Something In The Air: Post-Industrial Ambience And The Control Society


Cover of the 1990 compilation Q.E.D. on Staalplaat

At this point in time, it is easy to admit that we are living in a state of "etherialization." The primary characteristics of this state, as recognized by Arnold Toynbee, were that "cultures that remain static and uncreative in the human sphere often promote ingenious technical adaptations and inventions, whereas more creative cultures transmute their energies into higher and more refined forms […] their technical apparatus becomes progressively dematerialized." 1 The evidence of this is with us, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, in the form of the internet, and also in the proliferation of increasingly miniaturized multi-purpose devices with a decreasing number of moving parts. From iPods to Oracle Database, internal organization becomes gradually more complex as the external, tangible and even visible becomes more superfluous, more symbolic than purely functional.

The Internet and the concurrent reign of digitalization are, however, just symptoms of etherialization - if particularly infectious ones - and not necessarily the driving engine of this state of affairs. The objectives of modern warfare, for example, are achieved by launching successful "psy-ops" campaigns or "p.r. offensives" which gain the international community's sympathies via successful transmission of images and sounds. Destruction of physical sites and human bodies is as cruelly present as ever, yet non-combatants' parsing of "etherealized" media imagery is no longer a sideshow to the "main" objective of laying waste to enemy infrastructure. Even terrorism, often used as a substitute term for asymmetrical warfare using "low-tech" improvisational means, regains a "symmetrical" standing here by utilizing the most high-tech information relays to accomplish its own aims: tactically, it succeeds not only because of its jolting suddenness, but because terrorists "...[schedule] their bomb blasts on time to catch the evening news…the explosion only exists because it is simultaneously coupled to a multimedia explosion." 2

Just as the Internet is just one manifestation of "etherealized" life, though, the trend towards communications-as-warfare is merely one variation on post-industrial society's recurrent leitmotif: that of seeing the whole lived environment or atmosphere as a controlling force, and not merely its artificial sites of containment. Post-industrial society remains defined by its increased reliance on de-materialized information as a commodity, above and beyond reliance on most other natural resources: information's careful editing allows for an irresistibly efficient, cost-effective massaging of attitudes and needs. Peter Sloterdijk believes that, in this age, "man is not only what he eats, but what he breathes, and that in which he is immersed…cultures are collective conditions of immersion in air and sign systems." 3 Gilles Deleuze wrote much earlier (in 1992) on the same phenomenon, more explicitly noting how this condition contrasted with prior forms of social organization:

The factory was a body that contained its internal forces at the level of equilibrium, the highest possible in terms of production, the lowest possible in terms of wages; but in a society of control, the corporation has replaced the factory, and the corporation is a spirit, a gas. 4

En route to this realization, Deleuze noted some striking contrasts between the 'new' social control and its predecessor, the disciplinary society. Michel Foucault's fascination with the panopticon formed part of a larger vision of these societies' being dominated by "enclosures;" behavior modification sites with clearly defined spatial boundaries. These "enclosures" themselves had something of a sequential nature about them: at each successive stop, their inhabitants would be bluntly reminded that the rules of former "enclosures" no longer applied: Deleuze suggests that upon arrival at school, students would be reminded that "you are no longer with your family," or that "you are no longer at school" when arriving at the barracks. Although new sets of rules applied at each way station, the common feature of all these environments was a monopolization of their inhabitants' productive energies- this energy was to be spent only within the institution at hand, and any expenditure of this energy outside of these institutions was to be seen as a mere shedding of "surplus" energy, not to be taken as seriously as State-directed activities within the enclosed environment.

By the mid-point of the 20th century, though, the disciplinary societies invoked by Deleuze via Foucault became closely associated with the defeated totalitarian armies of Europe, and eventually with the collapsed Soviet Union. Having denounced the disciplinary innovations of these societies for years (gulags, extermination camps etc.), the triumphant Western nations had inbred in their citizens a deep distrust of societies built on police force alone, and had to rule via seduction rather than coercion.

Unlike the ossified structures or "molds" of disciplinary society, the atomized control society aimed to permeate everything, setting up a situation whereby "liberating and enslaving forces confront one another" 5 and, as such, could not be quickly or easily distinguished from each other. Certain 21st century work environments attempt to wed 'liberated' fun and frivolity with the day's serious commitments (e.g. the Apple offices where programmers are allowed to roam about the facilities barefoot), or have been completely merged with the more 'liberated' personal / domestic space, thanks to the telecommute.

With de-centralized control society basing itself on the power of the immaterial, it seemed only a matter of time before its attendant culture began to lean towards this "gas-like" permeability and dissipation. Originally popularized by Brian Eno6 and his "oblique strategies," the term "ambient" has met with much the same fate as "surreal," being used to demarcate a littoral zone of general, unsupervised weirdness. Chris Morris' BBC 4 sketch comedy show Jam, for example, was referred to as "ambient comedy" for the queasy way in which sketches were linked together; the oneiric manner in which monstrous and mundane images intermingled. The distinguishing features of ambient music a la Eno were its lack of reliance on rhythmic and percussive elements, its use of atmospheric effects - primarily reverb and delay - to spatialize sparse melodic content, and its concern with "texture" rather than the musical qualities of progression and counterpoint. Vocalizations (when present) de-emphasized narrative and functioned more like mantric chants, occasionally observing and describing but rarely giving directives or offering any kind of subjective opinion. Ambient music was also produced primarily with electronic means, sometimes giving the illusion of having been created without any human agency whatsoever- of being pure automatism or 'generative' music. Arguably, the electronic edge was one of the only things separating it from pre-industrial forms of "ambience" such as liturgical music, which shared the predilection for minimal tonal content being maximized by lush reverberation.

So, did ambient music as such point towards a release from societal strictures and a sort of potential for boundless, incorporeal exploration? This may have been the case, if control societies were still basing themselves on an "enclosing" principle. Certainly, we have plenty of sobering statistics about the ever-expanding prison population in the U.S. (and the prison industry's secure 'growth industry' status in an otherwise flailing economy), but, again, the reigning corporate state now prefers to maintain its behavior modifying power through means other than the constant threat of enclosure and censure. Besides, it already had its own form of sympathetic ambient music, courtesy of the Muzak corporation: like Xerox and Kleenex, Muzak lent its imprimatur to an entire genre of music: that of scientifically tested, downright pasteurized sound. They therefore exemplified "emotional engineering" in this technocratic or managerial state. Curiously, the distribution system for Muzak recordings was even more hermetic than that of the subversive music underground, since their "demonstration albums were not available in stores and were intended strictly for prospective clients and franchisers."7

While much of Muzak's amniotic output was created "in house" by such composers as Dick Hyman (also an early booster of Moog synthesizers), they would become equally famous for their undeniably skillful neutering of popular rock songs, including those with an insurgent message: the frequency range of the originals was dramatically limited, instrumental substitutions were made (e.g. harp in the place of electric guitar) and any kind of vocalizing was conspicuously absent. The manipulative effect of this music, as well as its inhuman and ethereal quality, fascinated some musicians on the fringe enough to re-integrate it into their own work (Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh was among the first to voluntarily create a quasi-Muzak re-interpretation of his own music, with his band's E-Z Listening Disc.)

As harsh as it may seem, much of what has passed for "official" ambient music, from Brian Eno's Music For Airports to the "chill out" confections of the rave era, is not entirely different in attitude and intent from corporate Muzak. And so, a line has to be drawn between forms of post-industrial atmospheric music that aim to immerse the listener in reality, and those forms which hope to teleport the listener into an incorporeal fantasy environment (albeit one which, as J.G. Ballard noted in his novel Super-Cannes, dreams come equipped with airbags.) Many of the works created by musicians in the "post-industrial" vein employed ambience as a metaphor for all-pervasive control, as a self-interrogative means, or as a means of heightening concentration. The interviews and proclamations in scene newsletters and journals made frequent reference to the use of pure sound as a weapon, or made bold and fascinating claims about its myriad para-psychological effects: the implicit message being, of course, that it was folly to leave these tools to other hands. Along with this attitude adjustment came the realization that, just because ambience made overtures towards the ineffable and immaterial, ambient music could still be a resolutely physical force: sound is, after all, the propagation of spherical pressure zones moving outward from a sound source, and a dramatically increased density or rate of pressurization (e.g. amplitude) can work on the entire corporeal form, not just the ears. Post-industrial music's signature elements - subsonic drones, slight phase shifts, lengthy passages of distortion and over-modulation - reminded of a world where all physical form was merely "sound made flesh," or the epiphenomena of different frequencies of vibration. This type of "metabolic ambience" was widespread amongst post-industrial artists, as well as a special blend of rudimentary instrumentation and technological modulation - occasionally dubbed "fourth world" ambience – that seemed to reject the "exoticism" of foreign locales and traditions by weaving all the aforementioned elements into an organic, if sometimes hallucinogenic, whole. The Newcastle-based Zoviet France were particularly skilled at this technique.

Zoviet France: Burning Bush – from ‘Popular Soviet Songs and Youth Music’ cassette, Red Rhino, 1985

But what, exactly, was "post-industrial music"? With the folding of Throbbing Gristle's Industrial Records in 1981 came the predictable introduction of this taxonomical term. Like other musical modes that have been designated as “post-“, post-industrial music was not so much a refutation of the original set of techniques and ideals as it was a continuation of them in the absence of their most successful propagators. This extension of 'classic' Industrialism generally meant more of the following: fondness for using the symbols, jargon, and regalia of the State in order to confront it, a bit of shared lineage with conceptual and performance art, and a zeal for pushing consumer technology to its limits (especially insofar as this practice illuminated latent forms of psycho-spiritual extremity.) What was interesting about the next wave, though, was that the coining of the "new" genre name brought the music up to speed with the actual societal developments suggested in The Post-Industrial Society by Alain Touraine: whereas the term "industrial music" suggested to laypeople a sonic critique of mechanization and obsession with the material gains thereof, calling the same music "post-industrial" was more appropriate for an art form that was critiquing the information economy, the managerial state, and the general trend towards 'ethereal' control. In this sense, it was arguably more effective than in the short-lived 'classic' mode of industrial music.

A defining characteristic of post-industrial ambience is its ability to disrupt the listener's customary experience of spatiality by making the "far away" seem close at hand. Undisturbed ambience infiltrates in a way that, arguably, the quick and transient attacks of beat-based music cannot, and this is where musicians in the post-industrial milieu excel at shuttling both dreams and nightmares into waking consciousness. In both cases, the aforementioned Illusion of Safety have proven particularly adept: speaking on the piece "Trumpet Field" from the I.O.S. release In 70 Countries, member Dan Burke says it is meant to evoke "the kind of feeling you have when falling asleep at the wheel…or perhaps going in and out of consciousness after being kept awake and tortured for five days."8The record from which this piece is culled is an "unbiased observational documentary about torture," which, although Burke claims offers "no answers…just a glimpse at the world of man," 9 does not fail to produce strong emotions against the practice under examination. In this and other recordings in their discography, I.O.S. manage to ignore the binary thinking that posits rhythmic music as "urban, active, socially engaged" and non-rhythmic (read: ambient) music as "pastoral, passive, contemplative." The strongest artists in the post-industrial culture realize that contemplation is not an isolated act with no influence upon reality, or, indeed, a way for the control society's subjects to burn off their surplus psychic energy. Yes, the scene has also been brimful of extremist cliché-mongers and students of hackneyed esoterism, but its leading lights have developed an intriguing and fluid aesthetic from this approach.

Illusion of Safety: Trumpet Field – from ‘In 70 Countries’ cassette, Complacency Productions, 1989

The 'industrial culture' strategy of stealth transmission and enforced ambiguity also seems to apply to the aforementioned recording: without the few torture-related dialogues that appear in the liner notes and are reprised throughout the audio program, the alternating flux of repellent and attractive atmospheres would suggest nothing more than a natural order of things- even the indistinct title would not be seen as a reference to nations in which torture was, at the time of release, being practiced. Yet the few hints offered are all that we need, and this makes the enveloping nature of the ambience all the more effective. What would have otherwise signified a harmless "something is all around you" now appends a much more sinister "…and there is no escape," challenging the listener to take some form of concrete action.

Das Synthetische Mischgewebe – The Harvest of Magnetism 2 (excerpt), from ‘The Harvest of Magnetism’ LP, Discos Esplendor Geometrico, 1985

It's also worth noting that recordings of post-industrial ambience had a distribution system that was decentralized and "etherealized" in itself: rather than relying exclusively on physical shops for distribution, post-industrial musicians regularly operated within tape-trading networks mediated only by the postal service. Just as technocratic control spread like a "gas" or a "cloud," so did countervailing forces such as this self-releasing music network. Unlike the "vertical" musical genealogies that obsess over who "begat" whom, the literature of this underground (usually Xeroxed information sheets, or hand-folded and stapled info pamphlets) presented a formation of artists who appeared so chronologically and methodologically close to each other, despite significant geographical distances, that their amorphous means of organization fit well with the ambient content of their work. Music groups and / or trans-media organizations such as Das Synthetische Mischgewebe and Club Moral, having already applied these same principles to the 'network-as-artwork' project of Mail Art, were merely adding networked audio projects to their lengthy lists of other creative actions. Others, such as Al Margolis of If,Bwana, were re-envisioning the record label as an international networking hub rather than solely as a dealer in product (Margolis' "Sound of Pig" tape label remains one of the key labels from the 'post-industrial music' wave to mix consistency of quality with wild diversification of sonic output.) In light of these developments, the online SoundCloud service (begun in 2007 as a means of distributing music akin to pre-existing Internet social networks) can be seen as an extension of post-industrial trails already blazed.

The Hafler Trio- Bull Baiting (excerpt) - from ‘Mastery Of Money’ CD, Touch, 1992

The story of post-industrial ambience is one worthy of a much more detailed telling, since many of the genre's more feted artists - the Hafler Trio, Asmus Tietchens, Giancarlo Toniutti, Etant Donnes, et al.- have served as shadowy intermediaries between the spheres of academic or formalist experimentalism and the street-level avant-garde of "noise," "glitch" and the like. Many now shy away from this culture because of a perceived shift towards grim and lazy prurience, although this blanket disavowal of the culture relies a little too much on contemporary misinterpretations of earlier works (see especially the influential dread clouds of Maurizio Bianchi's 1981 Symphony For A Genocide.) Although the age of the 'enclosure' is far from being at an end, as the number of elective enclosures (e.g. gated communities) expands, this music provides a necessary critique of control in its purest form to date. It points out what should by now be obvious; that a model of ambiguous control behaving like a "gas" will, from time to time, slip through the hands of its would-be owners and be re-fashioned into the plaything of restless, creative outliers of the population.


1. Lewis Mumford, The City In History (Harvest Books: San Diego / London / New York, 1989), p. 112.

2. Paul Virilio & Sylvere Lotringer, Pure War (Semiotext(e): Los Angeles, 2007), p. 194-195.

3. Peter Sloterdijk, Terror From The Air Trans. Amy Patton and Steve Corcoran (Semiotext(e): Los Angeles, 2009), p. 84.

4. Gilles Deleuze, "Postscript On The Societies Of Control." October 59 (Winter 1992), p. 3.

5. Ibid.

6. Brian Eno dates the "birth of ambient music" to the release of his 1973 collaboration with Robert Fripp, No Pussyfooting. See On Some Faraway Beach: The Life And Times Of Brian Eno by David Sheppard, p. 153 (Chicago Review Press: Chicago, 2009). Somewhat confusingly, though, the "birth" is later claimed by Eno as coinciding with his 1975 period of immobility, following a collision with a taxi cab (the release of the album Discreet Music followed this experience.)

7. Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music (University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 2004), p. 285.

8. Dan Burke quoted in "An Interview With Dan Burke Of Illusion Of Safety," H23 #1 (Spring 1989), p. 18.

9. Ibid.

Thomas Bey William Bailey is a multi-disciplinary artist and cultural researcher, whose work has manifested itself as books, articles, music releases, sound installations, experimental radio shows, and completely undocumented or personal creative actions / interventions. He has lived and worked in Japan, Central Europe,and Chicago, struggling to overcome the psychic fatigue which is endemic to our 21st century congestion culture. His work critiques and frames this culture by avoiding the obvious, easily perceptible middle ground and instead focusing on 'micro' and 'macro' aspects of lived experience in an information-saturated epoch. To this end, Bailey's work tends towards either 'atomizing' life (e.g. making recordings of asthmatic breath and incomprehensible sleep-talking, strobing videos limited to only a couple visual elements) or illuminating its hyper-complexity with intense noise, etc. It is a celebration of 'life before death' and a valuation of intimate, inter-personal exploratory nature above mass techno-philia or techno-phobia. Many of these ideas are further fleshed out in Bailey's first book-length survey of his influences and allies,"Micro Bionic", published 2009 on Creation Books.