Diagrams seem to be
having something of a moment. Their usage in all branches of philosophy is
well documented; from the hard edges of logic problems, to Lacanian Strips and Tori to
the soft intensity of Deleuzean and Bergsonian planes of matter and
I came across many in the last 12 months of studying the voice. Curious and
often baffling attempts at mapping the intersecting spaces of body,
subjectivity and sound, perhaps attempting to locate an elusive voco-fragment
hovering within the blank and potential page which give space to the lacuna
between these concepts; as if the only way to spot it is to compose a line of
best fit amid the scattergun mess of crosses on the grid – one of which may hit
While the notion of a diagram as a pedagogic tool meant to clarify and
enlighten is widely accepted, there are doubtlessly cases in which it might
actually make things worse (see below!) – but perhaps again this has to do with
gaps. Gaps in knowledge and an absence from the point of thinking in which the
diagram originated; to be coldly presented with such a visual maze is perhaps
to miss out some steps in the process. In other words there must be more –
there must be text or demonstration – a collective thinking through so that
that all the elements can nestle into sense. With nothing else around it, the
diagram below would be as useful without its mysterious labels than it is with
So perhaps you need to be there. Or RE-be there. If not originating the
diagram itself, it becomes necessary / helpful to redraw it - to map the lines
for yourself. In some cases this might negate the unifying or democratising
space of scientific accuracy that the conventions of diagramming suggest -but
it does allow a more personal shading and figuring whose subtle diversions can
point toward a particular, subjective understanding.
The notion of originating diagrams as a parallel or even proxy practice
for conceptual unpacking is also interesting. For a recent project I ended up
approaching a literary essay in exactly this manner – with Nabokov’s infamous
exam questions (devised for his English Literature class at Cornell in the 60s)
as a starting point, I attempted to investigate the use of slow motion in
Kafka’s Metamorphosis via a measured method of data collection and
meticulous graphing, rather than via more tried methods of text or research
based enquiry. This idea of applying un-native methods across genres, media and
practices was introduced to me by Kate Briggs, a writer and translator whom I
met through the experimental publishing house Information as Material. The idea of a more
‘hands on’ approach to making theory or marking reading
immediately appealed to me as it seemed to somehow dislodge certain conceptual
barriers – in the sense that adhering to other rules and conventions allows a
certain circumventing of the usual obstacles to thought – a more direct route
though if you like.
I haven’t tested it extensively but the operation in this case was
certainly a success, opening up and shedding light on a feature of the novel
that I would not have noticed otherwise. Plus the visual methodology was
intensely satisfying – liberating even.
O’Sullivan’s new book “On the Production of Subjectivity: Five Diagrams of the
Finite-Infinite Relation” too deals in exactly this notion;
explaining a series of diagrams which allowed the writer a freer approach to
theoretical work, in many cases acting as the pathway to ideas that would not
have emerged otherwise. Also, within contemporary philosophical thinking –
these info-images act as morsels of vocab or stretches of code within some kind
of shared language or conceptual plane. They can be overlaid, combined, cut and
pasted and edited together – O’Sullivan unlocks one particularly interesting strain
of thinking via the juxtaposition of Bergsonian and Lacanian visual concepts.
In thinking along these lines I notice too (for the first time) that the
troublesome diagram I mention above, which to me had always looked like a
spinal, corporeal structure – bares more than a passing resemblance toBergson’sCone
of Memory (below), spiralling upwards like a hurricane from a
trapezoidal plane of matter or axis of experience.
Could this accidental observation elucidate something about the initial
image that had previously eluded and baffled me. Perhaps so. Perhaps more than
a forensic understanding of its complex terms may afford.
So again, it appears that a slippage and desire to work, perhaps
roughly, with this scientific rigour, is the way through to new thinking and
I listened to a discussion by O’Sullivan this evening on the topic of
Bergson and memory, which centred around his notion of the pure past and the
presence of universal matter that lingers in varying proximities to the black
holes of our relative experience – shaping the world as we see, feel and
remember it. The discussion of our relationship to these various, elusive
elements of time and action caused me to think about Graham
Harman’s ideas around Object Oriented Ontology – which attempts
to move away from an anthropocentric philosophy and to explore the inner lives
of objects - as equally caught up with notions of time and emotion as these may
no doubt be.
At the end of last month I finished a paper titled Conversations with the Voiceless Glass: Learned Glossolalia, Conduit Speech and the Machinic Grain, which explored our contemporary relationship to communication technology, focusing on the idealised and very physical form that these relationships can take.
This work is described by Kodwo Eshun as "The machine dream of a mobile phone," and it follows the secret life of liquid crystal (the sorcery of the LCD screen) alongside appropriated fragments of TV advertising in which the ubiquitous, portable black mirror is elevated to the status of the desired / adored body. Implicit with this proxy is a vocabulary of magic gestures which play on the libidinal economies of human touch, breath and voice.
The film also incorporates moments of glossolalia from mainstream news-casting - highlighting incidences when the hybrid human/machine breaks down in a struggle with codified language. But glossolalia is also a learned phenomena, taught by example and lauded in the context of religious dedication and we might imagine this tongue-talk as exemplary of the way in which we willingly adapt and reorder our subjectivity to better fit with the technologies that begin to overtake us.
The American theorist Jodi Dean (whose work Eshun and Sagar cite as influential to the piece) speaks at length about the nature of this relationship and more widely about the impact of this reordered, discursive hierarchy on democratic exchange. The lecture below outlines her theories of Communicative Capitalism and is well worth watching in its entirety.
Another trigger for the essay was this beautiful notion of the voiceless glass which is a line from Harold Pinter's 1950 poem "A Walk By Waiting".
I liked the idea of voiceless glass as descriptive of this contemporary relationship to communication technology - a space that we look to for reflection and confirmation of our ideal subject self. It seems such a vocal and reciprocal scenario - a digi dialogue that allows us to build who we are.... but perhaps closer inspection reveals these respondent voices actually to be our own, reflected and bounced back by the black mirror. The glass itself has no voice other than the one we willingly give - and give away.
What follows is the introduction to my text - I'll try and post the rest elsewhere.....
Poor foolish boy, why vainly grasp at the fleeting image that
eludes you? The thing you are
seeing does not exist: only turn aside and you will lose what you love. What
you see is but the shadow cast by your reflection; in itself it is nothing. It
comes with you, and lasts while you are there; it will go when you go, if go
story of Echo and Narcissus is one of attendant proximities and unrequited
caress. Its vocabulary is one of reflections that suggest a coming together but
which ultimately denies any proper touch. Echo becomes locked in a pattern of
vocal loops and, bound by the flighty vernacular of birds and ghosts and air,
is robbed of a full bodily presence. Denied possession of her voice she begins
to waste away and can never properly express her feelings for the man she loves.
Potential conversation is reduced to the re-voicing of his fragmentary call;
flighty Echo is the original fan girl whose identity constitutes a series of appreciative
too lives a life outside of his body. Thanks to the protective double-bind that
prevents him from knowing his true identity, Narcissus is always on the run
from the desires of others. He is set up to be the only person he could ever
truly love and his undoing at the banks of the reflective pool reduces him to
the same hopeless thrall that had consumed so many suitors. He is a perfectly formed profile, lacking the
connections that would bring him fully to life.
thing about reflections is that they elude proper contact. The moment of
connection is caught up with rebound – the touch is always on the return.
Contingent with reflection then is chase and desire “the echoplex turns
listening into running” and this
chase is never-ending.
the nature of the echo, this search is one of like for like, the “immutable
periodicity of sameness”
that organises the system of logos-giving shadows in Plato’s cave. The system
dictates the primacy of a duplicate self which will neatly fit the scheme; expounding the power of a
communal as opposed to an individual subjectivity.
then, rather than the lament of two bodies failing to come together, the
predicament of Echo and Narcissus is more the failure to fully constitute the
self in this collective way. What they seek or lack is a space in which to manifest
their communicable desires, a scenario which we may consider allegorical for
our own relationship with the universe of information and communication
technology which formulates and frames our idealised identities.
Ovid’s tale the vocal individual is forced back to a pre-linguistic state where
the only option is to copy. She has no choice but to face the acoustic mirror and deal with the
hackneyed playback of her own adopted words. With nothing of her own, her voice
becomes the everyvoice and the material
of her subjectivity is itself this communicative ping-pong. Narcissus is both
the cause of her broken heart and her
rebound guy. Narcissus on the other hand, sees an ideality in the pool that he
can only hope to possess and he attempts to do so up to the point of
exhaustion. Rather than any real human interaction (he flees from embraces) Narcissus
pledges love to a reflection of himself and also therefore to the watery screen
that creates and holds his image.
each spurned lover in the tale experiences is the confounding of their attempt
to formulate themselves in the union of two halves - much as the world of
communication technology presents us with an interlocutionary scenario that
ultimately fails to deliver. As Jodi Dean discusses in her lectures on
‘Communicative Capital’ our experience of the contemporary communication
network appears to present the promise of interaction and response while in
fact remaining a repository for individual contributions where “facts,
theories, judgements, opinions, fantasies, jokes, lies – all circulate
Our speech and focus may be directed out towards the other - but it is the
refracted ripples of the self that ultimately return.
where does this leave us and who in fact, are we talking to? Ovid’s tale is one
of fragmentary personae – subjectivities are shown to be made of component
parts, physical, vocal and emotio-intellectual which seem available to be
separated. This split is the basis of many discussions around the voice as a difficulty
remains in attempting to locate it within a specific biological body; a
discussion which becomes ever more pertinent as the mobile technologies which
enable the majority of daily exchange, operate within a voice to voice hierarchy that separates out ‘face time’ as an
executive extra rather than an originary constant.
degree, our inter-subjective experience is increasingly with machines, the
conduits of speech and selfhood, rather than with a present discourse or
physicality. Even within the metamorphosis of Echo and Narcissus, the bodies
and voices of the story are transformed into screens and devices; Echo’s body
becomes a stone, her voice alone emanating from the rocks while Narcissus’ brut
presence dissolves into something as mercurial as his watery reflection.
elemental proxies are no less fascinating however; if anything the renderings
become more desirable than the originals. Rather than retrieving Echo for flesh
and bones we may be compelled to keep her as a stone tape and mine the
archeoacoustics of her body; we might also choose to save the beloved image of
Narcissus on the screen, rather than risk the inconstancy of a true relational
What is the status of such conduits in their moment of transmitting
the human voice and how does our willingness to adapt to their functionality
affect relationships with language and with the formation of a subject self? Is
it the case that we are speaking into a space capable of eliciting a response?
Or is the contemporary communicative landscape merely a reflection pool, silent
but for the echo of our own voices? Is our
relationship with technology one of equivalence or if we have indeed been too
quick in giving the corpus proxy what
Michéle Martin refers to as “the privilege of the last word.”
 Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than The Sun, (London, Quartet, 1998) 64.
 Luce Irigaray, “Dialogues” in Speculum of the Other Woman, Gillian C.
Gill trans.(USA, Cornell University
Press, 1985) 267.
 Jodi Dean, from the lecture
“Communicative Capitalism: This is What Democracy Looks Like”, presented at the
Sheldon Auditorium, University of Nebraska-Lincon, 17th November
2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-5UUgm2q_Q, 00:28:39.
 Michele Martin, ‘“Hello Central?” Gender, Technology, and Culture in the Formation
of Telephone Systems”, quoted in John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago,
University of Chicago Press, 1999) 73.
Tappa Tappa Tappa is a collaborative zine project between myself and the genius Chicagoan artist Jessica Harby. The work below was one of the first I saw when we began plotting projects together....
We'd been chatting about a collaboration for some time and an opportunity presented itself in the shape of her first UK solo show earlier in the year. We decided that a zine would be a much more fitting, tactile, responsive endeavor than me just writing a text about her work so we set about sending things to one another. We both fairly trepidatious but it actually turned out that our brains are the same and the end result (hand folded over several hours with the aid of gin and cheeseburgers) was something we were both pretty proud of. Plus we got to play with some fun stationary.....
We made the first issue under the title "Pretty Girls Doing Horrid Things" (the title of the exhibition) and collaged together writing and imagery that had featured in and illustrated our discussions and shared passions. Jessica's work employs fine and fair media such as pencil drawing, water-colour and needle-work to brilliantly dark ends. The exhibited series took gangster/heiress Patti Hearst as its poster girl and, in her words, explored "the danger of teenage girls and the social construct of villainy." Read more of Jessica's thoughts and words here
In short this was one of the most fun things I've done in ages and I can't wait for the next one. For now, here's my text;
Unruly girls, who will not settle down, they must be taken in hand….
Sometimes the girls get mad and things get nasty. The perfect porcelain of the epidermis is peeled back to reveal the skull beneath the skin. From unblemish to blemish. When the girls are unhappy - things get broken.
Teen girls in gangs and cliques garner power from their secrecy - the alchemic qualities of their gathering precious objects on vanity tables; their plotting in diaries and their formation of rogue languages and quiet codes…these delicate universes hinge on the dialectic of the unexpected.
But at the root of the polite aesthetic of girl-dom is a dichotomy of enforced gentility and barely concealed suspicion. The possession of beauty is essential and the subject of worship – but the fine qualities of a face give rise to accusations of duplicity. Quiet obedience is the age-old model - but a placid surface must surely conceal a tumult of trouble.
The normative corseting of young girls into empirical modes of femininity engenders nothing but the possibility and desire to break free. The ripping of seams and the unpicking of cross stitches. So why this surprise when she suddenly goes off the rails? She was always such a good girl – or so they said.
In Greek philosophy the figure of the female is consistently allied with misrule. Ecstatic music that strays, in unbridled joy, from the word of the law (of God or the father) is equated with a dangerous femininity –becoming the seductive agent of anarchy, temptation and disarray.
The Sirens on the rocks sang such a perilous ballad and wrought doom and death out of beauty. What was their motivation? The behest of some ancient spell? Some folly of the gods? Perhaps the thought of another day in static repose and another boat load of sailors were too much to take…maybe they just flipped…?
The machismo of garage music appropriated by girl groups in the 1960’s gave rise to some interesting re-workings of classic pop cultural narratives “my mamma told me – you’d better shop around girl” but as well as swathes of Alpha females heading things up with a more androgynous self – there were others pushing the limits of textbook femininity – pushing them over the edge with a candy painted nail and a siren song.
Shammy and the Ruis Family’s breathy rendering of the off kilter ballad “I’m just a little Girl” for example, is saccharine to the point of sinister. A toxic coquette persona curls the words of a well worn tale …I need someone to hold my hand…around its little finger, before snapping that finger and going in with sharp teeth.
What will she do next? … That good girl gone bad…
There are echoes today of this tendency, not to crack the mould of empirical prettiness, but rather to embody the dark dichotomy of enforced perfection. We might think of the hyper-feminised monsterism modelled by Nicki Minaj – a day-glo, living doll whose flawless face flickers moment to moment from a manic smile to a primal snarl.
First things first she’ll eat your brains – then she’ll start rocking gold teeth and fangs……
The social constructs which strive to align young women with a palatable type, which damns with the same hand that pets – only serves to push them further into biker jacketed arms; in front of a crowd toting a pistol or before a camera flipping the bird.
Barbarism (or might we call it Barbie-ism) begins at home.
Issue Two of Tappa Tappa Tappa will appear in the next few months. To register interest or to get hold of a copy of Issue One email: email@example.com
Oh...and take a look at Jessica's Tumblr here. It's pretty hot.
Following on from that, I presented a talk at Sauna Space in Hoxton a couple of weeks ago based on the Mouth of the Cave post from earlier in the year. This was a longer meditation on Beckett's Not I and the implications of reading it as a feminist text via Irigaray. The exhibitions taking place at Sauna were on the theme of Individual and Collective so I extended my thinking to the notions of a collective or individual female voice - using the notion of Écriture féminine as a basis and thinking through the issues of wedding female voices so tightly to biological bodies, an idea contested by Dolar and upheld in Barthes Grain of the Voice which has become a really interesting text for me.
It's rife with problems and contradictions, mainly surrounding Barthes almost pro-cyborgian love of somatic mechanics, but these present some interesting avenues for considering our contemporary relationship to communication technology. This, coupled with a growing fascination with the voice as mediated by the telephone, formed the base of a recent paper called "Conversations with the Voiceless Glass" a section of which I'll be posting shortly.
Other than that there have been exhibitions and zines....more on those to follow.
It's nice to be able to breathe for a moment.......
I've been fascinated with the writing ofSamuel Beckettfor as long as I can remember and, having studied his work in terms of its silences and gaps, I am now listening to its voices. While many of his plays are driven forcefully by character and visual motif, there comes a point at which the voice takes over and becomes more or less the lone remnant of a present subjectivity, even if it is a subject talking to itself, echoing back and forth in the darkness and the yearsand caught in a stasis loop of its own creation.
The 1972 workNot Iis perhaps my favourite for the sheer, raw, voracity of the visual image it presents as well as it being one of the most interesting female voices Beckett writes - particularly when read in line with some feminist critiques.
Theories of the the voice tend to wrestle with the connection to a body, presence or subjectivity. How is the voice twinned and affiliated with meaning? What is a voice without a body?Not Iabsolutely illustrates such concerns, reducing as it does, the female protagonist to a mouth, suspended in darkness and uninterrupted in the warming and waining of the stage lights.
But this partial acousmatic of a character also seems keenly relevant to the works of the French poet, philosopher and psychoanalystLuce Irigaraywho set about re-writing the history of psychoanalysis in order to displace the universally male referent that dominates and to insert a radically 'other' female identity into the mix.
In a chapter from her landmark textSpeculum of the Other Woman(1974) entitled 'Dialogues', Irigaray deconstructs Plato'sAllegory of the Cave, which describes a set of shackled prisoners whose fixed bodies and heads allow them only to experience shadows and echoes made by puppeteers behind them. To the prisoners who can see nothing else, these spectral machinations are real.
From this allegory, Plato expounds a theory of enlightenment - a logocentric system where like perfectly reflects like - the sun (god / the father / man) guiding and giving life, direction and knowledge to all.
For Irigaray, it is the perfect dualism of these reflections that troubles; the necessity of silence and absent voices to allow for the deceptive echoes and visions that organise the cave. Where is the female voice in all of this? In other words a voice which may muddy "the silent virginity of the back of the cave" or an identity whose radical difference will not perfectly reflect.
In attempting to write the female body into psychoanalysis (in line with the idea of anecriture femininepromoted by fellow theoristHelene Cixous) Irigaray identifies a style (or dance) which is circular as opposed to plainly back a forth; a tendency for muddle and mess; a voice which, frenetic and repetitive, is not easily or cleanly reproduced.
This is a fitting description of Mouth's narrative inNot Iwhich is riddled with repetitions, is wildly emotive and runs itself into circles in a an attempt uncover some self truth - to "hit on it in the end".
Further in line with Irigaray's critique of the cave allegory, it is at the summons of a 'sudden flash' - a powerful, unexpected burst of light (that we might identify with the Sun as it appears in Plato) that Mouth is forced into her monologue and routinely compelled to accept the first person pronoun I. What could allowNot I to be read as a feminist text is precisely this refusal to take up a prescribed place in the symbolic order at the behest of the all-powerful light / logos at the centre of the world.
Beckett writes a rhythmic motif which resounds forcefully whenever Mouth is encouraged to contextualise her narrative within this subjectivity.
Always at a remove and yet somehow partial to a form of identification which is in itself more radially 'other' and more feminine in its nature that the phallic I.
Irigaray would approve too of the visual symbolism at work, which upholds her description of the female body as having two sets of lips (facial / labial) which 'speak together'. The foregrounding of the erotic/manic action of Mouth, the image of which has been liked to ''a vagina attempting to give birth to itself," reduces the subject to a highly feminised cipher at the most extreme reach of Irigaray's definition.
In abandoning the rest of the body however it is possible to bring in some ideas contra to Irigaray - namely fromKaja Silvermanwho, though greatly indebted to the ideas raised in ''Speculum of the Other Woman", takes issue with the insistence on locating a specific female body. Silverman argues thatanybody, however re appropriated or reclaimed for feminism, will always be codified by the social constructs that arealways alreadyin place. Instead she posits the radical and subversive possibilities of the disembodied female voice (particularly as it appears in film) - a thought which further expounds the possible feminist readings ofNot I.
Mouthmakes some reference to her age (70) and possible geographical location; some hints to the spaces and experiences that have coloured her past and her present character, but without a body her speech exists independent of any code or easily identifiable subject. As Mladen Dolar discusses in"A Voice and Nothing More" (a key text on the voice) there is a impossibility of placing a voice so firmly in a body - an element which always resists and refuses to fit, as would be the case if the rest of the form suggested by the presence of the mouth were to be revealed.
There's much more to be said here and I may add more as time goes on - importantly on the fact that this is of course a text written by a man....
Billie Whitelaw'sseminal performance of the piece from 1973 (shown above) is well worth watching in its entirety; theubuweb versionincludes an interview with her in which she describes working with Beckett.Elsewhereare descriptions of the rigours of the staging required to perform the piece, actresses clamped in neck restraints to keep their heads angled to the single beam of light.
Some years ago, when I was working at The Fishmarket Gallery in Northampton, I was lucky enough to meet the Glasgow based musician and artist Fergus Lawrie. Fergus used to be in the band Urusei Yatsura but now makes experimental sound pieces and installations under various guises and among a rich scene of other experimental practitioners in Scotland.
Obscure Desire of the Bourgeoisie installed at the Fishmarket Gallery, 2009. Photo by Phil Sharp.
When we met back in 2009 Fergus staged a project titled The Obscure Desire of the Bourgeoisie, a beautifully atmospheric work that involved the manipulation of gently fuzzing electric guitars by the undulation of electric fans. The swell of the noise, which seemed to make the breeze audible, sounded magnificent in the cavernous ex-market building. We had several sound works and performances in the gallery over the years and it really seemed like the best possible thing to fill that space with. The building seemed to come to life - it soaked up, flipped back and rang warmly with all kinds of sound from un-amplified voices to drone violin to recorded symphonies to raucous, wrangling guitar.
Send / Receive talks to some of the key players in the Glasgow experimental scene and asks them, among other things, to name their favourite sounds. All the answers are strange, brilliant and sincerely meant - from sirens; laughter; the sub-bass from a bus engine and a speeding motorway through a dictaphone right down to silence and the simplicity of the human breath.
The interviews are interspersed with blunt bursts of visual white noise - the screaming storm of white pixels familiarly associated with fuzz, drone and the presence of 'no signal'. Out of this crunchy haze we hear passages of music by some of the interviewed artists; some angrily match with the manic white-out of the visuals while others are slight and sparse bricolages of faintly familiar sounds. Presenting the music in this way made me think of the idea of Acousmatics - the notion of purposely veiling the material source of a sound so as to better experience its integral and autonomous nuances. To hear and feel the sound as an independent object as opposed to simply an effect.
This type of sonic experience is referenced in the film and it seems, in some ways, to be at the root of this experimental work. There is a sense that all noise takes up its place within a broad, open space of musicality - there is an urge to plunder and re-compose the world of noise that is democratic and non-specific in the best possible sense. Sirens can be beautiful, the noise of a train is textured, layered and has a pulse. There is even the admission that pre-existing sound, or ready-made sound if you like, is often better than anything that could be consciously composed.
In the film Raydale Dower references the idea of 'framing' in relation to this and acknowledges the importance of context to be able to hear such noise anew. Perhaps this de-contextualising or framing is also a kind of veiling. The action of transposing sound from the specificities of the world it inhabits to a more intimate context where it is possible to really hear what is going on.
While I think there is an acousmatic comparison to be drawn here, I also like the fact that these musicians are tuned in to not just the audio but to the material make up of the world around them. The experience of hearing certain sounds - where you were, the time of day, the specific location, the touch and feel of an object in your hands - all of these tangible things seem to become constitutive to the end result of their music
The title of the film says it all. The relationship is reciprocal. Sound is always in motion, back and forth and forever being re-shaped, re-sent and returned.