Saturday, 14 February 2015

a journey through the (missing) philosophy of voice


Voice in the shadow of language.

Plato
The English philosopher Alfred N. Whitehead (1861-1947) once commented that the entire western philosophy consisted of footnotes to Plato’s oeuvre. It is indisputable that, in terms of philosophy, Plato set the course for everything that was to follow in the two and a half thousand years after his death. His influence even extended to areas with which he had little to do directly. In this way, although he never made the human voice itself a subject of consideration, until recently his philosophical principles dominated the understanding of the voice in our culture. For Plato and his teacher Socrates both placed language at the centre of their philosophical reflections. The voice was only referred to in terms of deliberations relating to the philosophy of language, and the voice did not emerge from under the long shadow of language for many centuries — in point of fact not until the 20th century, when artists and psychologists began to take an interest in it. In his dialogue Protagoras, Plato clarified how he saw the relationship between voice and language. He recounted the myth of the beginning of the world created by the (in this case, Greek) gods. The two fraternal deities Epimetheus and Prometheus from the House of Titan were given the task of assigning gifts to all the animals. At his own request, Epimetheus takes personal responsibility for this task, distributing all the gifts until at the end all the animals have been provided for with the exception of man. Naked and defenceless, there he stands — man, the imperfect being.  Prometheus decides to take man’s part and from Mount Olympus he steals fire and the “the artful wisdom of Hephaistos and Athena.” In other words, an ability for handiwork, technology. Thus equipped, man sets out on the road to becoming man, a part of which — to put it Platonically — also involves assigning sounds to the voice and forming words.

According to Plato, man requires a voice whose task it is to function as the medium for the spoken language. One of the fundamental functions of the voice is to give language audible form. And that is the sum of its potential for him. This narrow view of the voice has fatal consequences. For logocentrists in the wake of Plato, the voice that serves unstructured sound rather than language stands for all that is pre-human, indeed even inhuman. It is language that makes man what man is, language ennobles the voice that as part of this philosophy loses its own individual value. Strangely, this leads Plato to the view that speech and use of the voice did not necessarily emerge at the same time and the voice here forfeits even its supportive function in favour of speech. For Plato, thinking carries with it the idea of a dialogue of the soul with itself. Speaking aloud serves only to put out into the world the thought that has already been formed. In this way the voice is downgraded to an accessory of thought that has no influence over what is said and is merely the neutral servant of the thought expressed in words. On the whole, this idea of how language and the human voice are understood has prevailed for centuries. The first signs that its grasp was weakening appeared in the Renaissance, when a culture of the voice developed in which the sound produced was taken as seriously as the text of the song. In philosophy, the formulation of doubt in regard to the Platonic understanding of the voice is attributed to Nietzsche. Nietzsche always speaks of language, but he senses that there is more to the sound of words than can be perceived if one only pays attention to the words and their content.

There is yet another reason for Plato’s neglect of the voice that is strongly anchored in his understanding of philosophy. Plato attaches great value to the human senses in the development and progress of philosophy. But he is convinced that sight represents by far the most important source of awareness for philosophy. For his idea is that laws or the proper functioning of world affairs can be achieved by simply observing nature. By observing the movement of the heavens and the regular alternation between night and day, for example, we will grasp an idea of time and lessons that will guide us from all that is visible to a “singular approach to philosophy”.
In Plato’s dialogue Timaeus, from which this derivation of the philosophy of observation is taken, there is also a scientifically erroneous theory of voice generation according to which sounds are produced by a puff of air. These puffs of air reach the ear, which passes them on to the soul. The reference for this model was the flute. The human voice however, actually functions more like an oboe in which sound is generated by the vibration of the reeds in the mouthpiece. Plato’s theory held sway until far into the 18th century when the vibrating nature of sound and the functioning of the human vocal folds were discovered.

Plato’s preference of sight over hearing would have drawn loud protest from his teacher Socrates. His background is one of the natural philosopher, the seer, through to a philosopher of the Agora, the market place, who seeks to investigate the essence of ideas and knowledge in discussion with others. Accordingly his dialogues depend much more on hearing than seeing. But even if Plato’s philosophical classification of seeing and hearing is questionable, when one regards the effect it has had to date on philosophy and the history of ideas and therefore also on culture, his approach has nevertheless asserted itself. In other words: the preference Plato gave to seeing over hearing has over the course of time in a manner of speaking become truer, it has proved itself to be true. Philosophy has to a great degree become a philosophy of seeing. All the way through to the philosophical metaphor, seeing has become the dominant sense for the way the world thinks. Hearing has been subordinated to seeing. And one must also ask oneself whether Plato was right in a further aspect. Until Nietzsche, philosophy was concerned with universal, timeless truths. True thinking that embraced being and the world. The realization of the nature of things. That which endures. Seeing offers the best possibility to perceive what is (apparently) enduring, constant and reproducible. Hearing, in contrast, is directed towards that which is fleeting. Sound fades, it is not tangible, cannot be determined in the same way as the observable world. A piece of text, such as the one that you have just read, is unchanging. Whether tomorrow or in a year, it will be the same as at this moment. In making my thoughts visible, I fix them. If we were to discuss the same subject, it would not be possible to preserve it in the same way as a written text. At the very least, before the era of modern recording techniques, it was not possible to listen to something that had been said at a point later on in time. Today it has become possible to preserve acoustic material. Perhaps the invention of the microphone and audiotape were necessary in order to overcome philosophical ignorance in regard to the voice and hearing.  Interest in the voice on the part of the humanities, however, has been increasing over recent decades. But the question whether the nature of hearing and what is heard — in other words the nature of the voice — contradicts the essence of philosophy, whatever that might be, should be taken seriously. This would still mean that any philosophy that looks seriously at the voice and hearing cannot avoid undergoing change and becoming something different. New insights alter the path to knowledge. And this brings us back to the metaphor of the map proposed by Deleuze/Guattari, who raise the interconnection between awareness and life, thinking and the world to a guiding principle of philosophical action that therefore serves us as a model for thinking about the voice.

Herder: the discovery of the language of feeling
Despite the principle concern in regard to its philosophical ascertainment, in the long history of philosophy there have always been thinkers who assigned a more important role to the voice than Plato. At the end of the 18th century a movement swept through Germany that marked the beginning of the modern philosophy of language. A historico-cultural approach was taken to the question of how language emerged and how it evolved in the course of history. Almost inevitably, the spotlight of interest fell on the spoken word. As the focus shifted from the written to the spoken word, for the first time attention was also directed to the human voice. Its place in the shadow of language did not change, but nevertheless investigation began into the role played by the voice in human communication. In his “Treatise on the Origin of Language” from 1772, the philosopher and theologian Johann Gottfried Herder postulates that there was a language before language, one that required no words and consisted of vocal communication, cries, whimpers, groans and sighs, laughing, inarticulate sounds of joy and cries that gave vocal expression to the physical and mental state of man. This “language of feeling” does not represent an achievement that is exclusive to man; indeed, it is in no way an achievement, that is, something that needed to be acquired, but is directly given by nature. According to Herder, nature had made it possible for all the members of the animal kingdom, including man, to express their current state by way of their voice. The closer a species is related to us by evolution — as one would say post Darwin — or is connected to us on an everyday basis, the better we are able to interpret its cries. We are closer to land animals than aquatic and flying animals. Of the land animals, we best understand the sounds made by herd animals — to which group man belongs. Through daily contact with animals we develop a fine sensorium for the sounds they make. A farmer is immediately able to interpret the sounds made by his cows, the hunter understands the sound made by his game, and a city dweller has no problem understanding his dog’s bark. The socio-biological function of the language of nature is the same for both animals and man: it evokes empathy in those who hear the sounds of their companion. If we hear someone give a cry of pain, we feel involuntary sympathy and even the whining of a dog does not leave us indifferent. If the sound of joyous song comes to our ears, it slowly infects us, whether we like it or not. In our natural state, we cannot do otherwise than react with sympathy. In cultures with highly complex verbal languages, this naturally present ability is forced into the background and our modern, refined and “humanised” languages, the product of reason and society, make hardly any reference at all to their wild sister. The ability to give expression to mood using the voice is a legacy that still appears to hold sway with so-called primitive peoples. Their languages sound livelier than our emotionally restrained tools whose chief task it is to communicate intellectual content; feelings only appear as an often inconvenient sidebar. According to Herder, the language of feeling is not the original root of human language — that according to him developed more in response to reason and differentiates man from the rest of the animal world so strongly — this vocal expression that is so drenched in feeling represents “the juices that bring life to the roots of language”.

There is little room in verbal languages led by reason for the lively sounds of nature as they tend to challenge the space for development of our repertoire of vocal expression. The process of civilization that took up the cause of progress leads to a general suppression of the language of feeling and in this way to a step backwards in human communication. Today we know that a large proportion of the information that we infer from what is said by an interlocutor lies not in the content, but in the way it is said, the sound of the voice, the intonation, tempo and rhythm. All that which — as Nietzsche pointed out — cannot be written down. Despite all the limitations placed by civilization, our receptiveness to aspects of speech beyond that of the word has remained high, even if we perceive only a fraction of all that we actually hear. However, Herder’s view that modern man’s ability to express himself in the language of feeling has atrophied does not lose any of its authority. On the contrary, a good 200 years later it appears to be more relevant than ever. So much for cultural criticism. Time and again, this same culture has shaped tendencies that assist in giving vocal expression to repressed perceptions, such as in the art of romantic song, or in the rock and pop music of the 20th century. Our journeys of discovery through the landscapes of the voice also belong to the attempts to do justice to the complete voice with its multifaceted possibilities of expression. From Herder we can learn that the mere sound of a voice carries with it meaning that is comparable to language and that wordless sounds are able to convey meaning. Because the voice in sound can awaken feelings in us, we are able to understand the meaning of sounds directly. We hear more than mere acoustic impulses. Every sound made by the voice, whether clad in words or not, goes beyond the sound to tell us something about the person who has given expression to his or her voice.



Derrida “The voice and the phenomenon”

When philosophers apply themselves to a subject, they begin by defining the key expressions that crop up most frequently as precisely as possibly in order to avoid the possibility of misunderstandings in regard to the area under discussion. In everyday conversation with no pretensions to philosophy, such measures are generally unnecessary. When we feel comfortable with a language, we have an intuitive feel for the right word and can be sure that our dialog partner understands us fairly well. In philosophy, the everyday definition of a word is the point of departure. And then this usage becomes the subject of scrutiny. One questions its usage. According to the school of philosophy, one either wishes to show how and in which situation the expression is actually used – this is the way modern analytical philosophy proceeds – or one tries to find a universal definition of the expression that shows how that expression is used “correctly”. The latter strategy is the one that was used by classic philosophy as long as it retained enough self-assurance to determine what the meaning of an expression represented. Philosophical definitions have the goal of reflecting what an expression denotes. They aim to illustrate as comprehensively as possible the object that is represented by an expression. Such definitions appear to deal purely with descriptions, but a normative component creeps in here: the attempt to show the precise meaning of an expression and how it is used quickly gives way to specifying how the expression should be used. The philosophical definition becomes the criterion for the correct and appropriate meaning of the word. Moreover, philosophers have a tendency towards developing systems of thought in which the meaning of the key expressions owe at least as much to the philosophical system as to the thing being identified. The expressions should fit with the other expressions in the construct of ideas in terms of their meaning, and it happens that the thing being identified ends up being adapted to the terminology rather than the other way round. In such cases, there is a yawning gap between the everyday and philosophical usage of an expression. If it is not borne in mind that one is dealing with a philosophical text, this inevitably leads to those misunderstandings that one was taking such pains to avoid. The situation becomes even more complicated when two philosophical approaches collide in which one and the same expression is used within differing contexts.

I would now like to speak about the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and his use of the word Voice that differs from the way it is used in everyday language as well as from the way I understand the expression. If one studies the literature on the subject of the human voice, one inevitably stumbles on Derrida’s text “Voice and Phenomenon”, one of the few titles in the collective history of philosophy in which the word voice actually appears. Under the heading “Problems connected with the voice”, Aristotle gathered a number of remarks on acoustic phenomena, in which observations on the human voice can be found. Roland Barthes’ volume of interviews “The Grain of the Voice” belongs only marginally to philosophy and more precisely to semiotics, but is worthy of mention here because Barthes is one of the few thinkers who saw the significance of the voice itself, independent of music and speech, and was interested in it.

Initially what interested me most about the voice is that this cultural object is in some way an object marked by its absence (much more so than the body that is represented in a thousand different ways in mass culture): we rarely hear the voice in itself, we hear what it is saying; the voice has the very status of language, an object thought to be graspable only through what it transmits; however, just as we are now learning, thanks to the notion of “text,” to read the linguistic material itself, we must in the same way learn to listen to the voice’s text, its meaning, everything in the voice which overflows with meaning
Roland Barthes

Derrida’s essay is a work rich with postulates that can only inadequately be summarised in a few sentences. In brief: in dealing with Edmund Husserl’s school of phenomenology, Derrida states that the voice is crucial within this system of theories. The central concept in Husserl’s phenomenology is that of consciousness. All the subjects of knowledge/perception are present in us in our conscious awareness. This presence is what makes consciousness what it is. Consciousness is always an awareness of something, of an object in the world, a memory, a feeling or a thought. According to Derrida, presence understood in this way as human consciousness could only have established itself via the medium of the voice, without this aspect ever having been noticed by the phenomenologists themselves. Accordingly, in philosophical approaches like that of Husserl, mute consciousness is not possible. The fact that we are able to express our ideas in words with the help of the voice is precisely what allows the development of this complex consciousness that is possessed by man.

We know enough about Derrida’s approach to understand how he sees the voice – it is always with reference to words and language; for him the voice is the living expression of the word. Derrida turns the written word — the other way of bringing words into the world and the form to which he gives preference — into the opposite of the voice. In order to clarify what Derrida means when he refers to voice, the term “oralcy” would be more apt. However Derrida equates this with phonocentrism — the focus not on the voice but on the oralcy associated with language — and logocentrism — the occidental tendency towards reason, logos. Derrida claims that in philosophy, phonocentrism and logocentrism have been inseparable since antiquity. This conclusion arises less from an examination of the history of philosophy and more from the definitions Derrida ascribes to his terms.

Phoné strictly defined can be taken as oralcy, which in Derrida’s understanding can also be translated as speech, which is also a possible translation for logos. We, on the other hand, are interested in the voice as something that has meaning even when not in connection with language.  We are looking to uncover the intrinsic importance of the voice that exists beyond speech. The way Derrida understands the voice does not align with the associations we have, and the various aspects related to the voice to which we wish to draw attention are precisely those that his orientation to the voice actually obscures. Derrida too places the voice in the shadow of speech and in so doing aligns himself with a long tradition that began with Plato.

Despite this, Derrida is enough of a phenomenologist to speculate about a couple of purely vocal aspects of speech that are interesting to our discussion. Derrida wants to make it clear that the role of phoné in the history of philosophy is most closely related to the traditional concept according to which truth and appearance are in opposition. In this way truth does not disclose itself naked, it can never be directly perceived. In that which our senses can perceive, we never recognize the essence but rather an image of the substance. Plato’s concept of ideas presents the prototype for this philosophy. The world that can be perceived is a combination of images of ideas reflecting the highest and only true condition. Initially only a general direction can be delivered towards recognition of these hierarchically ordered intellectual entities, and true insight comes only as the result of reflection. In this regard, Derrida accords the voice a central significance because it represents the medium through which ideas and “ideal objects” can be expressed. At this point Derrida makes a noteworthy observation: Speaking or generally making sound using one’s own voice results in a strange self-reference of the subject that is making sound. In expressing oneself vocally, one hears oneself without mediation from an external source. The voice travels along the boundary between the inside and outside and at the same time sets this boundary aside for those who have raised their voices. My voice, and with it the words, do not leave me. Yet I am affected by them. When speaking and making sound, I am the one who reveals and, at the same time, also hears. This unity of action and perception where the vocal expression is simultaneously created and perceived by me and in me — or in Derrida’s words heard by me — is a unique quality of the human voice. It indicates a physiological and psychic connection between voice and hearing, two organs that can only be understood when taken together.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau had already alluded to this:

We have an organ that corresponds to hearing that is the voice. We do not have the same for the face as we cannot reproduce colours in the same way as sounds.

J.-J. Rousseau


And this is why Hegel sees in the voice “a condition for the possibility to experience the self”. The crucial question for us is therefore: What is simultaneously being revealed and examined? And this is where Derrida takes a very traditional approach, differentiating strictly between what is shown — for him this is the content of what is being said, that means the linguistic signs — and a mere carrier for that which is shown: the voice.  This confronts us with the old prejudice that reduces the voice to a medium for speech in which the vocal sound should play no role in either self-affection or communication.  However, if the voice is released from its function in service to language to become a thing in its own right, the independent and meaningful quality of the vocal sound can be recognised and Derrida’s observation on how self-hearing and self-expression dovetail acquires a different weight. In and with the voice, man can hear himself directly without recourse to other media. The ‘I’ hears itself. Although strangely enough it does not hear everything that it shows vocally. In the self-affection of making vocal sound, the voice is not, as Derrida believes, a “signifying substance that is absolutely available”. The limitation on vocal availability results from its own history, the history that is simultaneously that of the person to whom the voice belongs and who both reveals and conceals him/herself in his/her voice. Contrary to Derrida’s clear assertion, the voice is not consciousness itself but an expression of the interwoven nature of the conscious and unconscious. Based, then, on the voice’s individual history, the act of hearing my voice becomes a unique experience. This means that I cannot hear my own voice without screens. The parts of my voice that are “mute” to me are often perceived by other listeners with different vocal histories with much greater accuracy. At the same time, aspects of my voice can sound very alien to me, as if they did not belong to me at all. In short: expression and perception of one’s own and other voices form a complex arrangement in which the conscious and unconscious aspects go hand in hand and can never be assigned completely to the entity either making or hearing the sound. Neither one’s own nor any other voice can be consciously heard in its entirety.  What is heard depends not only on the object of perception — that is the vocal sound. The vocal background history of the listener that also shapes the experience of hearing a voice is of equal importance. Derrida’s observation regarding the particular character of vocal self-affection has led our discussion to the intrinsic importance of the voice as part of perception of the self and others and thus away from the philosophical aspect that Derrida deals with.


We are still at the beginning of evolution. We still closely resemble animals. The only difference is that god gave us a voice.
                                                                      Franz Beckenbauer (13.09.2004 dpa)


Vocal concepts in transition
Let us take note: In the intellectual history of the occident, the human voice has never been treated as an independent subject of consideration in its own right. It has led a shadow existence since Plato’s time. The shadows are thrown by language. In the development of our culture, the voice has always stood on the sidelines and its role in man’s self-concept has always been underestimated. Only since the beginning of the 20th century have there been diverse efforts to shine a spotlight onto the voice and to carry out research into its role for man beyond that of carrier of language and musical instrument. Later on, we will be looking at the pioneers of this movement — the singing teacher Alfred Wolfsohn, the linguist Karl Bühler and the American psychoanalyst Paul Moses — each of whom in his own way began to reflect on the voice in new and different ways.

Reflection on the human voice inspired by philosophy must ask itself from where such thoughts on the subject stem, how could they arise, and what is the history that enabled them. Even if to date there has been no philosophy of the voice, we do not have to start at the very beginning. Thoughts are embedded in the context of an intellectual history. In order to see and better understand our own position, it will be useful first to examine and question our thoughts in regard to the voice a little more closely. Questioning does not mean we are criticising the intellectual history of the voice, it is much more a case of becoming aware of how the voice was regarded and its functions in order to be able to integrate the results into our own thought process.  After all, our cultural history forms the foundation for our way of thinking and influences it considerably, regardless of whether it is at a conscious level or not. However, the more we can find out about this influence, the more we know about our own contentions and the suppositions that fuel them.

Let us therefore take a closer look at the cultural concepts for the human voice that previously existed and whether, as well as in which way, they still influence us today. The lack of philosophical concepts for the voice to which one can refer and review has led to the situation that the “self-evident” ideals of the voice have decided how we approach the voice without there ever having been a discussion of our convictions in this regard. A strong role in the relatively unconsidered history of the voice is played by the category of beauty. Naturally this holds particularly true for the singing voice, on which I will be focussing next. The by no means less important speaking voice is informed by a different history, but how it changes follows a similar path. The practice of differentiating between beautiful and ugly sounds extends across centuries, but the definition of what is beautiful and ugly has repeatedly changed radically. What has, however, remained relatively constant in this variation over time is the preference given to high over low voices. For a long time, it was not considered unusual for men to sing soprano. There was no call for the bass and baritone register in serious music until the mid-15th century. In the 16th century there was a school for sopranos that trained boys whose voice was breaking in such a way that they were able to continue singing soprano — a much more humane technique than the practice of castration that was commonly accepted until well into the 19th century and lent men a level of power when singing soprano that is not normally available to boys and women, albeit at a high price. It did not seem odd for castratos to play and sing the role of lovers in opera. In Italian opera, the role of hero was also reserved for castrati. At the time, the only call for natural male voices in opera was in supporting roles. The vocal ideal represented by the castrato was thus not a substitute for the female soprano. The high voice of the “emasculated” singer became a symbol of masculine Eros. While tenors and basses played only the captain of the guard, the king’s trusted confidant, shepherds and messengers. At the beginning of the 18th century in Italy bass voices could only be heard in church, they were virtually never assigned a leading role. A bass playing the part of a hero would likely have provoked hysterical laughter from the audience. They were reserved the role of magicians, giants or devils. Although the bass voice is the exclusive preserve of men into which women intrude only very rarely, in the European tradition of song it never took on the role of expressing the erotic dimension of masculinity — with the exception of the baritone in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Basses took on the role of the voice of social authority, while sexual potency was not granted to them — at least not on the stage.

The idea of the tenor as we know it from operas of the 19th and 20th century — that sounds high in the chest with brilliance and strength but is also comparatively inflexible — emerged at the end of the 18th century. Since then it has remained the personification of masculinity. Since it was toppled from power by the tenor, the high male voice has, in the meantime, recovered its own niche and presented more and less impressive testimonials of vocal artistry through artists ranging from the Bee Gees through Michael Jackson and Simply Red to Modern Talking. Deep male voices such as those of Barry White and Johnny Cash remain the exception in this field.





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