Singed: Muted Voice-Transmissions, After the Fire - Daniela Cascella. London: Equus Press, 2017
by Adam Potts
Singed: Muted Voice-Transmissions, After the Fire is Daniela Cascella’s third book. In very simple terms one might say Singed is an experimental text written in a fragmentary style that draws together sonic, musical, cinematic, and literary references in a way that directs our attention to their proximity, but this simple definition is complicated when one realizes how this is a proximity to the uncertainty created by writing itself. In her previous two books (F.M.R.L. Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound (2015) and En Abîme: Listening, Reading, Writing. An Archival Fiction (2012)) Cascella traced the movement of the sonic into writing and back again. What on the surface appears to be texts attentive to the transient quality of sound is much more about the ambiguous origin of language and the sonority of words when they no longer aim at understanding and meaning. Her writing is never simply about sound but rather a writing through sounds: sounds accompany, anticipate, echo, disrupt, and intervene in the act of writing. In Singed, Cascella continues this, but here the exigency of her writing is fully exposed. In other words, one experiences what is at stake in Cascella’s writing more when reading Singed than when reading her previous two books. This is because Singed is a text about the difficulty of beginning; it constantly asks the question of how one is able to write and speak in the wake of experiences, confrontations, and events that expose us to and remind us of the abyssal root of language.
Singed reads like a giant echo chamber where sounds, words, and memories bounce around, intersect, and fade without ever finding a stable frequency. This means that while the text makes its advance toward the unsayable (the nature of what this means will be the basis of this review), it is nevertheless rich with content and references (although not in the academic sense). I would, therefore, like to begin by quoting Cascella’s own words about Elfriede Jelinek’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech and its similarities to the work of Clarice Lispector (a voice that echoes the loudest throughout the text): “she voices instead what has always had to remain unclear and groundless … groundless but not without ground. Jelinek’s words, like Clarice’s, are at once too quotable and impossible to quote because then I would need to quote all of them, or acquire them through ceaseless repetitions” (73).
These words tell us, in turn, much about Cascella’s own work and the nature of the difficulties in responding to it. It is not simply the case that trying to capture Cascella’s writing is like trying to grab hold of smoke; this is true but coupled with the sense that her work is tooquotable, too rich, and to try and make sense of the work might result in quoting it all, or acquiring it through ceaseless repetitions. In a text of echoes, repetitions, and dislocations made of and in-between songs, sounds, voices, and literary references there is almost too much to absorb and manage. In other words, at the heart of Singed there is an absence where meaning should be but one that creates a curious excess. This excess is the result of a commitment to the ambiguity of writing and listening, which has become characteristic of Cascella’s writing, that does not create inertia but an inexhaustible need to write. In sum, coming to terms with the demand of Cascella’s writing, particularly strong in Singed, is not about accepting the difficulty of writing about sound (this idea is so clichéd and tired it doesn’t bear thinking about). Instead, it is about confronting writing that falls between the gaps of signification and listening to, and writing sound, from this space. This is what places Cascella outside of writing in terms of meaning and understanding but inside of writing as transmission.
Writing as transmission is the type of writing that occupies the pages of Singed; it is what is left of writing after the fire and relates to the notion of the fragment that is implied in and by her work. Cascella begins Singed with the following sentence that sits isolated in the center of the first page: “A few months ago the room on the top of the house caught fire” (1). Shortly after, she explains how paperbacks from even her teenage years and CDs collected from her time as a journalist were caught in the fire. She then proceeds to give a partial itinerary of the singed fragments and their evocations: “Flannery O’Conner, Complete Stories, burned – but the visions saturated in color, and the enduring chill”; “James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World, burned – but uh”; “Clarice Lispector, Água Viva and The Passion According to G.H., burned – but to reach muteness, what a great effort of the voice” (10-11) – the list goes on. However, Cascella casts doubt over the severity, and truth, of her description of the fire later in the text. Referencing Orson Welles’ F for Fake and the final seventeen minutes when the truth of the first hour is cast into doubt, Cascella explains how “the fire was never quite there as I described it, not all of those books were burned, many were, some were not” (31). With this, Cascella indicates that to write after the fire is not a biographical description but an impulse to write “through faded references” (10). Cascella explains how she is not after origin, identity or stable meaning – these things increasingly infuriate her – but instead wishes to be part of “a transmission, unstable or hesitant, of sounds and words, eroded yet persisting through time – a transmission that sometimes becomes a convulsion, deforming what is there still” (10). Singed is thus the literary equivalent of a partially in-tune radio transmission; the text is a constant tuning in and dropping out of fragments of sounds, words, and familiar signposts in a way that never tries to hold on to anything firmly but affirms interference and loss.
This is why Singed needs to be understood as fragmentary. Fragmentary writing and the significance of the fragment is central to the work of French philosopher Maurice Blanchot. Although Cascella does not reference Blanchot in any of her works, I hear echoes of him in all her texts, just as Cascella hears echoes of Lispector in Jelinek’s speech despite no direct reference being made. Likewise, Cascella does not explicitly refer to the fragment in the way Blanchot does, but her work is written in a fragmentary way, and a number of ideas in Singed imply fragmentation. As Leslie Hill explains how “the time of the fragment […] is never the fullness of the present. It is the time of between-times: between remembering and forgetting, continuity and discontinuity, obedience and objection […] between time past and time still to come” (Hill 2012: 2). This time of between-times has always been the temporality of Cascella’s writing but Singed feels more radical in this regard than her previous works. Cascella has abandoned the numerical ordering of chapters and the occasional diary-like dating of passages that were in her previous two books. Instead, the text is broken up by an odd assortment of subtitles, page breaks and blank spaces, as if the content had been collected from the charred fragments scooped up in the burned room of her house. It seems that the fire is, therefore, synonymous with the fragment; it has scorched everything, breaking apart whole works of art into singed fragments, leaving only scattered remains of sentences and echoes of songs. The fire leaves only partial memories, where remembering is quickly followed by forgetting, thus preventing any fullness of presence. This is why the significance of the fire is not reducible to the biographical detail and why Cascella writes: “I sense the dreaded reminiscence that many times before I’d been here, in the burned room” (35). For someone committed to this Blanchotian-like view of language, writing always begins after the fire.
“[T]here is no need for a certified origin” (10), Cascella tells us, nor is origin possible when writing from the burned room, but without this origin one wonders, like Cascella, “where does the necessity to speak and write arise from, and what are the hooks I can hold onto in the absence of records?” (14). This question is central to Singed but it is never answered. Instead, what this question opens up – this being the fundamental ambiguity of language and the plurality of voices made possible through a lack of origin – takes the place of an answer as a kind of performative response. Alongside writing, the voice and speaking are crucial to Singed but rather than linger on the difference between them, Cascella draws them together and shows how her reflections on the voice are another way of thinking about the “fragile relics” (104) that are words and communication by way of transmission. In the section titled “Charms,” Cascella tells us that she has lost her voice again, the first time occurring on the morning of her thirtieth birthday. As with the fire, the biographical truthfulness of this is not significant. What matters is what the voice signifies (speaking, communication, being heard) and what the loss of the voice implies (muteness, inaudibility, silence). It becomes part of the broader thread of the book that Cascella says she can only keep spinning the thread of: “Raptured by the vicinity of fire, throat, lost voice, missing voice, healed voice, books, burned books, voices heard, voices uttered, imprisonment and reclusion, no voice, fire, throat, lost voice, missing voices” (21). Again, the muteness symbolized by this loss does not result in silence or a refusal to write/speak but creates an inexhaustible need to write more and to speak through silence. The effort, Cascella explains, is somehow to make absence/silence audible: “BUT TO REACH MUTENESS, WHAT A GREAT EFFORT OF VOICE” (21).
Cascella’s reflections on the voice are a welcome addition to her world; it is only in Singed that the voice takes such a central role, most significantly, perhaps, in her discussion of the later works of Italian pop singer Lucio Battisti. Battisti feels like an odd figure for Cascella to devote so much time to. How could such a notorious Italian singer embody an effort to reach muteness? For Cascella, Battisti’s voice does exactly that. She makes it clear that when writing about songs she wants to avoid slipping into journalism or history. Instead, she wants to hold onto the song as “anti-song” (42). The meaning of this becomes clear when she writes about Battisti. She is not interested in the meaning behind the songs and she shows, by pulling in fragments of interviews with Battisti, that even he was uncertain about his songs having any explicit meaning at all. What interests Cascella is the way his voice “embodies the disappearance of its carrier, yet still resounds” (53). In Battisti she does not hear meaning or stories but a voice dissolving into a more general sound that reminds her of the indeterminable reverberation at the heart of language. Battisti’s voice is more like a transmission for Cascella: “A rebeginning through emptiness, or a close gesture of difference: a dub” (57). She is drawn to the fact that Battisti regularly admitted that he found it very difficult to understand himself and that he even had nothing to say, yet he sang and continued to sing. This is what fascinates Cascella about the voice in Singed: the possibilities left for the voice when it knows it has nothing to say.
Singed focuses on the voice because it is inextricable from the uncertainty of writing. It is no surprise, then, that the reflections on Battisti bleed into an experimental encounter with Clarice Lispector. Lispector is the most regular voice in Singed – the spirit of her cuts through the center of the text. After the section on Battisti, Cascella takes the idea of “dub,” mentioned previously only in passing, as a way of responding to her work. In a section called “Beginning to write after Clarice, after Clarice’s (echo and dub versions),” Cascella again asks how one is meant to continue writing after reading work that draws us to the gap. For Cascella, it is clear that, after Lispector, writing cannot be reduced to historical commentary or order, just like listening after Battisti. This is where writing as transmission becomes central; she explains how she wants to carve a “space not ordered but heard” (64) where the silence and questions of Lispector’s work are transmitted as a prolonged echo and reverberation.
Cascella’s writing takes on a powerful sonic quality at this point; she describes how she has had to construct echo rooms and dub versions in order to carve this audible space. These rooms “take the name of three women, three writers, three resonant frequencies: Teresa [of Ávila], Laura [Riding], Elfriede [Jelinek]” (65). Cascella hears the echo of Lispector in all of these writers’ works despite none of them referencing her directly. In each echo room, Cascella draws links between their writing and Lispector’s, creating a coexistence of frequencies. Each echo room tells us something fundamental about writing and listening that all of their writings share: their words coexist as approaches to the unsayable. Next to each echo room, Cascella writes three dub versions of Lispector’s writing. Cascella means “dub” precisely in the musical sense of the word. Just as dub music typically remixes and reimagines the original sound, often muting or limiting the vocals of the original track to make space for deep bass and drums, Cascella sees dub in writing as an effort to move away from simply quoting and repetition by focusing on the sensuous quality of the words: “The way they are heard, on the bass deep sound that can be heard in them before any rational understanding […] I want to bury direct meaning of the words and keep their sound, their bass, their rhythm” (65). In these versions Cascella does not refer to Lispector or quote her. Instead, she echoes and amplifies her, creating an affective reverberation of Lispector’s ambiguous literary world.
This is by far the most fascinating segment of Singed because it is a concentrated and committed effort to surrender writing to sound as well as to find her own voice once again. In short, this section embodies all that is unique about Cascella’s writing. If Singed is fragmentary, it is also dub. Cascella remixes original sounds and texts by stripping them of their voice (achieving this by avoiding direct quotations and easy repetitions) and instead amplifying the spirit of the author in distorted ways. Through this process, Cascella’s voice starts to sound as a kind of warped inheritance. This is how, in an effort to find her voice and finding it in this intermingled way, Cascella complicates the idea of beginnings. It is not always clear who is speaking or writing within Singed. While reading these fragments, one often wonders: is this Cascella? Or is this a dubbed version of Lispector? Or are the words on this page emerging from one of the many voices Cascella heard in Naples when visiting Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco, one of the main sites of the cult of the souls of Purgatory (22)? One might say, in response to these questions, that it is Cascella and all of these voices speaking at one. This means that there is no central voice and no clear origin of the words. Instead, Cascella indefinitely suspends these by filling the pages of Singed with a plurality of voices.
Singed has a section titled “DA CAPO: ANECDOTES OF DESTINY,” a title that includes a directive to repeat what came before. Although this appears just beyond the midway point of the text, this is a fitting way to think about the ending of Singed. To go back to the beginning of a text with no clear beginning is to echo that absence that enables one to speak and write in the first place. Despite a compelling afterword by David Toop – a section that reads as his own echo chamber and dub version – Singed does not end; there is no real ending for a text like this and for a writer like Cascellabecause, as Toop explains, Cascella and the pages of Singed are “preoccupied not so much with the sound world but a greater domain of the unheard, unintelligible, unspeakable, always moving voice” (166). Staying with beginnings, I opened this review by stating that this was Cascella’s third book, but for writing that is one giant da capo with no clear beginning, this could just as well be her first. And for readers new to Cascella, this might in fact be the best place to start because in Singed that central question at the heart of Cascella’s writing is repeated, again, but with much greater volume: how is one meant to write and speak in the wake of experiences, confrontations and events that expose us to and remind us of the abyssal root of language?
Cascella, Daniela (2015). F.M.R.L.: Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound.Winchester, WA: Zero Books..
Cascella, Daniela (2012). En Abîme: Listening, Reading, Writing.Winchester, WA: Zero Books.
Hill, Leslie (2012). Maurice Blanchot and Fragmentary Writing: A Change of Epoch.London: Continuum.