Unreal Nature

April 19, 2014

The Flashlight of the Tongue

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:41 am

… the voice is precisely that which is never audible to phonology …

This is from Beyond Words: Sobs, Hums, Stutters and other Vocalizations by Steven Connor (2014):

… The distinction between frontal and posterior sound values is finally a distinction between matter and immaterial, or between something and nothing. The mouth is a furnished room, with items disposed in an orderly way in its space; the throat, and all the other inner compartments on to which we may feel it dimly and indistinctly give, is vacuity itself. The mouth is a place that can be selectively and sequentially lit up by the flashlight of the tongue — even the craggy absence left by a missing filling is turned into a positive by the tongue’s haggling at it. The throat is a dark place, a space therefore of indeterminate shape and extent. The throat is a gulf of nothingness. It is the place in the mouth in which the nothingness of pure gurgling, the pure agitation before articulation, can be heard as articulation.

… It [the throat] is the point (even though it never exactly comes to a point) at which the nothing of pure, purblind guzzle and gargle becomes the something, or rather, the many different distinguishable things, of speech. Nothing becomes something. And yet, in thus becoming more definite, more articulate, speech also seems to become less material, less bodily. The glutinous, clinging ur-plasm of speech is sublimated in the crucible of the mouth into mobile sense and meaning. It is now, in Aristotle’s terms, ‘a particular sound that has meaning, and not one merely of the inbreathed air, as a cough is.’

… If language is not just what is abstractly given in structures and relations, but also what is historically made of these structures, or of what we profoundly seem to wish to be true of language, whether on rational or irrational grounds, then what Janis Nuckolls describes as ‘a kind of sound-symbolic creativity that is protracted through generations, below the threshold of awareness for most, yet assented to and thereby engineered by entire communities of speakers’ must be regarded as something language is as well as something we do to it.

I am not entirely opposed to the suggestion that sounds begin to gather a kind of magical significance, though this comes about as all magical effects do, not by inherence but by a kind of supervenience. The number thirteen has no power to bring luck or misfortune. But the attention paid to the number thirteen by superstitious people, or by people (like me) who are determined not to surrender to superstition, actually gives it a supervenient power of being fearfully attended to and having its effects scrutinized. This implies that when we examine the magic embedded or enacted in words, we are examining the aptitude to read those words in that way — the magical effect being an effect of magical attribution, or according of magical power.

The difficulty here is that the two strains, of magical belief, and the skeptical anatomy of it, are hard to keep completely separate in practice. In fact, there might be said to be a chiasmic oscillation between them, which is the same oscillation as is to be found in thinking about magical thinking. Magic does not exist in that there really is no omnipotence of thoughts. But the thought that there may be omnipotence of thoughts is a powerful and a dangerous thought (dangerous because it can itself become omnipotent). There is nothing to fear from magic, but plenty to fear from thinking there might be such a thing. Rationalists like me have a hard time keeping our thinking about magical thinking free from magic — especially, perhaps, when we irrationally deny or forget the force of magic in rationality.

… Voice and language envelop and exceed each other. Voice contains language, for there is nothing in language that cannot be given voice to or taken up into voice. But language also contains voice, since what we call a language is the sum total, or the imaginary horizon, of all possible occasions of speech. Voice is the soul of language, but, as Aristotle is at pains to assert, language is the soul of voice, what gives it its essential meaning (for without language and without meaning, the voice is merely noise). But voice is also a kind of noise within, or parasite upon, language. As Mladen Dolar observes, the voice is precisely that which is never audible to phonology — which is why phonology, from phone, may also be thought of as phonos, murder, the assassination of voice. The voice is accent, accident, occasion, all of them signifying etymologically the way in which things fall out.

… The voice moves between these two extremes in its relations with itself. Sometimes, the voice seems to touch itself with the most erotically delicate of touches, a touch that withdraws from and in the process yields place to itself, a doubling that consolidates, like an echo or an aura. But sometimes the voice also seems to turn on itself, shaking itself to pieces as though gripping itself terrier-like in its own teeth.

My most recent previous post from Connor’s book is here.

-Julie

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