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  • How To Lose Your Voice Well
  • Marc Botha (bio)

This essay identifies the voice, and its ability to reach and pull together even as it divides, as the pivot upon which a radical reconsideration of communication and the inevitability of miscommunication can turn. The concept of “intervocalic communion” is developed to explore these issues in three scenes: a choir in which each member sings a part unrelated to any of the others, a chattering crowd at the opening of an art exhibition, and the imagined multilingual din a few moments before the opening of a General Assembly meeting of the United Nations. Is communication possible in these scenarios that are essentially hostile to it? The essay argues that the (re-)introduction of silence into intervocalic communion—a special case of losing one’s voice—reinvigorates the possibility of communication.

When the conversation gets rough . . .

The human impulse to talk is fundamental, whether in the form of conversation, discussion, debate, or argument. I am no exception, but whenever I participate I also find, sadly, that my attention wanders easily. I am often caught, or catch myself, hearing and not listening, as the voice/s with which I am an interlocutor (I have assumed this role and taken this responsibility) gradually lose their vocality. They become accents and inflections that give the illusion of holding my attention, but then disintegrate to a drone, to white noise, while my own internal voices race in any or every direction—haphazard, discontinuous, serrated lines, a messy and garbled dialogue. The moment I say something along the lines of “Could you just repeat that last bit?” I must accept my disgrace. I am a bad listener. I cannot follow the commands of your voice, although I try to obey its regulation of time and its imagined teleology.

The voice brings us together in this always slightly dysfunctional conversation. But the voice divides us again because, in our conversation, it is the most obvious reminder of our separation from each other—our individual voices, as they drift through endless talking. And as these individual voices mingle, closing distance, creating new gaps, they remind us that as inevitable as communication is, miscommunication is its inseparable twin.1 They are not even different sides of a coin, but the self-same thing. We give voice to our mis-/communication, to being mis-/understood. In recent times vocality, inasmuch as it may be related to a tradition of orality, has come under significant theoretical scrutiny. This essay, however, does not trace competing ontologies of the voice, nor does it trace its role within either the all-too-frequently invoked Derridean critique of logocentrism—reached, I think, via a progressive, if amnesic, history of vocality in the notion of phonocentrism—nor in a phenomenological taxonomy Steven Connor notes in oral language’s uncontrollability, its aptness, in relation to writing’s comparative ineptitude, “to suggest a world of power and powerful presences” (24).

Instead, the aspect of the voice most relevant to the present concern emerges in Connor’s theoretical construct, the vocalic body:

Voices are produced by bodies: but can also themselves produce bodies. The vocalic body is . . . a projection of a new way of having or being a body, formed and sustained out of the autonomous operations of the voice . . . . The leading characteristic of the voice-body is to be a body-in-invention, an impossible, imaginary body in the course of being found and formed . . . . the voice seems to precipitate itself as an object, upon which it can then itself give the illusion of acting.


Connor’s evocation of the voice incarnate as a sonic body in a phenomenologically affirming relationship with itself does not end in merely effecting an auto-productive whirl. The idea of the vocalic body also provides an interesting model for discussing a mode of intersubjectivity I should like to call “intervocalic communion.” This term is intended to invoke the complex aspects of mis-/communication involved in the interactions of the voice with itself and with its speakers and auditors, aspects described below.

The idea of communion evokes both conjoined experience and the imperative of communication that informs much of the argument...

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