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Sunday, June 09, 2013

On Listening Neoliberally

As I mentioned already a few posts down the scroll, my own first blush theoretical recourse in taking in the NSA story is not to the tropes of listening and "the gaze" so much as to the promotional and "the target" (a word that matters differently, but inter-implicatedly, to marketing, drones, profits). I definitely personally doubt that Big Data is better thought of as a "listening" any more than it is "gazing" (which I agree it is not doing). I think it is more another kind of banking -- no doubt with another kind of digi-financial bankster fraud crisis on the ready -- a banking in anticipation of opportunistic promotional framing in the service of elite-incumbency, yielding a general advertorial subjectivity that can always become a target for a drone at its extreme edge in a public sphere deteriorated into promotion/self-promotion among the precariat on landfill amidst greenhouse storms. I especially think it is crucial to grasp the predictive/trend-spotting figuration of profiling, a form of wishing that peddles itself as a scientific form of seeing, a form of selling that peddles itself as a neutral form of informing, and I worry that this very interesting discussion of PRISM as a new listening qua attunement (which is rather reminiscent of what Donna Haraway used to describe as the bio-informatic "stress-management" of cyborg politics) may risk missing this part of what is afoot.
President Obama is actually correct, here. Nobody is “listening,” at least not in the traditional sense... Traditional theories of listening are tied to Enlightenment notions of subjectivity and Modernist aesthetics. The audiological correlate to “The Look” in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, trad[itional] listening is something done by subjects (listeners) and to subjects... Listening and being listened to is what makes you a subject, a full person, a member of society, a human being... This subject is both produced by, and must demonstrably perform, interpretative listening, listening that reveals some sort of true inner meaning... Subjects exist because they are interpretatively listened to... Or, it’s the kind of listening that Adorno advocates, the “structural” listening that finds the meaning of details by locating them in relationship to the whole work, a kind of listening that is tied to a very specific concept of “individuality” ... But the kind of listening involved in PRISM surveillance -- and in neoliberal modes of audition and subjectivity more generally -- isn’t about content, and it isn’t about interpretation... rather, it’s the economy, stupid -- “economy” in the sense of a practice of moderation, of minding the oikos, keeping everything in the black... The economy is not an objective property (like form or content) -- it’s a process, a practice, in which the form and the content are emergent properties. We don’t interpret these processes, we (at)tune them. Listening is attunement. Just think about the PRISM metaphor. What do prisms do? They separate out frequencies -- not audio frequencies, but light frequencies. They re-tune light so that the spectrum is more distinctly visible to us. Similarly, PRISM-style surveillance is about the “harmonics” or “attunement” of your data stream... [not] monitoring the content of your calls, but the metadata generated by your devices. The infamous court order to Verizon doesn’t demand recordings of the audio content of the calls, just the metadata... They’re not listening for content, but for dissonant metadata, for activities that are out of tune... abnormal, dissonant... “Typical” terrorist activity would be atypical of “normal” people, out of synch with their regular activities. The point of PRISM-style listening is to identify these out-of-tune patterns before they feed back into society and upset the overall balance (of powers, routines, etc). Pushing this metaphor of a “tuner” even further, I would argue that neoliberal govenrmentality works like an audio equalizer (which, in the Midwestern dialect I learned growing up in Ohio, is called a “tuner.”) Audio equalizers... [a]re not interpreting the content, but regulating the balance of the signals, making sure there is no undesirable noise that would upset the overall texture/balance of the output. Equalizers keep everything balanced. No matter how finely-mixed a recording is, broadcast always introduces noise into audio signals, degrading their quality. Equalizers adjust for the new noise, re-balancing the signal... So, when politicians argue that the best way to protect everyone is to find the right “balance” between freedom and security, privacy and security, or try to frame the problem here as one of balance, they’re not critiquing this logic of attunement, but feeding it... So, when we talk about what’s wrong about PRISM, why it’s unjust, immoral, and, well, probably not very effective even in its own stated aims, we need to be sure we understand how it really works... Our critiques can’t rely on Modernist theories of listening as interpretation... For example, “privacy” just seems irrelevant here, mainly because the concept generally indicates protection from interpretation. Traditional concepts of privacy rely on the same inner/outer dichotomies that ground the interpretative model of listening... In other words, if panoptic power “gazes”, or works according to a metaphorics of sight and vision, then neoliberal power listens, works according to a metaphorics of acoustics, audition, and sonic perception...

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