The Sonic Episteme

Acoustic Resonance, Neoliberalism, and Biopolitics

The Sonic Episteme
Book Pages: 264 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 neoliberalism uses statistics to achieve similar ends—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 non-normative 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


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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.

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Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0664-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0578-0
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