The Sonic Episteme

Acoustic Resonance, Neoliberalism, and Biopolitics

Book Pages: 256 Illustrations: 1 illustration Published: December 2019

Author: Robin James

Cultural Studies, Music > Sound Studies, Theory and Philosophy > Critical Theory

In The Sonic Episteme Robin James examines how twenty-first-century conceptions of sound as acoustic resonance shape notions of the social world, personhood, and materiality in ways that support white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Drawing on fields ranging from philosophy and sound studies to black feminist studies and musicology, James shows how what she calls the sonic episteme—a set of sound-based rules that qualitatively structure social practices in much the same way that neoliberalism uses statistics—employs a politics of exception to maintain hegemonic neoliberal and biopolitical projects. Where James sees the normcore averageness of Taylor Swift and Spandau Ballet as contributing to the sonic episteme's marginalization of nonnormative conceptions of gender, race, and personhood, the black feminist political ontologies she identifies in Beyoncé's and Rihanna's music challenge such marginalization. In using sound to theorize political ontology, subjectivity, and power, James argues for the further articulation of sonic practices that avoid contributing to the systemic relations of domination that biopolitical neoliberalism creates and polices.


“Through skillful and perceptive negotiations among diverse theoretical paradigms and material practices, Robin James articulates a bold thesis about the shift from the visual character of modernity articulated by Foucault to the sonic episteme characteristic of twenty-first-century biopolitical neoliberalism. In James’s hands, the sonic episteme becomes a diagnostic tool as well as an all-embracing metaphor of the way the new regime of neoliberal biopower works, its modes of governmentality, and its production of excluded groups. An outstanding book.” — Ewa Plonowska Ziarek, author of Feminist Aesthetics and the Politics of Modernism

The Sonic Episteme is a fascinating exploration of the problems of neoliberalism and the biopolitical that attends to the ways sound has come to be an object of study. Robin James asks readers to refuse the privileging of any one sense experience by examining the ways what she calls the sonic episteme is a part of neoliberal thought, not a break from it. The Sonic Episteme is about the practice of alternatives to the social order in thought and its epistemological possibilities rather than the search for alternatives emerging from the already given epistemological horizon and thrust of Western thought. As such, James offers a way to think sound studies, race, and material cultures together.” — Ashon T. Crawley, author of Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility

"James is an insightful philosopher and sharp cultural critic drawing comparisons between musical phenomena such as compression and the loudness wars, and the damages wreaked by neoliberal market economics." — Karen D. Tregaskin, The Wire

"What makes The Sonic Episteme an impressive accomplishment is its academically acceptable reliance on Philosophy combined with a crucial gesture, beyond Philosophy’s purview, to commercially successful pop music, which has the potential to present a crucial something else." — Jeff Heinzl, Spectrum Culture

"This extensive assemblage of source texts generates unexpected and often striking conclusions. Most valuably, James organises crucial texts at the intersection of sound studies and critical race studies, proffering their diverse methodologies as alternatives to the techniques of post-democratic perceptual coding. For those interested in the consequences of frequency modeling and the broader project of approaching philosophy through sound, The Sonic Episteme presents a bold . . . foray into the rich territory of neoliberal sonic representation." — Madeline Collier, Sound Studies


Availability: In stock
Price: $26.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and author of Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism and The Conjectural Body: Gender, Race, and the Philosophy of Music.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction  1
1. Neoliberal Noise and the Biopolitics of (Un)Cool: Acoustic Resonance as Political Economy  23
2. Universal Envoicement: Acoustic Resonance as Political Ontology  51
3. Vibration and Diffraction: Acoustic Resonance as Materialist Ontology  87
4. Neoliberal Sophrosyne: Acoustic Resonance as Subjectivity and Personhood  126
5. Social Physics and Quantum Physics: Acoustic Resonance as the Model for a "Harmonious" World  158
Conclusion  181
Notes  185
Bibliography  227
Index  239
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top