- Sometimes a Parrot Talks
Charles Darwin, reflecting on human extinction: "Humboldt saw in South America a parrot which was the sole living creature that could speak a word of the language of a lost tribe."63 After the end of man, speech remains, taking flight in the ghostly, mechanical body of a parrot. But can we accept that this undead voice "could speak"?
Alan Turing, describing the way we use linguistic exchange (spoken interviews, oral exams) to determine the intellectual capacities of our interlocutors: "[The imitation game] is frequently used in practice under the name of viva voce to discover whether some one really understands something or has 'learnt it parrot fashion.'"64 Turing suggests that, if a machine could pass such a test of the "living voice" (the literal translation of viva voce), then we must conclude that the machine can think—judging it by the same standard we apply to humans and doctoral degree candidates alike. Turing includes machines in the living horizon of "thinking" by equating thought [End Page 347] with speech deemed meaningful by its hearer, speech that we find brilliant or surprising, but he discounts the parrot's purely mechanical reproduction. Animate machines come alive; animals sink into unthinking undeath.
Perhaps Turing didn't know that parrots mimic only in the company of humans, who also speak in words that they don't exactly originate. Are parrots just as "artificial" an intelligence as Turing's language machines?
The Avalanches, including a clip of conversation on their 2000 single "Frontier Psychiatrist":
Can you think of anything else that talks, other than a person? A bird?
Sometimes a parrot talks. (Parrot sound) Hello-ello-ello-ello-ehhhhhhh.
Yes, some birds are funny when they talk. Can you think of anything else?
The Avalanches build their song around purely repurposed material, fragments of records that no one has heard for decades: Brazilian baião, 1950s comedy skits, 1960s big-band dance hits. Does a record die when it loses its voice, when no one plays it anymore? Yet a record plays only in the absence of the performance recorded on it; as Carolyn Abbate remarks, "sound reproduction strangely implies a missing man," making every mechanical music box into a Humboldt's parrot.66 The Avalanches speak in their own absence, by collaging the cast-off music of absent others. The celebrated music video for the single literalizes this creeping undeath by casting living actors to lip-synch to the voices of the lost dead.
This sample comes from a collection of Christian parables for children, called Aunt Theresa, Please Tell Me a Story: "The Piece of Wood That Talked" imagines a missionary on a colonial island, scribbling a message to his wife on a piece of wood, then sending it to her by means of his native assistant. The tribesman, observing how [End Page 348] the black lines on the wood speak to the wife, can only ascribe the wood's communicative power to a magical animation of the material—even as he himself is transformed into an automaton in the transmission network—since the missionary does not trust him to remember the words that the wood can. The native is present even as he is missing, as is Aunt Theresa, who remarks unsettlingly, "Yes, this record is talking, isn't it?"67 Just like the biblical voice of God, the allegorical double of the wood, animating us by promising salvation while automating our conduct through its commandments.
At the frontiers of thought, the Avalanches and Aunt Theresa conflate machine and animal, record and parrot. At the climax of the sample, the Avalanches stretch out the parrot's mechanical croak, skipping it, replaying it, in stutters that become baroque flights of improvisation—framing novelty not as an escape from parrot-fashion reproduction but as an intensification of it. In the music video, a man in a parrot costume runs amok, dancing with his double—an ape, the passage from animal to human. We feel not mourning but joy, hope that the miraculous conversation could continue in this strange afterlife, with everything animated and animating, puppet and puppeteer, in equal measure...