Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism

A Cultural History of Ventriloquism

Steven Connor

cover of Steven Connor, Dumbstruck

Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism was published by Oxford University Press in October 2000.

This site makes available the Dumbstruck Archive, of texts and images relating to the history of ventriloquism.

Order the book from Amazon or Oxford University Press.

Read reviews
Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian
Jonathan Rée in the London Review of Books
Read Chapter One, ‘What I Say Goes’.
Interview with Massimo Gezzi.
Interview with Enzo Mansueto, Rodeo, 43 (2008): 66.

Sound Stories – discussion of ventriloquism for RTÉ Radio 1, 9 September 2008.

By `ventriloquism’, I mean, not merely the practice of making one’s voice appear to proceed from elsewhere – although I am, indeed, interested in the history of this particular form of entertainment or illusion. I use the word to designate all of the many forms which may be taken by sourceless, or dissociated or displaced voices, along with the various explications of such voices and ascriptions of source to them. This makes for an exhilaratingly, perhaps even a nerve-wrackingly large subject, which has no very good reason to exclude such disparate and historically far-flung examples as the following, many (but not all) of which are discussed in Dumbstruck:

  • archaic practices of divination, for example the practice of sternomancy (speaking through the chest) or the even more specialised practice of conjuring prophetic voices from the armpit seemingly practised by early Semitic peoples;
  • Greek and Roman oracles, especially perhaps the Pythian oracle at Delphi and that of the Sybil at Cumae;
  • the myths of the dissociated voice, such as that of Orpheus, which ends with the severed head of the dismembered Orpheus singing plaintively the name of Eurydice as it floats down the river Hebrus, or the myth of Echo, who, deprived of a voice of her own in which to express her love for Narcissus, dwindles away into nothingness, leaving only her voice resounding emptily in the air;
  • the phenomena associated with pentecostal or inspirational utterance, or glossolalia, in official and unofficial Christian history;
  • the involved theological disputes about the Witch of Endor in Samuel II in the work of the early Church fathers, that swelled occasionally into full-blown treatises, such as those by Origen;
  • ecstatic speaking among mediaeval female mystics and later sects such as Annie Lee’s Shakers, as well as nineteenth-century trance-speakers;
  • the witch trials and witchcraft doctrine of the European Renaissance;
  • the history of hearing voices, up to and beyond its most famous victim, or exponent,Joan of Arc;
  • Enlightenment explications of ventriloquism, such as those offered by the mathematician and fellow of the Royal Society Johannes de la Chapelle in 1772, and the Italian medical authority Carlo Speranza in 1810, along with the comic or Gothic undoings of such rational explication, for example in novels like Denis Diderot’s Les Bijoux indiscrets, a cheerful little fable about a magic ring which has the power to compel female genitalia to speak, and Charles Brockden Brown’s ventriloquist-novels Wieland and Carwin the Biloquist (the first and last examples of this minority genre);
  • the emergence of ventriloquism as a popular entertainment through the nineteenth century, from the monopolylogist Charles Mathews and the polyphonist William Edward Love, through to the arrival, surprisingly late on the scene, of what has become the traditional ventriloquial form of the dialogue with the alter-ego dummy;
  • the importance of mediated or manipulated voices in mid-nineteenth-century mesmerism and late-nineteenth-century spiritualism, or in the interpretation and treatment of hysteria practised by Charcot at the Salpetrière hospital in Paris;
  • the intertwining of ventriloquism with broadcast media in the twentieth century, including the intriguingly successful careers of a number of radio ventriloquists;
  • the development of technologies for synthesising, augmenting, extending, reproducing, and transforming the voice, in the history of talking heads and vocal automata, as it runs perhaps from the statue at Memnon, which could be heard to moan at sunrise, through Professor Faber’s famous talking female figure Euphonia, a replica of which was constructed by the young Alexander Graham Bell, and the history of auditory and acoustic technologies, such as the telephone, phonograph and radio, and their contemporary transformations;

I suggest that the dissociated voice is a recurrent source of excess, menace and awe. Because it is a category of excess, a figure of nonfigurability, it has no one meaning. No conclusions can be drawn regarding the nature of the ventriloquial voice, because its essence is to be against nature. My concern is rather with the recurrent shape of the question asked and answered by the dissociated voice. Nor is the ventriloquial voice pure exorbitance or disruption; like the neurotic symptom, it is both wound and cure, enigma and explication, trauma and therapy.

The dissociations and resituations of the voice are always a matter of power. Firstly, the dissociated voice of ventriloquial fantasy mediates between the body and language, which is to say also between the body and culture. The variability of the voice’s origin, whether magically detached from the body, or erupting from illegitimate orifices, means that the ventriloquial voice is both an attempt to imagine and pit the the speech of the body against the speech of culture, and an attempt to control that illegitimate speech, to draw it into discourse. It is for this reason that the ventriloquial voice is associated both with challenges to political authority, and with their reassertion. For the voice is the mark both of the self’s presence to and its estrangement from itself; the ventriloquial voice enacts the strangeness of the self’s self-presence.

Secondly, the voice is crucial to the process whereby, in modern societies, political questions have come to be focused in the question of the subject, and more specifically its threefold articulation of self, socius and voice. The modern subject who must learn to internalise power, gives itself the law through the medium of the voice, of the system of self-speaking and self-overhearing that Jacques Derrida has named `s’entendre parler’. In a mirror image of this process, the state or the socius enacts its authority through the process of speaking for and through other subjects. Ventriloquism is both the guarantee of this system and a threat to it. Nowhere is this better enacted than in Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, a novel in which a sinister ventriloquist wreaks havoc in a rational community in Pennsylvania. The question that the novel asks is `where does the authoritative voice come from, and whence does it derive its authority?’. It is the question that is both anxiously asked and prematurely answered in the Declaration of Independence of a decade previously. The declaration declares that it speaks for and as the independent nation; its authority lies in the fact that it declares itself, declares its declaration. But, since the declaration also speaks on behalf of those it represents, it must also declare that its authority comes from elsewhere, from some source (the people) that is not known and present at the moment of declaration. Ventriloquism is thus both the legitimating glue of the new republic inaugurated by the Declaration of Indpendence, as it comes to be the binding principle of modern democratic states; and the solvent of that authority, insofar as the mobility of the voice always puts in doubt its authoritative origin.

I have published a number of essays which explore other aspects of ventriloquism:

`”Jigajiga…Yummyyum…Pfuiiiiiii!…Bbbbblllllblblblblobschb!”: “Circe” ‘s Ventriloquy’, in Reading Joyce’s `Circe’(European Joyce Studies, 3), ed. Andrew Gibson, (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994), pp. 93-142

Review of Janet Beizer, Ventriloquized Bodies: Narratives of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century France (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994), Women: A Cultural Review, 6.3 (1995): 327-31.

Review of Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, ed. Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Felicia Miller Frank, The Mechanical Song: Women, Voice, and the Artificial in Nineteenth-Century French Narrative (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995); Claire Kahane,Passions of the Voice: Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the Speaking Woman, 1850-1915 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), Women: A Cultural Review, 7 (1996): 309-16.

`The Modern Auditory I’ in Rewriting the Self: Histories From the Renaissance to the Present, ed. Roy Porter (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 203-23

`Feel the Noise: Excess, Affect and the Acoustic’, in Emotion in Postmodernism, ed. Gerhard Hoffmann and Alfred Hornung (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Carl Winter, 1997), pp. 147-62

Noise, a series of radio pieces which I wrote and presented was transmitted February 24-28, 1997 on BBC Radio 3.

‘Transcripts: Law, Literature and the Trials of the Voice’, New Formations, 32 (1997): 60-76.

‘Echo’s Bones: Myth, Modernity and the Vocalic Uncanny’, in Myth and the Making of Modernity, ed. Michael Bell and Peter Poellner (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1998), pp. 213-35

`The Machine in the Ghost: Spiritualism, Technology and the “Direct Voice” ‘, in Ghosts: Psychoanalysis, Deconstruction, History, ed. Peter Buse and Andrew Stott (London: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 203-25

‘The Ethics of the Voice’, in Critical Ethics: Text, Theory and Responsibility, ed. Dominic Rainsford and Tim Woods (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 220-37

‘Voice, Ventriloquism and the Vocalic Body’, in Psychoanalysis and Performance, ed. Patrick Campbell and Adrian Kear (London and New York: Routledge, 2000). pp. 75-93

‘Satan and Sybil: Talk, Possession and Dissociation’, in Talk, Talk, Talk: The Cultural Life of Conversation, ed. Shelley Salamensky (New York and London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 163-80

‘Voice, Technology and the Victorian Ear’, in Transactions and Encounters: Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Josephine McDonagh and Roger Luckhurst (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), pp. 16-29.

‘The Decomposing Voice of Postmodern Music’, New Literary History, 32 (2001): 467-83.

‘The Strains of the Voice’, trans. (into German), Holger Wölfle, in Phonorama: Eine Kulturgeschichte der Stimme als Medium (Berlin: Matthes and Seitz, 2004), pp. 158-72.

‘Vox Pox’, rev. of Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006) and Marc Shell, Stutter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006), Bookforum, 13 (April/May 2006), p. 30

Phonophobia: The Dumb Devil of Stammering, a talk given at Giving Voice conference, University of Aberystwyth, 8 April, 2006

Other essays on sound and voice can be found in Seeing to Sound: On Sound, Music and Voice, a collection of my web essays.