Ventriloquism is one of the most pervasive metaphors by which issues of identity, ownership and power have been articulated within a culture of performance. It could be said that all performance is broadly ventriloquial, in a double movement whereby the performer gives his or her voice to another, and, in the process, takes the voice of that other into him- or herself. Cultural theorists interested in the ways in which identity can be both sustained and violated in different kinds of verbal performance - in playing the part of another, in borrowing and mixing idioms and intonations - have developed what I have elsewhere called the ‘proprietary thematics’ of the voice. 1 Psychoanalytic theory, especially of a Lacanian variety, has assisted mightily with this formulation of problems of ownership and identity with respect to language, asking, when I speak, do I, really? With whose words? Whose voice? Ventriloquism has become the master trope for articulating the contemporary concern with the ethics of the voice.
But there is another way of thinking of the meanings of ventriloquism, by means of a somewhat less abstract, and less immediately moralising approach to the voice. I offer in what follows a reading of the contemporary workings of ventriloquism as a specific, which is to say, archaic form of performance, in terms of a Kleinian reading of the primary dynamics of the voice. The widespread use of ventriloquism as metaphor allows the violence and violation that are bound up in the exercise of the voice to be deflected into a judicial register of ownership, possession, property and appropriation. What follows attempts a desublimation of the ventriloquial metaphor, in order to disclose and examine some of the more primary corporeal processes involved in the disembodying and re-embodying of the voice in performance.
Guy Rosolato suggests that the infant may experience in the exercise of its voice a sense of sonorous omnipotence, the power to exercise its will through sound which perhaps corresponds to what Freud called the stage of magical thinking, or ‘omnipotence of thoughts’. The voice, writes Rosolato, ‘is the body’s greatest power