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).

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