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Monday, March 06, 2017

the voice stage

From the beginning of the human race until around 1880, no human being ever heard his or her voice. Socrates didn’t, Sappho didn’t, Jesus Christ didn’t, and Abraham Lincoln didn’t. Jenny Lind, it is said, made a wax cylinder for Edison, so she might have gotten a scratching inkling of what she sounded like in the 1880s, long after her singing prime. 

In a strong sense, what this means is that the voice had no mirror. One of the great wonders of modern life is that one was invented.
It is hard to imagine ourself back to the millenia of being, essentially, like actors in a silent movie, at least to ourselves. Yet long before there were phonographs, there were sayings about hearing one’s own voice. We do have a strong sense of our voice, we seem to hear it. But when we record it, it seems a wilder thing, not the thing we recognize. There is, it turns out, a delicate interface between inhabiting a thing heard and having the sound itself confront us in its full materiality, uninhabited by us. Nowhere else is the so called "user illusion' - the illusion that we are in control of the thing we use when we are actually following its preprogrammed design - so actual.
The era initiated by Edison did not, of course, make the voice mirror universal. It took some time for audio technology to get there. When I was a kid, cheap tape recorders were available with which one could tape oneself, but it was, at best, an entertainment that was outside of the daily routine. I think one of the great moments in the history of human voice was the invention and distribution of answering machines. Although several devices to record telephone calls existed in postwar America, they were either expensive or discouraged by At and T, which wanted to monopolize the market with its own high priced technology. Attachments to record were actually just gussied up tape recorders, the older kind of tape recorders. What changed was the advent of recorders with magnetic tapes and integrated circuits that made recording incoming calls less cumbersome. An advertisement (in a 1977 Popular Mechanics) for a Ford Code-A-Phone 1977 shows a machine that would be easily recognized by the children of the seventies: a sleek silver rectangular box on which you could record a message just by holding down an inviting plastic red button, and which allowed you to easily erase messages and record over them. In addition, you could call yourself, press a code, and have the machine play back your messages over the phone. Magic! I remember my parents getting a similar box. So the first widespread consciousness of one’s own voice in America was the voice saying: this is X Smith, or this is the household of X Smith, leave a message at the beep. I remember my Dad making such a, when you think about it, referentially complex message. What kind of token was it? It had the qualities of the written, and yet, it was part of no system of linguistic representation – it was neither phonetic nor ideogramatic. It was, at best, an echo – echo writing. It was the thing itself, except that it wasn’t.
There’s really no metaphor for this, no comparable historical situation. This was something new in the psychological construction that we had always had around our voice. No echo ever prepared us for this.
My Dad never puzzled about the philosophical problems the telephone recorder posed. In fact, if this was a blow to human narcissism (different from Freud’s three moments: Copernicus, Darwin and Freud), its effect was muted. Especially with my old man, as far as I could tell.
The function of the voice in the psyche, as Freud conceived it, was crucial to the formation of the conscience. It was the parental voice that was, in a sense, recorded by the infant’s answering machine – making the conscience something foreign to the ego, something injected into the ego. This was the root, Freud felt, of the paranoid symptom of feeling observed: “the patient complains of the fact that all his thoughts are known, and their behaviors are watched and spied on. They are informed about this rule through voices that characteristically speak to them in the third person ('Now she's thinking of that again', 'now he's going out').
However, I don’t remember Freud speaking of our reaction to our own voice. Although by this time the gramophone had become a common bourgeois household object, access to record one’s own voice was pretty much restricted to entertainers and celebrities. Although perhaps one underestimates the place of recording the voice began to play in the imagination of modern culture.
In a fascinating essay entitled ‘Primal Sound’, Rilke recorded a memory of his school years that happened about the time the first gramophone was produced. The physics teacher in his class made a primitive instrument that used waxed paper, a cylinder of cardboard, and a bristle from a comb to show how sound waves could be captured in a material and replayed.
“At that time, and years afterwards I supposed that the evidence of this independent sound, taken from us and preserved in an outside material, would remain a sensation I’d never forget.”
Yet, as Rilke goes on to say, the moment of shock that the sound came out of this primitive record did not remain with him as the sense of this primal scene (Rilke describes it precisely as a primal scene, the infant beginning of something that would grow endlessly larger) . It was absorbed in the moral economy of everyday routine, so to speak. Instead, his mind fixed on the grooves themselves: “It wasn’t … the sound out of the funnel that remained uppermost in my memory, as it happened, but instead the marks carved into the platter which remained peculiarly present to me.”
In the rest of the essay, Rilke’s thought takes a sort of paranoid turn – if we remain with Freud – and instead of the peculiarity of his own voice, it is the peculiar idea that sound is frozen into substances everywhere – in as much as things are grooved. What if we found a way to “play”, for instance, the grooves in a skull? Perhaps even these grooves – in particular, the coronal suture – represent some primal sound – the scratching of God’s own finger on us, mere platters.
We all tunnel forward in our manias. Mine, here, is that this obvious turning away from the shock of hearing – even if so faintly as to be an intimation – his own voice is the negation around which Rilke has created his essay.
As far back as I can remember, I haven’t liked to hear the sound of my own voice – even as I loved recording messages in other voices I’d imitate. Although I am just the kind of person the phrase “loves to hear himself talk” was made for, I love to hear it in that shadowy place inside the voice, surfing the glottal instance that is not at all petrified in an outer material substrate. The voice, separated from me, recorded, become a thing, has always seemed to me a peculiar, shaming weakness.
I thought about all of this when, a couple of days ago, I played a quicktime film that Adam’s teachers made. Each student made a picture of a jellyfish; then each sat before the teacher, with her phone camera, and explained it. Adam came about sixth or seventh. I thought he was wonderful.
Adam didn’t. He said he didn’t like his voice. 

Because this is not the first time that Adam has heard his voice, his remark made me wonder if something happens – some voice stage new to our natural history, something that is separate from Lacan’s mirror stage – that gives us a sense of the self that is at once exposed and that we would like to avoid.
The bad conscience of the voice brings us back to questions of the dialect, and of imperial power. Hmm, where am I going with this?

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