Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism

Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism

Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism

Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism

Synopsis

Why can none of us hear our own recorded voice without wincing? Why is the telephone still full of such spookiness and erotic possibility? Why does the metaphor of ventriloquism, the art of 'seeming to speak where one is not', speak so resonantly to our contemporary technological condition?These are the kind of questions which impel Steven Connor's wide-ranging, restlessly inquisitive history of ventriloquism and the disembodied voice. He tracks his subject from its first recorded beginnings in ancient Israel and Greece, through the fulminations of early Christian writers against theunholy (and, they believed, obscenely produced) practices of pagan divination, the aberrations of the voice in mysticism, witchcraft and possession, and the strange obsession with the vagrant figure of the ventriloquist, newly conceived as male rather than female, during the Enlightenment. Heretrieves the stories of some of the most popular and versatile ventriloquists and polyphonists of the nineteenth century, and investigates the survival of ventriloquial delusions and desires in spiritualism and the 'vocalic uncanny' of technologies like telephone, radio, film, and internet. Learnedbut lucid, brimming with anecdote and insight, this is much more than an archaeology of one of the most regularly derided but tenaciously enduring of popular arts. It is also a series of virtuoso philosophical and psychological reflections on the problems and astonishments, the raptures andabsurdities of the unhoused voice.

Excerpt

My voice comes and goes. For you, it comes from me. For me, it goes out from me. Between this coming from and going towards lie all the problems and astonishments of the dissociated voice.

My voice comes from me first of all in a bodily sense. It is produced by means of my vocal apparatus—breath, larynx, teeth, tongue, palate, and lips. It is the voice I hear resonating in my head, amplified and modified by the bones of my skull, at the same time as I see and hear its effects upon the world. It must surely have something to do with the fact that the voice issues from the sternum— with the pushing out of breath from the lungs—that the emotional being is commonly said, in the West, at least, to be located not in the head, but in the heart. If my voice is one of a collection of identifying attributes, like the colour of my eyes, hair, and complexion, my gait, physique, and fingerprints, it is different from such attributes in that it does not merely belong or attach to me. For I produce my voice in a way that I do not produce these other attributes. To speak is to perform work, sometimes, as any actor, teacher, or preacher knows, very arduous work indeed. The work has the voice, or actions of voice, as its product and process; giving voice is the process which simultaneously produces articulate sound, and produces myself, as a self-producing being. Here, now, I speak; now, again, it is I speaking still. If, when I speak, I seem, to you, and to myself as well, to be more intimately and uninterruptedly there than at other times, if the voice provides me with acoustic persistence, this is not because I am extruding or depositing myself with my voice in the air, like the vapour trail of an aircraft. It is my voicing of my self, as the renewed and persisting action of producing myself as a vocal agent, as a producer of signs and sounds, that asserts this continuity and substance. What a voice, any voice, always says, no matter . . .

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