The following is a guest post by blahfeme, author of the weblog, blah-feme.
Voicing, finding one’s own voice, passive, active, middle voices, voice leading, voice-overs, voice training, to voice as if to say… around that word, vox, voz, Stimme, голос, φωνή, λαλιά, a number of highly territorialised and powerful tropes orbit: the voice marks an origin, a departure, a making sound out of silence, a movement, a breath of discourse–it’s life. A becoming and an authority. Voices do not sing–to sing is to transform the voice into the singing voice, a voice other than itself, something always already at odds with itself–to set that voice into song, to take the prosaic shortness of vowels and lengthen them, set them onto a more determinate pitch structure, order that production differently, structure stress differently, make voicing into singing, is to bring voice into an unsettling relationship with itself, and to disturb something we have tried to keep hidden for a long time: our voices, voicing, what we say… it is all, in the end, susceptible to the capricious terminality of material.
The terms on which the singing voice might be said to do cultural work are extremely difficult to catalogue, since post-reformation European and North American cultures at least have tended to deal more readily in imageries, tropes and topoi that are available to visual shorthanding. The voice might thus be said to pose something of a representational problem; its sonic materiality that never settles cannot be held still. This fidgety voice, a material capriciousness, seems always somehow just out of reach, beyond those things that we are able to say, and yet saying them nonetheless. This point is made by Chion:
The voice is elusive. Once you have eliminated everything that is not the voice itself–the body that houses it, the words it carries, the notes it sings, the traits by which it defines a speaking person, and the timbres that colour it, what’s left? (The Voice in Cinema, 1)
It might therefore be worth trying to grasp this problem as one that can be addressed not simply in terms of what we ‘do’ with the voice, but in terms also of what it does to us–in what ways does it intervene in the formation of our ego ideal, how does it articulate, thematise or otherwise engage gender, race, class and so on? Mladen Dolar has recently made a striking intervention in this problematic, and settles on a conception of voice as in some sense the sinthome of the Western episteme. In this passage, he addresses Georgio Agamben’s Homo sacer and gets to the core of that epistemic problem that haunts our speaking:
… the voice is not simply an element external to speech, but persists at its core, making it possible and constantly haunting it by the impossibility of symbolizing it. And even more: the voice is not some remnant of a previous precultural state, or some happy primordial fusion when we were not yet plagued by language and its calamities; rather, it is the production of logos itself, sustaining and troubling at the same time. (Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More, 106.)
What is a stake for Dolar here is the very ground on which the split, as recognised by Derrida, between logos or word and phone, is built. That rupture, a symptom for Dolar of the operation of culture (‘the production of logos’) on the voice, makes access to the voice extremely difficult, as if it were in some sense always spectral, always in some sense beyond the fixing operation of symbolization.
Dolar’s extraordinary insights nonetheless leave something out (and he would no doubt, as a Lacanian, be the first to admit as such since that orientation is all about marking the abyss, the missing, the lack, the sinthome). To slightly over-characterise Dolar, there is in his book a certain disdain for the aesthetic pleasuring in the voice, a disdain which flows from the need to sustain a critical relationship with his field (this is a point also made by Pinocchio Theory in his recent review of Dolar’s book). I want to suggest here that, although that critical relationship is crucial to the appropriate operation of Dolar’s strategy, it can also, if left unattended to, operate as a kind of dead-end political Puritanism, at its worst a kind of disavowal of the pleasuring that forms a part of any coherent political theory of the voice, especially as we encounter it in song. In a sense, then, the question as to how the voice does cultural work is a question about the relationship between ideology and enjoyment.
When that voice takes flight in song, the volume of that encounter between ideology and pleasure is cranked right up. Voice in this way would thus, in this extended Dolarian sense, represent not merely an impasse or a place of traumatic breaking (as Žižek makes it clear in his Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the mother in Hitchcok’s The Birds, on seeing her neighbour’s corpse with bloody eyes, runs from the room and cannot make any sound… the horror sticks in her throat); it would also allow for a place of joy, for ecstatic derangement, for being other than instrumental to the symbolic machine. To enjoy voice is to become a noise maker, to become, in the eyes of those that speak from their gilded place of symbolic composure, a thug. Before my ASBO is served, then, let’s wreak some havoc.
Imagine three voices in song (I am thinking here of voices in the singular, in solo, of course, although choruses, choirs, ensembles of voices, each bring their own set of dynamics that I will think about elsewhere).
The first, a voice that does not hover very far off the ground–a voice that seeks to stage a certain imagination of authenticity: I think here of the quiet rustle of José González or Devendra Banhart. These are voices that perform a certain easiness, a composure that is not, in the end, about intimacy but, on the contrary, about the spectacular. Logos gives way to the pleasure of that staging without ever finding its ground - voice here resonates with the double-bind of singing - on the obne hand it is the simple voice of unmediated song, of song as spontaneity and, on the other, it is voice that is disciplined, held in a small territory in order to project the fantasy of immediacy.
The second is a voice that refuses the dance of authenticity, refutes the organic voice and reaches fo the flattened, open-ended hydrid voice, a voice without origin, a voice without subject. It is the voice of the machine, the voice without inflection, without meat. I think here of Kraftwerk, of Bjork of 'pluto', of the end of the organic dream of voice as the speaking of labour.
The third is a voice in flight, a voice that startles with its ephemeral shimmer, its staged-ness, its artiface - here 'trained' voices predominate - opera, Lied, but also certain forms of country, rock and jazz - they are voices that embrace their constructedness, their taking flight in technics, in their agility, their lightness, their airy openness, their purity.
Here then are at least three of the voice-tropes that operate in Western song, in a song, that is, which has consistently sought since the Reformation to rehearse what Lacan has termed the 'social psychosis' of the Western episteme. Song, that supplement to speech, that double supplement of writing, a symptom of the hardness and fixity of media, of the late modern predicament, of alienation from labour; that song is also a staging, a showing, a narrating of the predicament, its dramaturgy.
Richard Middleton has recently gestured at this possibility in his new book Voicing the Popular (Routledge, 2006) in which he understands song as offering a privileged site for understanding a certain vernacular history of the family, of labour, gender and of 'subjectivity'. I would go further – what this voice in song does is disturb the fantastical ground on which family, gender, labour, authenticity, even, can be thought – it stages whilst drawing attention to that staging, it narrates whilst radically materialising narrative forms and conventions, it speaks whilst pointing at the breath hat makes speech possible: in this sense, voice is the hardest of all materials.