Jacques Attali – Bruits [Noise: The Political Economy of Music]

Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Theory and History of Literature, Volume 16)

Jacques AttaliBruits [Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Theory and History of Literature, Volume 16] (Brian Massumi trans., University of Minnesota Press 1985 [1977])

Jacques Attali’s Bruits [Noise] was first published in French in 1977, then in English translation in 1985.  It presents a long-term history of musical development, based on Attali’s novel theory of distinct stages of historical development in music.

As historiography, this bears much resemblance to other characteristically French stuff from back in the day as Henri Lefebvre‘s Critique of Everyday Life.  The focus on music as an expression of power (and struggles for power) also ends up placing this in a vaguely similar place as Pierre Bourdieu‘s Distinction, as well as Carles and Comolli‘s Free Jazz/Black Power.  Additionally, the reliance on stages that structure the political economy of music also bears some similarity to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” as well as the “world-systems” school of thought that includes the likes of Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi.

Attali’s focus on political economics is welcomed, from the standpoint of being something so often overlooked in these sorts of histories (there are some exceptions of course).  On the other hand, despite later becoming an economic minister in the French Mitterand administration, Attali’s economic insights here are fairly superficial.  That is to say there are occasional quotations and citations, but this is more or less a work of pure theory that spends no significant effort gathering sufficient empirical evidence to test the theory.  Moreover, this sort of historiography is naturally very selective, ending up quite obviously Euro-centric (the few token non-European references just confirm this bias).  The repeated metaphors and analogies to religious practice — “rituals” especially — are also not nearly as profound as Attali apparently thought them, though his meaning is clear enough that his chosen terminology is not crucial.  Despite a few minor errors (like quoting John Cage talking about “furniture music” when Cage was just paraphrasing Erik Satie), and a somewhat polemical tone, Attali offers many insights, mostly through his framework — sentence-for sentence, Bourdieu’s Distinction is packed with way more insights than Attali manages.

Attali still offers a lot of very appealing — if still empirically unsupported — assertions.  One great one is his claim that in the 20th Century (“repeating”), the success of particular music is dependent primarily (but not solely) upon it attracting marketing support to generate demand for it.  Doesn’t that just seem intuitively correct in the commercial context?  He also states the following little gems:

“To my way of thinking, music appears in myth as an affirmation that society is possible.  That is the essential thing.  Its order simulates the social order, and its dissonance express marginalities.”  (p. 29).

“Noise only produces order if it can concentrate a new sacrificial crisis at a singular point, in a catastrophe, in order to transcend the old violence and recreate a system of differences on another level of organization.  *** In other words, catastrophe is inscribed in order, just as crisis is inscribed in development.  There is no order that does not contain disorder within itself, and undoubtedly there is no disorder incapable of creating order.  This covers the dynamics of codes .  There remains the question of the succession of noises and orders, and their interferences.”  (p. 34).

With respect to the period of “repeating”, he also says:

“Music has thus become a strategic consumption, an essential mode of sociality for all those who feel themselves powerless before the monologue of the great  institutions.  It is also, therefore, an extremely effective exploration of the past, at a time when the present no longer answers to everyone’s needs.” (p. 100).

In a foreword to the English translation, Fredric Jameson emphasizes how Attali draws from the marxist notion of (economic) base and (cultural) superstructure, but makes a somewhat novel argument about music (in the superstructure) prophetically anticipating changes in the economic base — in this sense, Attali draws from maoism. This is precisely the opposite of what Michael Denning‘s book Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution does — and, for me, that was the weakest part of Denning’s book. Denning scrounges around to make his argument that the musical revolution of the early (pre-Depression) electrical microphone era was uniquely tied to the economies of global “port cities”. Denning there insists on the orthodox marxist position of the base determining the superstructure. Because he is wedded to that theoretical framework, it leads him to make some characterizations with pretty flimsy evidence — he never convinced me that port cities played any unique role, though his Noise Uprising book is still very interesting despite that limitation.

Bruits [Noise] is certainly an important statement, one that anyone contemplating the history and economics of music should grapple with in some form, in the same way as with Roland BarthesCritique et vérité [Criticism and Truth].

Frances Stonor Saunders – Modern Art Was CIA “Weapon”

Link to an article by Frances Stonor Saunders:

“Modern Art Was CIA ‘Weapon'”


Bonus Links: “How the CIA Secretly Funded Abstract Expressionism During the Cold War” and Who Paid the Piper?: the CIA and the Cultural Cold War and The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters and Archives of Authority: Empire, Culture, and the Cold War and The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America and Satchmo Blows up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War and Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War and Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy and Music in America’s Cold War Diplomacy and Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era and Fall-Out Shelters for the Human Spirit: American Art and the Cold War

Some of the books above applaud the anti-communist propaganda that the CIA, State Department, and other U.S. institutions were pushing/funding, while others are more critical.

What is sort of most bizarre about all this is that the Soviets took the bait!  That is, many people in the Soviet Union did believe they were falling behind the U.S. and western nations and their abstract art (etc.), as described in Moshe Lewin‘s The Soviet Century.

Tracy Frisch – An Investigative Reporter Talks Glyphosate

Link to an interview with Carey Gillam, author of Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science (2017), conducted by Tracy Frisch:

“Monsanto’s Toxic Legacy: An Investigative Reporter Talks Glyphosate”


Bonus link: “Historic Ruling Against Monsanto Finds Company Acted with ‘Malice’ Against Groundskeeper with Cancer”

Michael Hudson & Charles Goodhart – Could/Should Jubilee Debt Cancellations Be Reintroduced Today?

Link to an article by Michael Hudson & Charles Goodhart:

“Could/Should Jubilee Debt Cancellations Be Reintroduced Today?”


The historical discussions at the beginning of this article are very significant.  The policy proscriptions at the end do address some, but not all, of the important facets of this question (what about militarism/imperialism, race/gender/etc. discrimination, and the like?).  But the proffered solutions are politically naive.  For instance, how will the political power to implement any of these changes arise in the first instance?  People like Thomas Ferguson have shown that electoral politics will not permit candidates with mass-based support to prevail without vetting by elite interests first (“Nobody wins on small-donor cash.”).  Hudson and Goodhart put forward technocratic fixes as a way to sidestep political problems — as if the gating issue is a lack of good technical measures to propose, rather than ideological opposition to the idea that anything needs to be fixed in the first place.  Moreover, when they suggest enforcement is possible just like with tax avoidance, are the authors aware of how lax prosecution of tax evasion crimes is a public disgrace?  And why is advocacy of private home ownership so important to promote, as opposed to, say, public housing provision?  No explanation is given for that normative choice.  And as much as I hate to defend the odious reactionary Walter Scheidel, the criticism that “[h]e does not acknowledge progressive tax policy, limitations on inherited wealth, debt writeoffs or a replacement of debt with equity as means of preventing or reversing the concentration of wealth in the absence of an external crisis[,]” is unfair, because Scheidel is actually correct (and in agreement with Marxists here) that these have historically been temporary anomalies in the absence of revolution (external crisis?) that shifted which class controlled the state and therefore the ability to impose their preferred policies — these are still good ideas, albeit old ones.  Hudson has for a long time made offhand (and unsupported) comments about how “mixed” economies perform better than communist/socialist or laissez-faire capitalist ones at opposite ends of the spectrum.  This is one of the few times he has gone on record explaining what the vague term “mixed” looks like in terms of real economic programs — a milquetoast, insufficient compromise!  Actually, there are a few decent suggestions here, for instance, the advocacy of government equity stakes in small/medium business enterprises (an extension of Hudson’s long-standing argument that the old German banking model is superior to the currently hegemonic Anglo-Dutch one) would work well for some economic sectors, though that would be the case only with some sort of effective democratic control and probably only alongside full nationalization of at least heavy industry (and probably also banks, and probably large agribusinesses too, etc., basically the commanding heights of the economy).  In short, this article spends so much effort trying to avoid red-baiting that it drifts into irrelevancy in view of superior policies to the left of what the authors propose.  The means they end up trying to smuggle mildly center-left policies in without opening a meaningful political discussion, which would highlight the authors’ political naivety.  Oh well.  Read the historical section and then just skim or skip the rest.


Bonus links: Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Trouble in Paradise (“the goal of politico-economic analysis is to deploy strategies of how to step out of this infernal circle of debt and guilt”), “Debt Is a Determining Factor in History” and “Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons and Debt in Antiquity”