La Voce Come Medium

Steven Connor with Massimo Gezzi

An interview with Massimo Gezzi, conducted for the publication of the La voce come medium. La storia culturale del ventriloquio, trans. Massimo Gezzi (Rome: Luca Sossella, 2007), Italian translation of Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism.

Before writing Dumbstruck, you wrote about Beckett, Joyce, Dickens and contemporary English novel: literature, above all. Dumbstruck, instead, is a book which uses theoretical instruments from different branches of learning: history of literature, anthropology, history of technologies and so on. How did you have the idea of writing such a book, and why?

The idea for the book arose when I was writing an essay about the many ‘voices’, both of human subjects and of inanimate objects that abound in James Joyce’s Ulysses. The metaphor of ‘ventriloquism’ was, and remains, a very common one in literary criticism, to describe such things as the ways in which authors ‘speak through’ characters, or the ways in which characters are made to ‘speak’ with the voice of others. At the same time, I knew that ‘ventriloquism’ meant literally ‘speaking from the belly’, but I couldn’t put these two things together. So I decided to do what I tell all my research students to do at the beginning of an enquiry, namely to look closely at the history of the word ‘ventriloquism’ as it is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. Though accustomed by then to the multitude of miracles which that extraordinary work has hidden within it, I was staggered to find uses of the word, and its Greek equivalent, ‘engastrimism’ going back into the sixteenth century, and references to Latin and Greek versions of the word. I suddenly saw that the page or so of citations provided by the OED provided me with an encapsulated narrative of this bizarre word and concept. All I had to do was to write it out  (though it took me six years of work, partly because I was having so much fun that I couldn’t bring myself to stop)

The main topic of the book is voice, in all its historical appearances. To study the powers and symptoms of voice in history means to study our anthropological foundations and imagination as well. In order to write a history of voice, you say, we need before to write a history of these kinds of different and strange voices. Could you explain why?

The voice has two distinct and contradictory aspects. On the one hand, I feel my voice to be not just something about me, but as essentially me, as carrying or instancing my essence. In a number of European languages, the word for a voice is the same as the word for a vote, for it signifies my will. At the same time, the voice is something separate from me. It is in its nature to be detached or apart from me, and to be able to go beyond me. Indeed, at the beginning (the beginning of human society and the beginning of an individual life, the voice is the principal power of affecting things in my vicinity which I cannot touch. So the voice is both intensely embodied, and also a kind of disembodiment. In exploring the nature of the disembodied voice, the voice apart from its source, such as it is found in the instances of ventriloquism I discuss, I was attempting to put something of the strangeness back into the notion of voice, familiar as it is. For this counterfactual strangeness, this capacity of the voice to be where it is not, turns out to be one of its most essential features.

One of the most surprising things is that the idea of ventriloquism, i.e. the idea of someone speaking from his or her belly, mostly comes from a translation mistake. Is this correct?

‘Ventriloquism’ means, literally, speaking from the belly. In fact it turns out that there were a number of prophetic or ecstatic speaking practices that involved the seeming\production of voice from different parts of the body – including the belly, the thigh, the chest (‘sternomancy’), and even the armpit. But during the early Christian era an obscene rumour began to circulate among the early Church Fathers about the allegedly appalling manner in which the pythian priestess at Delphi delivered her oracles. The story, as whispered in tones both hushed and excited by writers such as Origen and St. John Chrysostomos, was that the priestess squatted over a gash in the rock, and was entered through her genital organs by a demon (for the early Christians, Apollo, who was supposed to inspire the priestess with the spirit of prophecy was nothing but a demon). Having thus taken up residence inside her, the demon trumpeted his oracles through her genitals. Details of this belief survive in many accounts of alleged spirit possession through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. So ‘speaking from the belly’ is not exactly a mistake in translation, but it is certainly a euphemism.

You wrote that the magic and enchanting power of voice ends when we became able to tie up voice in a record. But at the same time this is one of the many paradoxes involved in this book, because when that happens, voice acquires a new, disturbing power. Am I right?

For the last 150 years, we have lived in an area unprecedented in human history, in which voice, previously the unmistakable warrant of a human presence within audible range, can now be captured and broadcast a considerable distance from its point of origin. In one sense, this makes us immune to the uncanny sensations that attached to seemingly sourceless voices before the advent of recording. In another sense, it gives us more opportunities than ever before to revive or manufacture these sensations. It only takes a tiny stimulus for this uncanniness to return. Perhaps the most familiar example is  that of hearing one’s own voice recorded. Very few people, not even recording artists or broadcasters who are used to hearing their voices in what the author Douglas Kahn calls a ‘deboned’ condition, can really identify with this voice, which always sounds like that of a squeaky or gravelly impostor.
The history of ventriloquism has a number of stages: until the end of the 18th century,  ventriloquism was considered as a superhuman speaking; since the late 19th century, by contrast, it became a subhuman (or non-human) speaking. In between of these stages, ventriloquism was used to create a form of dramaturgy. So ventriloquism has increasingly lost its power of enchantment and fascination?

It’s broadly true that ventriloquism has been secularised, that is, progressively separated from the realms of the spiritual, the religious or the supernatural. The most interesting thing about this, perhaps, is that ventriloquism became a predominantly comic art. It would never have occurred to the witnesses of possession and séances that there was anything to laugh at. But if laughter replaces dread, then laughter can also be a way of buffering the uneasiness sufficiently to allow us to continue to access and entertain it. One might say that the comedy of ventriloquism entertains in two senses. It entertains its audiences by amusing them: but it also allows that audience to entertain (in the sense in which one ‘entertains’ a doubt, that is comprehends it, allows it to persist), a set of feelings that are supposed to be superseded.

The first “vocal phenomenon” you consider is the Delphic oracle, which is pretty important because it invented the idea of prophecy as an effect of the perturbed female body (the Pythia’s body, in this case). So women have a primary role in this book: Pythia, the Witch of Endor, and later the female medium, possessed by spirits...

In its earlier phases, ventriloquism is not so much an accomplishment, as an affliction – something that happened to you rather than something you did. Ventriloquism, seen at this stage as some alien entity speaking through one’s own body, without one’s control, rather than the throwing or projection of the voice through the person of another. At this stage, women were the subjects of ventriloquism rather than men. In fact, it can broadly said that, as soon as ventriloquism became a practice, something that is consciously performed, and where the audience know what is actually going on, then the performers are likely to be male. If ventriloquism is seen as something that happens to its subject, than that subject is likely to be female. So far, all of this is quite conventional. But I think this picture is complicated in certain ways. For many of the girls and women who were subjects of ventriloquism – a phrase which, in English at least, is usefully ambiguous, as it means both subjected to, and yet also exercising subjective control over – were certainly exercising some kind of power through the very display of their subjection (and indeed, the ventriloquial performance of it, no doubt). For there is a kind of prestige and glamour that attaches to being the subject of possession. There is no doubt that women found through ventriloquism, as through the display of other ecstatic conditions, a way of asserting control through the abandonment of control.

Vocal phenomena are spangled with paradoxes. Nothing is really what it looks like, nor brings about the effect we are foreseeing. For instance: recording voice ends to increase voice’s power; when prophecy become associated with female sex, it is somehow degraded, but this ends to increase its power; during Enlightenment, the denial of the demoniac (by La Chapelle, for example) finally causes its survival; and again, when people stop believing that voice comes from supernatural existences, actually voice becomes more dangerous. So voice is an incredible source of paradoxes!

One of the essential paradoxes about ventriloquism is that one can never be entirely sure whether ventriloquism is on the wane or on the rise, of the past or the present. Ventriloquism belongs to the past, and in a sense plays into our confident modern belief that the past was a more credulous time than the present. But it also allows us to participate vicariously in those anxieties and disturbances that ventriloquism seemed to bring about in the past.

About in 1550, religious ecstasy (which is mostly a private event) is replaced with demoniac possession (which is a public event), above all among Catholics. Would you say that it was true that, when this happens, voices and voice events become also political and power events?

It is certainly the case that the Reformation in Europe made the public display of possessions a kind of sectarian stage. Catholics priests used public possessions and exorcisms to demonstrate the power of the priest and the Mass over the devil. Protestants seized on the elaborate details of the conversations between priests and devils as proof of how naturally devils and priests conversed with each other.. All of this overlaid an already complex situation of utterance, in which different voices contend for superiority in a single body, with further complexities, as priests and exorcists attempted to control or script the utterance of the possessing spirit, and Protestant sceptics attempted to show that the exorcist is really in the grip of the possession he claims to be mastering. Possession cases became complex, public arenas of the struggle for voice and authority.

Your book considers also many literary sources. A very important book, for instance, is Les bijoux indiscrets by Diderot, read and studied by Foucault as well. In that book, female sexual organs are made to speak by a magical ring, and they reveal the deepest secrets of their owners. You write that this event is somehow similar to what happens in 16th- and 17th-century possessions. So, there are surprising and underground connections between phenomena you study in this book...

The underground connections that run through all the different manifestations of ventriloquism, and all the many different conceptions off ventriloquism from the beginning of the Christian era onwards, mean that one can never quite be sure what is modern and what is archaic. Ventriloquism is always slightly out of time.

An important viewpoint which comes out of your book is that ventriloquial illusions always go along with audience’s willing to be enchanted. That’s true in Alexander Vattemare and William Edward Love’s cases, the two  most famous ventriloquists of the early nineteenth century. Could you explain why?

Ventriloquism is similar to conjuring, in that in both cases we know that we are being deceived. But ventriloquism differs oddly from conjuring in that in the former case our being deceived goes along with the fact that we know how the deception is being practised. Children taken to see ventriloquist entertainers who are not in on the act often find them baffling or disturbing. For this reason, ventriloquism has been described as involving a very special kind of pact or contract between performer and audience, in which each challenges the other’s powers of dissimulation and perception. It seems to me that this unique condition of ventriloquial illusion comes about because of a deep will-to-believe in ventriloquism – a will-to-believe that it might be possible for voices indeed to be ‘thrown’ from one place to another. As such, ventriloquism is a hinge between archaic belief and modern scepticism.
It’s very surprising to find out a special fil rouge running from ventriloquism to some communication technonologies (telephone, phonograph and gramophone). This thread involves the strange talking heads and automata which comes before the ventriloquist’s puppet with which we are familiar. Could you tell us something about it?

Although the phenomenon known as ventriloquism was originally an intracorporeal rather than an intercorporeal illusion – that is, the ventriloquial displacement of voice took place within one body rather than between two or more separate bodies – there is a parallel history of making statues, busts, and other objects seem to speak, by such contrivances as hidden pipes. There are stories of devious Egyptian priests using this method to terrify their people. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the popularity of automaton making led to attempts to simulate speech through artificial contrivances. These two histories come together in the later nineteenth century, as the growing popularity of ventriloquism involving dolls, dummies or speaking figures of various kinds led to the development of often extremely sophisticated automata. The fact that the young Alexander Graham Bell built a replica of none of the most well-known speaking-machines, a female figure called ‘Euphonia’ whose speech was produced by a keyboard, suggests the ways in which the history of voice-simulation and voice-transmission are intertwined.

A very charming event you look into is spiritualism: there is an analogy between the history of spiritualism and history of communication technologies. We go from the female medium, possessed by spirits, to the male medium and direct voice; and from the female possessed ventriloquist (the Pythia, for instance) to the male ventriloquist, no more than a mere entertainer...

Communication technologies have made us familiar with disembodied voices in a way that no other culture in history has been. We have become accustomed to hearing and interacting with voices that belong to people who are not physically there and, in the case of automated voices, have never physically been anywhere. This certainly removes a great deal of the strangeness from ventriloquism. And yet ventriloquism can also be a way of jolting us back into awareness of the strangeness of having such extensive and intimate relations with people who are nowhere to be seen.

So your book proves that an invisible bridge exists between technologies we use daily and the very ancient legend of Pythia and her oracles…

Yes indeed.

When ventriloquists begin to perform with the single puppet, a primary ingredient of this impressive history is back: I mean violence. From the Pythia’s frenzy to Catholic exorcists who “rape” possessed women with relics of saints, violence is a constant feature of this cultural history...

I found this strain of violence in the history of ventriloquism unmistakable, but also, for a long time, unaccountable. It is almost as though the bond of love which ties us to our voices is accompanied by a dark dream of violence, in which the voice is either hated, torn apart from its source, or turns violently on that source – as in the case of the pythia, whose prophecies seemed to convulse and burst apart her body.

One last joke: your book was published in 2000 and it says that telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell. In 2002 the US government determined that the telephone was not invented by Bell, but by the Italian Antonio Meucci. Would you like to say something to Italian readers about that?

The news that there is a prior Italian claim to have invented the telephone ought to be gratifying to Italian readers. The bad news is that this is by no means the first alternative claimant: French historians of science have maintained for many years that Charles de Cros’s patent for a telephonic device preceded Bell’s. The telephone (and, even more so) the phonograph, seem to have been dreamed of for many years before they actually came into existence. Indeed, ventriloquism is probably one of those ways.