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somebody’s voice, nobody’s voice :
on orality and polypoetry at the dawn of the 21st century
Jelle Dierickx
translation from the Dutch by Helen White

(…) les quatre coins de la conscience de l'Homme où nichent le son, le geste, la parole et le souffle qui crache la vie.

Breathe in

In Uno, nessuno e centomila (Somebody, nobody and 100,000), written in 1926, Luigi Pirandello describes how his protagonist Vitangelo Moscarda undergoes a complete identity crisis. The cause is an apparently casual remark from his wife:

'What are you doing?’ my wife asked, when she saw me dawdling for an unusually long time in front of the mirror.
‘Nothing,’ I replied, just looking at my nose, in this nostril. It hurts a bit when I touch it.'
My wife smiled and said:
'I thought you were looking at how crooked it is.'

From that moment on, his reflection becomes an obsession, together with the thought that he is 100,000 different people through the gaze of others, and that at the same time, that idea turns him into nobody.
The question is whether Moscarda would have experienced the same crisis if his wife had pointed out that his voice was a little grating. If so, we may wonder if the book would have been as successful as it was. After all, Western culture is very much oriented towards the visual.
If there is any discussion of the voice in the book that Pirandello worked on for fifteen years, it is to emphasise unreliable aspects of our communication system:

‘But the trouble is, my friend, that you will never know what your words become inside me, and I will never be able to explain it either. It’s not like you were speaking Turkish or something. The two of us, you and I, were using the same language, the same words. But is it our fault, yours and mine, if the words themselves are empty? Empty, my friend. And you put your meaning into them when you say them to me, but when I hear them, I cannot do otherwise than put my own meaning into them. We thought we understood each other perfectly: but neither of us has understood anything of what the other was saying.'

It goes without saying that the voice can communicate in more ways than just at the verbal and semantic level.
If we were to list a couple of points concerning the use of the voice at the beginning of the 21st century, we will probably have to conclude that we are dealing with somebody’s voice, nobody’s voice and 100,000 voices.

To clarify this, two aspects that are prominent at the beginning of the 21st century must be discussed in further detail: the impact of multimedia and the apparent return of orality. This clarification creates more questions than it answers, but it is probably worth the effort of asking these questions.

A multimedia voice

The French poet Guillaume Apollinaire was made aware of his own voice at the Sorbonne in Paris in December 1913. That was when he received his first opportunity to make a sound recording of several of his poems. The man was sensitive enough to realise that this event would have consequences as far-reaching as Moscarda’s problem with his nose.
Jean-Pierre Bobillot speaks of the impact of the birth of an audiosphere and of a determining moment when Apollinaire realised that new rules would apply in the mechanical and later on the electronic era.
Apollinaire confessed at this moment that:'Comme je fais mes poèmes en les chantant sur des rythmes qu’a notés mon ami Max Jacob, j’aurais dû les chanter comme fit René Ghil, qui fut avec Verhaeren le véritable triomphateur de cette séance.'
Bobillot concludes from this: 'Qu’est-ce à dire sinon qu’il se reproche, après-coup, de n’avoir pas su tenir compte de la spécificité de la technique et du support auxquels il se trouvait soudain confronté ? Ils lui auraient en effet permis d’intégrer au poème lui-même tout ce que la typographie et le papier, par leurs caractéristiques conjuguées — que relayait une diction par trop convenue, réduite à une illusoire oralisation de l’écrit —, en excluaient : sa propre « enveloppe » intonative, sa corporéité phonatoire, sa dynamique. Ou en d’autres termes : sa venue, que la page imprimée et la parole socialisée tendent à évacuer, solidairement, à l’exclusif profit de la tenue morpho-syntaxique de l’énoncé — et de son contenu. Ce pourquoi, très précisément, il avait décidé in extremis de supprimer toute ponctuation sur les épreuves d’Alcools.'

If Apollinaire were still alive at the beginning of the 21st century, he probably wouldn’t know where to begin. Developments in multimedia have progressed so fast that it is difficult to absorb their implications, let alone apply them consistently to the poetic medium. Up to now, the majority of poets have not yet digested the 19th century, and so the insights of Apollinaire and co. remain a current topic. The gulf between the unstemmable flood of words that refuses to face – or hear – multimedial poetics is immense. There are only a handful of poets in Europe who are applying the achievements of the digital age in a relevant and meaningful way: if not its technical aspects, then certainly its way of thinking. In previous articles, I referred to the scene where this does sometimes occur as ‘polypoetic’. This term is completely superfluous in the sense that only ‘poetry’ exists, but it is necessary in this discourse in order to avoid confusion, given that poetry is all to often conflated with the (written) Word.
However we should not make the mistake of applying the term ‘multimedia’ to new media alone. Or, as the philosopher Bart Vandenabeele rightly remarks:
The one-sided application of the issues of new media in art to new, Western technologies is, among other things, ethnocentric: the use that Chris Ofili makes of elephant dung in his work, or that economically backward Huichol Indians make of beads from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Japan to create their masks, is at least as much (or as little) a question of multimedia as video or media art à la Bill Viola or Pipollitti Rist.
He then concludes that the question is not ‘what is art in cyberspace or hyperreality,’ but ‘how does cyberspace change the production and reception of art in our world.’
However it is still not easy to determine with any certainty which voice(s) we hear in the aforementioned cyberspace.

A virtual voice

In our time the voice no longer needs breath, only bits. The electronic/digital body is everywhere, although it seems to go unnoticed by most people.
My first question is whether Heidegger’s dichotomy, which Albert Borgmann applies in Technology and the character of contemporary life, also applies here. Is it so that the voice is no longer seen as a thing, but as a device? Just as we have forgotten that it is not really normal for water to come out of the tap or that we have not always been able to speed along at 80 miles an hour along seemingly endless stretches of tarmac. Is it possible to lose touch with your own voice? To consider your voice as a mere device? Just as there is a demand for instant products (whatever the cost, as long as they’re cheap), is there a demand for instant voices, with no commitment to what they are saying, no impact, but efficient in their ability to acquire products?
The disappearance of the voice as a thing is linked to the emergence of the virtual body. After all, the voice is not only a device for conveying semantic messages (and, from a biological perspective, it is not even designed to do so).
Joke Dame writes about this issue in her study of the ‘singing body,’ discussing sung frequencies here:
The tension in the vocal cords, pharynx and larynx, in other words, the physical exertion needed to produce a note, is certainly characteristic. The same applies to the resonance cavities. The shape of the nose, throat and mouth cavities has a great influence on the sound of the voice. In other words, you do not only hear a certain frequency, you also hear a body. Barthes would say: you mainly hear a body.

This begs a second question, concerning communication. What message does a virtual voice carry?

"Hello. This is Gina. I'm online right now, but if you leave a message, I'll get back to you." That's what you'll hear if you call me while I'm on the Web.
While you are creating a virtual body in silence, your digital voice repeats the same message time and again. It seems certain that this voice will have an increasing impact, because money is involved, and a lot of money at that.
Coppercom, a company set up in Florida in 1997, which specialises in VoB (Voice over Broadband) solutions and network technology, claims the following in a “White Paper”:

Eight of every ten dollars earned by carriers in the US is earned on voice services of some sort. For the local exchange carriers, voice is such a dominant revenue source that even voice custom calling features earn more revenue than all data services combined. Given such a large voice revenue stream, even data-centric carriers would have to expect to offer voice services to maintain a competitive position in the face of multi-service discount policies. Yet some have said that in the network of the future, voice will be a free premium given to attract data customers.

There is certainly no shortage of such basically non-speaking virtual voices. Experienced chatters know how to use all kinds of emoticons, but may themselves remain completely indifferent to them, and cannot know whether a given emoticon meets with the same genuine emotion. The - often androgynous - electronic voice speaks or sings to an anonymous audience. In that grey audience, however, each individual believes that the voice speaks to him or her specifically. Just as TV, film and so on convey an apparently personal message. At a basic level, this is the same effect that even books have.
It seems, then, that there is not much new under the sun, as far as the silent voice is concerned. Is this also the case for the sounding voice?

Vox antiqua = Vox nova?

The human voice cannot be dislocated from the notion of history. We speak of an oral tradition, but to what extent can we speak of a straight line? It may seem clear enough that we are not living in the time of Beowulf, the Arabian Nights, the Chanson de Roland or Homer’s Odyssey. The box office success of recent Hollywood productions of Troy and The 13th Knight and the Disney cartoon Aladdin might suggest the opposite, however. Stories (in whatever form) have never left us, and probably never will, for as long as human beings still hear their own voices. Or as philosopher Karel Boullart puts it:

We are children in the dark, who light candles not to drive the darkness away (it wouldn’t work) but to convince ourselves that it isn’t there. The ‘Ding an Sich,’ is unknown and cannot be contained in knowledge. It seems that the consequence of this is that we can only grasp the world and understand it if we tell stories about it.
(…) We rely on stories because we are mortal and because we know it.

The fact of the continuous presence of stories great and small is clearly not the most transparent of situations. In the 21st century, everything exists at once, all opposites co-exist and in that sense cancel each other out: the belief in a god or gods and rejection of this belief, belief in science and rejection of it, the most finely wrought classical music and the most banal of pop music, to give a few examples.
Can an individual still hear his or her own voice amidst this confusion? Does he or she hear the voice of others? How many others? How many voices can an individual cope with?
Is it not the broken, smothered or duplicated voice of the polypoet that deals with these questions – or, precisely, does not deal with them – in polypoetry? Is this way of acting on the current climate not a present-day form of incantation, weaving the thread of a story through a web that appears impossible to untangle?

Who hears voices?

A voice is created as it were time and time again. Each time we express something orally (aurally), the result is fairly unpredictable: it will inevitably be something different from the last time. Or as Friedrich Nietzsche puts it in the 333rd aphorism in Menschliches, Allzumenschliches:

Gefahr in der Stimme.-Mitunter macht uns im Gespräch der Klang der eignen Stimme verlegen und verleitet uns zu Behauptungen, welche gar nicht unsren Meinungen entsprechen.

Just as deconstruction unravels a multiplicity of voices in a text, we can obviously also speak of multiple voices in the domain of sound. A multitude which, according to Marcel Cobussen and Jacques Derrida, cannot be reduced to a polyphony or polytonality:
The desire for a transparent voice is a dream, an illusion. Every general Verstimmung at all times interrupts a familiar harmony.
Who hears which voice(s) in this inharmonious muddle?

The voice of the one god at the beginning of the 21st century may be nobody’s voice, but for 100,000s of people, that voice sounds loud indeed. The same is true of the one Poet: nobody believes in it, but you can hear it everywhere. The voice of Apollinaire is somebody’s voice, but how far does it carry? Ligeti, Xenakis, Penderecki and numerous other composers have captured the voices of 100,000 in their compositions, or is this here, too, just the voice of that one composer? The virtual voices that glide through the ethernet screech in silence, or are they the nerves and neurons of a thinking world? Is the so-called ‘return of the subject’ the return of somebody/nobody among the 100,000?
Are the voices in polypoetry (in the broader sense) not the voices of somebody, nobody and 100,000 all at once?

Breathe out


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