones of Jamaican dub music that fostered spaces and times beyond the borders of neocolonialism.
Escape, however, is only temporary when capital inexorably pushes into and devours every space it finds. The inevitable challenge is not that of escaping space but of imagining and enacting its transformation.
Music’s rhythmic critique is by nature psychogeographic
Let’s not bother with the facile new age version of psychogeography, with preoccupations of mystical “ley lines” and a location likening to a mood stone. Let’s speak of psychogeography the way Debord and the Situationists did; as a method of understanding a location’s (as well as our) place in an unfolding history through the way it (and we) occupy space.
People who have been anachronized still have autonomy and agency. They still labor and live lives and create, even when it is with fewer resources, forcing an improvisation and experimental interaction with their surroundings. The first sound systems of early hip-hop were rigged up between turntables and speakers taken from parents’ homes and surreptitiously plugged into Bronx street lights to power them.
When the rave scene took over abandoned warehouses and other derelict urban space during the 80’s and 90’s, it was a re-engagement and reconfiguration of that space’s meaning and purpose. Ravers’ posture, aided through either hypnotic rhythms and dance or drugs or all of the above, was one of change and transformation – both of themselves and their surroundings in which body, space and time were all contingent on each other. They revitalized what Thatcherism had abandoned and declared dead.
The decline of this utopian impulse in the late 90’s and early 2000’s led to a distinct melancholy in those who came after the scene’s deterioration. Mark Fisher once wrote that the best of dubstep was “like walking into the abandoned spaces once carnivalized by raves and finding them returned to depopulated dereliction.” Simon Reynolds, in his recent piece on dubstep artist Burial, suggests that the genre’s invocations of alienation were indicative of the breakdown in predictable times and futures that neoliberalism also fostered, further contributing to the schizoid simultaneity between panic and exhaustion.[x]
We can, do, and must talk about the interplay between dispossession and subculture. In late capitalism one ultimately cannot have one without the other. But too often we elide the fact that there is a specific moment when alienation starts to shift into the direction of a critique. It is often hard to pinpoint this, that fulcrum where the mounting pressures of atomization force the isolated individual to turn them outward.
With spaces of authentic collectivity increasingly squeezed out of existence, artists are forced to retreat back into smaller and smaller spaces. It is inevitable that the space of creativity becomes increasingly domestic and cloistered. It’s this intense geographic isolation that pushes the artist to imagine a different timeline beyond their locked doors and claustrophobic confines, a different telos mapped that cannot escape and so must smash its way through.
Grime – that strange hybridic subgenre pulling from hip-hop, dancehall, and jungle, which spent years in hounded by police before becoming an unstoppable force of British music – is a magnificent example of this. Here is a genre that was not forged in abandoned warehouses, on street corners, or back alleys. Its origins are that of the housing estate, the domestic spaces first constructed with the welfare of the working class in mind following the Second World War, now neglected and vilified, storage for poor, black and brown bodies that offend respectability. Which naturally is what gives its sound and subject matter such subversive punch.
In the video for Skepta’s 2013 track “That’s Not Me,” the artist uses a pair of headphones that have been repurposed to use as a microphone.[xi] This is an act of necessity, and done by countless underground MC’s today when they don’t have access to traditional mic. But it is also an inversion, a transformation of a device that aids in the atomization of musical experience into one that is again social.
More than mere symbolism, it is an indicator of the potential reversal of the tendency described by Fisher’s headphone-wearing student. This is the moment when the phenomenological passes into the ontological. Alienation is turned inside out, the “walls against the social” are broken down, internalized rhythms recapitulated back into the open via the impulse to reshape one’s surroundings. This process, this reorientation of one’s internal life and the willingness to direct it outward, is the crucial step in the psychogeographic dérive, in opening up the self to the idea that space changes when we interact with it. Or, rather, it should change.
The contest over space, in essence, becomes one between the arrhythmia of neoliberalism and the rhythm of dispossession struggling to transcend itself.
Mass protest sharpens this immanent critique
As John Berger wrote in 1968…
The demonstration, an irregular event created by the demonstrators… takes place near the city centre, intended for very different uses. The demonstrators interrupt the regular life of the streets they march through or of the open spaces they fill.[xii]
This temporary relief of public space from the spatial and temporal pressures of the commodity form is necessarily accompanied by the transformation of that space’s rhythm in which the critical potentials of the groove are thrust forward, out of the heads or small crews of the isolated and onto the world at large, writ large.
We don’t need to search hard for examples of this. Consider Pussy Riot – before its most visible members were pulled into the tarpit of hobnobbing with liberal imperialists – invading the towering authority of Moscow’s Red Square, insisting with vulgar and simplistic punk rock: “Putin has pissed himself.”
Or look at the relationship that the Black Lives Matter movement has forged between street and studio. The refrain of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” has been chanted on at least two significant occasions in conjunction with BLM: first in defiance of police when they attempted to arrest attendees at a BLM conference in Cleveland, then again when a coalition of demonstrators took over the UIC Center in Chicago, preventing then-candidate Trump from making a campaign appearance.
Coming from the other direction between protest and recording has been Janelle Monae’s “Hellyoutalmbout.” Performed by a large lineup of Black artists, the seven-minute song features a long list of Black people killed by police, with the repeated demand that we “say their name.” With marching band drums as the only instrumentation, this is a song specifically designed and composed for the purpose of open-air demonstration.
The use of music in urban protest signifies the redemption of anachronism
Massimiliano Tomba, in his article for Viewpoint on the work of Harry Harootunian, describes the political and social power of anachronism: “Anachronisms can disturb the homogeneous linear time of capitalism and the nation-state, and can orient the trajectory of political modernity in a different direction.”[xiii]
Music, by its very definition and dynamics, its existence as music, contains just such a potential for disturbance and disruption. If its vivid presence can be transported anywhere and transport the listener anywhere, then the capability of the oppressed to bend time within dominated space is also thrown up.
As Gary Zabel writes: “It is not just that the realm of music obeys a different principle of historical progression than, say, literary history or the history of the visual arts. It is also that advance within this or any other cultural sphere is not a matter of simple forward motion, since abandoned or neglected positions can suddenly achieve new relevance in light of subsequent concerns and events.”[xiv]
We see this in any number of urban rebellions, many of which directly employ music. Take the relationship between grime and the 2010 student protests. In Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, Mason describes how the youth from council estates – exactly the people whose space and resources were the most restricted by Tory education reform – took over the sound system at the demonstrations. They played Lethal Bizzle’s “Pow,” Wiley, JME, Skepta. Mason was admittedly mistaken to call this “the dubstep rebellion.” The music was, in fact, grime.
The timbre and feel of the demonstration changed, as if the realities of what was being fought for had become far more apparent, had been brought to the surface. Over the course of these days of demonstration, Tory headquarters was famously occupied, demonstrators were kettled by and fought back against police, and shattered the well-mannered pomp of central London. Mason recounts the scene in Parliament Square: “Young men, mainly black, grab each other around the head and form a circular dance to the digital beat – lit, as dusk gathers, by the distinctly analog glow of a bench they have set on fire.”[xv]
This is popular/groove music’s critical potentials unleashed and roaring forward into the space of the world at large. The discord between the pretense of atemporality and the rhythm of urban youth which dominant narratives would rather forget becomes, in quick glances, not arrhythmic, but polyrhythmic. Time is re-synthesized into a radically different narrative.
A relative synchronicity is discovered by the participants. The temporal logic of neoliberalism is overtaken by that of its most exploited and neglected. And with that, the space, its meaning, and its position in relation to its surroundings and denizens, are all changed. This is not a flattening of history or an act of holding it back, but of launching it forward into a new trajectory by creating space for the exploited and denied in the full range of cultural and political economy. The anachronistic becomes suddenly avant-garde, and the confines of the neoliberal city are shaken off.
The liberation of time and space fulfills music’s utopian impulse
In 1922, Arseny Avraamov and his collaborators celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Russian Revolution by transforming the city of Baku into an orchestra. More sound experiment than song, his Symphony of Sirens employed choirs, mass bands, factory sirens, car horns, pistols, and foghorns of the entire Soviet flotilla of the Caspian Sea.
The twenty-nine minute composition was conducted by Avraamov and a team of assistants and technicians spread out over hundreds of yards. Its sound and movements had to travel and reach people on different streets and in different squares. Elaborating on the concept, he wrote…
Music has, among all the arts, the highest power of social organisation. The most ancient myths prove that mankind is fully aware of that power (...) Collective work, from farming to the military, is inconceivable without songs and music. One may even think that the high degree of organisation in factory work under capitalism might have ended up creating a respectable form of music organisation. However, we had to arrive at the October Revolution to achieve the concept of the Symphony of Sirens.
This was music as an open-air experience taken to an extreme. A member of the 800,000 strong Proletkult movement, Avraamov and his co-thinkers sought to radically reinvigorate culture through placing it in the hands of workers and peasants, enfranchising them with resources and practices that Tsarist Russia denied them. Symphony of Sirens invited not just the witness of thousands, but their active participation. Each movement became a provocation to join, to shout and sing, to look up and hear the way that blasts of sound can echo and bounce off of buildings and pavements, engaging the city’s inhabitants in commune with their environment as the boundaries preventing them from doing so are revealed as false.[xvi]
Contrast the telos dramatically illustrated in this performance with that of neoliberal arrhythmia. We do not have to imagine the latter. Much of it is already here, its forms and faces borrowed from the Anthropocene. The radical shift dreaded by most of the ruling class’ ideologists is no longer one of many options, it is inevitable. The question is whether it will be of our making or not. The confines built around the imagination will have to be smashed. It will naturally have to be done with noises and rhythms quite unlike those of Avraamov’s time – to say nothing of Plato’s epoch! – but the spirit of temporal renovation is one that contemporary artistic radicals should seize. Particularly given the neoliberal inability to imagine a future for itself or us.
The assertion of collective, radical democratic control over time is one that inevitably reverses the domination of space over it. This is not to revert back to how Marx described capital in its early decades, with its ability to “annihilate space with time.” Rather it is to take a first step toward discovering a new metabolic relationship between the two, for cities and other spaces to be viewed not in terms of the accumulation of capital but in terms of a required harmony for a collectively built future. This is fundamentally a question of labor, its liberation, and its redefinition.
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[i] Plato, The Republic. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.5.iv.html
[ii] Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, Bloomsbury, 2013.
[iii] “Uncovering a Musical Myth: A Survey On Music’s Impact In Public Spaces,” Heartbeats International, 2011. http://www.soundslikebranding.com/myth/Uncovering_a_musical_myth.pdf
[iv] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, Zero Books, 2009.
[v] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991.
[vi] Mark Abel, Groove: An Aesthetic of Measured Time, Brill, 2014.
[vii] Abigail Hauslohner, “Poor DC babies are more than 10 times as likely to die as rich ones,” Washington Post, May 4, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/poor-dc-babies-are-more-than-10-times-as-likely-to-die-as-rich-ones/2015/05/04/27200040-f268-11e4-b2f3-af5479e6bbdd_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.043be91a5023
[viii] Jenna Chandler, “LA’s ‘most expensive’ penthouse debuts in South Park,” Curbed LA, November 3, 2017, https://la.curbed.com/2017/11/3/16601058/most-expensive-penthouse-level-onni
[ix] For more on this read LeRoi Jones’ (aka Amiri Baraka) indispensable Blues People.
[x] Simon Reynolds, “Why Burial’s Untrue Is the Most Important Electronic Album of the Century So Far,” Pitchfork, October 26, 2017.
[xii] John Berger, “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations,” New Society, May 23, 1968. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj/1968/no034/berger.htm
[xiii] Massimiliano Tomba, “Deprovincializing Marx: On Harry Harootunian’s Reading of Marx,” Viewpoint, June 27, 2017. https://www.viewpointmag.com/author/massimiliano-tomba/
[xiv] Gary Zabel, “Ernst Bloch and the Utopian Dimension In Music,” The Musical Times, February, 1990.
[xv] Paul Mason, Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, Verso, 2012.
[xvi] More information on Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens can be found in Baku: Symphony of Sirens: Sound Experiments In the Russian Avant-Garde. https://monoskop.org/Symphony_of_Sirens#1._Arseny_Avraamov_.E2.80.93_Symphony_of_Sirens
This essay appears in Red Wedge #5: “Bad Dreams.” Order a copy here.
Alexander Billet is a communist, writer, poet, and cultural critic based in Los Angeles. He is a founding editor at Red Wedge, and has also written for Jacobin, Chicago Review, New Politics, International Socialist Review, and others. He blogs with Jason Netek at Say It With Paving Stones… and can be reached on Twitter at @UbuPamplemousse