The Body of the Voice

(from: The Body of the Voice. Review of Brandon LaBelle’s Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary, in: Seismograf/DMT (2015)

The voice is undoubtedly one of the most noble and most intensively researched issues in the field of sound studies. Still, it is a strange and bluntly anthropocentric move to turn ever and ever again only to humanoid sources of sounds on the one side, while on the other side to turn to a form of generating sound, which is clearly related to language and its adherence to logical arguments, to rather stable meanings and to a linear progression, more or less disturbed. Therefore, some of the most inspiring research on the vocal in recent decades decidedly turned away from this logocentric aspect to explore the bodily aspects of the voice. One of the most inspiring approaches is surely the one by Don Ihde, who in 1976 (reissued in 2007) published an impressive study on the phenomenology of the voice, which is still generative for researchers today. One of the most recent contributions to this strand is an anthropology of the voice by Ulrike Sowodniok, published in 2013 with a strong and instructive focus on the intricate physiological characteristics in any vocal practices. Vocal studies in this sense are exploding the realms of phonetics and oral language to an ambitious inquiry into the humanoid body as an environment for oscillating and resonating activities of meat and bones. Brandon LaBelle now situates his most recent publication exactly in this strand. Most notably by the fact that his writings on poetics and politics of voice and the oral imaginary – a subtitle which might make you think of a more traditional work on oral culture and phonetics – form indeed a wildly inspiring Lexicon of the Mouth: an extensive exploration of the various performative actions that the mouth of humanoids might provide (with the side effect of producing some forms of sounds with it as well).

The book consists of 12 chapters that present 6-12 loosely connected paragraphs on various forms of vocal performativity relating to and situated in or around the mouth of a human being. The individual paragraphs focus mainly on artworks – mostly performances, but also movies, and now and then they refer to research findings from the corpus of critical theory and sound studies situated in-between the thinkings of Judith Butler and Steven Connor. LaBelle’s main focus on artistic evidence and the radical empiricism inherent in aesthetic research is truly a radical move. He scrutinizes artworks concerned with human made, mouth-pitched noises in detailed explorations of their particular sonic practices and the sensory imaginary they address. In his fifth chapter Gasp, Growl, Grunt, Sigh, Yawn, LaBelle writes:

Here we enter the territory of the throat, and the resonating glottal space, and lower, toward the vibratory regions of the diaphragm, the ribs, and the lungs. Gasping, grunting, sighing, and yawning – which also refer us to moaning and groaning, croaking and creaking… rasping… – all are punctuated breaths, strained respirations. Inhalations and exhalations shaped by various emotional and physical states, in response to external and internal events, and to aid in certain performances and labors. What also seem so pronounced in these bodily and oral events are their sonorous equivalents: each, in forcing and capturing breath, lead to an audible instant, a sound that immediately evokes. (LaBelle p. 75)

LaBelle’s strategy in writing and constructing his argument becomes very apparent here: He takes the artistic experience, in a very specific extremist and often erratic situation, as an empirical basis that allows an interpretation that refers to historical, cultural and scientific approaches to vocal performativity. By this strategy of research the author provides a truly convincing example for artistic research – the best possible. Artistic research on the voice (and on sound in general) creates or refers to radical new experiential situations, historically as well as culturally, which can actually serve as experiments in the physicalist sense as they allow for questioning, falsifying, confirming or even transforming an assumption on a given field of inquiry. In contrast to more traditional interpretations and concepts of the voice, by reading this volume we might get an insight into the scope and impact of bodily, interpersonal and political aspects of this »complex linguistic embodiment« (LaBelle p. 186).

LaBelle’s book is therefore a lexicon, and a truly encyclopaedic one: it is not organised as your common lexicon would be, following the arbitrary logic of initial letters in deliberately chosen words; instead it represents a logic of vocal performativity in the way the author understands it, maybe in the same way as any classical encyclopaedia of the enlightenment period would have structured this field: bite, chew, eat – burp, choke, cough, gag, spit, vomit – cry, scream, shout, sing – gasp, growl, grunt, sigh, yawn – gibberish, gobbledygook…

Nevertheless, there is one particular aspect where I would beg to differ with LaBelle’s approach. As many authors in this field, he also cherishes and cites the book on the voice by Mladen Dolar (Dolar 2006), which, strangely so, is rather often seen as the one and only theoretically ambitious book on this matter. Actually, it is an overestimated book. It only contributes to the field of vocal studies by way of referring to the disembodied semiotics of vocality. The body of a specific, individual and situated voice in all its intricacy and plasticity as discussed by LaBelle, Ihde and Sowodniok, does not appear in Dolar’s work at all. To me, this approach is suffocated by its strong Lacanian, its dialectical Freudian and its hermeneutic heritage. From this heritage, it seems to me, that even LaBelle feels obliged to legitimize his convincing focus on the corporeal aspects of the mouth (»What might I call this – this thing: an organ? A site? A machine?…« (LaBelle p. 4). With the publication of this lexicon however, research on voice studies can build upon a thoroughly corporeal approach: from now on voice research within sound studies can focus on artistic research too. Future studies will now be able to explore the more hidden cavities and diaphragms of the humanoid body, which oscillate and resonate. Brandon LaBelle’s volume is a perfect start and an ideal reference point for these journeys …inner voice, self-talk – kiss, lick, suck – laugh – murmur, whisper – lisp, mute, stutter – recite, repeat, vow – whistle.