Parasitism and Psychopathy under Capitalism.

Let us take two distinct, but potentially complex, concepts. Firstly, that of parasitism, feeding off a host, secondly that of psychopathy, a concept less easily defined. Parasitism is a methodology of living, an opportunist mode of vitality that thrives alongside its chosen host. But such thriving is subject to the biological and social capacities and potentials of another organism or social body. Therefor, parasitism is essentially a mode of being that requires and harnesses another’s life, desire and biological necessities in order to survive. This is a crucial aspect to keep hold of, we can consider the etymology of the word parasitism (para- alongside + sitism, from sitos – food). Parasitism literally means to live alongside ones food. To live, for the parasite, is more than mere survival; to live is to be, to exist and be defined on multiple registers. These registers may be evolutionary, biological, ecological, economical, and most importantly ontological. One could say that a parasite is only a parasitic insofar as it is defined and determined subject to its juxtaposition with its food; its status on every register is determined by its ‘alongsideness’, its adjacency. The host the parasite feeds off sustains not only the biological vitality of the parasite -  the host and its adjacency form the very ontological basis of parasitism. The parasite may be born from a host, or destined for a host or thriving within a host, regardless, the parasite is such because of its present, retrospective or coming adjacency.

Psychopathy, on the other hand, is not a pathology of the lunatic killer characterized by Hollywood, in fact very few high rating psychopaths become criminals (although the few who do tend to draw high levels of media attention).  Psychopathy can be broadly defined as a lack of empathy - a complete void in the space where conscience, empathy or sympathy ‘ought’ to reside. I emphasize this particular and most general aspect of psychological categorizing because I feel it is a detail that many other facets of the category are contingent to. I suggest that the majority of psychopathic traits are derivatives of this very subjective, internal and psychological lack. It is perhaps this confusion and conflation of causalities that makes psychopathy such a fascinating and misunderstood concept. For example, one may research psychopathy and uncover all sorts of complex and enthralling details: narcissism, the god complex, childhood trauma, weak father figures, strong mothers, abuse, sadism, sexual deviancy, the MAO-A (The Warrior Gene), frontal lobe trauma etc. My interest in psychopathy is simple and galvanized by a quite simple belief. I believe that psychopathy is nothing more and nothing less than a state of thinking without empathy coupled with a particular set of quite clinical and empirical facts (neurological, biological and genetic) relating to stimuli. All other ‘symptoms’ are the previous two aspects of psychopathy manifesting in various societal dissonances. It is precisely from this basis, a basis of neurological or genetic predispositions to empathy, which all other aspects of preconceived psychopathy are contingent to. For example, if I, or you the reader, had no empathy and could not sympathize with others then we would ultimately pursue our own interests regardless of the pain, damage or consequences our pursuit or such interests may cause to others. If we had no empathy we would be utterly selfish. I say this because of a pair of philosophical truths. Firstly, if I can only conceptualize and regard “I”, then everything else, regardless of phenomena, must be subject to “I”. If “I” cannot conceive of the existence of feelings in others on the same basis as those feelings must be felt by “I”, tangible empathy, then they cannot exist for “I”. So, although we may never know of the pain a loved one may experience through misfortune we can, in some sense, sympathize. We feel for them in a manner that is more than a conceptual acceptance of their biological trauma and subjective experience. We may not writhe around in pain on the floor, but our sympathetic understanding is much more tangible than a clinical comprehension that a certain biological trauma yield a certain experiential trauma. I feel this point is most commonly realized in the degrees of sympathetic experience. When a loved one is hurt our sympathy is high, when we are engrossed in a film characters tragedy we sympathize quite intensively yet news reports of statistics of natural tragedies don’t tend to trigger feelings of sympathy until testimony and first hand accounts and the accompanying harrowing imagery is appear. This is a difference of affective stimuli and conceptualization, a crucial difference that I will expand on later.  Secondly, and most controversially, I suggest that empathy is programmed socially and learnt psycho-socially – thus: there are degrees of aptitude in learning the skill of empathy and also various environmental and biological aspects can hinder, impeded or outright destroy the capacity of empathy in an individual. If, empathy can be learnt or hindered by environmental factors then psychopathy is, in effect, a symptom or vector. It is also at this point where I will emphasize that psychopathic, is not a category that one is or is not – rather, psychopathy is a spectrum made up from registering on many spectrums (although, as I have already suggested, the current categories are conflated and confused – as well as widely contested within the psychological fields).

Parasitism and Psychopathy go hand in hand. The psychopath would not be a psychopath outside of a social environment – in prison psychopaths die (conceptually). I propose this brave statement on the basis that a psychopath, a being devoid of empathizing with other social beings, can only be defined as such subject to his or her capacities to sympathize and empathize with others. If others are removed, and the person labeled “psychopathic” exists in a social vacuum, then psychopathy, as socially defined, ceases to exist. Likewise, parasites perish without a host body. In fact, the only evolutionary argument about the existence of psychopathy (as a symptom of the MAO-A/”warrior gene”) is an argument that suggests survival through parasitism. Psychopaths require others, not only to survive biologically and evolutionarily – to take advantage of resources and thrive and reproduce – but also on a purely ontological level: a psychopath is defined purely by its divergence from and use of its fellow species. The ontological and biological giveness of the psychopath is contingent to the environment or prey or host.

Here I will return to the first definition of psychopathy, a definition that I feel all social definitions of psychopathy derive from – a lack of empathy. More precisely, I will briefly explore affective stimuli and conceptual conceivability, or to phrase it another way, tangibility and knowability. We are all defined, though not exclusively, by how we react to our environment and its stimuli, but studies conducted on high-level clinical psychopaths reveal quite empirical differences in our capacities to react, learn and relate to the stimuli and environment. For example, high-level clinical psychopaths do not show blink response to negative imagery[1]. Further, many clinical studies have show that high-level clinical psychopaths have abnormally diminished responses to positive or negative aural stimuli. Lastly, other studies have shown that high-level clinical psychopaths do not respond to bleep timed skin electrocutions; the test involves a small electric shock being repeatedly given to a hand after a set of bleeps, the concept is simple, after the bleep a shock is delivered.[2] Neutral participants display high blood flow in the shock region as anticipation for the discomfort as well as a post-auricular response (which is viewed as simplistically as the Voight Kampff from Bladerunner) whereas high-level clinical psychopaths do not show similar signs of anticipation. The suggestion of all of these studies is simple: high-level clinical psychopaths do not react as much to external stimuli. This is precisely, where psychopathy becomes so relevant in contemporary life. Much of Berardi’s work explores how my generation is over stimulated. Too much information and cognitive and attentive demands have led to a deluge of attention disorders and Ritalin prescriptions. Too much affective stimuli and and cognitive labour precarity and fractalization have led to a widespred use of Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors.  Berardi states how these are nothing less than symptoms of panic, reactions to the environment and its blitz of stimuli:

“The symptoms of it are quite evident: millions of boxes of Prozac are sold every month, the epidemic of attention deficit disorders among youngsters, the diffusion of drugs like Ritalin to school children, and the widespread epidemic of panic.” (Berardi, 2009, p.82)

The irony of the term psychopath is that it means suffering psyche (psycho – psyche + path, from pathos – suffering). Yet clinical studies show high level psychopaths display almost no reaction to visual, aural and tactile stimuli. Studies have also shown that individuals recognized with a high level of psychopathy have a reduced response to aural stimuli. [3] In fact, some studies have suggested that because of high-level clinical psychopaths lacking capacity to react to external stimuli their capacity to learn from pain is greatly diminished. Evolutionarily this explains the proportional rarity of high-level clinical psychopaths (learning quickly from pain is useful for survival) but it also points to a lessened capacity of post event trauma, fear, anxiety and panic. Psychopaths are generally less fearful and less likely to panic under pressure. In a sense, psychopaths are, via developmental, biological or genetic reasons better equipped to ‘cope’ amidst the affective din of contemporary life. Psychopathy is the ultimate formatting of the psyche for the 24/7 information blitz we suffer from.

To appreciate this point further we must quickly outline two of Berardi’s core concepts and the dynamic. The first is Cyberspace – cyberspace is technical, networked and infinite, in Berardi’s words “Cyberspace is the infinite productivity of the general intelligence, of the General Intellect, of the net.” (Berardi 2009, p.71). The second is Cybertime, “Cybertime is the organic, physical, finite capacity to elaborate information.” (Berardi, 2009, p.71) Berardi suggests that because many of the demands of contemporary living operate via infinite cyberspace our finite cybertime reaches a limit, it is at this limit where economic collapse happens, but this is a collapse that is lastly economic in symptom but crucially psychological in root cause: “I use the word collapse in a sense that is not metaphorical, but rather a clinical description of what is going on in the western mind. I use the word collapse in order to express the real pathological crash of the psycho-social organism.” (Berardi, 2009, p.82). Thus, collectively economic crashes occur due to our organisms finite capacities to process environmental stimuli and some of the many coping mechanisms of limit-approach is mass medication that diminishes ones tangible and emotional reactions to stimuli. Our cybertime is totally taken up with the environmental stimuli of late capitalism, but as well as attention disorders, widespread depression and anxiety a lack of empathy is the other consequence. Time is the key. Recall my previous distinction of the levels of empathy we experience from affective stimuli and conceptual conceivability, or to phrase it another way, tangibility and knowability. We may read on a rolling news bulletin that “2000 Dead in Hurricane” but this is pure data, or processing time is quick and cold, but were we to watch a documentary, with many images and personal testimony, or empathy would, understandably, increase. The victims would be more than numbers, they would be people with families, friends and a catastrophy of undeserved misfortune. Within audio-visual media we see the similar contingency of empathy to cybertime. Adverts try hard to engage our emotions, thoughts and sympathies with characters within the diegesis in order to sell us products, but I have never shed a tear after watching an advert. Cinema, on the other hand, is notorious for evoking strong feelings of sympathy within the viewer during the two hours of undivided attention they afford in the theatre. The deciding factor in both exemplary contrasts of empathy eliciting is time and attention: cybertime. Yet, I seldom visit the cinema, or watch a television documentary uninterrupted, contemporary cyberspace engulf my cybertime, I multitask, scan for updates, screen emails, I live in a colder and more detached manner. The following passage from Berardi summarises the condition of how “time-based psycho-bombs are exploding.” (Berardi, 2009, p.84)

“In recent decades, the organism has been exposed to an increasing mass of neuro-mobilizing stimuli. The acceleration and intensification of nervous stimulants on the conscious organism seems to have thinned the cognitive film that we might call sensibility. The conscious organism needs to accelerate its cognitive, gestural, kinetic reactivity. The time available for responding to nervous stimuli has been dramatically reduced. This is perhaps why we seem to be seeing a reduction of the capacity for empathy. Symbolic exchange among human beings is elaborated without empathy, because it becomes increasingly difficult to perceive the existence of the body of the other time. In order to experience the other as a sensorial body, you need time, time to caress and smell. The time for empathy is lacking, because stimulation has become too intense.” (Berardi, 2009, pp.84-85)

The time-based psycho-bombs are fissions of utter empathetic lack, ruptures of detached psychologies. Because our fleshy, sensitive corpus is over stimulated, temporeally and attentively impoverished the result is psychopathy, an intensely suffering psyche that is treated with a slew of Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or stimulants such as Ritalin that address attentive illness. But this epidemic of medication is not the only story. My suggestion here is that there are two types of psychopath, a suffering Berardian psychopath, and a more clinical and culturally stigmatized ‘psychopath’ – a psychopath that must be understood from the British and American usage of the term. Thus, there is the Berardian psychopathology of the suffering - an etymologically literal concept, a suffering psyche -  and also the psychopath of the few who happen, through a fluke of neurological, genetic and environmental conditions, to be best suited to the environment of stimuli excess. It is this latter type of psychopath, the psychopath I am most interested in, that are almost immune or best conditioned to cope and thrive within the cognitive and attentive climate that Berardi so wonderfully illustrates as a crucial mechanism of late capitalism.

This distinction needs to be approached with care, there are many subtle similarities and that ought to be taken into account. I state this now because, as I shall shortly show, the suffering Berardian Psychopathy, and the more traditional psychopathy that in clinical terms shows lack of reaction to aural, visual and tactile stimuli (and in cultural terms is associated with violence, dominance and crime), are in a sense poles of manifestation of the same condition.

To appreciate this we may take a moment, a short detour, to think about a general working trend, that anyone who has worked in Sales or Customer Service will be familiar with. Let us picture a scenario, a call center for examples sake. Each day millions and millions of calls flood into a call center. The call center’s job is customer service, the company has not provided good service to its many customers which are now complaining. The predicament for the workers inside the call center is that the company will not allow full refunds, replacements or likewise. The company has accepted it simply cannot fulfill the service level promised by them and expected by the customers. Hence, the large busy call center. A large part of the job is looking at photos of injuries that customers may have experienced as a result of the failed products and services as well as listening to the customers’ grievances on the phone. One worker is a high level psychopath - let’s call her Sue. Sue takes her breaks mid call, cares little for the customers whose lives are ruined and refuses to help her co-workers or participate in any activities that involve social niceties. Alongside the Sue is Jane. Jane is not a psychopath, in fact she cares a great deal about the customers and her co-workers. Sue’s managers like her, she performs, according to the quantifiable criteria they have access to, very very well. She is consistent, efficient and highly productive – she takes more calls than many of her fellow workers. Jane, is not, according to her managers and the quantifiable evidence they have access to performing so well. Jane spends far too long listening, sometimes spending a whole afternoon trying to help or console one customer. The crux of the matter is that Jane cares too much to be as efficient. Janes focuses all her energy on one customer at a time, and empathizes greatly with the distraught customer’s she deals with. Sue does not empathise with her customers, she says what is needed to give enough of an impression of care and sympathy only so she can move on to the next call. For Sue, each call is a number, a task to complete with as little effort and in as quicker time as possible – the polar opposite of Jane. Sue is never tired at the end of each day, unlike Jane, who leaves the call center exhausted and often in a flood of tears. After months of this the managers have a meeting, they know Jane cares about her job and want to help her. The managers see in the reports that Sue performs best and so approach her to coach Jane. Sue refuses, explaining she will only do so for additional pay. The managers cannot pay Sue more, so instead they listen to her calls and build a script from they way she conducts her conversation with many upset customers. The managers notice how she ‘directs the call’, ‘controls the conversation’, ‘builds rapport’ and ‘manages the customers expectations’. Some weeks later the managers provide Jane with an intensive training course modeled on Sue’s recorded phonecalls. Essentially, Jane is given a script, she was supposed to follow the script as best she could, saying this or that at each junction to provide a satisfactory resolution for the customer. Jane explains that she doesn’t want to sound like a robot, that the customers need to be listened to and given respect and care because the product/service has failed so badly – at this the managers explain that as long as she follows the script the customers will feel respected and cared for. Jane grudgingly agrees to try the new way of working. After many months Jane is following the script flawlessly, she is almost talking automatically, she gets through so many calls with so much ease that she begins playing minesweeper and online scrabble on her computer to prevent herself from getting bored. At this stage Jane does not really listen to the tearful or angry words on the customers end of the line, she has stopped caring because she feels safe in the knowledge that as long as she follows the script she will give a polite, professional and sympathetic impression to the customer – a better impression than she ever could previously and with less emotional effort. This is the modus operandi of sales or customer service management; to put in place semi-automatic strategies that give an impression of care, empathy, enthusiasm, fun, excitement etc.

The little detour, the tale of Sue and Jane, shows the two poles of psychopathy. One is present from the start this could be because of frontal lobe trauma, it could be genetic, we may never know why Sue is like she is. Jane, however, is very low on the psychopathy spectrum, she cares deeply for everyone she comes into contact with; she is upset by the photos customers send in documenting their misfortune and she gets upset when customers cry, shout or swear on the phone. What is key here is that, due to the managers’ reports only showing quantifiable results Jane appears to be a poorly performing worker and Sue appears to be a highly effective worker. Because of this Jane is asked to behave and conduct her work life like her psychopathic co-worker Sue. So she can perform better, so her managers can effectively and quantifiably get more labour and results from Jane, she is trained into behaving as a psychopath. But this is not bad for Jane. By caring less Jane is upset less. After her training Jane never left the call center in tears. In a sense, Jane learnt how to become psychopathic so she could exist more comfortably in such a stimuli intensive and pressurized work environment.

Thus, the tale of Sue and Jane, shows a few things. That psychopathy is advantageous in high pressure and competitive work environments (this is not a new notion, there are a slew of films that concern themselves with the intersection of Capitalism and Psychopathy). The tale also elucidates how empathy is not productive in the quantifiable registers of many management methods concerned with productivity, volumes, efficiencies etc. Most, importantly, it shows how the Berardian suffering psyche, the Berardian psychopath must adapt to behave and feel like a psychopath proper in order to perform better and with less personal distress to themselves under conditions of high stimuli and pressure.  

However, the tale of Sue and Jane doesn’t tell the whole story. There is another side of the story that shows how psychopathy is a parasitic strategy dependent on the empathy of others. This other aspect of the tale illustrates how such psychopathic parasitism is a cultivation of capitalism, but that it is not a solution (as per Ayn Rand’s Capitalist Objectivism) but a symptom manifested by a change only a proportion of people can undergo. If we were all psychopaths capitalism would not work.

Here is why. Sue and post-training Jane ‘solve all their calls’. The customers then fill in surveys rating their experience. The questions are simplistic and closed: ‘Was your grievance addressed?’ or ‘Did the agent explain what they were going to do?’ or ‘Was the call answered quickly and politely?’ are the types of questions the customers answer. Almost all customers who fill in the survey respond positively to each closed question. But in actuality Sue and Jane did nothing to rectify the customers’ poor experience. Sue and Jane always answered quickly and politely. They always explained what they were going to do, but mostly as a control strategy to direct the conversation. Most tellingly, Sue and Jane often addressed the customers’ grievances by explaining that the service and product was poor - they would then apologize for this but then explain that nothing can be done because the resources of compensation or repair were limited and needed to be used on the most severe cases. Naturally most customers, after some cajoling, excepted that Sue and Jane could not help them and left feeling bad. Some customers felt bad because they suspected that Sue and Jane did not care. Some customers felt pushed into accepting poor treatment. And some customers felt that Sue or Jane did care but were helpless and useless. Despite all of this the customers could answer the closed questions with begrudgingly positive responses. This side of the story illustrates how Sue and Jane, in their psychopathic methods, preyed on and took advantage of the empathetic capacities of their customers.

But what of the most severe cases that did deserve some recompense or reparation? A quick examination of this minor aspect shows the parasitism inherent in psychopathic behaviors generated via capitals mans stimuli intensive environments. The company did have some resources for such incidents but these resources were not enough. The company was, via market forces, a monopoly that provided the worst service but at a price that was too high. The shareholders were always pleased. When a customer with very severe failure came through to Sue or Jane they offered the resources they could, but they didn’t have enough for all the very severe failures so they approached other co-workers. Sue and Jane explained to their co-workers that they had an unimaginably severe failure to deal with, and that, even though resources were stretched, their customer needed the recompense most. Sue and Jane bent the truth a little and exaggerated in order to get back on the phone and ‘solve another call’. Sue and Jane soon turned their control, manipulation and reasoning skills on their co-workers, they essentially exploited the empathy of their co-workers – Sue and Jane were psychopathically methodological empathy parasites. However, one day, a top performer from another office, Jed, moved to their branch. Jed was just as efficient and effective in ‘solving calls’ as Sue and Jane. One day Sue had the worst case she had ever experienced, she wasn’t emotional or distressed by the case but knew that the customer had the worst and most catastrophic failure she had come across. Sue approached Jed, and explained this. Jed said he didn’t care, that it was her problem to deal with. Sue explained the policy of resources being directed to the most severe cases; Jed explained that all his cases were worse than the one Sue was dealing with and told he to leave him alone to work.

The above illustrates how parasitic psychopathic working requires low level or non-psychopathic hosts. It also shows how capitalist psychopathic parasitism is contingent on the present and exploitable empathy resource of others. Thus, if we were all psychopaths, capitalism would fail, but at the same time, capitalism, technology and intensive stimuli environments are forcing people into operating psychopathically and parasitically. In a sense, capitalism creates parasitic psychopathic operandi but it cannot continue to do so.

Thus, the difference between the Berardian psychopath, the suffering psyche of over stimulation, and psychopath proper is that one is a pathway to the other. Or, to phrase it another way, the method of alleviating the suffering of the former is to become the latter. But this is not a cure for all, it is contingent on the suffering and exploitation of others. This passage is the capitalist passage, a flux that is not a solution but temporary change and temporary solution. This close examination of the interation between psychopathy and parasitism under late capitalism is an attempt to illuminate the forces and modes of capitalism. I suggest the dynamics explored here detail important biologically and psychologically grounded vectors of a capitalism that is inevitably doomed and nihilistic in its operation, function and implementation.


Herpertz. S et al. 2001. Emotion in criminal offenders with psychopathy and borderline personality disorder. Arch Gen Psychiatry. Aug;58(8):737-45

Benning, S. D. (2011). Postauricular and superior auricular reflex modulation during emotional pictures and sounds. Psychophysiology, 48, 410-414.

Benning, S. D., Patrick, C. J., & Iacono, W. G. (2005). Psychopathy, startle blink modulation, and electrodermal reactivity in twin men. Psychophysiology, 42, 753-762.

Benning, S. D., Patrick, C. J., & Lang, A. R. (2004). Emotional modulation of the post-auricular reflex. Psychophysiology, 41, 426-432.

Berardi. F, 2009. Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the pathologies of the post-alpha generation. London. Minor Compositions.

Bernat, E. M., Patrick, C. J., Benning, S. D., & Tellegen, A. (2006). Effects of picture content and intensity on affective physiological response. Psychophysiology, 43, 93-103.

Verona. E et al. 2004. Psychopathy and physiological response to emotionally evocative sounds. Abnormal Psychology. Feb;113(1):99-108.

[2] See‎ (last accessed 26/12/2013)
[3] See (last accessed 26/12/2013)

Vio(len)ce Part 5: The Voice of Objection

The Voice of Objection.

To begin understanding the psychological implications of the violence and trauma of acquiring voice it is necessary to relate each physiological change in the infant to their subjectivity. I state this for two reasons. Firstly, the genesis of voice ought to be framed in relation to contingent psychological implications. Secondly I propose that to render the centrality of voice to contemporary control regimes, to understand why voice maintains itself as a locus of violence, an appreciation of the journey of wedding voice to subjectivity must be garnered.

It is crucial to begin at the precise emergence of voice. The pause after the distress cry, the moment when the infant learns of the presence of the caregiver and enters into socially formatted turn taking, is crucial. As previously detailed, this is the emergence of voice. As soon as the reflexive distress cry is re-formatted as socialized, intentional turn taking and calling the animalistic cry becomes voice. Appreciation of such an instances harmony with the Aristotlean definition of voice (as “a kind of sound with meaning, and not, like a cough, just of the in breathed air” (Aristotle, 1986, p.179)) is the platform from where a question of subjectivity emerges. The infant must, on some level, have a concept of it being a subject; a subject surrounded by objects that provide care and nourishment and alleviate distress. The turn taking, the call, the intent for the call and the wait, the listening all point towards subjectivity. On closer scrutiny the moment when a cry becomes a subject’s call, becomes a voice, is defined by silence, listening and absence. The silent wait that follows a brief distress cry marks the cry as a call from a being of awareness and subjectivity. It is at this juncture where the biological necessity becoming curiosity, the cry becoming voice, the animalistic sound becoming a human subjects calling, folds back into the psychoanalytic.

The Lacanian concept of the inaudible object voice is key here. Dolar states how:

“As soon as the object, both as gaze and as voice, appears at the pivotal point of narcissistic self-apprehension, it introduces a rupture at the core of self presence. It is something that cannot itself be present, although the whole notion of presence is constructed around it and can only be established only by its elision. So the subject, far from being constituted by self apprehension in the clarity of its presence to itself, emerges only in the impossible relation to that bit which cannot be present. (…) The voice may well be the key to the presence of the present and to an unalloyed interiority, but it conceals in its bosom that inaudible object voice which disrupts both.” (Dolar, 2006, p.42).

This passage illustrates the subject in relation to the object voice. The subject emerges bathed in the glow of an absence – this is the moment of ceasing to cry and commencing the silent act of listening that constitutes the cry as becoming voice. The self apprehension required for a coming subjectivity does not occur during the cry, but precisely when the silence of listening ruptures the sonic affect, the cry. Likewise, the unalloyed interiority of the crying being and its present presence are utterly defined and dependent upon the rupture brought upon by the object voice, the wait and deafening silence of listening. Auto-affection, the genesis of subjectivity, happens in the silence of the object voice in conjunction with listening and waiting. This follows Derrida’s concept of auto-affection; precisely in how thinking oneself is immediately a differ-encing action of thinking oneself through the other: “hark… is care coming to me?” In Derridean terms this is auto-affection as always already hetero-affection. In Lacanian terms it is a rupture that refers to a void. It is precisely this void (to reconcile Derridean concepts with Lacanian concepts I suggest the void between auto-affection and hetero-affection) where the pause of the newborns cry, creates voice(s) by bi-poiesis, reteroactively imbuing the cry with intent and turning it into voice and also flooding the silence of listening with the “inaudible and unbearable object voice” (Dolar, 1996, p.16). It is in this sense that the silent waiting and listening of the infant is the premier performative act par excellence of how the object voice “embodies the very impossibility of attaining auto-affection; it introduces a scission, a rupture in the middle of full presence, and refers it to a void- but a void which is not simply a lack, an empty space; it is a void in which the voice comes to resonate.” (Dolar, 2006, p.42, my emphasis).

Thus, just as Derrida states that “the “voice of being” (..) is silent, mute, insonorous, wordless, originarily a-phonic” (Derrida, 1998, p.22) and as Zizek states how “the object voice par excellence, of course, is silence. (…) and what effectively reverberates is the void: resonance always takes place in a vacuum” the consistency across both thinkers conceptions of subjectivity in relation to voice is precisely the silence of subjectivity, the object voice echoing in the void between auto and hetero-affection.

 The pause of the infant that signals both the seed of subjectivity and the coming of voice is violence, because this is the first of many instances of socialization and subjectivity ordering the reflexive impulses of the body, to cease the sound of distress requires strength, control and discipline – as any one who has caught their shin in a hushed cinema will attest to. The infant’s pause is a violent act of socializing and subject forming, but unlike potty training, the educational system and later modes of control and conformity it is a locus of self-flagellation. The simultaneous coming of voice and subjectivity is the first act of self-discipline. After the auto-violence of voice and subjectivity come further acts, tracking analogously with the fall of the larynx. The learning of language, the breaking of the voice in puberty etc all follow from a precedent set by the trauma of the infantile object voice. It is from this basis, of voice as a locus and genesis of violence and marks of trauma, that I wish to approach the contemporary context of voice in relation to technology and late capitalism.

Spectrogram of an infant's cry.


Adorno, T.W and Horkheimer, M. 2012. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Verso. London

Aristotle. 1986. De Anima (On The Soul). Penguin. London.

Burroughs, W. 2010. The Soft Machine. Fourth Estate. London.

Cavarero, A. 2005. For More than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression. USA. Stanford University Press.

Chion, M. 1999. The Voice in Cinema. USA. Columbia University Press.

Derrida, J. 1998. Of Grammatology. USA. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Dolar, M 2006. A Voice and Nothing More (Short Circuits). USA. The MIT Press.

Dolar, M. 1996. ‘The Object Voice’ in Gaze and Voice As Love Objects (Series: SIC 1). Salecl, R., Zizek, S. (Ed.) 1996. Duke University Press Books, pp.7-31.

Fitch, W. 2000. Vocal production in nonhuman mammals: Implications for the evolution of speech.  (available at:, last accessed. 07/11/2013)

Karpf, A. 2007. The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent. Bloomsbury. London.

McGill. The Brain From Top To Bottom Project. (available at: last accessed 07/11/2013)

Pinker, S. 1994. The Language Instinct. Penguin Books. London

Tomatis, A. A. 1996. The Ear and Language. Moulin Publishing. Ontario.

Zizek, S. 1996. ‘I Hear You With My Eyes’ in Gaze and Voice As Love Objects (Series: SIC 1). Salecl, R., Zizek, S. (Ed.) 1996. Duke University Press Books, pp.90-126.

Vio(len)ce Part 4: The Object Voice of the Subject Cry

The Object Voice of the Subject Cry

I would like to consider the timing of the laryngeal descent in infants in relation to developmental and psychoanalytic understandings of subjectivity. To appreciate the later application of the violence of voice/voi(len)ce an understanding of the developmental and psychoanalytical origins must be explored. The implications of when and how the larynx descends in the infant must be scrutinized closely.

To begin I will outline what happens before the larynx descends. Making a sound is not a taught or learnt affect. Making a sound happens automatically for newborns. Making sounds for this or that (voice), using it for communicative purposes (be it to signal distress or request nourishment) is another matter.  To be clear, the initial making of a sound is instinctive and reflexive. In fact, making a sound, like hearing, resides in the pre-occularcentric intra-uterine realm. Even before birth “(t)he human foetus may be practicing the use of its voice already in utero.” (Karpf, 2007, p.95) Just such a phenomena is vagitus uterinus. For example, “(i)n 1923, an American physician, George Ryder, heard the sound of a baby crying after he had applied traction with forceps. Listening via stethoscope, his assistant and nurses said the sounds were ‘high and squealing, much like the sound of a kitten’.”(Karpf, 2007, p.94-95) The first cry is not voice; it is merely a necessary physical reflex. The purpose of the first cry is to clear the airways of mucus so the first breath can be taken. Akin to a hiccup, there is no intentional affect in the first cry; it’s just a physical necessity that happens to make a sound.

However, shortly after such a coincidentally sonic physical action is embarked upon a voice begins to be born. Subsequent cries yield nourishment, comfort and care. But just because the cry yields nourishment, comfort or care does not mean the cry asks for these things. Infant cries do not change for hunger or pain; initially the cry is analogous to distress. Many things may cause distress but the causes of distress do not illicit different types of cry. Such simplicity of the infants distress cry does not detract from its crucial validity with regard to the genesis of cultivating a voice because at each cry of distress an interaction follows. Simply by the connection of a sonic reflexive reaction to distress yielding the care that is required to survive a voice is born:

“Newborns’ cries are desperate because they haven’t yet realized that they’ll produce a response. But already, six to eight weeks later, they sometimes go quiet after a bout of crying, to listen for their parent’s footsteps. If they don’t hear them, they then resume crying. The cry is no longer simply a reflex – now it’s begun to be one side of a conversation. Within a couple of months of being born, babies leave a space for a response to their cry: they’ve learned the art of turn taking.” (Karpf, 2007, p.99)

Thus, in the very transition from reflexive cries of distress to signalling distress cries embedded within a turn taking matrix an important shift happens; an animalistic cry turns to voice. The new cry has an expectation, indeed it is a call, not merely a sonic emission of the body; but an intent, a meaningful cry: a voice. It is precisely at this juncture where the Aristotlean distinction between voice and mere animalistic sound resonates. Aristotle states how “it is not every sound of an animal that is voice (…) as voice is a kind of sound with meaning, and not, like a cough, just of the in breathed air”. (Aristotle, 1986, p.179) As soon as the reflexive distress cry changes into a signalling, turn taking call it takes on meaning, intent and soul. It is this transition that is the birth of voice. It is a birth that transforms a natural instinct into a social and communicative tool. But this is just the beginning of the violence of voice that leads to an ongoing re-enactment of the evolutionary trauma.

Recall the evolutionary descent of the larynx, and how such a change is mirrored, in a microcosm, in the change from newborn laryngeal form to dropped adult laryngeal form. After the newborn’s transition from animalistic distress cry to turn taking signalling the laryngeal changes track analogously to the acquisition of language. A “child’s growing mastery of the sounds of speech is partly the result of the gradual descent of its larynx and the root of its tongue during the first two to six years of its life.” (Karpf, 2007, p.53) Think of young family members, hearing and attempting to say words and phrases of increasing complexity. Oftentimes they may sound like their tongue is clumsy and not under their full control. Yellow becomes a frustrating single word tongue twister; it may be pronounced as “lellulow” or “yayolo” for instance. This is because the infants tongue and larynx are still descending into positions that would afford the tongue the space for the serpent-like dexterity required to master the whole of their native language. Such a co-ordination of vocalization skills continues to mirror the evolutionary emergence of voice and language. Babies cannot speak on all fours, but by the time they are teetering around under out of reach vases and ornaments their larynxes are dropping and they begin gaining speech. The larynx continues dropping till the end of puberty, just like our ancestors who slowly stood upright to full height, our larynx doesn’t not reach the final place, conducive to speech and choking, until we reach our full height and have struggled though years of subject forming experiences. In gaining our adult voice we re-enact the evolutionary trauma of changing from mammal to walking and talking adult human.

Vio(len)ce Part 3: "Stand Up Straight and Speak Boy!"

“Stand Up Straight and Speak Up Boy!”

Violence is always an effective way to control and order persons. But an even better mode of control and conformity is to ask a person to control, discipline and punish him or her self.  It is in this sense that the role of the voice, speech, is an intensive locus of societal control. “Stand up straight, don’t breathe, don’t eat - speak! Tell us what we want to hear!” Assigning speech to voice is akin to assigning oedipalized tyrannies to neuroses. For the young speaker, speech is a “form of systemization, transferred to them as criteria to human aspiration.” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2012, p.88. My emphasis) Every aspiration, from our lungs through our damaged choke hazard an up to our two-tube vocal tract, is required to be sonically imbued with the signature phonic resonances of the evolutionary head smash; “quantal vowels such as /i/, /a/ and /u/” (Fitch, 2000, from abstract). And further, one must perform absurd labial/dental acrobatics, consonants must be conjured up by biting, lisping, clucking and gibbering our exhalations into strings of signs the authorities demand. Indeed when it comes to automatic disciplining and violence the voice is an inherently personal and widespread example.

The prevalence of songs and chants in theological histories (the major control mechanics before capitalism) and the role they play in educational and military organisations are all exemplary histories that elucidate how voice is a locus of societal control and organization. Further to this, as I outlined previously, voice is also a contemporary locus of the control mechanisms implicit in technologically mediated existence under late capitalism. For the moment I will not linger on the prevalence and particular dynamics of voice, speech, song and chant in these areas of societal organization, be it under theological or capitalist regimes, but I will draw attention to one particular aspect. The role of voice in western organised religions, as well as educational and military structures, illustrates precisely how voice is a dominant manifestation of how people are required to discipline and punish themselves when asked. The disciplining of oneself into voice and speaking is my focus here. But the crucial aspect of such disciplining is when it starts. The premier of auto-disciplining via vocal violence does not happen in school, the military, the church or the office; this phonic self-flagellation begins at birth. The core of the violence of voice is cultivated at birth. It is later that more phonocentrically complex, elaborate and systematized collective mechanisms of violent control emerge, but these are nonetheless derivatives from the infantile genesis.

Vio(len)ce Part 2: The so-called "Vocal Apparatus"

The so-called “Vocal Apparatus”

Firstly air is inhaled, upon exhalation, the vocal cords within the larynx are activated and vibrate, imbuing the exhaled air with sound. This sound then resonates and echoes through the remaining parts of the body that fall under the name ‘the vocal tract’. The tongue, palate, teeth, lips, nasal cavities all fall under the territory of the vocal tract. It is quite peculiar how so many different body parts are involved in the production of voice as Cavarero notes positively: “lips, mouth, palate, tongue, teeth, (…) larynx, nasal cavities, lungs, diaphragm – come together for acoustic purposes.”” (Cavarero, 2005, p.65) and Chion, negatively: “it paradoxically appears that the human body does not have a specific organ for phonation” (Chion, 1999, p.127). The voice is a result of many parts and yet reducible to none; neither the sum of each part, or the remainder after all parts. The very corporeal violence of speech is uncovered precisely at the moment when one contemplates each parts involvement and what role it serves within the body. The concept is simple; every body part that contributes to speech has a better, more vital, more important role to do, because, as Tomatis notes “we were given a digestive apparatus and a respiratory apparatus, but no specific oral-language apparatus.” (Tomatis, 1996, p.59). The lungs ought to take in oxygen and expel the used air with higher levels of carbon dioxide; we may recall the apoplexy of the straining rock singer as a consequence of this need being neglected. Such apoplectic strains are the result of just how much the voice needs our vital lungs, and just how much it uses them at the expense of our breathing. “Syntax overrides carbon dioxide: we suppress the delicately tuned feedback loop that controls our breathing rate to regulate oxygen intake, and instead we time our exhalations to the length of the phrase or sentence we intend to utter.” (Pinker, 1994, p.164). Similarly vital organs, the teeth, tongue and palate are important for nourishment; we would die if we couldn’t eat, but in speech they are requisitioned for the sonic acrobatics of forming consonants and modulating vowels. The larynx itself is an important guard against inhaling material into the lungs, “its chief function has nothing to do with the voice: it’s to act as a sphincter to prevent anything but air entering the lungs.” (Karpf, 2007, p.23) What with all the eating and drinking our bodies require the role of the larynx is crucial for the prevention of choking, yet we refer to it as our “voice box”. Voice is often regarded as life, of presence; indeed hearing voices behind a door or under rubble is often understood to be a sign of life. But the voice is also a sound of violence against the various body parts that afford life. “All this talking is killing me!” Just such a statement is not as hyperbolic as it sounds.

Here an evolutionary detour is required. The focus of which is the larynx. The larynx has, in phylogenetic terms, undergone a strange slip in humans. The position of the larynx in adult humans rests in a place that grants communicative ability at the detriment of nourishing efficacy and survivalist practicality. Our larynx is so low that choking is more likely in adult humans than other mammals. The adult larynx rests in a lethal but vocally practical position. Infants’ larynxes are quite different, a new born can breathe air and swallow fluids simultaneously but by the time the human has mastered language the larynx lies in a dangerously low position, a position that risks choking. Many a dinner party conversation has been interrupted by the potentially lethal consequences of just such a change.

Fitch outlines the differences succinctly:

“(A)natomical studies comparing the vocal tract morphology of humans with non-human mammals suggest that the human vocal tract is fundamentally different from that of all other mammals. In particular, the resting location of the standard mammal larynx is high in the throat, and typically engaged in the nasopharynx, allowing animals to swallow fluids and breathe simultaneously. This position, and ability, also typifies human newborns. In contrast, the resting position of the larynx in adult humans is much lower in the throat. While this makes it impossible for us to engage the larynx in the nasopharynx, and thus to breathe and swallow simultaneously, it does appear to make possible a wider variety of vocal tract shapes, and thus speech patterns, than would otherwise be unattainable.  In particular, the "descent of the larynx" that occurs in human ontogeny, gives adults a vocal tract with a horizontal oral tube and a vertical pharyngeal one. This two-tube vocal tract allows the production of quantal vowels such as /i/, /a/ and /u/, that feature in the vowel systems of most human languages. ” (Fitch, 2000, from abstract)

Thus, we can talk better and choke better than our barking, mewing and neighing mammalian brethren. Karpf too quips, albeit casually, on such a dangerous peculiarity: “this is the trade off: talking makes us breathe and eat less efficiently, and splutter when drunk. Though we can speak, we can also easily choke on our food. Apes do neither, which is why they don’t need to learn the Heimlich manoeuver.” (Karpf, 2007, p.53)

As Fitch states, the human larynx does not begin in such a position; newborns begin life with a laryngeal formation akin to most other mammals. However, the human larynx descends after the first 9 months of an infant’s life and continues for years, accelerating its descent once more upon puberty.  Such a transformation reflects, in a microcosm, the laryngeal change undergone by our species generally. It is perhaps no coincidence that during the change from utterly dependent amorphous mammal to becoming an interacting, social, communicating and moving mammal that the descent of the larynx occurs. I will expand on this allusion to psychoanalysis and infant development later, now I will outline the evolutionary history of our dropping larynxes.

Australopithecus, a type of hominid that bled into the homo genus, was one of the last hominid types not to display a descent of the larynx. Australopithecus became extinct around two million years ago. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the laryngeal descent existed in other ancestors of homosapiens around the same period, for example “in skulls of Homo ergaster, from nearly 2 million years ago.” (McGill). It is important to remember that the larynx did not drop as an evolutionary response to the survivalist applications of clearer or more complex vocal communications, but rather as an odd glitch resulting from our ascent to pi-pedal verticality. Our ancestors lunged and teetered around for some time with an increased choke risk before venturing to wax eloquently over supper. For example, a “skull of Homo heidelbergensis found in Ethiopia shows that the larynx had almost reached its current position 600,000 years ago. These findings lead to the conclusion that a vocal apparatus capable of articulate language probably existed nearly half a million years before people began to speak.” (McGill) The cause of the laryngeal descent was not adaptive evolution but more of a corporeal re-organization brought on by standing up: “As early humans gradually adopted an erect posture, it gradually brought the position of their head back and up so that it tipped back at the base of the skull, thus causing the neck to emerge and the larynx to descend.” (Fitch, 2000, from abstract) Talking is the result of an evolutionary injured mammal eventually finding a use for a laryngeal maladaptation. The dropped larynx of homosapiens was, to begin with, a major hindrance to survivial. Just like in the comic books where unexpected incidents leave ‘average Joes’ with superhuman powers after a period of pain and suffering, the fallout of the evolutionary head smash was speech. Voice is a product of painful and nonsensical contortion, a trauma.

Professor Barker and William S. Burroughs both understood voice as a vocalization from a site of corporeal damage.  The former summarized this as Palate-Tectonics. Barker describes precisely and vividly how our current vocal apparatus is “a crash-site, in which thoracic impulses collide with the roof of the mouth. The bipedal head becomes a virtual speech-impediment, a sub-cranial pneumatic pile-up, discharged as linguo-gestural development and cephalization take-off.” (Land, 2011, p.502) Burroughs refers to the symptoms of the crash site as a talk sickness: “sick apes spitting blood bubbling throats torn with the talk sickness. (…) we waded into the warm mud-water. hair and ape flesh off in screaming strips. (…) when we came out of the mud we had names.” (Burroughs, 2010, p.127) Both Barker and Burroughs stress the traumatic and violent history of language and speech acquisition. It is something that exists because of its working against the body, speech is not natural and good, but is a form of evolutionary injury, names and signifiers become the viral proliferation of the trauma of such a phylogenetic head smash.

To recap briefly, after a fleeting outline of the division between the signified and signifier I focused on the corporeal violence inherent in voice. My focus has been on two types of violence and trauma; immediately corporeal and historically evolutionary. Firstly I detailed how voice is a form of immediate physical violence against the speaker, the voice is made by vital body parts that are responsible for respiration and consumption being used instead for the less vital purpose of vocalization. Secondly I detailed how the corporeal violence of voice can be understood in quite evolutionary macro-conceptual terms, the voice is a product of the repositioning of the larynx as a consequence of the maladaptive contortion of the pi-pedal upright posture - the head smash is the violence, the talking sickness the symptom. But it is important to hold these two aspects of violence and trauma within voice alongside the opening concept of the violence of signification. It is precisely here where three registers of violence within voice can be recalled: Metaphysical (the violence of the signifier), Physical (the local violence of voice requisitioning vital organs as one speaks) and Evolutionary (the evolutionary and phylogenetic contortion that the dropped larynx is a product of).

Vio(len)ce Part 1: It Hurts To Say It

It Hurts To Say It

How do you feel about that?”
“It’s hard to put into words.”

The scene is familiar, a distraught or upset analysand and the stoic and authoritative analyst. The latter (the letter) demands that vague, unrealized feelings be put to words; this is the impossible challenge set to the analysand. Words are signs, differ-ing symbols. Things get lost in translation, not between the speaker and the listener, but between the speaker’s feelings and thoughts and the mission of utterance itself. This demand of language is a tyranny, and a violent, controlling and insidious tyranny that operates through Structuralist Psychoanalysis, technology and Capitalism. Indeed, the empire of word has never been so strong or wide reaching. In order to address this I will look at the primary form that language takes, speech, but more precisely the voice that speech requires. The following text will examine the genesis of voice as a form of violence and outline the different manifestations and different registers of ‘Voi(len)ce’. These manifestations are metaphysical, evolutionary, developmental, corporeal and psychoanalytical. The task is simple. To take the moment of speech, the use of a signifier, and work backwards accounting for how voice was acquired.

The tyranny of the word is not merely a case of the increasing use of text as a communicative means. Nor is it the ‘wrong peg’ symptom of having to make sure ones primary mode of affect is ‘understandable’. It is not merely the violence of asking an organic or emotional thing to become a set signifier, a symbol. The tyranny of word is not just a static and cumbersome grid we force ourselves to adhere to, it does more than this. It modulates our insides, our dreams, desires and fears without us even knowing. It even reaches into our hearts. But to understand this it is vital to outline the simpler violence of the word first.

Take a concept that is difficult to define, a concept that is a feeling and a relation: love. Ever since the concept of love has been around it has been grappled with through text. Poets and writers have seldom tired from embarking upon the Sisyphean task of communicating, putting to words and describing the magically and wondrous feelings and thoughts of love. However today, under contemporary capitalism and the ubiquity of attention atomizing technological social media, it is quite easy to settle for a brief array of trite symbols. “Luv u xxx.” That’ll do.

But spending more time on language to create ever more subtle, complex or artistic strings of signifiers is not what needs to be done, because all the love sonnets ever written have fallen short. They may reach closer, touch more or resonate more profoundly than “Luv u xxx”, but we are simply dealing with degrees of separation under a shared failing: an inevitable failing for the internal (be it emotion, soul, belief or thought) to be completely turned into something external and symbolic. To be brutally clear, both Shakespeare’s Sonnets and “Luv u xxx” fall short of the task of communication prescribed to them. It is here where we come upon the chasm between signified and signifier. The sign that stands for something is by very definition of the fact, a stand in, a referring, differ-ring, almost as good as but never the real thing, sign.

Of course, this is not an original observation. In western metaphysical histories since Aristotle the relationship of, say, Soul to Word has been negotiated and re-negotiated many times. Structuralist Psychoanalysis and Deconstruction have both focused large strands of enquiry on the psychological and metaphysical consequences of the history of the Signifiers relationship to the Signified, the Word to the Soul. Both schools of thought, to summarise crudely, elucidate a dominance of Logocentricism (dominance of the letter, the sign) over a concealed agency of Phonocentricism (dominance or necessity of voice apart from language). It is here where we come back the opening pretext; the voice as the loci of violence, the violence of attempting to externalize and socialize internal forces.

I use the term ‘violence’ for a reason. The signifier is a dead symbol, it is petrified; it is something made into stone (‘petrified’ is from the Latin petraficare, petra, rock + facere, to make). The signifier lingers around in this world longer than the soul or concept it refers to; like a mossy gravestone or stone statute, it is hardy and permanent but not alive whereas passions, the soul, concepts and thoughts are fleeting but living. Thus, in order to be externalized they must jettison their vital essence - their core. Like a tiger skin displayed amongst tasteless faux colonial décor the signifier of the signified is a dead artifact that can be preserved. The vital and living thing, the thing with energy, life and power is always already long since gone. Of course, the tiger skin is barely even a shadow or simulacra of the tiger, just as the word Love is nothing compared to the thing it signifies. But again, such poetic metaphor merely serves a point that others have investigated – the difference between life and death, between signified and signifier. My question is precisely: what happens in the conversion? Just as the tiger is subjected to being hunted, killed, mutilated and skinned what happens to the internal thing on its way to becoming externalized, to becoming Word?

What happens is violence, and voice is the loci of such violence. Phonology is just one example, it is:

“the total reduction of the voice as the substance of language. Phonology, true to its apocryphal etymology, was after killing the voice – its name is, of course, derived from the Greek phone, voice but in it one can also quite appropriately here phonos, murder. Phonology stabs the voice with the signifying dagger; it does away with its living presence, with its flesh and blood.” (Dolar, 2006, p.19)

Turning an internal thing, be it a soul, an emotion, a body or a thought, into language, into a sign, is not a pretty task; it is violence. It is a violence that kills and loses something. This is what phonology does to voice. Yet, turning a vocal affect into a system, a matrix of differ-ing signifiers is not the only form of violence in voice. Violence is also manifested in speech on a corporeal register. To understand this aspect of violence it is necessary to outline what it is to vocalize.

Analemmic V01CES (Distracted from the Darkness)


I would like to tell a story about the voice in relation to two specific movements in dance music. The first is Jungle or, as it would later be known, Drum & Bass. I will be drawing from a particular strand of commentary regarding Jungle; it is a commentary about a form of futurism inherent in Jungle. This futurism is posited by some as the last mode of collective musical futurism - of dance floor jouissance coalescing with machinic aesthetics and human extinction. However, I would like to argue that the rush of the future did not end with Jungle but, a la the modus operandi of capitalism, re-negotiated the sonic terrain to reflect a future more inline with the current experiential trajectory. I will plot the shift of the future via close evaluation of the voice in Jungle and later dance music forms. This brings me to the second movement in dance music – Footwork. Essentially I propose that the future is not what it was. The future intrinsic in Jungle will no longer occur but the future intrinsic in Footwork is just around the corner, in fact, many facets of contemporary life are already echoes of the future world evoked by the role of the voice within the Footwork genre.

To illustrate the above proposal I will outline what the future of Jungle was. The future of Jungle was machinic - terrifyingly, intoxicatingly, and vertiginously so. It was a future of matrix mainframes and phenomenal modulations – time, sound and space. Technology afforded new horizons of experience: these technologies were digital and chemical. Advances in sampling and drum machine programming technologies created genuinely new sounds. New drugs and new forms of collectivity were crucibles for cooking up new experiences and synthetic emotions. Jungle and rave culture were, in a sense, laboratories that augmented realities and phenomena. The voice was at the center of such technological manipulations and digital augmentation. Time-stretching technology arrived; it was an effect that allowed a piece of sound to be stretched across time without losing its original tone. This technology, when applied to vocal samples, came to characterize the Jungle aesthetic and the machinic future attributed to it. A vocal sample would often be singled out from the sonic mix; the beats and other samples would drop away whilst a metallic voice stretched out and flooded the dancefloor. This isolation would often occur before a drop, a moment of corporeal, sonic and collective intensification. The time-stretched vocal characterized Jungle, it was utterly machinic, technologically synthesized and impossible to replicate by human vocal apparatus alone. Indeed, the most intimate facet of the musical palette, the voice, became more than cyborg, it became dehumanized and intrinsically machinic (in formulation and experience) with an otherworldly degree of chronological autonomy. The time-stretched vocal can be understood as a glimpse, a locus, of the utterly machinic future that Land describes in “No Future” - a future extinction of anthropoid flesh:

“Savage metronomic pulse. C N S baked and pulsing with cyberspace-virus. Motor-output feeding to technotrace-matrix. Sobbing voltages. (…) It isn’t a matter of informing the mind, but of deprogramming the body. Amongst the strobes, artificial cool, and inorganic attack beat, dark-side K-war machinery resiliently persists, luring the forces of monopolism down into free-fire zones of fatal intensity, where promiscuous anorgasmic sexualities slide across tactile space, meandering fractally into wet electric distributed conflicts continuous with their terminal consequences. Dropping endlessly tracks the passage of evaporating subjectivity on zero-degree plane of neuroelectric continuity. (…) (J)ungle hacks through blue gloom.” (Land, 2011, pp.398-399)

The drive of Land’s “No Future” is the extinction of the human, it is a passage from flesh to metal couched in Sarah Connor paranoia and Blade Runner Replicant-cold ferocity: “Metal flexes beneath vatgrown skin”. (Land, 2011,p.399) The time-stretched vocal of Jungle was a replicant growl, a near future voice that snarled “wake up! Time to die.”

Indeed, Jungle was inhuman, in Landian terms it was an echo from the future - a precog vision of when the “future connects. New drugs and music arrive. War envelops everything.” (Land, 2011, p.426). Land’s vision was steeped in the imagery and language of Cyberpunk inhumanism, morbid sex-violence error messages and coldly stoic interfaces. Jungle, for Land, was crucially inhuman, it was machinic and it was this that was important and futuristic: the dancefloor as a pre-crypt cavern, housing flesh that pulsed “amongst the chthonic switchings, cross-hatchings and spectral diagrammatics of unborn abstract machines” (Land, 2011, p.546). Jungle was a synthetic contagion, an 180bpm machinic virus incurring into the present from a seismic and abstract future. Platonic referents like soul and body were not just moribund; they were incompatible:

“Nested into the cascading tick-shelves, it propagates by contagion, implexing itself through intricate terraces, galleries, ducts and crawl-tubes, as if an extraterrestrial megamodule had impacted into the chalk-out data cliffs, splattering them with scorch-punctures and intestinally complicated iridium body-parts. As it pulses, squirms and chitters to the inhuman rhythms of ceaseless K-goth carnival, it reminds you that Catajungle was never reducible to sonic sub-genre, but was always also a terrain, a sub-cartesian region of intensive diagonals cutting through nongeometric space, where time unthreads into warped voyages, splintering the soul.” (Land, 2011, p.546)

The glimpse of a future terrain afforded by the machinic rhythms of Catajungle, was a precog vision of a future that would never happen. Much like the unrealised predictions of cyberpunk, machines did not proliferate so threateningly or obviously. There are fewer switches and dials today than ever before. Music did not become more machinic or inhuman. “Fatal Error: Abort” changed to “Opps, something went wrong.” The inhuman chronological contortions and metallic larynxed garglings of the time-stretched vocal were the zenith of dance musics machinic trajectory. Later, quivering gelatinous sub-bass, pitch rocketed soul vocals and reassuringly perceptible rhythms would usurp the cold machinism of Jungle. Disco voice boxes proliferated 00’s pop, cuddly cyborgs, half flesh acousmetres singing things we could sing too. The “shellshock and future-shock” (Reynolds, 1996) experienced whilst “strung out in xenofevers” was a shock from a future that would never come.

The above quotes are from texts of Land’s that appeared in 1995 and 1999 respectively. It is worth noting that in 1999 only 35% of inhabitants in developed world countries owned a mobile phone and approximately just 20% of the UK had access to the Internet. Land’s texts were texts from a different world, a world away from the monotonous din of social media and rolling updates that we presently exist amidst. It is here where a distinction occurs. If, as Land understood, Jungle was a vision of a machinic future that jettisoned human flesh then todays vision of a future must be aligned with our current way of life. The route from Jungle to Footwork is an elucidating passage whereby the trajectory to the future is shifted dramatically. The treatment of voice in each genre, and the differences between them, provide points from which it is possible to plot an analemma of a shifting trajectory towards a new future.

Why footwork? In a sense footwork is a precursor of the future through a fittingly technological sense, but not a machinic sense. The genre is not particularly new, it began in the 90’s in Chicago. Juke/Footwork had an innately kinetic and corporeal formulation. As Quam comments:

“As juke music received local radio play and took more of a commercial turn in the early '00s, it left dance crews in Chicago concentrating on their feet and turning to another type of track to move to. Most of the people making these tracks were former dancers themselves, so it only makes sense that their productions would follow the patterns. The steps, mapped out by claps and snares, and undergirded with rumbling bass and syncopated toms proved intoxicating: A source of adrenaline for the participants inside a circle of huddled spectators.” (Quam, 2010)

The origin of Footwork is its hyper-kinetic bi-pedal blur dynamic, the footwork battle. Yet upon listening to the genre this is not apparent. I have introduced many friends to the genre and more than once I have heard remarks such as “there is no rhythm” or “you can’t dance to this”. These glib comments from first impressions warrant thought. It is an important but complex aspect of the genre as it is distributed today. Indeed, the genre as it is known in Europe is strictly an import, it is an exciting new sound from a city few have visited and a scene even fewer have experienced first hand. The origin of footwork created an aesthetic, but the relevancy of such an aesthetic piques at the point whereby we think of the music as it is heard when divorced from its genesis. It is, perhaps, ironic that when new listeners first experience footwork that last thing imaginable is dance. Reynolds comments quite explicitly that the experience of first hearing Footwork, the impossibility of dance and the rhythmic befuddlement, is similar to the impact of Jungle:

“Outsiders hearing footwork for the first time are often reminded, like I was, of the shock of the new impact of jungle in the nineties: music so imposingly percussive it pulls irresistibly at your body, even as its split level tempos and contorted track structures frustrate all your acquired rhythmic reflexes. Unless you belong to the local scene, footwork tends to work as a head-trip; you’d trip if you actually tried to move to these jagged anti-grooves. Like early jungle, most footwork is literally just drums and bass – a hectic pummel of rolling toms and clacking knitting-needle snares – plus some diced ’n’ sliced samples, with seemingly zero hand-played instrumental elements. Keyboards are strictly for stretching a sample – a horn, a voice, a snippet of orchestration – across the octaves, then tapping out jittery hyperkinetic patterns, effectively turning each source-sound into just another component of a giant drum kit.” (Reynolds, 2013. p.714)

However, the distinction here is subtle. We must not presuppose the shock of the new to be analogous to advances in technology or machinic aesthetics. The “hectic pummel” of “hyperkinetic patterns” is a compositional strangeness, not a sonic, material or modal strangeness. It is the unfamiliar arrangement of traditional dance music components that makes footwork so strange, prescient and deeply connected to the future as it looms given the contemporary trajectory. Of course dance music, perhaps more than any other genre, has an inbuilt propensity to remix, re-compose and appropriate. But mostly there is some form of sonic holding fort, playing the role of auditory compass or rhythm reflex metronome. Think back to the ‘Experimental’ Dance Music of the 90’s. Admittedly, the majority of tracks were make-overs, just a few select offerings (in particular from Autechre) pushed to evolve from pre-existing Dance Music DNA. The cause of “the shock of the new” that Reynolds attributes to footwork is not due to technological advances (not in the same way Jungle owed much of its sound to technological advances in music processes and sampling). Neither is it due to new drugs and collective experience; whilst weed and ecstasy are widely referenced in footwork tracks these drugs are by no means new. Furthermore, competitive dance battles are hardly arenas in which to embark upon experimentation with newly designed drugs. On top of the previous two points we must remember a third, over arching, fact: that footwork has been around since the 90s and only recently exported from Chicago. In particular by Mike Paradinas or Planet Mu Records, whose Bangs & Works compilations are still reference points in genre discussions. Lately Hyperdub has also released records by some of the most established names from the original Chicago scene; DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn and RP Boo.

I propose that the relevancy of footwork is born from two particular aspects. Firstly, its creative environment and practical application, a corporeal interaction between dancers; dancers’ dialogues and battles. Secondly, its sparse nature, stripped back aesthetic, and unfathomable lyrical and rhythmic connections. Each of these aspects is exemplified through voice. Indeed, “Footwork’s approach to vocal sampling is what defines its aesthetic” (Herrington, 2013, p.67)

The voices in footwork are cacophonous and fleeting. “Over There (Getting It)” by DJ Spinn &DJ Manny can be seen as a vocal manifestation of the contemporary attention bombardment. Our attentions, desires and emotions are constantly being harangued and forcibly engaged by media today. Text messages, voice mails, social media updates (such as Facebook and Twitter) engulf and fragment our attentions: more of this is the future. This future is not machinic or removed, rather it is fleetingly intrusive, human. Today, the future is a future of constant emotional erosion and attention attrition, as Berardi states: “Semiocapital puts neuro-psychic energies to work, submitting them to mechanistic speed, compelling cognitive activity to follow the rhythm.” (Berardi, 2010) It is precisely this tension that footwork manifests as an echo of the near future, it is a future that is more human yet more machinic than anything that could be put to words or sang. Footwork’s unique vocal aesthetic is not the dread laden machinism of Jungle, nor is it the novel speed sampling saturation of Breakcore, Footwork is somehow more human, but too human, engaging too much and never enough. Tony Herrington comments on “Over There (Getting It)” by DJ Spinn &DJ Manny:

"To get all philosophical on it, Footwork's use of sampling embodies the latest technologised iteration of a vernacular form of semiotics in which black music articulates then subverts the mendacity of western language systems which are insufficient to express true lived experience. Or to get all musicological about it, in the hands of a producer like Spinn, grounded in Chicago’s urban music traditions, Footwork puts the blues back into machinic music" (Herrington, 2013, p.67)

For all the cacophonous wizardry, tenebrous rhythmbabble and beat-dropping sleight of hand contrariness Footwork maintains an intense humanism. “"On "Over There (Getting It)" dance circle exhortations are clipped and looped into lines of richocheting sibilants and consonants - rather than denuding these inner city voices of personality, this has the opposite effect, amplifying their humanity by exposing their lack of agency. (…) Spinn’s sampling of them feels deep and empathetic.” (Herrington, 2013, p.67)

The contemporary relevancy of Footwork is to be appreciated in the midst the cognitive environment in which it is taken up today. Predominantly, Footwork is taken up by fans (like myself) with little to no experience of footwork dance battles or the Chicago environs of the genres origin. I imagine that majority of Planet Mu and Hyperdub releases will be bought for personal, isolated, consumption. The environment is one of global distribution, constant connections and myriad distractions, what Berardi calls “Organic limits”, Footwork’s vocal sampling and alarming rhythmic interruptions find hungry receivers amidst the cognitive stress. Vocal fragments and stealth beats cut through the blizzards of semiotic activators that we are subjected today; an anagrammatically, algorithmically delivered humanism shoots through the cloying meshwork of techno-capitalist emo-compression and time colonization.

The quaint discernibility of Jungle’s overt machinism turned out to be a no-future for flesh and machine. The very jouissance afforded by the rhythmic and lyrical indecipherability of Footwork is an index to our contemporary desire. Footwork contains a cognitive camouflage. It reflects a desire to covertly synch up, to connect without the cognitive drain of comprehensible systems, networks, and narratives. Escape through numbers, but numbers you cannot count. Footwork is a contemporary Tic-Talk. The words, signs and meanings “have to come from somewhere, from a matrix, a culture, even if the clusters seem to rip everything apart they MUST HAVE BEEN COUNTED at some stage, before dissimulating themselves and scattering again.” (Barker quoted in Land, 2011, pp.621-622). Footwork offers a covert script, that runs and dances in the background of conditioned neurological pathways - a sporadic sonic intensity derived from bipedal corporeal communiqués. The vocal acrobatics of Footwork, the “stammerings, stutterings, vocal tics, extralingual phonetics, and electrodigital voice synthesis are (…) laden with biopolitical intensity” (Barker, 1992) precisely because they bypass the emo-cognitive restraint mechanisms of Semiocapital.


Barker, 1992. Plutonics, Vol. 10, No.12.

Franco Berardi Bifo, 2010. Cognitarian Subjectivation. Available at Last accessed. 07/09/2013

Reynolds, S. 2013. Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (Revised Edition). Faber and Faber. London.

Reynolds, Slipping into Darkness. 1996, The Wire 148 June 1996. Available at: (last accessed 19/09/2013)

Land, N. 2011. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. 1st Edition. Urbanomic / Sequence Press.

Dave Quam, 2010. The Evolution of Footwork. Available here: Last accessed 06/09/2012

Tony Herrington, 2013, The Wire 347 January 2013.

Further Links