Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare

Lloyd Isaac Vayo
Bowling Green State University

Goodman, Steve. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2010). 226 pages.

[1] Steve Goodman's insightful and inventive study of the potential applications of sound-as-weapon, both by traditional power brokers and insurgents, stands as the third installment in The MIT Press' Technologies of Lived Abstraction series edited by Brian Massumi and Erin Manning, and finds an apt home there alongside likeminded texts by Manning and Steven Shaviro. Goodman calls on his own background in philosophy, music performance and theory to further his analysis, having founded influential dubstep label Hyperdub and performing under the moniker Kode9, producing a spare, bass-heavy music that is informed by the theoretical discourses engaged in Sonic Warfare.

[2] Goodman is primarily concerned with the duality of threat and possibility offered by sonic weaponry, either as a tool of control or resistance, taking affect as his object in an effort to articulate the nature of "environments, or ecologies, in which sound contributes to an immersive atmosphere or ambience of fear and dread – where sound helps produce a bad vibe" [1]. To that end, he draws on philosophy, science, fiction, aesthetics, and popular culture to broaden the scope of inquiry beyond traditional sound to vibration, and though he admittedly neglects a broad historical survey, Goodman's analysis does locate trends within sonic discourse, bouncing between theorization and (all too) brief historical vignettes. At base, Goodman endeavors to move beyond anthropocentric conceptualizations of sound into a larger environmental field of vibration, and in that aim he succeeds admirably.

[3] In the course of his analysis, Goodman encounters a number of interlocutors, chief among them Friedrich Kittler, Jacques Attali, Paul Virilio, Gaston Bachelard, Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Kodwo Eshun, finding value in and taking exception with each in turn. Goodman finds Kittler's suggestion that all media are military in nature to be technocentric in its privileging of machines at the expense of broader environmental entities; he considers Attali's work with noise to be at least somewhat prescient of contemporary audio futurism, despite its negative implications for the possibilities of sampling; he troubles Virilio's relation of sonic intensity and speed with attention to frequency; he pits Bachelard's and Bergson's differing views on vibration against each other, countering the former's instantaneity with the latter's continuity; he reconciles Bachelard and Bergson via Whitehead's notion of the extensive continuum, "a kind of rhythmic anarchitecture that unites the discreet and the continuous" [2]; and he qualifies Eshun's essential work on Afrofuturism by noting its inattention to oral culture.

[4] Yet, Goodman does not simply problematize the work of others, instead devising a complex terminology (restated in the provided glossary) as part of his overall goal of examining sound-as-weapon, from which six terms prove of greatest importance: unsound, vibrational force, audio virology, bass materialism, affective tonality, and sonic body. Unsound includes both infrasound (low frequency) and ultrasound (high frequency), sounds which exceed the bounds of human hearing and which are consequently used as weapons; vibrational force describes the weaponized uses of unsound following the expansion of sound beyond its traditional parameters; audio virology encompasses affective and infectious uses of targeted sound (and sometimes unsound) in political and commercial venues; bass materialism represents the construction of a vibrational ecology centering on low-end frequencies; affective tonality is that perceived as "mood, ambience, or atmosphere... [j]ust think of the uneasy listening of atonal or discordant sound, or the sense of dread induced by low-frequency drones" [3]; and the sonic body is that object of sonic warfare whose potentialities in relation to unsound are yet unknown.

[5] With the aforementioned terminology, Goodman unfolds a five part trajectory spread over the numerous chapters, tracing an analytical path from issues of perception to the use of unsound to military ends, from the expansion of sound to the realm of anarchitecture to the phenomenon of audio virology, and concludes with a look at the potentialities that result. From the first, Goodman couches his analysis within the expanded limits of sonic perception, in which the broadening of the aural field to include unsound similarly expands the possible uses of sound. Among the first to seize upon these possibilities is the military, which harnesses unsound as a means of control, as evidenced by the existence of riot-suppressing sonic weaponry and torture devices. However, rather than conceding the sinister use of unsound as an inevitable conclusion, Goodman pursues the expansion of aurality to vibration, noting buildings' imperceptible vibrations as a means of sounding the city, and positing the urban as a site of resistance. Though the city remains prey to the more negative audio virology of the commercial use of targeted sound, that negativity is countered by the resistance on offer within Afrofuturism.

[6] Afrofuturism is at the crux of Goodman's argument (perhaps not coincidentally, given dubstep's situation within that aesthetic), and he focuses on two specific points within that larger discourse: the dub virus and shanty house theory. The dub virus, referencing the form of Jamaican reggae music characterized by an emphasis on drum and bass and a sparse, ghostly sound, allows "[t]he colonized of the empire [to] strike back in stealth mode through virosonic infiltration" [4], using audio virology to musically and culturally respond to the legacy of slavery in the Black Atlantic that is at the base of Afrofuturism. Shanty house theory, as defined by Matt Ingram, describes "the new wave of global urban music... mercilessly hooligan in its agenda, synthetic by choice and necessity, often produced in a crucible of urban existence yet more extreme, precarious and violent than that which characterizes the temperature of New York, London, Berlin" [5], a new resistant music that capitalizes upon the potential of unsound. Together, the dub virus and shanty house theory provide a vision of an asymmetrical sonic warfare that promises to expand coincident to the expansion of its current residence in the hyperurban slums of a globalizing world.

[7] Though Goodman's text is invaluable in its emphasis on vibration rather than traditional sound, on collective affect and mood rather than individualized emotion, and on the undefined potential of the sonic body, a handful of minor flaws prevent it from realizing its full critical potential. While Goodman maintains that "[e]ach section is dated, marking the singularity of a vibrational, conceptual, musical, military, social, or technological event" [6], an interesting concept in and of itself, the relation between these dates and the content of a given chapter is often less than evident. This tenuous linkage may be in part a function of the limited number of historical vignettes provided by Goodman which, though illuminating in each instance, are all too seldom present, and which would have served to ground the text's theoretical explorations to good effect. Additionally, given Goodman's assertion that "these sections can be productively accessed randomly, with each chunk potentially functioning as an autonomous module" [7], which is reliant on the glossary to aid comprehension, the definitions therein are insufficient to provide a deeper understanding of the terms in question, and it seems that such a reading would not do justice to the intricate progression of the argument. Finally, on a more minor note, Goodman's arrival at Afrofuturism as the most vital site of contemporary resistance, while qualified on a number of counts, coincides with his own musical leanings, suggesting the need for either a deeper examination of Afrofuturism (though others indeed exist, including Eshun's More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction) or a broader examination of sonic resistance.

[8] Despite these slight missteps, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear provides much insight into an emergent area of research. As the perceived need for advanced weaponry in the climate of the "War on Terror," the expansion of unsound into commercial applications, and the exponential expansion of urban slums continue unabated, analyses like Goodman's become increasingly important and relevant, and Sonic Warfare constitutes an important intervention in related discourses.


[1] Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010), xiv.

[2] Goodman, 97.

[3] Goodman, 189.

[4] Goodman, 160.

[5] Quoted in Goodman, 174.

[6] Goodman, xvii.

[7] Goodman, xvii.