Speeding and Braking Talk: Part 2 'Human Buffering'

Human Buffering.

An accelerated and compressed version of this was delivered at The Speeding and Braking: Navigating Accleration conference organised by SARU at Goldsmiths College University of London on 14/05/2016.

Part 1 here


Let's return to Berardi consider a particular dynamic that our accelerated speech is symptomatic of. Increased syllabic intensity is a symptom of the pressures and demands or semiocapitalism. We can consider this connection, between semiocapitalism and voice in terms of two key Berardian ideas. The infosphere and the psychosphere – or two use two other Berardian terms cyberspace and cybertime. The infosphere and cyberspace are ever expanding, getting faster, denser, more complex and detailed. The exponential growth of data capacities, corresponding to Moore’s Law seem limitless. Cyberspace and the Infosphere never cease exploding. But our engagement, that is cybertime (how long we can distractedly look at the internet) and psychosphere (our collective psychological capacities) are not boundless like the infosphere and cyberspace. We have our limit.

Our speed limit is manifested in multiple ways. In terms of cognition and the absorbtion of text we now look at our endless email rather than reading them. “Did you read the email?” is a common question, precisely because no one actually reads email anymore. We no longer engage deeply with music – we download discographies that go unlistened or flit randomly through YouTube videos or streaming services. In terms of voice, whilst we may attempt to speak faster and faster, our brain cannot keep up. We say um, err, use vapid filler words and phrases. Everyone has some vocal manifestation of a speed limit a stutter, a pause, a gestural tick, a familiar embellishment of phrase: “y’know”.

More specifically, when we cannot keep up, we might croak. Our voice is reduced to vocal fry. As our syntax overrides our respiration, as our finite brains struggle with a cognitive-motor-syllabic pile up we croak, drawling the gravelly phonic register of our human buffering. Although vocal fry is defined as using the lowest register of the voice (a croaky, creaky, sort of sound) I feel that in practice it is an affect that comes into to hide our cognitive buffering and braking of our syllabic delivery. This is particularly noticeable in the youtube example.

“Women exhibiting a low-pitched, creaky voice known as "vocal fry" are considered less competent, educated, trustworthy, attractive and hirable, according to research from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

“The researchers conducted an experiment using 800 online listeners split evenly between men and women. The listeners were randomly assigned to listen to either seven male voices or seven female voices that alternated between vocal fry and normal tones of voice. The listeners were then asked to judge the examples for competence, education, trustworthiness and attractiveness. The experiment found a strong aversion to voices exhibiting vocal fry, particularly among women. “

There is a heavy gender bias here, a hypocritical bias too. The male voices with exactly the same vocal affect were not received as negatively as the female voices containing the same method of speech braking (the vocal fry). As the video points out, this has a strong implication for career prospects. Many hiring decisions are based on initial impressions. Women who possess an identical vocal affect to their male counterpart are regarded in a grossly negative manner. This is inequality and normative bias revealing itself in the way voices and our braking methods are heard and interpreted. In essence the method of braking syllabic delivery and the ways we affect our voice to slow down our delivery under the pressures of semiocapitalism are arbitrary in terms of prejudice – prejudice can be applied retroactively to any affect or braking method with no logic other than it’s prejudice: there is no right way to speak or delay one’s speech, only supposedly, right forms of speaker who can employ affects to positive effect that when used by another would be regarded negatively. Further to this I’d suggest that the discriminatory gender bias in terms of the American vocal fry is another subtle form of women being persecuted for any form of control over their own bodies: don’t brake, keep up honey.

In Britain there is a very prevalent vocal fry associated with a certain class and a certain geographic area: the charming Home Counties croak of the masculine vocal fry – “Yah”. Again, there is normative prejudice inherent in this. The affect that imbues the speaker baritone privilege in one instance may sully another with common coarseness of voice in another. Prejudice follows no logic other than its own, vocal traits are arbitrary. We can also see similar double standards with other cognitive-syllabic braking methods. We can regard the class distinction between the charming Oxbridge debating society stutter (heard on Radio 4, HIGNFY, Question Time) and other stutters in the same way. One seems granted authority and gravitas, whereas the other is regarded as a speech impediment, an inability to speak. In the same sense we can consider the use of filler words to buy time. Politicans, who relentlessly parrot empty phraseology as testament to Burroughs’ claim, are seemingly allowed filler phrases like ‘robust’ and ‘now look here now’ whereas other phrases that serve exactly the same cognitive motor-syllabic deceleration purpose, may be taken up as less authoritative, informed or capable. Filler terms such as ‘um’, ‘you know’, ‘well I think’, ‘to be honest’ etc are seldom granted the same privilege as patrician stutters or elite-class parroting.

There are many forms of how our speed limit is manifested when our neuro-vocal abilities fall short of the accelerating demands media-saturated semiocapitalism. We all have our speed limit. Recognizing how deeply the contemporary environment affects our bodies and minds is important. But so too is recognising the politically ingrained hypocrisies that surround the different ways we brake, buffer, hesitate and pause.


Berardi, F, 2009. Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the pathologies of the post-alpha generation. Minor Compositions. London.
Jukes, I, 2010. Understanding the Digital Generation: Teaching and Learning in the New Digital Landscape (The 21st Century Fluency Series). Corwin
Karpf, A. 2007. The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent. Bloomsbury. London.
Pinker, S. 1994. The Language Instinct. Penguin Books. London Zizek, S. 2008 ‘Language, violence and non-violence.’ International Journal of Zizek Studies 2 (3), 307-316

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