Outline of Jacques Attali, Noise


© 2002 Theodore Gracyk


"What is noise to the old order is harmony to the new." (35)

As much as possible, the outline uses the vocabulary of the Massumi translation.

[Comments in square brackets are my personal comments]



Chapter 1: Listening

Chapter 2: Sacrificing

Chapter 3 Representing

Chapter 4: Repeating

Chapter  5: Composing

This outline was written by Theodore Gracyk. (Copyright  Theodore Gracyk 2002) 
It may be freely reproduced, so long as this complete citation is included with any such reproductions. 

The book's cover is a detail of the lower left corner of Peter Brueghel the Elder's painting The Fight between Carnival and Lent or Carnival's Quarrel with Lent. Inside, there is a black and white reproduction of the whole painting. Attali thinks that the painting is a brilliant symbolic prophecy of his own ideas about music, noise, and politics.  If we draw a line from the upper left corner to the lower right corner, the painting divides into two "zones." Carnival is the left zone. Lent is the right zone. These represent "two antagonistic cultural and ideological organizations."

[We might expect the carnival zone to include both the ring dance and the game of catch with the pottery. But we will see that Attali regards the game of catch as symbolizing the repeating stage of "Lent" and he regards the ring dance, at the top edge of the village square, as a stage that moves us beyond "Lent."]

As explained in Chapter Two, this division into zones 
captures the main oppositions explored in Attali's book:

Festival/Carnival Lent
Noise Silence through ritualized order
Disruption & general violence The bourgeois norm
The scapegoat is sacrificed. Penitence (personal sacrifice)
Distraction from the misery of life through the sacrifice of a god. The alienation of life made bearable by a promise of eternity.
Chapter  1: Listening

Main idea: Music is both a mirror and a prophecy.
Attali doesn't theorize about music so music as through it. (4)

The only thing common to all music is that it gives structure to noise. (9-10) Our musical process of structuring noise is also our political process for structuring community.

Music is both a mirror and a prophecy.
It is a mirror, for its organization resembles the current organization of our society: music is "a repository of . . . the social score." (p. 9) "Music runs parallel to human society, is structured like it, and changes when it does." (10)  
It is our "collective memory of the social order." (9)

 [We're not talking about particular societies here, like the difference between French social life and American social life. Nor is Attali addressing the specific way that a nation is politically organized, such as the way that the British political system differs from the American system. He means organization of the most general sort: the way that feudalism differs from advanced capitalism.]

At the same time, music is prophecy: "its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code." (11) Prophecy is possible because each code [mode of organization] pushes to its own extreme case, "to the point where it crea0tes the internal condition for its own rupture, its own noise. What is noise to the old order is harmony to the new." (35)

If we can see where music is headed, then we can see where all of society is headed. Attali thinks that he can make predictions about capitalism based on some recent (that is, 1970s!) events in musical life. These predictions are made in Chapter 5.

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Chapter 2: Sacrificing

Main idea: Within organized society before exchange (that is, prior to capitalism), music was a ritual murder. It thereby affirms that society is possible, that we can set aside our differences in a mutual sacrifice: we can turn noise (violence) into music (action involving sublimation of violence). Sacrificing makes us forget that we could be free.

The aim is to make people forget that normalcy (order) has triumphed over carnival (freedom). The value of sacrifice (why we accept it) is the pure order that it offers as an antidote to the general violence of carnival.

[I take it that Attali regards listening as a state of nature in which each of us has the right to secure our needs through violence, and that we trade this general violence for order in a social contract. Individuals refrain from violence and allow the state to engage in violence for us.]

There must be a scapegoat (a sacrificial victim) toward whom we channel the violence that we sacrifice.

Attali summarizes his own argument: Noise is violence, i.e., murder. Music is a channelization of noise and a simulacrum of sacrifice, a sublimation to create order and political integration. Therefore music is ritual murder. (26)

NOISE DEFINED: "A noise is a resonance that interferes with the audition of a message in the process of emission." (26)  It is any disruption of any social process, any source of pain. At the extreme (extreme volume, for instance), it kills.

[Static on the radio is noise, but so is the grainy interference with a TV image. Statisticians use the term for random fluctuations in data that they dismiss as meaningless.]

Within the festival we see a 
simulacrum of pagan sacrifice in the
two festival participants who joust with 
one another. (23)

Popular music (music not fully controlled by society) has been our one strain of subversion.(13) (But most of what now passes for popular music is really just the complete silencing of noise. See Chapter Four.)

Here, music has a political function, representing the very possibility of organized society. But it does not create wealth. (39) The musician is paid a wage by the employer (the itinerant musician, or Bach) or lord (Haydn!) or is paid in barter. One use-value (the event of musical performance) is exchanged with another use-value (food, clothing, etc.). But they are not productive workers, for there is no surplus value. (38)

Only one musician actually shown in Brueghel's painting. Attali says that Brueghel represents order beside the chaos [chance?]  of the men playing dice. 

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Chapter 3: Representing

Main idea: : The use-value of spectacle involves parallel developments of music. As music develops as a commodity and as harmonic developments display rational progress, music makes us believe in social cohesion. In short, "representation leads to exchange and harmony." (62) 

Ultimately, "Lent had taken the upper hand." (81)

Proper society files out the church, itself the simulacrum of the pagan altar. Outside the church, the rich man gives money to the poor beggars, bribing them from participation in festival.

Is there any music here, Attali wonders, or is there only silence?

Spectacle: the concert hall replaces the religious, festival, and official court settings of sacrificial music that was produced by unproductive workers (i.e., in the previous stage there was musical activity, largely that of domestic servants, but there was no wealth created by this activity)

As political events, the American Revolution (1776) and then the French Revolution (1789) follow the demand for liberation of composers. The divine rights of kings give way to liberty and representative government.

But composers could not be autonomous unless music became autonomous, an object capable of generating wealth. Music must become a commodity, produced to be exchanged for money. More precisely, money is generated through the representation of music (via the score), and it is presented to the public in a theatrical representation (a presentation of the abstract object and, at the same time, the performance is a theatrical representation of an ideal world order).

By gradual steps, the royal control of copyright becomes private ownership of the musical work. (50)

First the labor of creation (composition) is assigned monetary value, then so is interpretation (performance). (51)

Attali concentrates on the history of this process in France:

1527: music publishing receives privilege of exclusive right to profit from copying works (making new material copies, i.e., scores). Royal power shifts to music publishers.

1703: Music publishers denied indefinite copyright.

1708: Composers denied the right to self-publish and to control copyright income.

1744: Decentralization of publishing as publishers outside Paris granted equal status with those in Paris.

1786: Initial ownership assigned to composers; publishers have rights only if so assigned by composers; all other publication subject to fines.

1846: the appearance of the café concert.

1849: popular songs awarded same status as serious music. Its composers can collect fees for its performance.

1850: creation of first association to collect royalties on all music.

By assigning monetary value to music, money represents the composer’s and performer’s labor, which is somehow "inherent" in the labor connected to the music. Different ticket prices should therefore reflect differences in labor. (58) But it cannot be related to the time taken to create a musical work or to perform it (i.e., a price tied to exchange value would not produce different fees). So "music is outside all measure." Therefore the value is the use-value for the audience. "Thus usage and exchange diverge from the start." (59)

Because the new network of music production and consumption "characterizes the entire economy of competitive capitalism" (32), the emerging middle class (including composers, publishers, paying audience) employed the music itself to present the ideology of a necessary social order (necessary to allow money to equally represent all value). The primitive notion of natural harmony gives way to equal temperament, the idea of "a constructed, reasoned order," a scientific construction. (60-61)

The goal of the music of representation is "making people believe by shaping what they hear." (61)

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Chapter 4: Repeating

Recording introduces a new network for the economy of music, encouraging "the individualized stockpiling of music . . .on a huge scale." (32) Its hallmark is repetitive mass production, heralding the same for all social relations.

Collective consumption gives way to individualized accumulation. The collective is silenced. The jukebox replaces the café concert. (95) Spectacle is replaced by artificial pseudo-events. (90) Music consumption [as with food consumption in a system of fast food, as with television watching with cable TV] stops being a social event. [Without these regular social interactions and negotiations, we are not a community and we sacrifice our group solidarity for the sake of our individualized satisfactions.]

Economically, the new technology creates a supply of a product, but it must also create a demand for an object that outlasts its use. (100)

   In Brueghel's painting, repeating is symbolized by the four figures playing catch with the pottery. Their play is beside the stand where the fish are commercially sold. [In capitalism, music is sold like fish.] But because their "play" results in the destruction of the pottery, the pottery is denied its use value. They create a demand for the pottery that is unrelated to its intended use.

Here, "music is used and produced in the ritual in an attempt to make people forget the general violence; in another, it is employed to make people believe in the harmony of the world, that there is order in exchange and legitimacy in commercial power."

As barter is replaced by money, money replaces exchange-time. But listening to music still requires a double expenditure of time. The consumer buys it with time and then expends additional time in listening (use-time). Records allow the stockpiling of the second expenditure of time. (101) So repetition eliminates use-time.

Aesthetically, the result is repetitive music: the music of revolt is tamed into a repetitive commodity, each priced the same as the rest. (103) Music is "colonized, sanitized." (109)

Value is now dependent on an artificial differentiation (106) produced by the hit parade system to confer temporary difference (relative value). (108)

Music is increasingly just background noise, facilitating "cultural normalization, and the disappearance of distinctive cultures." (111)

Music divides into two basic types that are radical opposites of one another:

  • Mass music. Harmonically, popular music is very traditional. It simply recycles what was done in the classical period (Bach to Schoenberg). Muzak reveals the basic character of this music.
  • Learned music. The serious musician flees from the tendencies of mass music, and set free, seeks the radical opposite of mass music. Imitating the rational research programs of Western scientism, their musical "discourse becomes nonlocalizable." This attempt at the universal produces depersonalized, meaningless sound. (113) It is elitist. (115)

The emergence of the two types is supported by the increasing social control of noise. (122-24)

As supply routinely exceeds the possibility of consumption, we value the activity of stockpiling instead of the activities themselves. The elimination of use-time is the herald of death. (125-30) What was first true in music comes to dominate all of life's activities (126), e.g., entertainment, food, health care. (130)

[This "herald of death argument" is a stretch. (125) Attali seems to think that because music originally symbolized ritual murder, all music always symbolizes the ritual murder of the scapegoat. So to change the political economy of music is just to change the way this murder is ritualized, and because we now "use" music by stockpiling it, we are therefore stockpiling death. I am reminded of the movie Moonstruck, in which we discover that men are unfaithful to their wives because they fear death.]

As we become more and more alike, violence increases as we find fewer and fewer outlets for our desires. (130-31)

Deviations arise (illegal broadcasting, illegal copying), suggesting a radical subversion of the system of stockpiling. (131) 

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Chapter 5: Composing

A new noise is being heard (a new way of making music), suggesting the emergence of a new society. (133)

In Brueghel's painting, composing is symbolized by the ring dance. Setting themselves apart from everyone else, the dancers make their own music for their own pleasurable activity. This noncommercial music prophecies a post-capitalistic future.

This new activity is NOT undertaken for its exchange or use value. It is undertaken solely for the pleasure of the person who does it (its "producer"). Such activity involves a radical rejection of the specialized roles (composer, performer, audience) that dominated all previous music. (135)

The activity is entirely localized, made by a small community for that community. There is no clear distinction between consumption and production.


This outline was written by Theodore Gracyk. (Copyright  Theodore Gracyk 2002) 
It may be freely reproduced, so long as this complete citation is included with any such reproductions.

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Last updated April 4, 2002