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The Hysterical Alphabet

hysterical alphabet

Hysterical Sound3To conclude our Hysterical Sound series, we are pleased to present an excerpt from John Corbett, Terri Kapsalis and Danny Thompsons performance of The Hysterical Alphabet.

Through this series we have explored a history of fetishizing women’s hysterical vocalizations with Gordon Sullivans post on Clayton Cubitt’s video work, and my post on Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film Hysteria and it’s relation to the “silence” of hysteria in medical history.

Today, Kapsalis gives us a piece in which “the ABCs are seized in a convulsive fit,” each letter of the alphabet serving to introduce some episode of the history of hysteria. Accompanied by the sound design of Corbett and Thompson’s visual collage, this performance of The Hysterical Alphabet offers a multi-sensory engagement with the past to “disprove the theory that time heals all wombs.”

SO! is grateful to the artists for sharing their work with us.

— Guest Editor Karly-Lynne Scott

Inspired by primary medical writings and actual case histories, “The Hysterical Alphabet” tracks the 4,000 year history of hysteria starting with A in ancient Egypt. First published as a book with text by Terri Kapsalis and drawings by Gina Litherland, it subsequently assumed a different form as a performance featuring video and live soundtrack. Terri Kapsalis (voice), John Corbett (sound), and Danny Thompson (video) performed the feature length piece from 2007-2012 in many different venues, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Emory University, RISD, Bates College, Clark University, and the University of Chicago. The video documentation included here excerpts the letters S, T, U, and V, which focus on the 19th century, moving into the 20th century, and were drawn from the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, S. Weir Mitchell, Jean-Martin Charcot, and Sigmund Freud, among others.

 

John Corbett (sound) is a writer, sound-artist, and curator. He is the co-director of the art gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey. In 2002, Corbett served as Artistic Director of JazzFest Berlin, and he co-curated the Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz & Improvised Music for nine years. He is the producer of the Unheard Music Series, an archival program dedicated to creative music issues and re- issues, and he is the author of Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein and Microgroove: Forays into Other Music. Corbett can be heard on a number of CDs including I’m Sick About My Hat and has brought his sound skills to two previous Theater Oobleck productions.

Terri Kapsalis’ (text/sound) writings have appeared in such publications as Short Fiction, The Baffler, Denver Quarterly, new formations, Public, and Lusitania. She is the author of Jane Addams’ Travel Medicine Kit, Hysterical Alphabet, and Public Privates: Performing Gynecology from Both Ends of the Speculum. Kapsalis is a founding member of Theater Oobleck, works as a health educator at Chicago Women’s Health Center, and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Danny Thompson (video) is a founding member of Theater Oobleck, for which he has written (and performed in) 20 plays and solo performances, including Necessity, Big Tooth High-Tech Megatron vs. the Sockpuppet of Procrastination, and The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (Partially Burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled “Never to be Performed. Never. Ever. Ever. Or I’ll Sue! I’ll Sue from the Grave!!! The latter was given the “Comedy Excellence Award” at the 2000 New York Fringe Festival, “Top Ten of the Fest” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and extensively toured the U.K. and Ireland.

 

A Conversation With Themselves: On Clayton Cubitt’s Hysterical Literature

S4 - Stormy

Hysterical Sound3Welcome to our second installment of Hysterical Sound. Last week I discussed silence and hysteria in relation to Sam Taylor-Johnson’s silent film Hysteria, suggesting that the hysteric’s vocalizations go unheard because we have tuned them out. In upcoming weeks Veronica Fitzpatrick will explore how the soundtrack of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can be considered hysterical in its rejection of language and meaning and John Corbett, Terri Kapsalis and Danny Thompson share an excerpt from their performance of The Hysterical Alphabet.

Today, Gordon Sullivan, considers the video art series Hysterical Literature in relation to a long history of women’s vocalizations serving as aural fetishes for the pleasure of male listeners. In doing so he troubles the dichotomies raised by the project, dichotomies between masculine visual pleasure and feminine aurality, between language and bliss.

— Guest Editor Karly-Lynne Scott

Each video in filmmaker and photographer Clayton Cubitt’s Hysterical Literature series (2012-) – which consists of 11 “sessions” so far – appears deceptively simple. We see a black and white frame with a clothed woman seated at a table, visible from the sternum up, holding a book of her choosing. She announces her name and the title of the book before beginning to read. While reading, the subject generally begins to stumble, the speeding of reading slowing down or speeding up, changes in pitch and emphasis growing more pronounced. Eventually, she is able to read no more and gives in to sighs, groans, or silent, eye-closing paroxysms. When she returns to herself, she announces again her name and the title of the book before the “session” ends.

Despite the consistency of the concept, the 11 “sessions” have been viewed a combined 45 million times, and perhaps much of the appeal of the series is in what it doesn’t show. What we do not see – and indeed do not hear – is the “assistant” beneath the table with an Hitachi Magic Wand physically stimulating the subject. What might have been errors or difficulties in the reading are retroactively understood as evidence of the difficulty of “performing” under the attention of the vibrator.

According to Cubitt, the series’ title and conceit nod at the Victorian-era propensity for naming “unruly” female behavior as “hysterical,” where the cure was often the application of a vibrating device to produce “release.” Female sexuality is therefore the absent center of Hysterical Literature – it is there, but can be disavowed (at least visually), a trend that places it firmly in a culture that has an ambiguous relationship to female pleasure and its sounds.

As John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis note in “Aural Pleasure: The Female Orgasm in Popular Sound,” the sounds of female pleasure are “more viable, less prohibited, and therefore more publically available form of representation than, for instance, the less ambiguous, more easily recognized money shot” that characterizes “hard core” pornography (104). Certainly Hysterical Literature’s home on YouTube would seem to confirm Corbett and Kapsalis’ claim that sounds of female pleasure “occur in places…that would otherwise ban visual pornography” (104).

Indeed, the question of pornography looms over Hysterical Literature, as Cubitt seeks to push on YouTube’s “Community Guidelines” by exhibiting female pleasure sonically (See also Joshua Hudelson for a discussion of sexual fetish and the ASMR community on Youtube). Here the sound of the subject’s voice echoes Linda Williams’s description in Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and “The Frenzy of the Visible,” where the female voice “may stand as the most prominent signifier of female pleasure” that can stand in for the pleasure we are denied access to visually (123). In this way, the sound of female pleasure is, as Corbett and Kapsalis suggest, always evidentiary (104). For them, a woman’s pleasure may/must be corroborated by her sounds (For an alternative view of gender and sound as it relates to women, see Robin James’ “Gendered Voice and Social Harmony”).

This pleasure calls to mind Roland Barthes, who saw the possibility of bliss and representation as fundamentally incompatible. For Barthes, the “grain” of the voice is a bodily phenomenon, not one of language and signification. For him, “the cinema capture[s] the sound of speech close up…and make[s] us here in their materiality, their sensuality, the breath, the gutturals, the fleshiness of the lips, a whole presence of the human muzzle” (67). This “materiality” has a single purpose: bliss. This bliss doesn’t reside in language, with its representational aims, but in those aspects of the voice that are not ruled the signifier/signified dynamic.

What draws me to these discussions – and their relation to Hysterical Literature – is the almost overwhelming insistence on dichotomy. The visual “evidence” of hard core pornography is juxtaposed to the aural “evidence” of female pleasure. Male pleasure (on the side of the visible) is opposed to female pleasure (on the side of the invisible). Representation is incompatible with “bliss.”

This logic is not confined to discussions of sound, but is echoed in some of the writing on Hysterical Literature as well. In her profile (which included her own “session”), dancer and writer Toni Bentley argues that the series “juxtaposes the realm of words literally atop the realm of the erotic.” In her view, this immediately becomes a conflict: “Who would win the inevitable war? Upper body or lower? Logic or lust? Prefrontal cortex or hypothalamus?” Though her list of oppositions may seem idiosyncratic, she still insists on division before suggesting that what might emerge instead is that they “meld together.”

Bentley is not alone in understanding the videos this way, as other subjects find a clean break between “I am reading” and “I am orgasming” that would suggest a strict dichotomy between, as Barthes would put it, representation and bliss. For Bentley, this is a “literate, and literal, clitoral monologue that renders the Vagina Monologues merely aspirational.” I’m not sure that “monologue” captures the depth of what is happening in each Hysterical Literature session. Cubitt’s goal is to reveal something about his subjects, to use “distraction” as a means for revelation that ultimately removes him from the scene. Indeed, the participation of the vibrator-wielding “assistant” and Cubitt’s status as filmmaker argue that instead of a monologue, the series facilitates what Cubitt calls “a conversation with themselves.”

Though Cubitt and his subjects seek to maintain the division between the subject and her distraction, the series is far more interesting than that dichotomy would suggest. Hysterical Literature is interesting not because it juxtaposes “reading” and “orgasm,” but rather because of the rigor with which it is willing to dwell in between these two (apparently) opposed states. There is no cut, no switch in which a subject goes from reading to not-reading. Every video begins and ends the same way – we open on a woman telling us her name and her book, and end the same way, orgasm over with. In between, however, we have a combination of the book chosen by the subject and her augmented reading. Rather than the sighs and groans that supposedly evidence the subject’s pleasure, the more interesting elements are the sounds of the book transformed. The cadence that slows down, speeds up, gets lost, and must repeat. The drawn out vowels that teeter between a gracefully pronounced word and the abyss of unintelligibility. That the “struggle” will end in orgasms and the loss of speech is less significant than the attempt to maintain a voice in the face of what cannot be denied.

If we grant a gulf between “representation” and “bliss,” Hysterical Literature suggests that such a gulf is a productive place to be.

Gordon Sullivan is a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, currently writing a dissertation on questions of sensation and the political in exploitation films.

Featured image taken from “Hysterical Literature: Session Four: Stormy“.

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Enacting Queer Listening, or When Anzaldúa Laughs

True revolutionaries are Guided by Love

Sound and AffectMarginalized bodies produce marginalized sounds to communicate things that escape language. The queer body is the site of sounds that engage pleasure, repression, rage, isolation, always somehow outside of dominant language. Sound Studies tells us that we should trust our ears as much as our eyes, justifying our trust in sound, and of the resonating body. Affect Theory goes further, saying that all senses play into a body that processes input through levels of response, experience, and anticipation. Affect is the vibrational space that is both bodily memory and anticipation. So where do sound and affect meet in queer bodies? How do marginalized peoples use sound and the body to express liberation, objectification, joy, and struggle?

Our writers in Sound and Affect tackle these questions across a spectrum of the marginalized experience.  I opened the series by offering the concept of the tremble, a sonic form of affect that is necessarily queer in its affective reach. Last week, Kemi Adeyemi, sloooooooowed thingggggggggs doooooooooownnnnn so to hear the capitalist connections between the work expected of black bodies and the struggle for escape from this reality through the sonic affects, temporal shifts, and corporeal elsewhere of purple drank. Next week,  Justyna Stasiowska brings the noise in a discussion of the trans body and the performance work of Tara Transitory. Today, Maria P. Chaves Daza explores the connection between voice, listening, and queer Chicana community formation: through space, across time, and with laughter.  —Guest Editor Airek Beauchamp

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In October 1991 at the University of Arizona fall reading series, Gloria Anzaldúa read several poems and short stories–work now held at the UT-Austin Collection. Recently, I sat in my living room listening to the recording, feeling the buzz of her presence, the audible excitement in the Modern Languages Auditorium that Gloria Anzaldúa is about to speak. After some welcoming statements and a poem by Rita Magdaleno, inspired by Magdaleno’s reading of Borderlands, Anzaldúa takes the stage.

As part of her praxis, Anzaldúa makes space for queer people, both through her words and vocal tone.  She begins with a joke about her relationship with mics and takes the time to thank the organizers, especially for her cozy writer’s cottage. Anzaldúa dedicates the reading to Yolanda Leyva, her old roommate, telling Leyva she hasn’t forgotten her. Then, she announces her involvement in Sinister Wisdom and encourages women of color in the audience to contribute to this all-lesbian journal. She proceeds to laugh as she says, “lesbians of color only, sorry. [laughs]” Similarly, as she announces a collection she is editing with Francisco Alarcon about Chicana dykes and Chicano gay men, she says, “so if anybody is a Chicana dyke or a Chicano gay man, sorry about the rest of you” [laughs].  In the future she will also edit a book called Chicana Theory “Chicanas only (laughs), sorry.” Last, she acknowledges Chuck Tatum for changing the title of his annual from “New Chicano Writings” to “New Chicana/o Writings” and for allowing for Spanish and Spanglish Tex-Mex when he first wanted pieces in English. Anzaldúa takes the opportunity to recognize and promote the work of Chicana/o lesbian and gay writers by demarcating several publications exclusive to their work. This exclusivity is softened with giggles and laughs, affects, which help work through the tension(s) of recognition and exclusion caused by this explicit circumscription.

Her nervous, silly laugh–echoed in the laughs of her audience–reaches out to bring me into that space, that time. Her smooth, slow and raspy voice–her vocalic body–touches me as I listen.

andzaldua

Gloria Andzaldúa Image from the Tumblr of BiRadical

In their introduction to The Affect Reader, Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg assert affect’s “immanent capacity for extending […] both into and out of the interstices of the inorganic and non-living, intracellular divulgences of sinew, tissue and gut economies and the vaporous evanescenses of the incorporeal (events, atmospheres, feeling-tones)” (2).This sound recording of Anzaldúa’s poetry reading is an example of the immanent capacity this “incorporeal” event has to resonate and “sometimes stick to bodies and worlds” for listening audiences (1). Affect in its simplest form is “the name we give to those forces […] that serve to drive us to movement, towards thought and extension” and is “synonymous with force or forces of encounter (2).” My encounter with Anzaldúa’s (incorporeal) recording and the affect created through listening to her work lead me to ponder an answer to Seigworth and Gregg’s question:

How does a body marked in its duration by these various encounters with mixed forces, come to shift its affections (its being affected) into action (capacity to affect)? (2)

Toward an answer to this question, this post explores my relationship between Anzaldúa’s voice and my pedagogy, both her speaking voice as well as the interior voice she offers her audience, the way in which she opens spaces for queer women of color, and the resonances I find in both. As a queer woman of color who once felt isolated, Anzaldúa’s work has in many ways liberated me as a scholar, providing me with access to a voice for my own experiences. But Anzaldúa’s voice–its tactile material aspects and the way its sound builds affective connections between myself and other queers of color–strikes a chord in me that resonates without the need for language, across space and time. Her voice in the recording and in her writing sparks a recognition and validation of my being.

“Viva Gloria Anzaldúa,” acrylic on canvas, by Jake Prendez

Yvon Bonenfant’s theorization of “queer listening” highlights a practice of visibility and exclusivity that enables Anzaldúa’s vocalic body to reach out to the queer community, and for us to “listen out” in return.  In “Queer Listening to Queer Vocal Timbres,” Bonenfant identifies the vocalic body as central to listening experience. He defines the vocalic body as an instrument producing vibrations that touch others, and a socially produced body positioned by environmental factors in a set of relations of power that produce identity. From these constitutive power relations the queer body listens for other queer bodies since “queer is a doing, not a being;” and listening is an active process of identifying the elements reaching out to queer people (78). Thus, Bonenfant, elaborates queer listening as

a listening out for, reach[ing] towards, the disoriented or differently oriented other […] listening out through the static produced by not-queer emanations of vocalic bodies. […] since hearing is feeling touch, this act of finding requires attunement to the touch of the vocalic bodies that caress queer. Sometimes, one has to listen very carefully to find them (78).

Queer listening then, takes seriously the power that bodies have to make sounds that reach out of the body to touch queer people and queer people’s ability to feel them.

***

CLICK on image of Gloria Andzaldúa to hear the recording I discuss from the University of Arizona, 10/23/91

CLICK on image of Gloria Andzaldúa to hear the recording I discuss from the University of Arizona, 10/23/91

On the University of Arizona’s recording, I can hear in Anzaldúa’s laugh a relish in her ability to take up space, to have before her an audience of more lesbian, gay and queer writers to contribute to her several anthology projects. Her voice is filled with a nervous excitement; after all, there is always a danger in being queer. Her laugh resonates as a physical instantiation of the risk of her own existence and of the other queers in the room. It is also a soothing mechanism; her laugh momentarily takes the edge off of some of her words as it reaches out, touches, and brings together queer people of color.

It is in this same way, that Anzaldúa’s work creates the space to speak and listen to queer people of color in many contexts.  I was first introduced to Anzaldúa in the classroom, specifically a feminist theory class. It was the first time I had heard a Chicana speak about being queer (or anyone who was mestiza for that matter); the classroom can be fraught with danger for students like me.  Cindy Cruz, in “Notes on Immigration, Youth and Ethnographic Silence,” argues that the classroom needs to be a space aware of the political climate that silences LGBTQ immigrant students (68). In the classroom, writers such as Anzaldúa, Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks all contribute to the growing canon of “politically undesired” identities (68). Without these writers, the queer-identified person may never be given a reason or a chance to speak about their experience as brown/black transgressive sexual subject. For this reason, when I teach I always read Anzaldúa aloud or ask members of the class to do so. Her powerful language, when vocalized, creates what Bonenfant would call a somatic bond that inhabits the students themselves, the classroom, and demands that we discuss homophobia, sexism, misogyny, and racism from the perspective of the atravesadx: the immigrant queer person of color. Reading Anzaldúa aloud creates what Karen Tongson calls “remote intimacy: a way of imagining our own spaces in connection to others.” This is almost a pirate bond, a way of connecting the undesired and marginalized.

I have experienced this affective bond on multiple occasions, but one instance stands out.

In a Critical Race Theory class during my fifth year grad school, a fellow student, an immigrant woman of color, came out to the class by way of a seminar paper. As she read the paper she was shaking, her voice cracked, and tears rolled down her face. She was terrified of the consequences of “coming out,” however she found the courage to write and share her experiences. I remember how this reading touched me, the student’s voice interlaced with quotes explaining Anzaldúa’s concept of “homophobia”—the fear of going home– moved through the classroom and classmates: people leaned in, shifted in their seats, began doodling, some shook their heads in agreement in relation to coming out. I don’t think the student would have felt this was possible or appropriate if we hadn’t read Anzaldúa; the only lesbian writer on the syllabus.

The sound of Anzaldúa’s text creates a vocalic body for queer listening available to people who yearn for its touch.  Bonenfant posits this idea of yearning as inherently queer. Queer, as a form of doing, requires performative activity, always looking to find our own likenesses in others. Recognizing sound as touching the vocalic body, “queer listeners can perhaps catch some of the subtle variations in timbre that indicate a resonant ‘identity’ that wants to touch someone like us” (78). Anzaldúa’s various texts speak of concrete experience but the timbre of her voice–and the voice(s) reading her work–speaks to much more, a certain trembling that I feel in my own experience and that I wish to not only receive but to share with other queers of color also reaching out while also always receptive to the timbre of likeness.

Affective phenomena do not rely on textual or linguistic acts to communicate but instead are networked intensities of impulse that connect the individual body-mind to the bodies-minds of others. As Gregg and Seigworth explain,

Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. […] That is, affect is found in the intensities that pass body to body. In fact, it is quite likely that affect more often transpires within and across the subtlest of shuttling intensities: all the minuscule or molecular events of the unnoticed (2).

Anzaldúa incites in me a sense of intensity as the unnamable but unmistakable realities of my own experience resonate when I listen, while also lighting in me a force, an exertion of a “politically undesirable” self that I must assert in the world and in the classroom as a space of in- between-ness. Anzaldúa’s writing and the timbre of her voice are, to me, intensities and forces that go unnoticed, except by those who are yearning for them.  Listening to Anzaldúa in the classroom proliferates the possibility of queer listening encounters;  listening to Anzaldúa at home, in my living room, regenerates my belief in the impossible, in our ability to be in intimate spaces without homophobia: the fear of going home.

The Author, Maria P. Chaves Daza, reads Anzaldúa’s “An Accounting,” Borderlands/ La Frontera (43-44).
–for Gloria Anzaldúa and all the girls and women of color building feminist architectures and home.

Featured Image: Used with the generous permissions of artist Alma LopezSee more of her work at: http://almalopez.net/

JS and AB are  grateful for the the editorial work of Tara Betts on early drafts.

Maria P. Chaves Daza is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at SUNY Binghamton University studying testimonios of undocumented women. They are a McNair Scholar and a Clifford D. Clark Fellow. They hold a B.A in Women’s Studies form NEIU in Chicago and a Master’s in Philosophy from the Philosophy, Interpretation and Culture (PIC) Program (SUNY Binghamton).

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Music to Grieve and Music to Celebrate: A Dirge for Muñoz”-Johannes Brandis

On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice-Yvon Bonenfant

“Hearing Queerly: NBC’s ‘The Voice’”-Karen Tongson

Could I Be Chicana Without Carlos Santana?-Wanda Alarcón

Óyeme Voz: U.S. Latin@ & Immigrant Communities Re-Sound Citizenship and Belonging-Nancy Morales

The Eldritch Voice: H. P. Lovecraft’s Weird Phonography

global-mosaic-of-pluto-in-true-color
Weird Tales CoverWelcome to the last installment of Sonic Shadows, Sounding Out!’s limited series pursuing the question of what it means to have a voice. In the most recent post, Dominic Pettman encountered several traumatized birds who acoustically and uncannily mirror the human, a feedback loop that composes what he called “the creaturely voice.” This week, James Steintrager investigates the strange meaning of a “metallic” voice in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, showing how early sound recording technology exposed an alien potential lingering within the human voice. This alien voice – between human and machine – was fodder for  techniques of defamiliarizing the world of the reader.
 
I’ll leave James to tell us more. Thanks for reading!

— Guest Editor Julie Beth Napolin

A decade after finding itself downsized to a dwarf planet, Pluto has managed to spark wonder in the summer of 2015 as pictures of its remarkable surface features and those of its moon are delivered to us by NASA’s New Horizons space probe. As scientists begin to tentatively name these features, they have drawn from speculative fiction for what they see on the moon Charon, giving craters names including Spock, Sulu, Uhuru, and—mixing franchises—Skywalker . From Doctor Who there will be a Tardis Chasma and a Gallifrey Macula. Pluto’s features stretch back a bit further, where there will also be a Cthulhu Regio, named after the unspeakable interstellar monster-cum-god invented by H. P. Lovecraft.

We can imagine that Lovecraft would have been thrilled, since back when Pluto was first discovered in early 1930 and was the evocative edge of the solar system, he had turned the planet into the putative home of secretive alien visitors to Earth in his short story “The Whisperer in Darkness.” First published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1931, “The Whisperer in Darkness” features various media of communication—telegraphs, telephones, photographs, and newspapers—as well as the possibilities of their manipulation and misconstruing. The phonograph, however, plays the starring role in this tale about gathering and interpreting the eerie and otherworldly—the eldritch, in a word—signs of possible alien presence in backwoods Vermont.

In the story, Akeley, a farmer with a degree of erudition and curiosity, captures something strange on a record. This something, when played back by the protagonist Wilmarth, a folklorist at Lovecraft’s fictional Miskatonic University, goes like this:

Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young! (219)

The sinister resonance of a racial epithet in what appears to be a foreign or truly alien tongue notwithstanding, this story features none of the more obvious and problematic invocations of race and ethnicity—the primitive rituals in the swamps of Louisiana of “The Call of Cthulhu” or the anti-Catholic immigrant panic of “The Horror at Red Hook”—for which Lovecraft has achieved a degree of infamy. Moreover, the understandable concern with Lovecraft’s social Darwinism and bad biology in some ways tends to miss how for the author—and for us as well—power and otherness are bound up with technology.

weirdtalesThe transcription of these exclamations, recorded on a “blasphemous waxen cylinder,” is prefaced with an emphatic remark about their sonic character: “A BUZZING IMITATION OF HUMAN SPEECH” (219-220). The captured voice is further described as an “accursed buzzing which had no likeness to humanity despite the human words which it uttered in good English grammar and a scholarly accent” (218). It is glossed yet again as a “fiendish buzzing… like the drone of some loathsome, gigantic insect ponderously shaped into the articulate speech of an alien species” (220). If such a creature tried to utter our tongue and to do so in our manner—both of which would be alien to it—surely we might expect an indication of the difference in vocal apparatuses: a revelatory buzzing. Lovecraft’s story figures this “eldritch sound” as it is transduced through the corporeal: as the timbral indication of something off when the human voice is embodied in a fundamentally different sort of being. It is the sound that happens when a fungoid creature from Yuggoth—the supposedly native term for Pluto—speaks our tongue with its insectile mouthparts.

Yet, reading historically, we might understand this transduction as the sound of technical mediation itself: the brazen buzz of phonography, overlaying and, in a sense, inhabiting the human voice.

For listeners to early phonographic recordings, metallic sounds—inevitable given the materials used for styluses, tone arms, diaphragms, amplifying horns—were simply part of the experience. Far from capturing “the unimaginable real” or registering “acoustic events as such,” as media theorist Friedrich Kittler once put the case about Edison’s invention, which debuted in 1877, phonography was not only technically incapable of recording anything like an ambient soundscape but also drew attention to the very noise of itself (23).

For the first several decades of the medium’s existence, patent registers and admen’s pitches show that clean capture and reproduction were elusive rather than given. An account in the Literary Digest Advertiser of Valdemar Poulsen’s Telegraphone, explains the problem:

telegraphoneThe talking-machine records sound by the action of a steel point upon some yielding substance like wax, and reproduces it by practically reversing the operation. The making of the record itself is accompanied by a necessary but disagreeably mechanical noise—that dominating drone—that ‘b-r-r-r-r’ that is never in the human voice, and always in its mechanical imitations. One hears metallic sounds from a brazen throat—uncanny and inhuman. The brittle cylinder drops on the floor, breaks—and the neighbors rejoice!

The Telegraphone, which recorded sounds “upon imperishable steel through the intangible but potent force of electromagnetism” such that no “foreign or mechanical noise is heard or is possible,” of course promised to make the neighbors happy not by breaking the cylinder but rather by taking the inhuman ‘b-r-r-r-r’ out of the phonographically reproduced voice. Nonetheless, etching sound on steel, the Telegraphone was still a metal machine and unlikely to overcome the buzz entirely.

In his account of “weird stories” and why the genre suited him best, Lovecraft explained that one of his “strongest and most persistent wishes” was “to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.” In “The Whisperer in Darkness,” Lovecraft put to work a technology that was rapidly becoming commonplace to introduce a buzz into the fabric of the everyday. This is the eldritch effect of Lovecraft’s evocation of phonography. While we might wonder whether a photograph has been tampered with, who really sent a telegram, or with whom we are actually speaking over a telephone line—all examples from Lovecraft’s tale—the central, repeated conundrums for the scholar Wilmarth remain not only whose voice is captured on the recorded cylinder but also why it sounds that way.

auxetophoneThe phonograph transforms the human voice, engineers a cosmic transduction, suggesting that within our quotidian reality something strange might lurk. This juxtaposition and interplay of the increasingly ordinary and the eldritch is also glimpsed in an account of Charles Parson’s invention the Auxetophone, which used a column of pressurized air rather than the usual metallic diaphragm. Here is an account of the voice of the Auxetophone from the “Matters Musical” column of The Bystander Magazine from 1905: “Long ago reconciled to the weird workings of the phonograph, we had come to regard as inevitable the metallic nature of its inhuman voice.” The new invention might well upset our listening habits, for Mr. Parson’s invention “bids fair to modify, if not entirely to remove,” the phonograph’s “somewhat unpleasant timbre.”

What the phonograph does as a medium is to make weird. And what making weird means is that instead of merely reproducing the human voice—let alone rendering acoustic events as such—it transforms the latter into its own: an uncanny approximation, which fails to simulate perfectly with regard to timbre in particular. Phonography reveals that the materials of reproduction are not vocal chords, breath, labial and dental friction—not flesh and spirit, but vibrating metal.

Although we can only speculate in this regard, I would suggest that “The Whisperer in Darkness” was weirder for readers for whom phonographs still spoke with metallic timbre. The rasping whisper of the needle on cylinder created what the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky was formulating at almost exactly the same time as the function of the literary tout court: defamiliarization or, better, estrangement. Nonetheless, leading the reader to infer an alien presence behind this voice was equally necessary for the effect. After all, if we are to take the Auxetophone as our example—an apparatus announced in 1905, a quarter of a decade before Lovecraft composed his tale, and that joined a marketplace burgeoning with metallic-voice reducing cabinets, styluses, dampers, and other devices—phonographic listeners had long since become habituated to the inhumanity of the medium. That inhumanity had to be recalled and reactivated in the context of Lovecraft’s story.

dictaphoneTo understand fully the nature of this reactivation, moreover, we need to know precisely what Lovecraft’s evocative phonograph was. When Akeley takes his phonograph into the woods, he adds that he brought “a dictaphone attachment and a wax blank” (209). Further, to play back the recording, Wilmarth must borrow the “commercial machine” from the college administration (217). The device most consistent with Lovecraft’s descriptions and terms is not a record player, as we might imagine, but Columbia Gramophone Company’s Dictaphone. By the time of the story’s setting, Edison Phonograph’s had long since switched to more durable celluloid cylinders (Blue Amberol Records; 1912-1929) in an effort to stave off competition from flat records. Only Dictaphones, aimed at businessmen rather than leisure listeners, still used wax cylinders, since recordings could be scraped off and the cylinder reused. The vinyl Dictabelt, which eventually replaced them, would not arrive until 1947.

Meanwhile, precisely when the events depicted in “The Whisperer in Darkness” are supposed to have taken place, phonography was experiencing a revolutionary transformation: electronic sound technologies developed by radio engineers were hybridizing the acoustic machines, and electro-acoustic phonographs were in fact becoming less metallic in tone. Yet circa 1930, as the buzz slipped toward silence, phonography was still the best means of figuring the sonic uncanny valley. It was a sort of return of the technologically repressed: a reminder of the original eeriness of sound reproduction—recalled from childhood or perhaps parental folklore—at the very moment that new technologies promised to hide such inhumanity from sensory perception. Crucially, in Lovecraft’s tale, estrangement is not merely a literary effect. Rather, the eldritch is what happens when the printed word at a given moment of technological history calls up and calls upon other media of communication, phonography not the least.

I have remarked the apparent absence of race as a concern in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but something along the lines of class is subtly but insistently at work in the tale. The academic Wilmarth and his erudite interlocutor Akeley are set in contrast with the benighted, uncomprehending agrarians of rural Vermont. Both men also display a horrified fascination with the alien technology that will allow human brains to be fitted into hearing, seeing, and speaking machines for transportation to Yuggoth. These machines are compared to phonographs: cylinders for storing brains much like those for storing the human voice. In this regard, the fungoid creatures resemble not so much bourgeois users or consumers of technology as scientists and engineers. Moreover, they do so just as a discourse of technocracy—rule by a technologically savvy elite—was being articulated in the United States. Here we might see the discovery of Pluto as a pretext for exploring anxieties closer to home: how new technologies were redistributing power, how their improvement—the fading of the telltale buzz—was making it more difficult to determine where humanity stopped and technology began, and whether acquiescence in this changes was laudable or resistance feasible. As usual with Lovecraft, these topics are handled with disconcerting ambivalence.

James A. Steintrager is a professor of English, Comparative Literature, and European Languages and Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He writes on a variety of topics, including libertinism, world cinema, and auditory cultures. His translation of and introduction to Michel Chion’s Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise will be published by Duke University Press in fall of 2015.

Featured image: Taken from “Global Mosaic of Pluto in True Color” in NASA’s New Horizons Image Gallery, public domain. All other images courtesy of the author.

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