Singing in Pursuit of the Object Voice
Singing represents a different postlinguistic stage than laughter“Laughter is different from other phenomena considered above because it seems to exceed language in both directions at the same time, as both presymbolic and beyond symbolic; it is not merely a precultural voice seized by the structure, but at the same time a highly cultural product which looks like a regression to animality.” Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More : it brings the voice energetically to the forefront, on purpose, at the expense of meaning. Indeed, singing is bad communication; it prevents a clear understanding of the text (we need supertitles at the opera, which dispel the idea of an initiated elite and put the opera on the level of the cinema). The fact that singing blurs the word and makes it difficult to understand – in polyphony to the point of incomprehensibility – has served as the basis for a philosophical distrust for this flourishing of the voice at the expense of the text: for instance, for the constant efforts to regulate sacred music, all of which tried to secure an anchorage in the word, and banish fascination with the voice.
Singing takes the distraction of the voice seriously, and turns the tables on the signifier; it reverses the hierarchy — let the voice take the upper hand, let the voice be the bearer of what cannot be expressed by words. Wovon man nicht sprechen kann darüber kann man singen: expression versus meaning, expression beyond meaning, expression which is more than meaning, yet expression which functions only in tension with meaning — it needs a signifier as the limit to transcend and to reveal its beyond. The voice appears as the surplus-meaning. The birth of the opera was accompanied by the dilemma of prima la musica, e poi leparole, or the other way round; the dramatic tension between the word and the voice was put into its cradle, and their impossible and problematic relationship presented its driving force. The entire history of opera, from Monteverdi to Strauss (Capriccio), can be written through the spyglass of this dilemma. I think it is in bad taste to quote oneself, but here I must make an exception, and cite our book on the opera (Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar, Opera’s Second Death, New York and London: Routledge 2002) where this is scrutinized at greater length.
Singing, by its massive concentration on the voice, introduces codes and standards of its own – more elusive than the linguistic ones, but nevertheless highly structured. Expression beyond language is another highly sophisticated language; its acquisition demands a long technical training, reserved for the happy few, although it has the power to affect everyone universally.
Yet singing, by focusing on the voice, actually runs the risk of losing the very thing it tries to worship and revere: it turns it into a fetish object – we could say the highest rampart, the most formidable wall against the voice. The object voice that we are after cannot be dealt with by being turned into an object of immediate intense attention and of aesthetic pleasure. To put it in a formula: “If we make music and listen to it, … it is in order to silence what deserves to be called the voice as the object a ” (Miller 1989, p. 184). So the fetish object is the very opposite of the voice as object a; but, I should hasten to add, this gesture is always ambivalent: music evokes the object voice and obfuscates it; it fetishizes it, but also opens the gap that cannot be filled.
Bringing the voice from the background to the forefront entails a reversal, or a structural illusion: the voice appears to be the locus of true expression, the place where what cannot be said can nevertheless be conveyed. The voice is endowed with profundity: by not meaning anything, it appears to mean more than mere words, it becomes the bearer of some unfathomable originary meaning which, supposedly, got lost with language. It seems still to maintain the link with nature, on the one hand — the nature of a paradise lost — and on the other hand to transcend language, the cultural and symbolic barriers, in the opposite direction, as it were: it promises an ascent to divinity, an elevation above the empirical, the mediated, the limited, worldly human concerns. This illusion of transcendence accompanied the long history of the voice as the agent of the sacred, and the highly acclaimed role of music was based on its ambiguous link with both nature and divinity.
When Orpheus, the emblematic and archetypal singer, sings, it is in order to tame wild beasts and bend gods; his true audience consists not of men, but of creatures beneath and above culture. Of course this promise of a state of some primordial fusion to which the voice should bear witness is always a retroactive construction. It should be stated clearly: it is only through language, via language, by the symbolic, that there is voice, and music exists only for a speaking being (see Baas1998, p. 196). The voice as the bearer of a deeper sense, of some profound message, is a structural illusion, the core of a fantasy that the singing voice might cure the wound inflicted by culture, restore the loss that we suffered by the assumption of the symbolic order.
This deceptive promise disavows the fact that the voice owes its fascination to this wound, and that its allegedly miraculous force stems from its being situated in this gap. If the psychoanalytic name for this gap is castration, then we can remember that Freud’s theory of fetishism is based precisely on the fetish materializing the disavowal of castration. “the horror of castration has set up a memorial to itself in the creation of this substitute….It remains a token of triumph over the threat of catastration and a protection against it. (PFL 7. p.353)
If there is no linguistics of the voice, only the linguistics of the signifier, then the very notion of a linguistics of the non-voice would seem preposterous. Obviously all the non-voices, from coughing and hiccups to babbling, screaming, laughing, and singing, are not linguistic voices; they are not phonemes, yet they are not simply outside the linguistic structure: it is as if, by their very absence of articulation (or surplus-articulation in the case of singing), they were particularly apt to embody the structure as such, the structure at its minimal; or meaning as such, beyond the discernible meaning. If they are not submitted to phonology, they nevertheless embody its zero-point: the voice aiming at meaning, although neither the one nor the other can be articulated. So the paradoxical facit would be that there may be no linguistics of the voice, yet the non-voice which represents the voice untamed by structure is not external to linguistics. Neither is the object voice which we are pursuing.
This excerpt from chapter 1 The Linguistics of the Voice, in his book A Voice and Nothing More is published in herri with kind permission of the author.
|1.||↑||“Laughter is different from other phenomena considered above because it seems to exceed language in both directions at the same time, as both presymbolic and beyond symbolic; it is not merely a precultural voice seized by the structure, but at the same time a highly cultural product which looks like a regression to animality.” Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More|
|2.||↑||I think it is in bad taste to quote oneself, but here I must make an exception, and cite our book on the opera (Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar, Opera’s Second Death, New York and London: Routledge 2002) where this is scrutinized at greater length.|
|3.||↑||“the horror of castration has set up a memorial to itself in the creation of this substitute….It remains a token of triumph over the threat of catastration and a protection against it. (PFL 7. p.353)|