11 & 15 Feb - Ed
I can almost hear your new yoga teacher, her voice traced with Mexican heritage, leading the class, performing the guiding role that coaxes and encourages an inclination of energy, a spirited movement taking shape within and between the class members. As with your own teaching, this voice is adopted not as a commanding authority but as an invitation for listening and sharing with students. Listening and voicing bend and stretch, limbering. They find nodes of energy, becoming supple together. This needs discipline, but not command.
We were reflecting on the ways listening in-forms our daily routines, from your morning walk and breakfasting with Pauline’s Sonic Meditations and on to work.
I was fascinated by your suggestion that voices might be located, a kind of “disposition” perhaps, like the “institutional voice” that we occupy just as we might put on work-appropriate clothes and prepare to perform in them. It’s the spatial dimension of this that I find especially interesting. I’ll return to this.
You then described findings from your research and practice with recordings of testimonies from Colombian women who have experienced forced migration, noting the three kinds of voice that spoke through those conversations (Alarcón, Lopez Bojórquez, Lartillot, and Flamtermesky 2019). The “demanding voice” is fast, instinctive, calling to attention. Louis Althusser (1971) would perhaps have said it “hails” like a policeman in the street: “Hey you!” And, hey presto, the “interpellated” ear turns and, magically – with this very gesture of surprised guilt, “Who, me?” – is subjected. The relation of the authority who speaks and the individual who pays attention is immediately instituted. Yet this voice is not the only “subject position” available, as you made clear. You also heard the “disillusioned voice,” wearied in its lower pitch and prolonged articulation. A voice lacking in spirit, in energy. Is this a voice unmoved by others’ listening, unmotivated, unflexed, perhaps even nearing stasis? By contrast, the “transformative voice” seemed to afford hope, a promise of change and healing from a position unbounded, neither circumscribed nor sectioned off by trauma. Another voice. A new diction. A new way of uttering, perhaps – a speech act that performs an opening of the self.
This reminds me of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s (2003) well-attuned writing on “periperformativity,” that aspect of speech acts that is not reducible to the property of a speaker but is contingent on the qualities of listening that form them, that act on its periphery. She was specifically addressing the problem of performativity – the capacity to make speech act on the world, to be world-forming – having the qualities of being possessed, of being “voiced” in the manner of “being married,” alongside the example of shame that declares voice to be affected by others. The demanding, disillusioned, and transformative voices are all political positions in this sense of a concern with ownership, with attachment and submission, or with a de-territorialising gesture inviting a dynamic response. A migration ….
I should move on, but I have an “aside” to make. Another confession, perhaps, for my sins. The anxiety and shame I felt as a young adult on losing my sense of voice, on being denied my Mancunian accent by a co-worker at the factory production line I toiled at, is not my only experience of this peculiar dispossession. Your mentioning of the “institutional voice” brings it back to me. My second “real” job after graduating was working for the Arts Council in the South East of England. I advised artists and organisations on how to apply for funding, inviting them to share their dreams and ambitions, and I co-ordinated the assessment of applications. Managing the “demand” side required me to adopt the language of funding – of “access,” “value for money,” “diversity,” “quality” and so on. The “supply” side of organising funding decisions then involved lots of report writing – summarising projects in terms of the criteria, weighing on terminology and syntax to justify recommendations and to persuade those making final decisions to agree. It was reasonably well paid, interesting, as each project was different, and satisfying when funds were pledged to deserving activities. Over time, though, I began to worry. In this prehistoric time-before-email, when letter writing was still quite common, I would receive epistles from my best friend at the time who was a gifted stylist. His writing was a pleasure to read: funny, flamboyant, digressive. When I tried to write back, even short notes in a birthday card, I found myself automatically reverting to stock phrases and clunky syntax, a pseudo-officialese. I hadn’t woken up one day like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis to find myself in the carapace of an insect, but I could feel my “voice” taking on the shape of a bureaucrat. I was becoming fluent in another’s language, but unstable in the one I had taken for granted, or at least in the one I desired to speak. In fact, it was that experience of gnawing horror that compelled me to change my job, not for another administrative role but specifically to work directly with musicians as a producer and promoter, running Oxford Contemporary Music. This was much less secure – the job was all about risk, especially that of finding listeners for musical voices that were unfamiliar, different, difficult, sometimes even shocking. Anyhow, that was the first decisive leap into the unknown that helped me find something of that joyous purpose in music that I still find compelling. My vocation.
I raised that story both because I hadn’t thought of it in quite some time, hadn’t realised the extent to which key moments in my life have been shaped by the question of voice as possession and the heard properties and propriety of a voice, but also because between us – in our listening dialogue and within our writing – I’m also aware of voicing the text, of a writer’s voice, and of the unknowable readings this piece might prompt. How might we be understood? What position
might we occupy, and where might this be located?
At last, then, I want to return to the question you raised about voices having a place, because at the end of our last conversation an idea emerged that neither of us had anticipated. All I can do is re-rehearse it here, though perhaps we can explore it further next time.
So, we’ve both been struck by Thomas Bernhard’s short story “The Voice Imitator,” by his revelation of our potential to mimic any other voice but our own. Indeed, I can attest to that. My wife used to joke that when we visited my family in North Manchester my voice would take on a self-conscious “northern” accent, but one that was often comically not quite right, perhaps even with a Yorkshire twang rather than the proper Lancastrian burr. Now, as you and I touched on this peculiar phenomenon, the thought arose that the voices we occupy or that occupy us – the dialects of our occupations, perhaps – might be locatable, a “space” that we can locate to. These spaces are not unique but can play host to a multitude of others, all using the same voice. Likewise, we can migrate – again – from one voice to another, just as our day might be shaped by listening situations that can transport us from a breakfast meditation with Pauline to the institutional voice of the pedagogue, mechanic, medic, or bureaucrat, and on to the sociable voice of dinner with friends or the interpellated listening of watching TV. In this chorus of voices, the possibility emerges that the voice that we cannot occupy or locate – that we cannot mimic – is precisely the mode of movement itself, the transference of weight from any immobilising disillusionment, the gait and agility of stepping out lightly, without exchangeable possessions, without origin, and without final destination. We are not fixed in place by the demanding voice of any authority, least of all “our own.” Maybe, just maybe, this may be why “voice always involves an attachment” – as I put it earlier – without ever being a possession, because voice is more like a shadow cast by the inflections of our listening relationships with others and our environment rather than something that could ever be dispossessed, detached, exchanged with, sold to, or owned by others. If the metaphor fits, perhaps it is elaborated in two tales: the novella Peter Schlemihl by Adelbert von Chamisso, in which the protagonist famously sells his shadow to the devil only to be shunned by all human society and especially Edgar Allan Poe’s “Shadow – A Parable”.