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.

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