- "A Voice as Something More: An International Conference," University of Chicago, November 20-22, 2015
On January 20, 2017, the same day when the forty-fifth President of the United States took office, the Department of Homeland Security established the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office, or "VOICE." In his first address to Congress on February 28, 2017, the President touted that this new office will "[provide] a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests,"2 presumably by publishing periodical crime logs. In itself, the use of the acronym "voice" is hardly remarkable. It plays on the word's everyday usage as a metaphor for individuality, identity, agency, and truthfulness. In the current political context, however, voice epitomizes the perplexing campaign season for the 2016 election, in which pundits left and right lambasted "identity politics" while simultaneously anointing "authenticity" as the new political virtue. If "the voice as the bearer of deeper sense, of some profound message, is a structural illusion," as Mladen Dolar argues in A Voice and Nothing More (2006), such illusion has nonetheless sustained itself across a myriad of discourses.3 From opera, popular music, and reality television that fetishize and commodify the singing voice to postcolonial and nativist movements that both try to seize the narrative power of voice despite their drastically different ideologies, the voice continues to structure the postmodern aesthetic and political imagination, a significance demonstrated anew in its appropriation by the U.S. administration's xenophobic agenda.
It is against this backdrop that I (re)turn to "A Voice as Something More," an international conference organized by Martha Feldman and Judith T. Zeitlin at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago in November 2015.1 Though having taken place at a time (and place) where few would have predicted the present political climate, the conference may nonetheless shed light on the continuous interrogation of voice as sonic object and as metaphor. Bringing materials and insights from various disciplines in the humanities—from East Asian studies and Classics to music and media studies—presenters at the conference put forward different, and at times opposing, conceptualizations of voice. Yet although the "A Voice as Something More" conference accommodated radically [End Page 233] different theoretical understandings and contextual interests within an open-ended notion of voice, the presence of Mladen Dolar at the conference shaped it in significant ways. Not only did Dolar raise questions at the end of almost every paper, but he was also the lead respondent at the concluding roundtable discussion. Thus, while it would be far from fair to posit Dolafs Lacanian psychoanalytic interpretation of voice as the official philosophy of the conference, the playful homage to his aforementioned 2006 monograph in the conference's title illuminates the centrality of his theory, both as a method of analysis and as a subject of critique and revision.
This review therefore pursues Dolar's interpretation of the voice as a red thread for reflecting on the conference's promising exchanges and connections, which also took place outside the largely scripted presentations. The complexity of Dolar's theory notwithstanding, the one insight he himself constantly reiterated at the conference was, as quoted above, the structural illusion whereby the voice seems to embed some true essence or transcendence. Only through language, Dolar insists, does the voice emerge as a gap or lack in language, and thus the voice, precisely when it appears as that which language cannot express or symbolize, is "nothing more" than a remainder (or objet », the unattainable object of desire in Lacanian psychoanalysis) of language. Although only a few papers referenced Dolar directly, many showed in varying contexts how the voice's seemingly embedded extra-linguistic presence or truthfulness nonetheless arises from specific processes of language, discourse, and/or the symbolic order. Both Laurie Stras's paper on Ethel Waters's singing career in the 1920s and Andrew Jones's work on current reggae dancehall music in Jamaica argued that subaltern subjects may gain voice through deliberate manipulations that seem to threaten the uniqueness and, dare one say, authenticity of such voices. While Stras focused on...