Bennett Hogg

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Hearing Voices: Phonography and the Cultural Imagination of Humans and Machines (IASPM, Montreal, 2003)

Hearing Voices: Phonography and the Cultural Imagination of Humans and Machine

(a paper given at IASPM 2003 in Montreal )
At the end of the play “Ghosts” (1891) Ibsen presents us with a spectacle of the complete collapse of a human subject.  The play’s central protagonist, Osvald Alving, succumbs first to the paralysis brought about by tertiary syphilis and, as the attack  rapidly progresses, he is reduced to a completely vegetative state by the final page of the text, “. . . a softening of the brain, the doctors call it”.  Osvald’s body, already immobile, cannot convey this ultimate state of collapse, and in any case all a body can do in the pursuit of this on stage is to die.  His voice is all that Osvald has left to him and so, from the playwright’s perspective it remains to language to represent the nullification of the mental processes, the eclipsing by disease of “the subject”.  However, a subject who is no longer a subject cannot articulate this in language in any way that is explanatory because the ability to do so is precisely one of the conditions of being a subject – in this it is rather like the impossibility of truthfully uttering the phrase “I am dead”.     Osvald’s mother, delighted and traumatised in equal measure by the necessary intimacy and intensity of her new relationship to her son now that he is “helpless – like a baby”, asks him if there is anything he wants.  After twenty-four hours of gloom and rain (the period during which the first two acts of the play take place) the sun is rising onto a clear, bright day.  The sun (or in fact its absence) is something of a central trope in “Ghosts” but its illuminating appearance is skewed when Osvald responds to his mother’s question with the surreal “mother, give me the sun”.  At this precise moment as Osvald negotiates between the surrender to his mother’s care and the impossibility of desire, the imminent collapse of his subjectivity is realised and he is left, an automaton, senselessly and “tonelessly” repeating the words “. . . the sun . . . the sun . . .” as his mother hysterically confronts the fact that she has promised to kill him, her own son, in the event of a collapse such as this.  The curtain falls with Osvald repeating the same words over and over, his mother paralysed with indecision, tearing at her hair.

I have always been struck by this representation of the obliteration of subjectivity (an occurrence that is, because it is internal, essentially invisible) because as Ibsen presents it, mediated by the change in Osvald’s voice, it invokes the sound of a cracked record.  It is historically quite unlikely that Ibsen had, himself, heard a cracked record, “Ghosts” was finished only four years after the invention of the phonograph, which although widely publicised, had by this stage not become anything like the ubiquitous presence it was to be fifteen or twenty years later.  It seems reasonable to speculate, then, in the absence of any hard evidence that I have so far been able to unearth, that Ibsen is not intentionally invoking a broken recording machine to represent a broken human “machine”.  The evocation of Osvald’s interior state is not, in this sense, directly metaphoric.

This is not to say that metaphor is absent – it quite clearly is not.  In the context of early modernism the machine, the mechanical, is a tool for the rationalisation of production and the satisfaction of needs, tools for a techno-utopia, a Brave New World; but it simultaneously poses a direct threat, figuratively if not in actuality, to the nature of what it is to be human in the first place.  This is acted out through the juxtaposition of Osvald’s voice with his that of his mother who, as the stage directions indicate, runs through the whole gamut of tragic human emotions, reinforcing her human status as a foil, an exaggeration of Osvald’s absent self.  A mechanical voice equals the voice of a machine and in this resonates with other less-than-human figurations of living human bodies – obsessive repetition in psychosis, repetitive self-stimulatory movements, echolalia, and more figuratively in the circular discourses of paranoia.  Osvald’s voice, then, fits into a pre-existing economy of the less-than-human, or the human-dysfunctional, which, in terms of observable behaviour, imbricates itself in discourse with the mechanical.

These associations figure as elements in the pre-history of the phenomenon of the recorded voice, and persist as cultural tropes, informing responses to explicitly “technologised” voices.  Such voices – looped, distorted, ring-modulated or reversed – easily fit the cultural role constructed for them as cyborg, robot or quasi-human (the subtly disturbing voice of HAL in Kubrick’s 2001, for example).  They are, in this sense, dissident identities when brought up against “real” human identity.  But this is only the surface of the story, and to equate the apparently mechanical voice with a de-humanised presence is to, at best, state the obvious, at worst to recruit superficial associations in support of a binaristic essentialism that erroneously fixes what it is to be human.

To be sure, the voice on the cracked record – or in contemporary dance culture the sampled and looped voice fragment – can evoke, as one possible reading, a mechanised, de-humanised self.  However, the complete constellation of cultural signifiers which circulates around the voice is highly complex and deceptively opaque. This, in conjunction with the ordinariness of the cracked record, or of the sampled voice – the actually non-fantasy, non-cyborgian context within which we generally encounter such phenomena – does not permit such an easy displacement of what is certainly a problematic in our human status onto the convenient hybrids or simulacra we encounter in science fiction.

What is at stake is something that Freudian psychoanalysis has told us about ourselves, and which the Lacanian project, as a prosthesis of Freud, has carried into cultural theory even as it has redesigned and radicalised its constitutive elements; this is the essentially illusory nature of the self as constructed in the interests of the unitary, coherent and consistent ego.  From this position it is possible to effect the mutually informative encounter of a theorisation of the technological mediation of the voice with psychoanalytically orientated cultural theory.  the crack in the record opens a gap in which to think through what may be happening when the voice is recorded, when machines speak to us or, as Andre Breton put it, when “automata already dream and multiply”.

Breton was familiar with the psychiatric ideas of Charcot and Janet through his work with World War I trauma patients, but tends to foreground Freud’s writing as an important influence in the development of the surrealist world-view, although the surrealist reading of Freud was certainly not in the interests of therapy or normalisation.  Breton is explicit in his aesthesticisation of hysteria, paranoia and the dream-state, and in psychoanalysis finds a technology with which to overthrow the rational mind and put it on a more even footing with the unconscious.  The young Lacan was, of course, associated with the surrealists, even publishing an early psychoanalytic essay in the surrealist house journal Minotaure, contributing other writings and poems and, according to David Macey, receiving the most enthusiastic response to his doctoral thesis in the surrealist circles in Paris.  Insofar as surrealism gave the mechanical a central position within its belief system this is a particularly suggestive meeting of intellects for the encounter of psychoanalysis with technology.  Fascinated with, and delighting in the “marvelous” and uncanny aspects of automata (a central element, of course, in Freud’s reading of “The Sandman”), Breton prescribes that the writer, under the sign of “pure psychic automatism” that defines surrealism, should be merely “a recording device” upon which the liberated unconscious should be inscribed without the interference of rational thought.  For Breton, to be truly human, to bring about the reconciliation of conscious and unconscious thought, to in a sense complete the potential of the psychic life, is to be as a machine;  it is only by the renunciation of the rational ego that the “real” self can be “realised”.

So, on the one hand, to become like a machine signals the end of subjectivity, on the other it participates in the liberating of, the becoming of, a whole subject, albeit a subject that no longer gives the ego a position as its primary signifier.  How can these apparently contradictory readings coexist?  I believe that voice, particularly as mediated by recording, can offer a position from which to work this through, although it would fly in the face of Lacanian logic for this to be a working through to any sort of finite resolution.  The problem, as is surely becoming clear, lies in the figuration of the subject as an unproblematic “whole” that can be disrupted by mechanisation – a human voice that is incontestably human, that can be transformed into a mechanical voice as though the idea of “human” under the regime of modernity was “given” and not culturally determined and under constant renegotiation – as though human and mechanical stood in direct opposition to one another.  It is in this respect that Breton’s ideas attain to the level of critique, and which chime with Lacan’s emerging articulation of his understanding of the subject.

Even not taking into account his later project for a cybernetics of the unconscious, Lacan has always had more sympathy for an account of the subject that de-essentialises what it is to be human in favour of a less binaristic modelling of our encounter with the world, a model that takes account of the internalisation of technology, the interiority of that which would ordinarily be considered prosthetic.  In the relatively early (1938) “Family Complexes in the Formation of the Individual” (Les complexes familiaux dans la formation de l’individu.  Essai d’analyse d’une fonction en psychologie) he sounds almost like Breton himself in figuring the body as a “. . . heterogeneous mannequin, a baroque doll, a trophy of limbs. . .” and elsewhere in the essay “The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I” (Le stade du miroir comme formateur de la fonction du Je) can talk about
“the correspondences that unite the I with the statue in which man projects himself . . . or with the automaton in which, in an ambiguous relation, the world of his own fabrication tends to find completion.” (quoted in Bowie 1991 p25)

The infant’s lack of control over its body whose potential future mastery is promised at the moment of the so-called “mirror stage” is, in Lacan’s account, an illusion for the benefit of the ego.  He seems to insist that the body is fragmented from the start and that any sense of completion is already a construction, is in a sense the product of a specific technology, the technology of the I that finds itself implicated in the construction of the subject.  The nascent ego is “captivated” (captivé) by the image which is not in any sense “true” but is, rather, a trap or a lure (leurre) and which results in the fact that, as Malcolm Bowie puts it, “falsehood and underhandedness are somehow ingrained into the ego during its first, formative moments”.

If between them Freud, Breton and Lacan have undermined, or at least brought under critical scrutiny the unreliability of the binarism whereby “human” is constituted in opposition to “mechanical”, where does this leave the question of the “human” that is absorbed into the machine, such as we encounter in the case of the recorded voice.  In  particular, when the voice appears to take on aspects of the machine – either in its behaviour (looping, for example) or in its materiality (timbral interventions by use of the vocoder or ring-modulator) – how do we psychically represent the body that we imagine such a voice to have originated in?

I should like to conclude by offering two ways of proceeding with this line of inquiry.

We can, on the one hand, continue to insist that there is a fundamental and quantitative difference between ourselves and machines.  Where similarities seem to exist we can attribute these to the epistemological constructs of rational science that must reduce the complexity of organic life to a series of mechanistic metaphors.  The cybernetic or mechanised voices that we frequently encounter in a whole range of technological mediations we can project onto fantasy objects or impossible bodies.  We can, in a sense, “other” these sorts of voices through such projection.  We keep the traumatic implications that surface in the technologised voice at a distance, as it were, the sorts of trauma that Ibsen taps into in his representation of Osvald’s collapse, for example, of the invasion of the organic body by technologies in fictions of the cyborg.  Where there is ambiguity between the human and the machine then we must continue with the delusions of the ego and exclude that which suggests any sort of body that is not compatible with our own ego-image of what a human body is.

On the other hand, we can acknowledge that the distinction between the human and the machine is not absolute, that both terms, as we generally use them, are constructions of a particular moment – albeit a moment that has been drawn out, that has been in a sense “reverberated” for more than a century.  If we allow the insights of Freud, Breton and Lacan to both inform and situate in history the phenomenon of the technologically mediated voice, we may come to a position where rather than projecting voices that are figured as non-human onto a fantasmic exteriority we can allow them the be reflected back inside ourselves to resonate with those repressed aspects of the self that are “always already” strange to ourselves – the inescapable sense that consciousness, as figured by Freud in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, is like a technology.  That language, the very content of the voice, the chief mode of exteriorising and performing “the self” is always of the Other.  That the apparent unity the infant sees in the mirror is a delusion hiding quasi-automatic warring factions deep within the very centre of being.

In these senses the apparently mechanical voice we hear when the record gets stuck is just another mirror, but unlike Lacan’s mirror this one presents a less-distorted image.  Our voices are always partially separate from us, even as they are so intimately produced by us, but this separation is played out in a relation with something that is, no matter how evanescent, “material” – the image in the mirror is, in comparison, insubstantial.  There can also be a powerful sense that in speaking or singing something mechanical is in operation.  The technologised voice, when it behaves in an apparently non-human way, when the record is cracked, is uncanny not because it is so radically different from us but rather because it is so familiar.  The voice behaving like  a machine constitutes a fracture in the quotidian through which the self can be seen as an assemblage, a machine for being.  What appears on the one hand as a violence done to the voice can be refigured as a repetition, outside, of the ineluctable violence that constitutes the fractured modern subject, the subject so famously theorised by Lacan, the subject glorified, more obscurely, in its uncanniness, by Breton.

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