Unsounded Vocality: The Trope of Voice and the Paradigm of Orality in American Postmodern Fiction

By Karoui-Elounelli, Salwa | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 2010 | Go to article overview

Unsounded Vocality: The Trope of Voice and the Paradigm of Orality in American Postmodern Fiction


Karoui-Elounelli, Salwa, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


You have to count on the reader's being a good performer. [...] Those writers [...] and myself are teaching an audience how to play this kind of music in their heads.--Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

To think about voice is to think about the ephemeral, the disappearing. However, in much theoretical and literary writing voice turns into a trope of presence, authority, or authenticity. It is this paradoxical status of the vocal trope in narrative fiction that the present essay undertakes to discuss. Even more so than the fictional representation of the individual's speech, the notion of voice has been central to the critical delineations of textuality (as with the "speakerly text"--see Gates 170-216), of authorship (authorial voice is a main category in narratology), and even of reading and interpretation. Critical and theoretical approaches to literary creativity and to interpretation often assign to the vocal metaphor a spectrum of values ranging from authenticity to authority. Actually, the vocal trope condenses the aesthetic and ethical or political values (pursued by writers or deciphered by readers) within the ideal of presence. Such an ideal is often sought by writers in the vividness of representation, or the authenticity of the represented mental and verbal experience, while in critical and theoretical discourses the ideal of presence is subsumed in the effective meaning-generating processes.

The common tendency, however, is to take for granted the metaphorical, and often paradoxical, nature of the vocal trope in literary narrativity. The significance that narratological studies assign to such categories as narrative voice and authorial voice tends to give an illusive "fixity" to a highly unstable notion, which eclipses the problematical quality of any "vocality" attributed to character, narrator, or author. In his critical revision of classical narratology, Andrew Gibson suggests that the unequivocal, misleading use of the notion of voice as "the secure foundation that assures the coherence of narrative geometry itself" (143-145) has entrapped narratological theories in a striking contradiction between the rigour of the systematization and categorization they pursue and the indeterminate, unfixed, and fluid nature of the very notion of voice. In fact, Gibson's questioning of narratological categories like the notion of narrative voice aims to make narrative theory capable of accounting for experimental, self-conscious fiction by enacting a middle ground between conventional narratology and the philosophical examination of language and its representational limits.

Postmodern narrative fiction lays bare and consciously assumes the forms of romantic irony inherent in fictional narrativity, since it capitalizes on the paradoxical nature of the notion of voice and of the paradigm of orality within a spirit of self-questioning and self-critique that has been vital to its recasting of the poetics of fiction. This essay discusses the manifestation of such capitalization in a few examples from American postmodern fiction, the poetics of which tends to be doubly anchored in a revised form of the Bakhtinian theory of the novel (in which the key notion of polyphony substantiates the trope of voice) and a constant questioning of the relations between the writing process and the values assigned to oral exchange and the immediacy of voice. The focus here will be on some of the narratological and aesthetic implications emanating from the consecration in American experimental fiction of a paradoxical approximation and questioning, a simultaneous undermining and amplification, of the notions of voice and orality. The deliberate highlighting, in many American postmodern narratives, of the polemical and paradoxical nature of the vocal trope has an immediate bearing on the notion of the "unpresentable" or "the sublime" in postmodern poetics, since it sustains a critical questioning of the very limits of literary representation. …

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