Sound and Sanity: Rallying Against “The Voice”

John Stewart’s recent Rally to Restore Sanity was an important political demonstration for all of the fairly-busy people in the USA. It was a moment when those who work forty hours per week or who have too many social bookings were able to come to the United States Capitol in order to proclaim with their “indoor voices” that the current political debates in America are characterized by too much irrationality and fear. As the RTRS website states, Stewart’s rally was expressly for “the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.” It’s interesting that the aim of this rally was ostensibly against the “shouting” and the “loudest voices” rather than any specific ideas, statements, or political positions. In other words, the problem, as Stewart sees it, is that public debates are too full of noise. And it is this noise that must be vanquished—or that, at least, should be modulated to an “indoor” level.

Stewart’s opposition between sound and sanity is actually quite common. Public noise is senseless sound, while rational debate is meaningful sound. The logic goes, then, that public debates need to have less sound or, at least, regulated sound. They must have two people who are willing to speak quietly and rationally, hear each other’s points, and raise and answer each other’s objections until some kind of consensus is built. Good public debates require less sound and more sanity.

But is this sonic modulation the right way to conduct public debate and to persuade others? The truth is that the relation between noise and reason, between senselessness and sanity, is very, very complicated. In fact, although it is a collective national fantasy that good debate is built on reason, there are lots of reasons to suggest that reason doesn’t always (or even predominately) come first. Rather, it’s often the sound that convinces people in an argument—not the reason. And in public debate, the particular sound is “The Voice.”

By looking at an episode of the animated TV show Batman: The Brave and the Bold let’s listen to how The Voice can persuade people to act against their own sanity. In “Mayhem of the Music Meister,” Neil Patrick Harris gives voice to the Music Meister, a singing villain whose tone and rhythm instantly hypnotize those who hear him and bend their actions to his will:

As the opening sequence begins, the audience is prepped for a standard showdown between three villains: Black Manta, Gorilla Grodd, and Clock King, who plan to steal a communications satellite; and three heroes: Black Canary, Green Arrow, and Aquaman, who are prepared to save the day and stop the theft of the industrial hardware. But this showdown is interrupted when–to his surprise and seemingly against his self-control–Black Manta bursts into song, crooning, “I’m sounding shrill against my will.” Soon the other villains and heroes follow suit. All lose control of their voices and begin singing and acting against their own will. What’s interesting about this moment is that losing control of their voices signals a complete loss of self-control. Yet this loss brings with it a division within themselves. On one hand, they recognize that they are singing. On the other hand, they are conscious of the fact that they are equally unable to prevent their own actions. They must sing; they must dance; they must dissolve the initial division between heroes and villains and join together in a revised plan to launch the communications satellite.

From this vantage point, we can return to the alleged difference between sound and sanity. The first problem is that The Voice bypasses reason, making people comply without, or even in spite of, critical reflection. It generally does this in two ways. As the Music Meister episode illustrates, The Voice divides the hearer against himself, taking over his body while he remains fully aware of the situation. In other words, the Voice exerts a direct control over a body while the hearer remains in control of his or her consciousness. The Voice is a science fiction staple. For example, in Frank Herbert’s Dune, the Bene Gesserit are able to speak directly to the unconscious of the hearer while the conscious mind is aware that the body is controlled by The Voice. In the filmed version, an extra quality is added to The Voice in order to highlight the difference between its conscious and subconscious aspects. The Voice must sound different from the voice.

The second way that the Voice bypasses reason is in the way in which a voice– often described musically–makes people lose control of their ability for critical reflection. An example of this form of The Voice also comes from science fiction: the Jedi Mind Trick made famous in Star Wars. In this case, Obi Wan Kenobi bypasses the storm troopers’ ability to recognize the droids they are looking for, even as C3-PO and R2-D2 hang awkwardly from the back of his sandspeeder.

When the logical reasons inevitably fail to account for the act of persuasion in public discourse, others come to the forefront. Often people will say the speaker has charisma, but often they are really referring to The Voice’s role as the persuasive element. What persuades? Not the logical argument, not sanity, but The Voice. And, often, this is against our better judgments or in spite of ourselves. So when Stewart acknowleges the role that “senseless” sound plays in public debates, he goes too far when he calls for “meaningful” sound instead. The two are not in opposition as the RTRS suggested. When all is said and done, sanity almost always depends on so-called senseless sound.

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12 responses to “Sound and Sanity: Rallying Against “The Voice””

  1. rhetoricaadnauseam says :

    Mark, I hope all is well. This is a really interesting article you wrote! You should have let me know when it came out — we can talk about it sometime. Doing any conferences soon?



  2. Mark says :

    Thank you for posting. In both cases, _Dune_ and _Star Wars_, the Voice works against “the weak-minded.” Now this could mean several things: the two primary meanings are, I think, those with a strong wills or those with strong reasoning capacities. Ultimately, these two are collapsed in both sagas. People with the capacity to reason are those with strong wills–and both groups can resist the Voice. Therefore, in both cases, reason acts as an antidote to the power of the Voice. This antidote matches the logic of the Stewart rally. The point is that we must resist the powers of the illogical voice and, instead, rely on our powers of reason–whether we are debating major public issues or looking for renegade droids. Those who lack the ability to reason are those who are duped by the Voice. It seems to me that this is the logic of _Dune_, _Star Wars_, and many of the Liberal Left. Thoughts?


  3. mr. oyola says :

    Oh, and in case you are curious about Jabba:


  4. mr. oyola says :

    Your examples lead me to think of people resisting “The Voice” and what meanings we can glean from that. For example, in Dune, Paul Muad’dib is eventually able to resist the Voice(s) of the Bene Gesserit mothers, reinforcing a kind of masculine supremacy as he takes control of the Empire (his very birth and role as “messiah” being a subversion of the Bene Gesserit plan for power). He is also able to use the Voice himself, something that while not limited to the female Bene Gesserit order, is one of their main tools/weapons.

    In Star Wars, when Luke Skywalker confronts Jabba the Hutt, the big fat old worm easily resists the Jedi Mind Trick (remember what Obi-Wan said when he first explained it Luke soon after the linked scene, the Force only has an influence on the “weak-minded”). In this case, I wonder if Jabba’s position as alien, outsider and libidinous worm might have something to do with his power to resist.

    When it comes to Jon Stewart and his rally, I wonder if all the people who bought into his plan are those who felt like the angry voices of other rallies had no influence on them because of their self-asserted position as “moderates” (or center-left, or whatever they are supposed to be) and as such in participating were really seeking a Voice that *did* have an influence on them. Which leads me to think that in some cases there must be a sense of relief or comfort that comes with hearing and obeying just such a voice and thus being alleviated of any kind of responsibility for thinking things through in that moment.


  5. j. stoever-ackerman says :

    okay, the plot thickens on Darth Vader. Apparently Jones played his voice, Prowse played his body, and actor Sebastian Shaw played his face! Worse yet–and very important–James Earl Jones went uncredited (and, as you can imagine, severely underpaid) in the first two films as Vader’s voice, despite the famousness of his deep grain–allegedly it is because Lucas thought his part “too small” to be mentioned, but given your work it seems like something else is afoot. or it is athroat?


  6. j. stoever-ackerman says :

    This post is very interesting! It reminds me of what Frederick Douglass’s famous location of the power of African American music and rhetoric “If not in the word, in the sound.” Making the connection to Douglass, though reminds us that the power of “The Voice” has not been historically accessible to everyone; it is often raced, gendered, and heteronormative–the Troy McClure segments on _The Simpsons_ are excellent satires of this–and that listening, too (here in the form of your excellent example of John Stewart) is equally so. It seems that only certain people can use “The Voice” to wield power–it helps that Obi Wan has a British accent, no?–and only certain people can try to quash or silence The Voice when they have had done with it.

    You present some fascinating exceptions to this with the woman accessing The Voice in the Dune piece and the Neil Patrick Harris voiced-Music Meister, given the extradiegetic context of Harris’s queer identifcation. In terms of sexuality, I thought the play with The Voice in the Batman segment was interesting, given the recourse to music and The Voice’s animation of the character’s bodies as if they were in a musical. The Voice works through them, not just on them, as in the other sequences. I am not familiar enough with the show to know, though, if this plays on sonic stereotypes of queerness–showtunes, etc.–or disrupts them. I like the idea of them having authority, however, although I want to know if there is a difference in using The Voice as resistance (as Obi Wan does–he is part of the “rebel” forces) or as coercion (like the MM).

    In terms of race, though, you make me think of some important questions, especially as Stewart’s rally was imagined against the sound of angry white men (Glenn Beck) and the grizzly roar of Sarah Palin, and not the “shrill” voice of the MM. Does Darth Vader also have “The Voice”? And, if so, why did George Lucas hire an African American man to perform the Voiceovers (James Earl Jones), but a white British man (David Prowse) to play him once the helmet came off?


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