Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

How to Have Race without a Body: The Mass-Reproduced Voice and Modern Identity in H.D.'S "Two Americans"

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

How to Have Race without a Body: The Mass-Reproduced Voice and Modern Identity in H.D.'S "Two Americans"

Article excerpt

"The Voice [...] functions as a strange body [...]
which can never be pinned to a definite visual object;
and this changes the whole economy of desire."

--Slavoj Zizek, Enjoy Your Symptom

In 1930, H.D. privately published a short story, "Two Americans," based on her experiences working with the famous singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson on the silent film Borderline (released in 1930). Although the talking cinema had been launched three years earlier with The Jazz Singer, in 1930 H.D. found herself in the curious circumstance of starring in a silent picture with one of the era's most celebrated vocalists. Whereas Borderline, a silent art film in the age of Hollywood, could not seem further from mass culture, H.D.'s contemporaneous "Two Americans" is obsessed with the sound s of entertainment. In H.D.'s characteristic style of roman a clef, "Two Americans" lightly disguises Paul Robeson as Saul Howard and H.D. herself as the protagonist, Raymonde. A classic alienated, white, expatriate American in Europe, Raymonde comes to embrace her national identity through a strange encounter with Saul, a black American singer with a famous and widely recorded voice. In "Two Americans," H.D. demonstrates how the mass reproduction of the voice was beginning to draw modern conceptions of racial and national identity away from fixed associations with bodies and nations by rendering such identity as seemingly fluid and disembodied as sound itself.

Walter Benjamin, in his well-known work on mechanical reproduction, invests the new media of the early twentieth century, especially the photograph and the cinema, with the potential to change "humanity's entire mode of existence" (222). With such change, he suggests, "human sense perception"--how we experience the world--will also change (222). While Benjamin looks primarily at the visual aspects of the new mass culture, contrasting the cinema and photography to painting and sculpture, H.D.'s story presents the early twentieth century as awash in mechanically reproduced sound. Moreover, while photography was a child of the nineteenth century, the gramophone, the wireless, and the talking cinema, or "talkies," did not take hold until the twentieth. In "Two Americans," H.D. focuses in particular on the reproduction of the human voice, bringing strikingly Benjaminian intuitions about changing modes of existence into the realm of sound.

In a revealing parallel to H.D.'s focus on the voice, psychoanalytic critic Slavoj Zizek has more recently discussed how the early-twentieth-century rise of the talking cinema, what he calls the "advent of the voice," produces the voice as its own "strange body." According to Zizek, the voice circulates at an uncanny distance from the figures appearing on the screen and "can never be pinned to a visual object" (1). H.D. was keenly aware of the introduction of the voice to cinema. In fact, "Two Americans" was conceived during the period of her early writing on film for the avant-garde Close Up, a journal that vigorously lamented the rise of the talkies. "Two Americans" registers the aftershock of this arrival of the voice in terms that resemble Zizek's account but that delve more fully into the problem of embodiment. In H.D.'s conception, the mechanically reproduced voice, divorced from the body and disseminated en masse, seems to dissolve the human being into sound. Through this new mass reproduction of human sound, the voice is capable of disrupting and fragmenting notions of the body, including the racialized body, as an integrated whole. At the same time, the floating voice intimates a new relationship to rootedness, to location in space, and, as H.D. will demonstrate, to the national space of one's country of origin. The mechanically reproduced voice is thus uniquely 'capable of motivating the breakdown of the unified self, as well as the new set of identitarian possibilities, so often associated with modernism and modernity. …

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