Introduction to Social Dissonance (2022)
Why is it that we can accept that all musical notes can be treated as equal, or even that all sounds can be treated as equal, but find it extremely difficult to envisage the possibility of all people being treated as equal? We live under an economic system that makes social equality impossible. One might object that these are different types of register: the first two are aesthetic, while the last is socio-economic and political. However, today these registers are very much interrelated. 
            A couple of contemporary examples come to mind which blur the social with the aesthetic, the first in the field of music, the second that of art:

On 14 September 2011 the music improvisers Moe Kamura, Taku Unami, and Jarrod Fowler were invited for a concert at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. For their contribution, Unami and Fowler decided to hide from each other in the bushes outside the performance venue. The organiser Jack Callahan was looking for them for a long time and it was only at 11pm, after all of the audience had left the venue, that he managed to find them. The musicians explained that hiding was their contribution to the concert. Callahan did not understand this ‘contribution’ and became extremely angry. If it seems unclear as to where the sonic element comes from, one only has to think of what Kamura, Unami, or Fowler, or the audience in the venue, might have been hearing while the concert was supposed to be happening. Their contribution radically questioned its own framing and the function of improvisation and music within a specific context. To this day an event organiser might have problems accepting this as a concert, but it is precisely in this sense that this gesture pushed the boundaries and produced thinking.
        In another performative work that blurred the lines between art, life, and the social, as part of her residency at Iaspis (Stockholm) in 2010, under the title What if, if I take your place?, Lebanese artist Lina Issa placed ads in various places around the city asking people to let her take their place at work, at home, or elsewhere for an hour, a day, or a month. There were a number of responses to the ads, and Issa was able to take the place of people who wanted a break from their everyday life—either at their jobs or at home and in their relationships.

There can be no doubt that in the contemporary world, art has pushed its way into everyday life, while on the other hand capitalist relations have permeated the most intimate forms of communication (from your mobile phone to coaching and therapy) and our innermost feelings (through pills and chemicals) as well as the most abstract forms of economic relation (high-frequency trading, futures).
            To claim some kind of autonomy for the aesthetic domain under these conditions is a highly questionable move. And yet within this situation, perhaps the aesthetic domain can allow for certain forms of experimentation which, at least, would expose and explore this very interrelation. 

Moreover, in general, if one is looking to explore how we are produced as subjects by today’s social conditions, the artist and the musician are good examples precisely because they are figures that are supposed to represent maximally ‘free subjects’ who retain a level of criticality standing in contrast to the general determination. On the one hand, the artist’s subjectivity is paradigmatic of the freelance era, in the sense that they are obliged to be self-motivated, adaptable, and opportunistic. On the other hand, the artistic realm is one in which autonomy and freedom of expression and speech are supposed to be explored without prescriptions (even if this seems to have begun to change over recent years). To put it simply: the artist displays strong individual will and agency (which of course has the additional connotation of their social adaptability in the labour relation). 
            Specifically, in relation to my own background and the context within which this book developed, I come from years of experience of making noise and improvised music with a computer. The usual understanding of improvisation and noise involves the possibility of an artist’s maximally expressing freedom with their instrument, without any mediation such as a manuscript or score. But at a certain point it became clear to me that noise had become a genre of music with specific tropes—loud volume, aggressive frequencies, total movement or total stasis, etc.—and that it was gradually turning into a parody of itself. I then became interested in a different approach to noise, one that has to do with silences—but silences that are full of expectation, because one does not know what might happen next. These silences created effects that seemed to go beyond the purely sonic and bleed into the social situation of performance itself. This technique emerged out of, and helped to further, a shift in my understanding of improvisation: I began to understand improvisation not as an interaction between musicians and their instruments, but as a collective social interaction happening in a given space where there is no neutral position (no audience, no spectators). Assuming, after John Cage’s “4’33”, that there is no such thing as silence in any given social situation, and that it may well be the audience who produce the sounds, I then began to incorporate a Marxist perspective into my work, trying to understand and expose how social relations are produced in a given space and context. 
            This book develops and accompanies that ongoing project, developed and reworked over a decade, addressing the relation between the cognitive and aesthetic expectations of the concert situation and the social totality—and social contradictions—of which it is a part, but which it also encapsulates. The book comprises two parts: the first part theoretically traces back the concept of alienation in different ways and develops the concept of ‘social dissonance’. The second part presents and discusses Social Dissonance, an instructional score that explores these conceptual issues in practice. 


The Social Dissonance score was performed at Documenta 14, in both Athens and Kassel, between April and September 2017. It involves four interpreters playing the audience as an instrument for one hour every day (except Mondays), over six months. The interpretations began first in Athens, continuing simultaneously in Athens and Kassel for some time, and finally only in Kassel.
            Before each day’s performance, the interpreters and I would decide on how to start the session, taking into consideration what had happened previously. The performances would begin with an introduction reminding the audience that the performance was being streamed live via Periscope, and that the videos would be shown the following day in the Documenta 14 exhibition space, and archived on YouTube and We also explained to the audience that the rules of the score required them to remain in the space for the entire hour. If anybody wanted to leave they could do so, but they would be asked to give some feedback to the rest of the room, so that the interpreters could learn from their experience.
            To improvise is to exercise one’s freedom of expression through an instrument. But once you take away the instrument and become the instrument yourself, you begin to realise how instrumentalised you are and how you are embedded in many processes of mediation—economic, social, linguistic, and so on. The freedom that you thought you were expressing is inevitably unveiled as at best problematic, at worst a pernicious illusion. The Social Dissonance score attempts to engineer such moments of disillusion, in order to bring these deeper dissonances into the foreground and make them a disconcerting part of the concert.
            Today we are entertained, informed, and brought together by technological systems that urge us to be strong individuals, each equally capable of expressing our freedom. But this is evidently a superficial appearance, since in reality our future seems to be dictated solely by the reproduction of capitalist social relations and thus the furthering of inequality. It is under these conditions of alienation that there emerges within our self-conception the discrepancy I call social dissonance: a form of cognitive dissonance at the structural level which stems from the contradiction between the social reality of what we do (which under capitalism means buying and selling commodities, including ourselves) and what we believe about ourselves as non-commodified entities—the liberal myth that, as individuals, we are already subjects. In continuing to subscribe to this myth, we conflate selfhood with subjectivity. 
            Under liberalism, the notion of the individual is based on a supposedly mutual recognition between different persons with equal rights such as freedom of speech and the freedom to labour and to exchange the products of their labour. The individual is therefore assumed to be a subject, in the sense of being an agent with the capacity to act in a self-determined way. However this understanding of the individual based on the singularity of a person is nothing more than a metaphysical abstraction.1 It assumes the possibility of conscious recognition, but disregards class struggle and the ways in which we are socially determined differently at the material level through economic conditions, gender, race, disability, and so on. Furthermore, this recognition presupposes thatÀa person has a stable self with clear boundaries that need to be controlled and guarded. As we shall see, this is arguably problematic: selfhood is nothing more than a fragile brain-generated image, albeit one that in general cannot be experienced as an image.
            This fiction of the individual as subject is only being accelerated by rightwing libertarian tendencies that can already smell the corpse of liberalism. In opposition to this, in paying attention to social dissonance, I seek to denaturalise this myth by demonstrating, through an exploration of alienation, how we are embedded within various different historical processes of mediation. 


The notions of the individual, selfhood, and subject are a product of different histories, and their meanings have changed over time. Although they are often confused with one another, the relationship between these terms is complex. 
            The term individual, often used with a colloquial sense of ‘person’ or ‘single human being’, emerged in the early fifteenth century and comes from the Latin individuum which as a noun means ‘atom, indivisible particle’. Prior to the Enlightenment, however, a human individual was always understood as being part of a community with different relationships, dependent on feudal and religious ties, among others. It was with the development of the Enlightenment and especially that of liberalism that the individual began to be understood in terms of separation, as a person having the rational capacity to make their own decisions, implying an idea of autonomy in which the individual can act according to their own will without being coerced. A clear example of this is found in the ethics of Immanuel Kant: ‘A rational being must always regard himself as giving laws either as member or as sovereign in a kingdom of ends which is rendered possible by the freedom of will.’2 While for Kant a rational being did not necessarily mean an individual, his thought contributed enormously to the development of our current understanding of the secular individual, supposedly able to establish herself or himself as a sovereign subject, leaving behind all theological tutelage. But liberal ideology tends to naturalise this sovereign autonomy and render it inseparable from consciousness as such, while identifying it with the identity and responsibility necessary for contractual transactions and property ownership. 

  The concept of selfhood refers to the reflexive experience of having a first-person perspective; it names the phenomenon of a stable continuous presence that allows experiences to cohere or ‘belong’ to the same agent. 
            The concept of subject emerged in the fourteenth century and comes from Old French sogit, suget, subget, meaning ‘a subject, person, or thing’ or ‘person under control or dominion of another’. It therefore implies a paradoxical combination of subjecthood and subjection, an articulation between an individual and an apparatus of power that precedes and exceeds them.
            In The Labour of Enjoyment, Samo Tomšič explains how under the current neoliberal ideology, an individual must be an economic subject, and describes the role played by a personalised form of alienation in this type of subjectivation:

[According to t]he understanding of subjectivity which prevailed in the last two centuries […] [t]he social obligation of every individual was to become an ideal economic subject, social egoist or self-loving subject of private interest, capable of mastering and overcoming alienation in the social sphere. From the viewpoint of this presumably authentic and fundamental but actually fictitious image of subjectivity, alienation appears like a sign of the individual’s failure to live up to the ‘natural condition of man’ as propagated by the liberal and neoliberal economic doctrines. Individuals are obliged to pull themselves out of the state of alienation, the latter being considered as their personal problem.3

As Tomšič points out, capitalism needs an exploitable under-standing of subjectivity which simultaneously produces the appearance of individual agency—although the twentieth century saw the emergence of numerous critiques of this naturalised understanding of the subject from different perspectives: structuralism, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, feminism, decolonial thinking, afro-pessimism, queer theory, antihumanism, and post-humanism, to name but a few.
            To avoid any misunderstandings, then, in what follows, by individual we mean an autonomous and separate person, but with the understanding that this is an ideological construct based on a conceptual abstraction. As for self, as discussed below we will follow Thomas Metzinger, for whom the phenomenal self is what gives an experiential perspective into one’s own consciousness by constructing a point of view. Although we may experience the self as ‘transparent’ access to a substance or a thing, in fact it is the outcome of a process: the subjective experience of being someone emerges when a conscious information-processing system operates under a transparent self-model. 
            The notion of the subject is the most complex of these concepts and remains to be constructed. What we can say in advance is that the subject comprises the unconscious activities that we carry out in reproducing existing conditions, while in the process mystifying how the subject appears in the world. That it is why it is of such importance to demystify the fiction of the individual as subject.


Needless to say, demystification is not enough. Short of a revolution, we will not overcome the forms of social dissonance under which we labour. Until then, there will still be noise in our heads. And when the noise gets too much, it is liable to cause a ‘catastrophic reaction.’
            In her recent book An Epistemology of Noise, the philosopher Cecile Malaspina analyses the notion of noise in different fields including cybernetics, information theory, economics, and psychology. Drawing on a 1986 text by Steven Sands and John J. Ratey, Malaspina refers to what they call ‘the mental state of noise’, which involves the loss of a reliable sense of self engendered by the disappearance of borders between the owners of experience. Such exposure, they claim, is likely to produce an ‘internal chaos’, delivering sensations of ‘inner confusion and terror’.4 But Malaspina goes further, claiming that this state of noise reveals itself at the very core of the rational subject. The resulting conception therefore goes beyond any observation about noise as an object of perception; rather, noise is under-stood as constitutive of the machinery of perception as such:

Far from […] a mere object of perception, […] noise is also what un-conditions the capacity to discern and evaluate the object of perception. Not just a state of confusion and indecision, noise is also amplified by the panicked attempt to redraw the boundaries of the sense of self. To regain the sense of self as first object of cognition thereby becomes the precondition to reasserting its relation with other objects of cognition. At stake, in other words, are not the noises we perceive, but the noise of cognition constituting itself, against the always looming crisis of its dissolution.5

Sands and Ratey define the ‘mental state of noise’ in terms of a pathological openness: it is ‘as if patients vulnerable to the chaos of overloading that we are calling noise are always wide open’.6 My claim is that, even though we may not be suffering a clinically pathological total loss of boundaries, under cur-rent conditions our sense of self is increasingly revealed to be based on this same unstable ground, disturbed by the low-level mental states of noise that I call social dissonance and which, if they get too much, can lead to a type of ‘catastrophic reaction’ where one is longer able to say who one is or where one stands, or to differentiate what is private from what is public:

 [T]he changes of external stimuli over time and the changes of internal disposition over time conjointly modulate the experience of ‘the mental state of noise’, potentially progressing from confusion and anxiety to […] the ‘catastrophic reaction’.7

Social dissonance can become a noise which one is no longer able to manage, and when this happens, the individual’s self-perception as ‘helpless’ spirals out of control. 

The fear of disintegration of the sense of self is thus also a consequence of the inability to impose a critical limit. Loss of confidence furthermore implies the threat of losing a reliable sense of self.8

Given the expansion and intensification of technologically-enabled social interaction coupled with the increasing individualisation, fragmentation, and economisation of society, we may expect many more such ‘catastrophic reactions’. If we add to this major climate and economic crises and an exponential growth in the distrust of authority and conspiracy theory, it is even likely that they may become the norm. We do not have the proper platforms to deal with this, because to do so would require a careful interweaving of care, psychological insight, and finally and most importantly political engagement with the class relation on an international level, within a long-term future horizon. The theoretical and practical exploration of social dissonance, however, aims at least to provide some resources for understanding and anticipating such breakdowns.


The ongoing mental noise that is social dissonance, then, is not just passively received, but is co-produced, or at least amplified, by the continual effort to reconcile dissonant self-perceptions. Here the concept draws upon the work of Leon Festinger in his landmark 1957 book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. As Festinger writes, ‘[t]he basic background of the theory consists of the notion that the human organism tries to establish internal harmony, consistency, or congruity among his opinions, attitudes, knowledge, and values’.9 He defines cognitive dissonance as the contradictory belief in two different values or incongruent sets of beliefs: 

In short I am proposing that dissonance, that is, the existence of non-fitting relations among cognitions, is a motivating factor in its own right. By the term [cognition] I mean any knowledge, option, or belief about the environment, about oneself, or about one’s behaviour. Cognitive dissonance can be seen as the antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented towards dissonance reduction just as hunger leads to activity oriented toward hunger reduction.10

For Festinger, then, ‘dissonance’ is analogous to notions such as hunger, frustration, or disequilibrium.11 In what could be read as a description of ideology, Festinger writes that ‘the reality which impinges on a person will exert pressures in the direction of bringing the appropriate cognitive elements into correspondence with that reality’.12 It can be difficult and stressful to cope with the contradictory character of these pressures, and this makes action necessary. In order to reduce cognitive dissonance, Festinger says, a person may believe without proper rational justification whatever they need to believe. Equally, they may avoid situations and information that could lead to an escalation of dissonance.13 In short, in order to avoid cognitive dissonance they may either (1) change one or more of the elements involved in the dissonant relations, or (2) add new cognitive elements that are consonant with already existing cognition. 
            Now, if cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable tension which results from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time, social dissonance is the discrepancy and tension between the narcissistic individualism promoted by capitalism and our social determination. In the case of social dissonance, then, the first option outlined by Festinger, that of changing the dissonant relations themselves, would require a radical transformation of society, because the conditions that produce this dissonance exist at the level of capitalist social reproduction. Since this seems impossible to achieve, in order to cope with social dissonance we instead find ourselves obliged to add new cognitive elements that are consonant with the already existing cognition, doubling down on the narrative of the sovereign self. 


Evidently, like cognitive dissonance, social dissonance has an effect on the psyche and calls for psychological compensations—yet it is not merely psychological in nature. A helpful concept here is that of sociogeny, as developed by Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter. As opposed to cognitive dissonance, where contradictory beliefs are generally analysed at the level of the individual, Fanon carried out a much deeper analysis at the societal level in relation to the racial processes of colonisation, the state of mental noise produced by its structural cognitive dissonance in both black and white people and the ensuing neurotic symptoms, which result in the absence of any capacity to alter the social relations themselves. 
            Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (the original title of which was ‘An Essay for the Disalienation of Blacks’) is a detailed account of forms of alienation specific to the process of colonisation in the French Caribbean, in the lived experience of the black man. According to Fanon’s research, black people tended to suffer from a sense of inferiority, having internalised their oppression and understood it as a personal failure. This inferiority complex made black people unable to properly relate to themselves, inevitably producing an alienation in the sense of a loss of selfhood, agency, and ability to act. We can under-stand this as a specific form of cognitive dissonance systemically propagated at the structural level. 
        In order to grasp this process, Fanon developed the concept of sociogeny, which extends Freud’s use of the notions of ontogeny and phylogeny, concepts he took from biology. Ontogeny describes the development of an individual organism, while phylogeny refers to the evolutionary development of the species. Freud adapted the terms, using ontogeny to mean the development of the person from the perspective of what happens throughout their entire life, in relation to early childhood when the child was unconscious. On occasion he even tried to use this concept to trace the origin of the human race. On the other hand, he designates as phylogenesis the explanation for the development of the neuroses in general, across the generations of a family or even the life of the species. To these two concepts Fanon added that of sociogeny, to designate the development of a phenomenon that is socially constructed rather than ontologically given, immutable, or static, and in particular as a way to understand how certain assumptions become naturalised within the concept of race.

Since sociogeny works at the level of the social totality, it cannot be observed or its causal mechanism grasped from the perspective of the individual; it must be analysed at the social level. If alienation is produced by sociogeny, which in turn is a social process, then the cure cannot lie at the individual level, but calls for radical change. As Sylvia Wynter writes, following Fanon,

 [t]his situation calls for a prognosis different to that of psycho-analysis whose goal is to adjust the individual to society. Instead, since ‘society’, the social order, cannot, ‘unlike biochemical processes, escape human influences’, since it is the human itself that ‘brings society into being’ (the social order never preexists our collective behaviours and creative activities), the prognosis is one of overall social transformation. As such, the ‘cure’ is ‘in the hands of those who are willing to get rid of the worm-eaten roots of the structure’.14

Taking these arguments into account, it is important to adopt a ‘sociodiagnostic’ approach and to interrogate history in order to understand how certain forms of subjectivation reproduce violence, injustice, and forms of exploitation, which in turn con-tribute to the sociogeny of neuroses, complexes, mental states of noise, and catastrophic reactions. 


How might this understanding of a specifically social form of dissonance be related back to noise in the sonic sense, and sound and performance practices in general? 

Art and music have long been sites in which notions of autonomy and freedom are at stake and have been repeatedly critically questioned—indeed, it could be said that such questions continually return because the promises made by these practices are rarely fulfilled.
            The instructional score Social Dissonance took as its starting point John Cage’s 4’33, a piece designed to allow the context to come to the foreground. As is well known, 4’33 demonstrated that any sound can be treated equally as music, and that in a social situation it is impossible to perceive silence. 
            However, in 4’33 the audience is supposed to hear the sounds in themselves for what they are, independent of their context and their meaning. Effectively, Cage was trying to generate an artificial white cube or black box: the context within which the material is presented is meant to be as neutral as possible, separated from everyday reality, allowing the audience to focus purely on the sonic material as an aesthetic experience. In 4’33, the listener is supposed to isolate the sounds and hear them as music, bringing listening into the foreground but leaving behind the cultural and social context in which that listening is being produced. In Social Dissonance, instead, the audience hear themselves and reflect upon their own conception and self-presentation: aesthetics is deliberately refused any autonomy from the social.
            John Cage’s experience of being in an anechoic chamber in 1951, as famously recounted in his own words, was a very strong influence on the creation of 4’33:

It was after I got to Boston that I went into the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Anybody who knows me knows this story. I am constantly telling it. Anyway, in that silent room, I heard two sounds, one high and one low. Afterward I asked the engineer in charge why, if the room was so silent, I had heard two sounds. He said, ‘Describe them.’ I did. He said, ‘The high one was your nervous system in operation. The low one was your blood in circulation.’15

As Seth Kim-Cohen rightly points out, this moment marks ‘the creation myth of [Cage’s] aesthetics: an aesthetics summed up by his proclamation “let sounds be themselves”’.16 This approach could be seen as comparable to a phenomenological epoché in the Husserlian sense: Cage ‘brackets out’ any extraneous meanings of the sounds by suspending judgement and blocking biases and assumptions. Yet he then performs his descriptions from a first-person point of view in order to explain a phenomenon in terms of its own inherent system of meaning—but without questioning how this first-person perspective is produced. This is crucial because it marks a special moment not only in the his-tory of avant-garde music but also in how the artist conceives of themselves and the assumptions they make in doing so. As Douglas Kahn points out, in fact Cage was not only hearing these two sounds, but also a third ‘quasi-sound’ that was the realisation of hearing these two other sounds: 

 [The anechoic chamber] absorbed sounds and isolated two of Cage’s usually inaudible internal bodily sounds, but in the process there was a third internal sound isolated, the one saying, ‘Hmmm, wonder what the low-pitched sound is? What’s that high-pitched sound?’ Such quasi-sounds were, of course, antithetical to Cagean listening by being in competition with sounds in themselves, yet here he was able to listen and at the same time allow discursive-ness to intrude in the experience because such sounds would be absorbed by clinical and scientific discourse, if not by the materials of the chamber itself, which historically had been allowed to intrude on musical listening.17

Here we have a moment of social dissonance that happens retroactively: John Cage produces a narrative about what he thinks is his individual experience by isolating these two sounds, but forgets or remains unaware of the process of conceptual mediation that occurred within this experience, and how this conceptual mediation is produced at the structural level in the sociogenic process of the reproduction of the self. This ‘intrusion’ or conceptual level of mediation, which I explore throughout the book, and which the Social Dissonance score welcomes and encourages, tends to undermine any claim to immediate contact with ‘the sounds themselves’.


If, as Cage said, there is no such a thing as silence, if there are always sounds, then we could also say that in our present society there is always already noise—the psychological noise that emerges from the social dissonance present in our own self-conception. Given how he passed over this noise in silence, it is not surprising that Cage’s politics amounted to little more than a bland form of individualist anarchism. In his own words: 

Society, not being a process a king sets in motion, becomes an impersonal place understood and made useful so that no matter what each individual does his actions enliven the total picture. Anarchy in a place that works. Society’s individualised.18

How exactly would this society be individualised? Through rights? Through an organic composition? Through mutual understanding? Many open questions. 
           In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner tells the story of Stewart Brand, a photographer, writer, former army lieutenant, impresario, and consummate networker, who between 1968 and 1973 ran the influential Whole Earth Catalog, and in 1993 founded the now famous Wired magazine covering technology, economics, culture, and politics. Turner explains how Stewart Brand was influenced by Cage, his Zen philosophy, and the experimentations of Black Mountain College and the sixties New York art scene.19 Subsequently, in the nineties, Brand became a key figure in the development of Silicon Valley, where, as Turner emphasises, practices that had seemed radical in the fifties and sixties turned out to be the seeds and sources of inspiration for the platform economy of today’s capitalism. 
            Emerging from these same circles is a libertarian tendency that has shaped contemporary thought on the Right. For example the 2009 declaration of Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, that ‘I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible’ seems to have been a turning point for certain libertarians such as Curtis Yarvin and Nick Land, today associated with the ultra-right-wing and often racist neoreactionary movement (NRx). As Ana Teixeira Pinto points out, 

[t]he overlap between Landian theory and the Valley’s political agenda is not coincidental. ‘The Dark Enlightenment,’ which the NRx takes as its foundational text, is basically Land infusing theoretical jargon into Yarvin/Moldbug’s blog ‘Unqualified Reservations’. Yarvin’s Tlon (a corporate vehicle for Urbit, his open-source computing platform) is backed by PayPal founder and Trump advisor Peter Thiel, who is known for his antidemocratic activism. Cyberlibertarian views and Land’s brand of transhumanism are pervasive throughout the tech industry.20

Once the crisis of 2008 had demonstrated just how weak democracy is before the ebb and flow of the global economy, the decade that followed saw an increasing number of young people turning away from liberal values and drifting toward radically individualist tendencies advocating the survival of the fittest. But liberalism has always had a dark side. None other than John Locke, the supposed father of liberalism, was also ‘the last major philosopher to seek a justification for absolute and perpetual slavery’,21 part of a history which Domenico Losurdo exposes with extreme precision, showing for example how the USA, taken by many to be the liberal country per excellence, was not only founded on slavery, but had slave owners as its Founding Fathers. 
            The greatest fallacy of both liberalism and anarchism, though, concerns the primacy of the individual. What John Cage, anarchism, Silicon Valley ideology, certain assumptions about freedom in the free improvisation and noise scenes, reactionary movements, and far-right identity politics such as the alt-right have in common is their belief in a naturalised conception of the individual as proprietor of their experiences. Furthermore, they share the assumption that the unmediated core of this individual has the potential, from within the given situation, to express their freedom. These assumptions are made without taking into account either the determination of subjects at the level of the social totality, or the fact that the notion of the individual is an abstraction arising from these forms of determination. Today’s urgent political climate and the ideological shift toward the far right that followed the 2008 crisis mean that it is now crucial to disentangle these assumptions.
            The specific moment outlined above—the primal scene for John Cage’s belief in sounds in themselves—can be seen as an example of how the collapsing of self, individual, and subject promotes a type of thinking that leads the individual to claim such agency, fuelling the narrative of the autonomous and sovereign self. In the anechoic chamber experience ideology, emphasis is placed on individual experience without taking social determination into account. But thinking social dissonance implies breaking with the idea of listening itself as an ideological anechoic chamber, where listening is just an action that relates you to the sound, and where the sonic is emphasised at the expense of understanding the interrelation between whatever we claim to be music and the values which produce that claim (and here lies the interrelation between value in the cultural sense and value in the economic sense). Cage’s understanding of letting ‘sounds be themselves’22 and his anarchist politics are entirely in accordance, in the sense that the former supposes that ‘sounds in themselves’ are perceived individually outside of the social continuum,23 just as the latter—especially in the American anarchist tradition—emphasises individual agency. 
           In order to challenge this ideology, Social Dissonance seeks to shift the emphasis from the sonorous to the social, precisely because this division is fictitious in the sense that the perception of the sonorous is already social. The question, though, is what type of social relations are at play when we gather to perform and listen, and this is the question inhabited by those who interpret and participate in Social Dissonance

I am quite aware that this exploration will inevitably be aestheticised; it is designed to incorporate an awareness of and a self-reflection on its own aestheticisation. Nonetheless, the emphasis here is not on aesthetic questions or a critique of aesthetics, but on how aesthetic recuperation is embedded within a broader ideology of capitalist relations.


The first part of this book deals with the concept of alienation, here understood not as a condition to be escaped, but as a constitutive part of subjectivity. In Marx, the concept of alienation serves to problematise our assumptions as to what we believe ourselves to be, and how we relate to production. Certain interpretations of the term have been heavily criticised for presupposing that the human has some essential qualities from which it is alienated, and that there is an originary position that could be restored. The argument I will present here, reexamining Marx’s use of alienation in light of Thomas Metzinger’s demystification of selfhood and Ray Brassier’s anti-essentialism, is that this is always a form of mystification. 
            I approach alienation as a concept that allows us to demystify the ways in which the self is produced through various forms of mediation: how individuals are embedded in abstract relations of production which in turn condition our doing and thinking, producing our agency at the social level (‘Alienation from Above’, Chapter 1; but also how the self as proprietor of its own experiences is a model that produces the illusion of agency at the personal level (‘Alienation from Below’, Chapter 2).
       The Social Dissonance score tries to bring this doubly alienated condition into the foreground by exhibiting how the performance situation already resounds to the dissonances that such alienation induces. In this respect, the score may seem to belong to an established tradition. In aesthetics, the notions of alienation, estrangement, and defamiliarisation have long been used in modern art, theatre, literature, and cinema in order to render unfamiliar that which formerly seemed familiar, thereby encouraging us to question mechanisms of production that appear to be natural or neutral (we might think here of Viktor Shklovsky, Sergei Tretyakov, Bertolt Brecht, Jean-Luc Godard, Yvonne Rainer, Straub-Huillet, Arthur Jafa, and Gina Pane). These techniques have served to allow artists to challenge our habitual modes of perception, and in this sense, alienation in aesthetics has been an enabling condition for thought and practice. In noise and improvisation—the contexts in which I work—some of these techniques have been used in the past and have obtained powerful results. However, as advanced in Chapter 3, ‘Externalising Alienation’, my contention is that they have become conventionalised and emptied of their original critical purchase in so far as they continue to invoke the self as the decisive agent of freedom. I then seek to synthesise the theoretical resources gathered from the analysis of alienation in order to develop new techniques for a contemporary use of alienation in aesthetics, and more specifically in the practices of noise and improvisation.
           This allows me to develop what I call constituting praxis, a praxis that tries to understand its conditions while generating its own rules and norms. The concept of freedom here is different to that usually at work in improvisation: rather than a spontaneously available capacity to create ex nihilo, freedom is a cultural achievement that has to generate its own rules and norms, as there is no freedom without norms. Nor is there any way to understand the human without any form of determination.


Following these theoretical discussions and a brief Conclusion, I present the Social Dissonance score itself, along with observations on how it has been interpreted and performed.

While dissonance has negative connotations, in avant-garde and noise practices dissonance has been taken as a positive, in the sense that it can allow us to think differently about music. Historically, the notions of dissonance and noise have been seen as challenging hierarchies in the understanding of sound. In dealing with social dissonance, we shift this challenge from the sonic to the social, and in doing so discover for ourselves that social dissonance is actually the realm that we have to deal with; it’s the opaque map in which we find ourselves, the condition that we are in. Essentially, the score says: let’s take what we have at hand and explore how we are determined. By playing with, amplifying, and addressing this dissonance in terms of social relations, we are simply dealing with reality. 
           In Living in the End Times, Slavoj Žižek addresses the fore-ground/background distinction in John Cage’s 4’33 and Erik Satie’s Musique D’ameublement. According to Satie, music should be a part of the sound of the environment, whereas for Cage, the noises of the environment are the music. Žižek claims that Satie’s Musique D’ameublement was in fact the opposite to Muzak,

a music which subverts the gap separating the figure from the background. When one truly listens to Satie, one ‘hears the back-ground’. This is egalitarian communism in music: a music which shifts the listener’s attention from the great Theme to its inaudible background, in the same way that communist theory and politics refocus our attention away from heroic individuals to the immense work and suffering of the invisible ordinary people.24

In the interpretation of Social Dissonance, what we hear is the impossibility of egalitarian society today, in a system that constantly demands the production of heroic individuals who are compelled to deal with increasingly competitive conditions. It’s not that the noises are the music or that social dissonance simply ‘becomes’ music, but rather that our frustrations, our social determination, and the possibility of collective agency come to the foreground as ‘quasi-sounds’ that testify to the ‘intrusion’ of something more than ‘the sounds themselves’. Given the potential for all aspects of reality to become a part of social dissonance, the negotiation between foreground and background shifts constantly.
            Social dissonance requires us to acknowledge that Cage’s ideological anechoic chamber does not exist—just as the neutrality of the white cube does not exist. You are already a part of this reality, these dissonances are already running through you. The question then becomes: What are you as subject—if you are one—and how do you relate to others? The point is not to generate an artificial reality in order to isolate your-self—as if you already were a subject capable of exercising the authority of taste (by having a specific knowledge, education, or background),25 but to generate a direct connection to other aspects of reality, to investigate the intrinsic connections between economy, culture, and the way that you are produced as a subject (which is always an act of contestation). Social Dissonance is an attempt to address these issues at the same level, while keeping in mind that you will inevitably be producing sounds. 
           Shifting the emphasis from the sonic to the social does not mean that the sonic is neglected; rather, established aesthetic values are set aside in order to explore in a more direct way the function of the artist and musician and their practice in today’s society, but also that of the audience, and how the relations between the two can be disturbed. Of course, I under-stand that at the same time we are engaging in a process of aestheticising aspects that might not yet have great aesthetic value (the sound of conversations, embarrassment, confusion, power relations, intense atmospheres, and so on) just as, when Cage presented 4’33, the audience were confronted with sounds which, at the time, were not perceived as music, but soon became the object of aesthetic appreciation. However, while Cage was interested in integrating these sounds into the canon of musicmaking, the Social Dissonance score sets out to constantly undermine and question its own aestheticisation, while understanding the roles we play within this aestheticisation process. One might think of this act through the metaphor of a hamster in a wheel going nowhere, with the performance of the score as a method for, at least, visualising this wheel: understanding how it functions, so as hopefully to dismantle it in the future. It is important to have a picture, an allegory, or a metaphor for what is going on, for such figurative models may allow us to understand what we are caught up in—and where we’d like to go.
           Schoenberg exposed the conventions of tonal music, which opened up possibilities for a new understanding of musicmaking. Cage questioned the impossibility of silence for humans, making us aware that whatever sounds we perceive can be appreciated as music. In doing so, these artists exposed and altered the conventions of our understanding of music and what our perception of sound is. With Social Dissonance—if the score is successful—the conventions of how we understand ourselves are exposed. This might help us not only to reconsider the function of music in today’s society, but to directly address how society itself could be changed. 


1 This issue will be discussed further throughout the book. See R. Brassier, ‘Abolition and Aufhebung: Reply to Dimitra Kotouza’, in A. Iles and Mattin (eds.), Abolishing Capitalist Totality: What is To Be Done Under Real Subsumption?(Berlin: Archive Books, forthcoming).

2 I. Kant, ‘The Good Will’, The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals [1785], <>.

3 S. Tomšič, The Labour of Enjoyment: Towards a Critique of Libidinal Economy (Berlin: August Verlag, 2019), 127–28.

4 S. Sands and J.J. Ratey, ‘The Concept of Noise’, Psychiatry 49:4 (November 1986), 290–97.

5 C. Malaspina, An Epistemology of Noise: From Information Entropy to Normative Uncertainty (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 173.

6 Ibid., 174.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., 269.

10 L. Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957), 3.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., 11.

13 Ibid., 3.

14 S. Wynter, ‘Towards the Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, the Puzzle of Conscious Experience of “Identity” and What It’s Like to be “Black”’, <>; published version in M. Durán-Cogan and A. Gómez-Moriana (eds.), National Identity and Sociopolitical Change: Latin America Between Marginalization and Integration (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 30–66; quoting F. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, tr. C.L. Markmann (London: Pluto, 1986), 13.

15 J. Cage, ‘JohnÀ Cage’s Lecture “Indeterminacy” 5’00” to 6’00”’, in H. Eimert and K. Stockhausen (eds.), Die Reihe 5 (1961), English edition, 115.

16 S. Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art (London: Bloomsbury, 2009), xvi.

17 D. Kahn, Noise Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press), 190.

18 J. Cage, Anarchy: New York City–January 1988 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), viii.

19 Thanks to José Luis Espejo for pointing out this relationship to me.

20 A.T. Pinto, ‘Artwashing NRx and the Alt-Right’, Texte zur Kunst 106 (June 2017).

21 D. Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, tr. G. Elliott (London: Verso, 2011), 3.

22 J. Cage, ‘Experimental Music’, in Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middle-town, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 10

23 The relation between this type of thinking and the theories of Clement Greenberg is well explained in Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear, xvi.

24 S. Žižek, Living in the End Times (London and New York: Verso, 2010), 381.

25 For a more extensive debate on the authority of taste see my conversation with Martina Raponi, ‘The Authority of Taste: Mattin and Theses on Noise’, <>.