5. Voicing the Migraine Body:
Entering the Artistic Sphere
Whether caused by pain, a lack of focus, a neurological glitch or an esophagus full of puke, nonsensical language is inherent to the migraine condition, leaving few sufferers unaffected by a certain amount of semantical incoherency. It is therefore that in my attempt to voice the migraine body, I am drawn towards this uncontrolled blether-blathering, for I am not only convinced that these meaningless morphemes might indeed resonate in crooked harmony with the monotonous melodies of the migraine condition, I believe these ‘deficiencies’ of the voice might somehow embody a potential to overcome the silence caused by pain, social muteness and migraine-specific symptoms. Gibberish, just like any other form of nonsensical language, fails in the spheres of proper communication, but is central to what LaBelle calls our oral imagination (Labelle 2014: 61). Instead of limiting speech to a strictly signifying purpose, the nonsensical, when being expelled from the body, functions as a vessel through which unconscious oral drives are expressed.
“Might we hear in the nonsensical a manifestation of an oral poetics underlying speech in general? Is not the ‘noise’ surrounding verbal articulations a sort of raw matter supporting rather than undermining our faculty of speech?” (Labelle 2014: 61).
Labelle points to Julia Kristeva’s thoughts on the practice of signification. Kristeva argues that signification happens in the cohesion between symbolic speech, conveying clear and meaningful message and semiotic speech, “extra-verbal eruptions of bodily forces and affects into language” (McAffee 2004). Gibberish operates in exactly this tension between noise and meaning, the sounded and the semantic, corporeality and signification, not knowing and communication. The voice tumbles and turns, flutters and flares, stumbles and stutters as it reminds us of the “potentiality of being an oral body” (McAffee, 62).
Sound poetry, as a spectacle of the nonsensical in an artistic context, also taps into this potentiality, for its corporeal dance gambols in the rift between body and language. Semiotic drives pour into the world through constellations of sounds and noises, possibly even mimicking the features of language but nonetheless freed from the dictatorship of a meaningful diction. LaBelle illustrates this magnificently: “Sound poetry, as gibberish stretching the mouth, aims for the operation of language, of the symbolic, by explicitly tracing over it, breathing into it, spitting on it and pulling it apart. In doing so, it pries open a gap on the terrain of signification, it speaks through the oral imagination to rescue a disappeared voice” (Labelle 2014: 65).
Gibberish, sound poetry and any sort of nonsensical language, exceeds and overthrows the rules of proper communication; rules that unavoidably constitute, what Judith Butler calls, performativity (Butler 2009), a mechanism by which power maintains itself through the reproduction of norms. This mechanism might be outmaneuvered by an unconventional, eccentric, atypical stretching and bending of the mouth, conveying meaning beyond the sensical and straight into the spheres of sentiment for as LaBelle suggests: “Is not sound poetry, as the arena for extending the operations of the voice, calling forth a right to speech often undermined by powers of language? [ ] And in doing so, expanding the public sphere toward that of the outcast or the underspoken” (LaBelle 2014, 71). As a mumbling migraining singer, I am fascinated by the emancipatory potential of the meaningless and intrigued by these gibberish-outpourings, I feel the necessity to employ the potentiality of my own migrainous nonsense to create sound poems and lyrics based on the material poetics of a failing voice in a failing body. “Black, blackening, black, becoming black, becoming, black”: the words stumble through the diary to the beat of a rumbling stomach and gradually turn into a gagging noise: “Bbllak Bbllk Bllllllkkkkk.” These poetic guidelines for gagging are composed by a nauseous body and turn the verge of vomiting into a nonsensical ballad.
But there are more settings, some of them bordering an artistic scenery, in which the potential of the meaningless is manifested. After revealing the emancipatory ability of sound poetry, LaBelle, in the same breath, reminds us of the unifying power of spells and incantations (LaBelle 2014). These magic words, frequently used in the context of healing, are often but a line of syllables and although we don’t actually understand the hocus pocus and the abracadabra, their collective relatability is nonetheless undeniable. As with sound poetry, the meaning of these chanted spells and incantations bypasses what is intellectually comprehensible and moves straight into the realm of the emotional. These semiotic effluxes outflank the semantic monocracy of meaning, directly to land in the spheres of sentiment. Therefore, they might not only be helpful in re-locating the voice that was lost in pain, neurological hindrances or vocal technical limitations, but they might also possess the potentiality of resonating beyond the bedridden bunker.
This allows to return to Antaura and the migrainous expulsive incantations of the Ancient Greeks and point out that a singer’s tendency toward vocality and tonality in the context of pain and illness is not at all uncommon. The cry-out for help and healing has a long tradition of being chanted or sung. Over time, countless sufferers have turned toward shamanistic rituals and self-healing chants in the hope of finding treatment and relief. These magical formulae mean to provoke a healing effect through chant. The half-headed demoness was to be expelled from the body through the repetitive singing of the words: “Antaura came out of the sea. She shouted like a hind a cried out like a cow. Artemis of Ephesos met her (saying) ‘Antaura, where are you going?’ (Antaura): ‘Into the half-part of the head.’ (Artemis)‘No, do not go into the [half-part of the head]’” (Kotansky 1993: 60). Interestingly, Chrisopher Faroane discovers in these incantations some sort of a ‘talking cure’, he explains: “the indwelling demon is interrogated, upbraided, placed under oath and then commanded to leave the human host body. The result is a forced conversation, [ ] in which demons are forced to reveal their names and powers, often protesting that they are being misunderstood” (Faraone 1991: 18). The sung sound diary reinterprets the original text and by doing so moves the ritual of singing beyond its mere metaphorical purpose. Impulsive Incantations has now become a chant that needs to be sung in order to expel the pain from the body, although the act in itself is painful.
These nursery rhyme-like incantations, sung in sync with the misery of migraine and with roots deeply embedded in the oral tradition, are plausibly the oldest example and the most authentic amplification of migrainous vocal music. Nonetheless, a few concerns come to mind with our half-headed demoness and the mere eliminative purpose of the expulsive incantation, for I feel the term ‘expulsive’ unavoidably implies the aim to simply banish, outlaw, dismiss or prohibit these attacks without further notice. They are hurtful and bad and therefore they should go. This seems like a rather naive and counter-productive approach. Migraines operate with a profound functionality in the sufferer’s life. They are symbolic events (Sacks 1990: 8), they mean something, allude to something, represent something or act as an internal defensive mechanism. Sometimes migraine itself could be considered a metaphor as it tends to insinuate completely different issues, oftentimes migraines are not an embodied figure of speech but an unintelligible secret language as such. It is therefore crucial to keep in mind that migraines are not to be understood as mere meaningless punishments for the lack of self-restraint and self-control. Instead, as renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks suggests, they are to be seen as “a symbolic drama [ ], their symptoms constitute a bodily alphabet, or protolanguage, which may secondarily and subsequently be used as a symbolic language” (Sacks 1990: 208). Therefore, although its code might be all but transparent, much is to be learned from this migraining body speaking. The migraine sufferer’s exuberance should not be trapped in temperance. She should not be held accountable when she chooses to shift sobriety into spontaneity and when she refuses to mitigate her moods. Instead of aiming for a mere exclusion or banishment of this ever-recurring “night-side of life” (Sontag 1978: 1), one may learn how to navigate the darkness and maneuver the dusk, how to master the migraine language or at times just accommodate living lost in translation. For this reason, I propose the substitution of the ‘expulsive’ by the ‘impulsive’ as I am convinced that through the latter a much more nuanced and genuine sound of the migraine condition will resonate. Without ignoring its functionality or minimizing its misery, the Impulsive Incantations will give a voice to all that migraine is. It will facilitate a dialogue between opposite forces as it aims at serenading migraine in its entire conflicting complexness. For this reason, I point toward the diary as it mentions “a brittle shell that holds me in a vicious malevolent disgust”. The image justly implies a strange sense of safety, for migraine indeed somehow protects, albeit by means of a brutal domination.
But besides the ritualistic healing incantation, another vocal practice comes to mind in the tradition of expressing pain through chant. When one is consumed by suffering, and all language appears to be destroyed, the incantation’s talking cure through forced dialogue might become an endeavor too ambitious. In this case we might turn to lament, a vocalization that serenades precisely this loss of language as such. In her lecture at ICI Berlin Ferber explains: “The cry of lament emerges from the abyss of profound mourning and sorrow, expressing the unbearable conditions of loss. It is cried out in moments when the pain overwhelms us with such an intensity that we are utterly unable to express it in words. As if our language had completely broken down, revealing its inadequacy in the facing of profound sorrow by disintegrating into non-verbal exclamations and disconsolate cries” (Ferber 2015). Developing Gershom Scholem’s theory, she argues that lament does not fulfill any of the linguistic criteria for it is contentless and unable to communicate. It is directed at no one and incapable of receiving a response. Its structure does not answer to the conventional conception of a statement and consequently overthrows any possibility for dialogue. Lament does not portray the pain of a particular loss, she claims, but it expresses the failure of language when confronted with loss.
So, when the migraineur turns to lament in order to bewail a loss of time, a loss of stability, a loss of health and hope or even a temporary loss of life, she expresses these losses through a phenomenon truly inherent to the migraine condition: the failure of a voice. In lament this failure is as resounding as the loss of language as such. It is a sort of expression in which language itself falters and flutters; a linguistic breakdown. Lament is not only composed of language failures; it turns them into the essence of its expression and even its strength. Ferber elaborates the potentiality of these failures:
“The language of lament manifests a concrete possibility to think of failure not as the shadow of success but rather as constitutive in itself. In lament failure is not weaker than success, quite the opposite. It marks the unique strength of language, a strength that comes to being only in so far as language fails. Lament is the linguistic form that expresses language itself, language as such” (Ferber 2015).
The failing of language reveals something about language as such. Hence failure holds the potential to uncover and expose.
In the sung sound diary, we not only witness the voice when it breaks down as a conveyer of meaning, we also recognize that it falls short as an “object of aesthetic admiration” (Dolar 2006: 4). The frailness and shakiness testify to the absence of vocal technical control; the intonation is imprecise, the breath unsupported. It is not a voice praised for its virtuosity. For this reason (and well aware that my approach might differ from Dolar’s psychoanalytical interpretation), I turn to lament as a third way of understanding voice. For in the diary’s unanswered outcry of pain and despair, resonates the opposite of meaning and of admiration. The revealing potential of failure is sounding through lament, which allows me to go beyond the concept of language and to capture the voice when it is not an object of “fetish reverence” (Dolar 2006: 4). Lament reveals that in the failing of a voice lies the essence of what it is to be voiced and that through illness and the suffering body one might uncover the core of healthiness. Ferber points out that this notion was supported by author Thomas Mann when, during a lecture, he stated: “There is no deeper knowledge without the experience of disease and all heightened healthiness must be achieved by the route of illness” (Mann 1955). Let us therefore look at the musical qualities of a lamenting voice. How does it sound? Can we sway to the rhythm of a failing language? To answer these questions we go back to the beginning of this discourse, and revisit the migraine sufferer, wandering the no-man’s land, perpetually on the verge of crossing the border that will lead her into the kingdom of the sick or back into the land of the well, forever failing to fit, caught in an endless cyclic movement, eternally resonating in these permanent in-betweens and therefore always belonging to the borderlands. Interestingly, Ferber points out that Scholem designates lament as a language of borders and consequently differentiating it from all other language. He argues that “all language” (Ferber 2015) is a positive expression transpiring over the borders of two neighboring lands – the land of the revealed and the land of the silenced. All language therefore operates in both of these lands.
“What distinguishes lament however, is its bordering these two lands without belonging to either of them exclusively. It denies both revelation and silence even as it straddles the border between them. Yet despite its strictly liminal nature, lament harbors something that is pertinent to all language or to language as such. Lament is thus a language characterized by always being throughout the border, lying precisely at the border between the two lands. [ ] It endeavors to leave its restricted position on the border to belong either to revelation or to silence. These attempts are doomed to fail because lament can only exist as a liminal language forever confined to a peripheral location - right on the border” (Ferber 2015).
When the migraineur sings to her hidden head-quarters, permanently positioned at the border, in a language that belongs uniquely to this region, an obscure local dialect resonating in repetitive silent ululation, phrasing the unanswerable, a phonophobic drone addressing no one. It is precisely through these repetitions and monotonous murmurs that lament’s eternal cyclic movement, mimicking the migraineur’s maneuvers, is resonating. “Monotony”, Ferber argues, “is the deep linguistic symbol of the expressionless, which sends its radiating inward into the darkness of all mourning which absorbs its own light. Each word appears only to die. Lament does not only destroy itself in these acts of transition, it does so repeatedly. This cyclical rhythm becomes its most distinctive feature. Simultaneously, this circularity manifests the emphasis on the eternal principal of movement in lament” (Ferber 2015).