- Introduction:Voice Matters
“… the voice is there to be forgotten in its materiality; only at this cost does it fill its primary function.”—Michel Chion
“Sound is a little piece of the vibrating world.”—Jonathan Sterne
Voice plays a vital role in human ecology. Simultaneously tied to the body and entwined with the external environment, the voice exists in a complex interaction with multiple physical and sociocultural formations. Yet interest in studying the role of voice qua voice in cultural production is a fairly recent phenomenon. Even though a range of scholars from different disciplines such as anthropology, film studies, linguistics, literature, musicology, performance studies, and philosophy have commented on the constitution of the voice (including Dolar, Duncan, Eidsheim, Ochoa Gautier, Kreiman and Sidtis, Sundberg, LaBelle, Butler, Feldman, Davies, and Connor in Dumbstruck and Beyond Words) and the role of the vocal in culture and society (including Chion, Cavarero, Connor, Harkness, Hirschkind, Ong, and Weidman), and even though some of these writings have been influential in the humanities and social sciences (including those by Derrida, Dolar, and Chion), a cohesive field of Voice Studies or even a broad area of shared vocabulary has yet to coalesce. While debates about the materiality of sound and its impact on the cultural, social, and political spheres (including those by Attali, Goodman, and Sterne) have coalesced into the emergent field of Sound Studies—which has received attention recently—the same has not yet been true for discourse on voice. Nor have the exploration of vocality and the conditions of voicing become prominent topics within Sound Studies. This is a curious gap in academic debate. If human listening is indeed “vococentric” (6)—as film scholar Michel Chion, one of the eminent writers on voice, strongly claims—why has the wealth of scholarly contributions about voice failed to manifest in the more visible form of a field of study?
As paradoxical as it may sound, the rather elusive place of the voice in academic discourse might be an effect of its central role and complex function, shaped by the intersection of the material and the metaphorical, in Western culture and society. Thus, the fields that have examined the voice have generally tended to divide into two camps: the symbolic and the material. On the one hand, what may be considered material inquiry into the voice includes medicine (for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes); physiology (in order to understand its function within the body); and engineering (for example, to explain topics like tissue, vibration, and air flow). On the other hand, the particular figuration of the voice as a carrier of self in Western culture has turned it into an object of philosophical and theoretical inquiry, which has often done away with its materiality. We may call this effect the weight of the symbolic.
Traditionally, philosophical and theoretical works in Western culture have treated the voice as a predominantly symbolic phenomenon with metaphysical qualities.1 Voice has been cast as a central metaphor in critiques of dominant regimes of representation—for instance, in the uses of the tropes of speech and voice versus silence, deployed to represent gendered and/or racialized relations of power. Yet the voice remains disembodied in such critiques. This disembodiment of the voice arises from what the Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero aptly terms the “videocentric” character of Western thinking, an enterprise that “denies to the voice a meaning of its own” (13). Cavarero’s work is part of a recent critique of the dominance of the visual in Western culture, where the master discourse of philosophy has systematically represented modes of knowing and being through metaphors of vision that range from everyday terms, such as “insight,” to the philosophical notion of Enlightenment (Jay 1).
Even powerful critiques of logocentrism, such as Jacques Derrida’s examination of the metaphysical tradition of thought in Of Grammatology, cannot escape the “devocalization” of voice (Cavarero 14). For example, Derrida’s critical neologism phonocentrism—as he calls the privileging of speech as unmediated interiority, or the presence of pure thinking, over writing in the metaphysical tradition—approaches the vocal without fully acknowledging the material. Derrida argues that voice has become the...