“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.