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  • Hearing Voice(s)Experiments with Documentary Listening
  • Irina Leimbacher (bio)

[L]istening brings humans into being

—Lisbeth Lipari, Listening, Thinking, Being: Toward an Ethics of Attunement

While ideas of voice have played a significant role in documentary studies, reciprocal acts of listening have played almost none. Construed literally or metaphorically, "voice" embodies a gamut of meanings. It may signify an utterance of speech, empowered subjectivity, cinematic authorship, or political agency. It has been analyzed and assessed historically, technologically, and ideologically. Not only are there divergent meanings and typologies of voice, but there are also differing opinions about the effectiveness of the roles it is said to play. Nevertheless, in spite of all this attention to voice, the question of listening in documentary film remains theoretically underexplored. In fact, the acts of listening to a film's voices are usually ignored, taken for granted and left solely up to the audience that exists outside the diegesis of the work. Here I argue that at the same time as documentary media fashion and orchestrate both their subjects' speech and their spoken, sonorous voices, they simultaneously constitute us as specific kinds of listening subjects. How we are constituted as listeners, then, has an ethical impact on how we relate to others through film and other media. [End Page 292]

It has long been a given in film studies that films and media position their spectators with regard to vision, with regard to how (physically, aesthetically, ideologically) and what one sees. Yet such positioning is perhaps less obvious when it comes to listening. Conventional nonfiction works tend to solicit an inquisitive and acquisitive listening that privileges the intake of coherent, concise verbal information. These works encourage the audience's explicit focus on what is said rather than on how it is said, on lexical meaning rather than on the sounds and rhythms of words spoken. Speech is chopped, elided, and reassembled by media makers to shape a message, emphasizing speech's referential function and minimizing, if not eliminating, digressions, paralinguistic expression, and reflection on vocalized speech itself.

Artists and experimental filmmakers, however, have developed strategies that encourage us to listen to the flow and process of the "saying" rather than focusing solely on the "said" of speech.1 They do so in part by rendering the sonorous voice more audible so that it stands out alongside and in addition to words. Projecting voices, and not only words, into the realm of collective audibility, they thereby make us aware of our listening practices and proclivities. By creating a space for and even magnifying qualities of sonorous voice—its melodies, tonalities, timbres, and rhythms—they provoke what I here call "haptic listening." Such listening fastens on to the affective, expressive, and musical qualities of vocalized speech more than to its referents. It consciously attends to embodied expression as much as to lexical meanings. Bringing new awareness to our process of listening and challenging the limits of what is today culturally audible, these works transform how and what we listen to when we listen to others and to ourselves.

After a brief look at claims made for voice(s) in nonfiction film, I focus my discussion on an idea of voice elaborated in the fields of sound studies and philosophy—something entangled with spoken language yet distinct from speech. This particular idea of voice is not contingent on the power of rhetoric or on the projection of inner subjectivity or political agency. Instead, it is a sonorous incarnation of embodied, audible relation—relation both as a telling (as in relating an account) and as a connection between. It is that sonorous thread that links our uttering, perceiving bodies and subjectivities to each other. As Mladen Dolar writes, "the voice is the element which ties the subject and the Other together, without belonging to either, just as it formed the tie between body and language without being part of them."2 This voice is the go-between, the transient, transforming wave of sound through which we connect to each other, to language, and to ourselves. Because [End Page 293] the term "voice" is so overdetermined, I will specify this particular aspect of it as the sonorous voice.



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pp. 292-318
Launched on MUSE
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