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Gesture, Psychoanalysis, and the Recorded Voice

Gesture, Psychoanalysis, and the Recorded Voice

(paper given at the conference “Music and Gesture”, University of East Anglia, Norwich, August 2003)
Sound recording, and the manipulations of sound that follow in its wake allow for previously unknown gestures to take place.  As there is a strong connection between the voice and the body, where the recorded material is the voice there are implications  concerning the sorts of fictive bodies that can be imagined producing such voices.  Where the voice takes on characteristics of the machine, either in its sound quality (vocoder effects, for example) or in its behaviour (looping, maybe, or playing the tape backwards) we encounter a culturally-endorsed tendency to understand the result in terms of what might be termed a “cyborgian” body.  This can, in turn, be figured as a point at which humans rehearse culturally embedded problematics concerning their relations with machines.  One understanding of this might be as the projection, into a fantasy world, of anxieties aroused by human-machine inter-relationships, specifically the anxieties that affect the status of the human in “the machine age”.

This fantasmic projection can be further understood as a way of defusing the disturbing and/or uncanny effects of a voice that exhibits elements of being “human” and “non-human” at the same time;  the imaginative construction that posits the cyborg as an uncanny location for the intimate encounter of humans and machines        – an encounter where the human is invaded by the machine, or is dependent upon it for survival – works to defuse the disturbing aspects of this encounter through the displacement of what might otherwise be traumatic into fantasy.  In so this, such a displacement serves to  maintain the illusion of the unambiguous and clearly defined separation between humans and machines.

Despite the inflated claims of some theoretical positions that culture is now somehow post-human or post-body, I find it difficult to see someone such as Stelarc as being anything other than a man using a machine; in anthropological terms this is hardly anything more cyborgian than writing with a biro!  For me, the cyborgian dimension of Stelarc’s performances, and the site of meaning for a hermeneutic anthropology, only becomes reality at the register of the imagination, in other words we have to project him  as “post-human”, as a cyborg; in this instance post-humanity is a performed attribute of a fantasy state which can ironically be seen as part of a strategy for keeping the issue of human-machine interaction at a distance from everyday reality.  At the end of the day Stelarc steps out of his prostheses.  The vast majority of the world’s population, however, remain resolutely pre-cyborgian and continue to be inconvenienced by a rather passe dependence upon their bodies, something that is rather emphatically underlined by the global AIDS pandemic and what we might euphemistically call “the effects of technology” on human bodies in Iraq and elsewhere.

This is not to say, though, that such fantasmic constructions render the boundaries between the human and the machine unambiguous.  That is only one of the possible functions and one would have to be exceptionally literal-minded, and more much more secure than I am or would wish to be in the veracity of one’s speculations, to maintain such a position.  Indeed, one of the defining features of the cultural experience of the West over the past 150 years, and what is for me the whole point of art such as Stelarc’s, has surely been the negotiation of these boundaries across a no-man’s-land of multiplicitous ambiguities.  In this paper I intend to outline some of the ways these ambiguities might be negotiated through a hermeneutic approach to the gesture of the looped vocal sample.

I shall be arguing on the one hand that insofar as it maintains the distinction between humans and machines, the technologically mediated voice, figured as cyborgian, conceals aspects of human subjectivity that are incompatible with the bourgeois Weltanschaung, these are aspects of the subject that are revealed by Lacanian psychoanalysis and surrealism. On the other hand I shall be suggesting that the encounter of the human voice with technology can be a point from which we can negotiate these issues in a way that does not efface the ambiguities of our relations with the machine.  Rather than securing them in externalised fantasy it is productive to foreground machine-human relations as they are articulated in the convergence of human and machinic gestures that we can hear in the vocal loop.  Such an approach figures these ambiguities in a way that moves towards an understanding of the subject in Western culture where that subject can be seen as being, in a large part, constituted through its relations with machines and machine-like behaviours.  This presupposes that our relations with technology are characterised by reciprocity, by a circularity rather than by a deterministic unidirectionality, and that in a parallel manoeuvre technology does not only extend human potentiality but can also be understood as setting limits on our understanding of what it is to be human.

The aspect of the loop that is most explicitly mechanical is surely its repetitive behaviour, although it is also possible to figure the way that it is often edited out from its original context as modeling the component-like structure of machines.  Repetition and regularity, especially where they are more or less exact, are associated with machines, and are frequently placed in opposition to Western attitudesconcerning the nature of humanity.

Freud is an exemplar of this attitude – Koestler’s “Ghost in the Machine” or the sanctity of what we might call the “performative individuality” of European and American liberalism would be two other instances of this.  In Civilization and its Discontents (p 47) Freud characterises human beings as exhibiting “an inborn tendency to carelessness, irregularity and unreliability in their work” which seems to be at odds with the obvious benefits to be attained from order and regularity to everyone concerned.  Human beings are characterised, then, as doubly irregular, both through an inborn predisposition and apparently out of choice.  Placed in contradistinction to this, a first examination the machine represents a paradigm of everything that is non-human – the phrases “coldly mechanical” or “unfeeling machine” come to mind.  At another register of discourse, though, comparisons to the machine can be an indicator of excellence, especially where physical prowess is concerned – “a one-man fighting-machine”, perhaps, or James Brown’s “Sex Machine” (no home should be without one!).

In his book Bodies and Machines Mark Seltzer demonstrates how the ambiguities between what he characterises as “market culture” on the one hand and “machine culture” on the other are essential parts of what he terms the “culture of consumption”.  This depends upon “uncertainties about the natural and cultural status of bodies and persons,” where the natural is associated with the “market culture”, (which is about desire, volition, and human agency) as opposed to the cultural, which is closer to “machine culture” and can be characterised as more about being subject to the effect of an autonomous, machine-process.  He elsewhere describes this opposition as one between “competitive” and “disciplinary” individualisms, again repeating the volitional aspects of one in opposition to the controlled aspects of the other.

He remarks that the move from the natural to the cultural, in this case a movement from the market and free will towards the machine and disciplinary control, is often represented as a sort of “Fall”, in which the mechanical falls into a position of inferiority in relation to the human.  At the same time he asserts that the culture of consumption is predicated on an ambiguity in the natural and cultural status of bodies.   This ambiguity is encountered where the producer, the man of commerce (sic) who stands on the market side of the division and is thus associated with nature, is figured as producing, at the end of the day, money, the posession of which then places him into the position of consumer, a position which is subordinate, cultural and unproductive.  There is a continuity between the positions of market culture (as productive, competitively individualist, and a site of will), and machine culture (which is a form of disciplinary individualism where the individual is subject to commerce and can only consume).  I should like to take this as a model with which to think through other instances where the distinction between the human and the machinic is not rigorously observed, such as where they encounter one another in the looped voice.

The voice behaving as though it were part of a machine is, in certain culturally-located circumstances, taken as an indicator of the loss of human subjectivity.  In the final moments of Ibsen’s play “Ghosts” the main protagonist, Osvald Alving, succumbs to the final, utterly debilitating stage of tertiary syphilis.  Already paralysed by the disease his final loss of human subjectivity is represented by the mechanical repetition of his last words – “the sun . . . the sun . . .”

In the context of the play his machine-like, monotonous voice is off-set by the hysterical range of emotions that his mother goes through.  Her line similarly consists of the same word repeated over and over, the word “no”, but each instance is coloured with a different stage direction, ranging from terror to tragic resignation.  She has promised to kill him should he ever be reduced to the state in which he now finds himself, but there is a strong sense in this final scene that whatever his mother’s ultimate course of action, it is already all over for Osvald, and this is powerfully conveyed through his voice.  The voice, that which has such a close association with “the self” (as Derrida has discussed exhaustively in relation to phonocentrism and the notion of presence), behaves in this final scene like a machine – like a broken machine: in fact it behaves just like a gramophone with a cracked record.

As “Ghosts” was written only some four years after Edison’s original phonograph patent, it would seem rather unlikely that Ibsen was modelling Osvald’s final speech on a broken record, but it is interesting to speculate how the sound of a cracked record might have signified to a listener in the early days of sound recording.  If it was possible for Ibsen to use such a mechanistic vocal behaviour to signify the annihilation of human subject status, perhaps we can imagine this mapped onto those earliest vocal loops caused by misfunctioning technology.  Linked through the imagination with the circular speech patterns of paranoia, the repetitions of obsessional neuroses, or the disconcerting imitations of autistic echolalia, the voice that behaves like a machine comes with a rich network of associations with mental illness, which we should remember was figured until very recently as being synonymous with the “less than human”; the voice, then, represents a very short thread connecting the body to the machine.

As I mentioned above though, in passing, it would be a mistake to see the relations of the human and the mechanical solely in terms of a determinism that puts the machine into the position of a simple extension of the human body, in the case of Osvald his vocal behaviour’s resemblance to a machine is clearly part of a wider discourse.  Culturally embedded discourses move beyond such apparently simple mimesis and represent machines as, in the first place, extensions of bodily capabilities but these representations are often turned back to provide a model through which to understand attributes of the human.

Returning for a moment to Freud, he implicates his own thinking in such a process where he figures sound recording and photography as “materializations of the power . . . of recollection . . . memory.”  Andre Breton (one of the founders of surrealism and no stranger to the writings of Freud), in his insistence that the writer should be merely “a recording device” for the dictations of the liberated unconscious, seems to be articulating something that has resulted from a similar conceptual operation to Freud’s.  In Breton’s account “the author”, previously valorised as some sort of culture-hero, becomes simply a recording machine dispassionately writing down that which is thrown up from the previously under-valued or ignored unconscious.

This modelling of the author on the machine overturns the dominant construction of authorship in bourgeois culture, which is reliant on the ego and on socially constructed mores that are taken to be the natural state of things.  Instead, that which was formerly seen as prosthetic, as an extension of the human, is remodelled back onto human action.  In Breton’s thinking such processes are in the service of a redrawing of the relative positions of the unconscious and the conscious.  This is a redrawing of boundaries that had previously allowed the rational conscious to dominate the mental orders at the expense of the irrational unconscious.  For Breton, to be fully human it is necessary to bring about a reconcilliation of conscious and unconscious thought.  In one understanding of this, in order to complete the potential of the psychic life it is necessary to become as a machine; only through such a renunciation of the rational ego can the “real” self be “realised”.

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was, of course, closely involved with surrealism, so insofar as the surrealists (with their love of automata, mannequins and such-like) gave  a technologically modelled version of humanity centre stage in their thoughts his association with them is especially suggestive insofar as it sheds light on what is going on when the voice behaves like a machine.  In the Lacanian understanding of the psychic life, becoming a fully-formed human subject cannot be separated from an act of acquiescence to the dictates of the Symbolic order – the structures of language and social behaviour that pre-exist any particular individual.  We take these symbolic systems on board, we do not make them in our own image, as it were.  When Lacan says that “the unconscious is structured like a language” he is also saying that it is “Other”, that its structure is in a sense independent of human volition, something that is radically “other” than what the ego might think of as itself.  In his system of thought subjectivity and the unconscious are understood as quasi-automatic, cybernetic systems that are in many respect oppositional in relation to the ego, something which the surrealists see, rightly or wrongly, as the very embodiment of the detested bourgeois rationalism.  Within Lacan’s representations of the psychic economy, the ego is the realm of the Imaginary, the delusional belief in the integrity and wholeness of the subject, which he first accounts for in the essay on the mirror phase published in 1948 but first given in the mid-thirties.  This delusional ego is that aspect of ourselves which is most under threat whenever it is suggested that the subject is, in fact, the site of a division, and that subjectivity is in fact a function of external forces to which we are more of less subjected whether we are able to be aware of it or not.  The Symbolic order is largely predetermined and is that within which our subject formation occurs, the ego remains an immature delusion, and often a badly behaved one, at that!  The structural parallels with Seltzer’s competitive and disciplinary individualisms should now be obvious.

In the 1950s Lacan develops the insights gained from surrealism (insights to which he also contributed) into what is often called the cybernetics of the self; the cybernetic model devised as a technological prosthesis of cognition is turned around to provide a model for the underlying conditions of subjectivity.  There is, in other words, another instance, in a different discursive register, of the same sorts of ambiguities of the human and the machine to which I have already made reference.

The examples I have given – Freud, Seltzer, Breton and Lacan – have one central issue in common, that is that the relations of humans and machines is one which is characterised by ambiguity.  On the one hand this could be used to bolster up an argument in favour of the ubiquity of cyborgian identities, on the other it could be used to relegate such culturally specific imaginings to the realm of fantasy.  In the latter instance there is an argument which would view this manouevre as a technique for the distancing of machine-human intimacies which defuses the potentially disruptive challenges to bourgeois subjectivity and which paradoxically maintains the illusion that there IS a clear boundary between humans and machines – where the boundary is unclear we are in the world of fantasy.

If, however, there is a continuity rather than a boundary between us and our machines the fragment of a human voice that is sampled and looped can be seen as a site at which to meditate on the complexities of relations that we have with our technologies.  In bringing together the distinctly human on the one hand – the voice – and the characteristically mechanical on the other – mechanical repetition – the vocal loop can be figured as representing a point where the ambiguousness of two culturally constructed positions, human and/or machine, is under negotiation.  The material through which this negotiation is articulated can be understood as being situated at the register of the culturally identifiable gesture.  As such the vocal loop locates questions about reified notions about what it means to be human, in the same moment that it celebrates jouissance and social dissent at a number of levels.  The preceding comments are some of the associations that I hear evoked in the convergence of gestures that the looped voice represents, and I offer them here as ideas to listen with.

Subject as “subjected” to Symbolic
Assemblage of “machines” but distinctions between Lacan and Skinner.
Cybernetics of the self – an essential element of our subject status is mechanical.
Rapprochement of the human with the mechanical – rather than projecting out we can reflect inwards – move beyond the delusions of the mirror stage – vocal loop is one site where this might be being negotiated.

“The fashioning of typical Americans [as in representative but also standardised – typical] foregrounds the permeability of the boudoirs between persons and things and between the individual and the typical in commodity culture” (both from Seltzer 1992 p 59)

Seltzer’s “market” culture versus “machine” culture” – market is about desire, volition whereas machine is about being the effect of an autonomous process.  NB: machine bears similarities to “automatism” or Freud’s “repetition compulsion” which become intimatley contitutive of human subjectivity.  another layer of ambiguity.

nature to culture is ordinarily represented in terms of a “fall”
similarly substance – style: things – images
market culture – “natural” – the body
machine culture – “cultural” – technology

Seltzer places the ambiguity between men and machines within what he calls the ”American body-machine complex” (Seltzer 1992 p 4)
“The “culture of consumption” . . . requires the uncertainties about the natural and cultural status of bodies and persons.”

“The fashioning of typical Americans [as in representative but also standardised – typical] foregrounds the permeability of the boudaries between persons and things and between the individual and the typical in commodity culture” (both from Seltzer 1992 p 59)

distorted voice as site for spiritual messages – eg. sgt. Pepper.
Freud: in ”Civilization and its Discontents” sees technology as extensions of self but also, in the ”voice of pessimistic criticism”, as something that has only become necessary because of other technologies.  ”If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice; if travelling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage and I should not need a cable to relieve my anxiety about him.” (Freud 1961 p 40)

He also figures recording technologies as extensions of the sensorium – ”In the photographic camera (mankind) has created an instrument which retains the fleeting visual impressions, just as a gramophone disc retains the equally fleeting auditory ones; both are at bottom materializations of the power he possesses of recollection, his memory.” (Freud 1961 p 43)

Freud can stand as an exemplar of the tendency to see technology as an extension of the self, of the body, implicated in a logic which is continued by the increasing sophistication and applicability of technology in human life and civilization.  This is only one possible understanding, though. we tend, i think, to think of technologies as extensions of the body, the mind, memory.  this is ok but not the full picture.  distinction between prosthesis that is extension (that extends) and one that is limit on (that limits) the body

computer, for example – the mouse is an extension, the screen a limit, and it doesn’t tale more than a minute of thought about this to realise that neither category is exclusive in this respect.  it is possible to think of technologies as doing this double-edged work – extending possibilities and imposing limits on them.  they are thus productive positions from which to examine gesture.  a great deal of time and enrgy has been spent in many research labs over the last 30 years trying to mpa the complexities of human bodily gesture onto the emergent technologies of audio synthesis and manipulation.  anyone who has worked with MIDI or with MaxMSP will appreciate the extending and limiting aspects of these technologies, as indeed will anyone who has learned to play a musical instrument of any sort.  if this was not so then it’s unlikely, except in a theatre of the absurd reading of human culture, that we would either bother to learn instruments (extensions of our possibilities) or have developed such a culture of skill and virtuosity (pushing against the limits of the technologically possible).

man and machine – background

anxiety vs. perfection

voice and body

“Ghosts” – is one reading . . . . .

. . . . . another is jouissance – a kind of death

attributes of the machine are seen as constitutive of human subject – Freud, Lacan etc. and the valorisation of work and efficiency makes the docile body of the model worker in Fordism and the Soviet 5-Year Plans contribute to a configuration wherein the mechanised body is a “good” body – an unhesitating participant in human society, temporarily surrendering themself in the interest of others (the Soviet or the Capitalist, to anyone but a historian it’s all the same at the end of the day).

Lacan – signifier leads to automatism
Surrealism – pure psychic automatism very close to Lacan
Cyber-culture – bodies/beings are just information

the loop?  where does it fit into all this?

On the onehand it is transgressive of the idea that human is irregular – dearly held belief of organicist ideology – but also a source of pleasure.  On the one hand, the aversion to repetition and mechanical structure as nati-human is the ego discourse in Lacanian terms, imaginary order.  The jouissance of the machinic is closer to the Lacanian ”real” (or is it . . . ?), it is in this sense that it has been figured by Richard Middleton, i think!  It is also in this sense that the mechanical is celebrated in surrealism, where it also acquires the potential to ”epater le bourgeoisie” in challenging tis ideology of human organicisty as ”special” and holding up the mirror that shows the affinities of human action and industrial production – Seltzer’s market-machine dualism – competitive and disciplinary individualism, nature and culture.

the machine – jouissance – abandonment to the machine – batchelor machines??? (Weiss)??? – at the same time we let out our inner “machine” – stop pretending that we are the unitary subject in the mirror and enjoy the access to our “automatic” selves.  is this just psycho-babble?

model of perfect consumer – never bored? if mechanical is “anti-human why is it so popular (cars?)? then again, if it’s such a perfect, compliant act why is it so vilified by the hegemony and legislated against?  does it break the rules (repetition, sampling, authorship, anti-work ethic) or just reveal them for what they are, culturally contingent practices?

Where the human is