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Associate Professor of Music, Robin James, Publishes Third Book about Musical Impact on Existing Power Structures

Visiting Associate Professor of Music, Robin James. Photo by Billie Weiss for Northeastern University

Philosopher Robin James published her third book, The Sonic Episteme: Acoustic Resonance, Neoliberalism, and Biopolitics, to examine 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.

James uses philosophy, sound studies, black feminist studies, and musicology to name the sonic episteme: a set of sound-based rules that qualitatively structure social practices as neoliberalism uses statistics. By highlighting trends that marginalize top musical artists, James uses sound to theorize political ontology, subjectivity, and power—fighting for an explanation of sonic practices that avoid contributing to the systemic relations of domination.

James expands on current forms of neoliberalism in Real Life magazine—with examples of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”, that owe part of their big-hit success to each song’s resilient remix-ability factor.

“The sonic episteme upgrades qualitative phenomena to work more efficiently under neoliberalism and biopolitics, and phonographies do the opposite of that. Whereas the sonic episteme takes what Western modernity traditionally disposes of—resonance—and uses it to reinvest and revive white Western culture so it can succeed in neoliberal, biopolitical institutions, phonographies do not reappropriate that discarded material,” added James.

Phonographies articulate ideas, aesthetics, and relationships that exist in the frequencies perceptually coded out of the sonic episteme’s spectrum because the cost of laboring to domesticate them into something that contributes to elite status isn’t worth the benefit.

James’s work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in the Guardian, the LARBBelt Magazine, the New Inquiry, NoiseyPopulaSounding Out!HypatiadifferencesContemporary Aesthetics, Real Life Magazine, the Journal of Popular Music Studies and as a guest on the Phantom Power podcast.

The Sonic Episteme: Acoustic, Resonance, Neoliberalism, and Biopolitics is available now on Amazon. Request a desk or exam copy at Duke University Press.

To contact Robin, visit it’s her factory or reach out on Twitter.