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Distributed voice: disability and multimodal aesthetics

“Let’s listen with our eyes and not just our ears.” – Christine Sun Kim

Some years ago I became interested in the impact of tape-recorders on postwar poetry. The advent of the small reel-to-reel tape recorder, developed by Germans during WWII, was instrumental in disseminating Hitler’s voice to the masses. As Alice Kaplan says, for Nazi propaganda it was the “reproduced voice rather than the voice itself that conveyed the archaic values demanded by so-called antimodernist fascist rhetoric.” When the portable tape-recorder began to appear at poetry readings in the 1950s and 1960s this reproduced voice allowed poets to hear their own voices for the first time and accommodate this knowledge to graphic innovations on a page that Charles Olson regarded as “a score for the voice.”

I called the voice thus produced a “tapevoice” as a way of describing the liminal condition of a voice that while accurate to the poet’s reading was also mediated through technology. The dissemination of reel-to-reel (and later cassette) tapes in library archives and digitized on websites like UBU Web and PennSound has given students and scholars a unique opportunity to compare the poem on the page against the poet’s idiosyncratic vocal inflections along with the ambient sound of the reading venue, interlinear commentary, and audience noise.

Over the years since writing about tapevoice I have lost most of my hearing and rely on various interfaces—captions, American Sign Language, lip-reading, conversation slips, and body language—that distribute the voice through multiple modalities. What I call “distributed voice” refers to the multiple forms through which the voice is produced and reproduced. But the idea of a voice dissevered from its source in the body and distributed through other media touches on larger communicational ethics in an era of digital information, social media, “fake news,” and broadband connections. Derrida’s important deconstruction of voice as originary source, tied to a metaphysics of presence, understands speech as an effect of linguistic difference embodied by writing. He does not discuss the different meanings voice may have for persons who, socially or sonically, lack a voice.

Artists and poets have seized on the materiality of vocality and its socio-political implications to create work that challenges the audio-centricity—“audism”—of hearing culture. This is particularly the case with deaf artists such as Christine Sun Kim who understands voice and sound as a kind of cultural capital that organizes a world around the ability to hear. When a gate change at the airport is broadcast verbally, when a political address is not captioned or sign-language interpreted, when the doctor diagnoses an illness without an interpreter present, deaf people understand the force of Kim’s economic metaphor. As I’ve written elsewhere voice, in a hearing world, is a social value as much as a communicational medium. In her work Kim “distributes” sound and voice through installations asking hearing audience to “hear” differently, making voice difficult to access or, by asking deaf friends to re-caption films they otherwise cannot hear.

Disability activists and theorists note that the absence of a sense is productive in gaining an understanding about what the world presumes as normal and obvious. What hearing people regard as a tragic loss or incapacity is understood by many deaf people as a “gain” in discovering new capabilities and potentialities. Many writers and artists, both disabled and not, have made the distribution of voice a key feature of innovative work. Consider the following examples of what we might call multimodal aesthetics: In Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room the composer tapes his voice reading a text and then re-tapes the tape many times until the voice disintegrates into a low drone. The deaf poet Peter Cook and his hearing partner, Kenny Lerner, create collaborative poems where Peter signs in ASL while Kenny, standing behind him in a black hood, translates while simultaneously signing in front of Peter’s body—four hands signing. The poet Charles Bernstein incorporates his dyslexic spelling errors into his poem, “Defense of Poetry” while appropriating (and distressing) the language of another critic on his work. The composer Pauline Oliveros in her “deep listening” performances asks participants to “tune” on a single tone, thus distributing her voice among her audience members. In Richard Serra and Nancy Holt’s video, Boomerang, Serra records Holt speaking and then plays her words back through earphones after a one-second delay. In the video Holt struggles to continue speaking while listening and responding to her own voice, an experience that she characterizes as a “boomerang” effect. In these and other projects, aesthetic reliance on a single sensory organ—the filmic gaze, the sound of music, visual perspective in painting, haptic features of dance—is redistributed among the five senses.

Writing about the “acousmatic voice,”—a voice whose source is unseen—Mladen Dolar notes that “[r]adio, gramophone, tape-recorder, telephone: with the advent of the new media the acousmatic property of the voice became universal, and hence trivial.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that voice has become trivial, but I do agree that the “property” of the voice, its materiality and malleability, is no longer unitary. My variation, “a distributed voice,” emphasizes the importance of mediation, speech, and sound as always already reproduced—appearing on a screen, a transducer waveform, an ASL sign, a caption, a Morse Code signal, Stephen Hawking’s voice generator, a tape recording—and gives new body to speech and new forms of speech to artists whose bodies and minds may speak differently.

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Featured image by Shubham Dhage on Unsplash.

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