- The Exhaustion of Authenticity: Biopolitical Aural Regimes and American Popular Music
Halfway through this short book, Jeffrey T. Nealon reaches the crux of his argument: “twenty-first-century American biopolitical subjectivity” has as its “overarching logic” a particular arrangement in which being for something means to be against something else (58). There is a corollary: this being for has become the contentless affirmation that “I’m not like everyone else.” As a diagnosis of the present, this is a provocative thesis—the University of Nebraska Press published the book in its Provocations series—dramatized by Nealon’s proposal that this “excorporative” logic grows out of and coincides with rock music’s discourses of authenticity from the second half of the twentieth century. The argument is both critical and quasi-historical. In tune with our neoliberal times, which commodify all manner of former modes of contestation, the biopolitical logic “come[s] down to us through the late twentieth-century counterculture of American rock, rap, punk, and other mass alternative musics” (58–59). In biopolitical subjectivity, affective investment in popular music (henceforth, music) and the production of affect in aurality fold into one another, indexing transformations in social governmentality tout court.
Indeed, the first half of the book identifies ways (what, why, how) in which music plays a role in the passage from a disciplinary society (Michel Foucault) to a society of control (Gilles Deleuze). The rest of the book follows up the consequences of this passage. Today, society has become an infinitely interconnected but amorphous network without norms, a labyrinth in which what were [End Page 336] formerly experienced as countercultural negations and refusals—lived, however vicariously, as the outside—constitute instead the “dominant form of identity configuration in the American present” (64). Along the way, the old forms of cultural “individualism” turn into ever interchangeable modes of “hip commodity consumption” in a neoliberal regime that renders us all (the “everybody” in the title) into “prosumers,” media capitalist interests rapaciously harvesting whatever attention we all may yet lend to the virtual plethora of music that never stops sounding—and that presumably each person, like everyone else, is always already listening (111, 72). In a refrain dotting the book, music, for Nealon, amounts to nothing less than “a privileged biopolitical operating system for examining cultural production and subject-formation” in the last hundred years, give or take two or three decades (109).
Popular music: Who knew? Well, actually French critics. The argument of music as a constitutive sphere for society’s political (dis)organization is best known to readers from the work of Jacques Attali, whose Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Bruits: Essai sur l’economie politique de la musique ) provided Anglo-American readers with an alternative to the previously hegemonic critique of the culture industry and its vociferous condemnation of popular music, at least as Theodor Adorno narrowly understood it. (As an aside, Eric Drott has remarked on how the nearly irresistible appeal Attali has held for American critics of Nealon’s generation—but not only—has long confounded many in France.)1 Nealon works within this axis (though the acknowledgment of Attali comes oddly late in the book), intersecting it with the political theories of Foucault and of Deleuze. Adorno and Pierre Bourdieu provide a kind of spectral chorus throughout, phantoms who refuse to leave the scene—Walter Benjamin, ever luminous, lurks in the background. Among his main interlocutors one encounters, among others, cultural studies critics (for example, Lawrence Grossberg, most notably, but also Dick Hebdige), rock critics (Simon Frith, Keir Keightley, Greil Marcus, Elijah Wald), and cinema and media theorists (Jonathan Beller). This critical network is largely white and male, though there are cameo appearances by Judith Butler, Robin James, Anahid Kassabian, Shannon Winnubst, Tricia Rose, and Amiri Baraka. Although there is a broad sense of popular music (Céline Dion, Elvis Presley, Pink Floyd, Warren Zevon, Justin Bieber, James Brown, the Runaways, and the Grateful Dead commingle in these pages) across the decades from the late 1950s until the present, the argument relies...