Incidents of the Breath

Incidents of the Breath: In Pneumatic and Electric Ventriloquisms

Steven Connor

A lecture given in the series ‘Artificial Others: Lectures on Ventriloquism and Automata’ at the Ruskin School of Art and Drawing, Oxford, February 17 2004


In the summer of 1846, a Viennese inventor known only as `Professor Faber’, displayed a speaking automaton which he called `Euphonia’ at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, a venue which would establish itself as a home of wizardry and wondrous mechanics. Following the lead of inventors like Kempelen, Faber had worked on the principle that the voice could be decomposed into a number of different elements, which could then be mechanically recombined. As far as one can tell from contemporary accounts and images, his figure employed a bellows operated by a pedal, a rubber tube for a trachea, rubber ligaments and an ivory reed to act as a larynx, and a movable lower jaw. Pitch was controlled by an adjustable screw. The Professor himself regulated the passage and modification of air by playing two keyboards, which presumably activated various preset configurations of the different parts of the apparatus to produce consonantal and vowel sounds. One John Hollingshead has left us an extended account of the spectacle.

I paid my shilling and was shown into a large room, half filled with boxes and lumber, and badly lighted with lamps. In the centre was a box on a table, looking like a rough piano without legs and having two key-boards. This was surmounted by a half-length weird figure, rather bigger than a full-grown man, with an automaton head and face looking more mysteriously vacant than such faces look. Its mouth was large, and opened like the eyes of Gorgibuster in the pantomime, disclosing artificial gums, teeth, and all the organs of speech. There was no lecturer, no lecture, no music – none of the usual adjuncts of a show. The exhibitor, Professor Faber, was a sad-faced man, dressed in respectable well-worn clothes that were soiled by contact with tools, wood, and machinery. The room looked like a laboratory and workshop, which it was. The Professor was not too clean, and his hair and beard sadly wanted the attention of a barber. I have no doubt that he slept in the same room as his figure – his scientific Frankenstein monster – and I felt the secret influence of an idea that the two were destined to live and die together. The Professor, with a slight German accent, put his wonderful toy in motion. He explained its action: it was not necessary to prove the absence of deception. One keyboard, touched by the Professor, produced words which. slowly and deliberately in a hoarse sepulchral voice came from the mouth of the figure, as if from the depths of a tomb. It wanted little imagination to make the very few visitors believe that the figure contained an imprisoned human – or half human – being, bound to speak slowly when tormented by the unseen power outside. No one thought for a moment that they were being fooled by a second edition of the “Invisible Girl” fraud. There were truth, laborious invention, and good faith, in every part of the melancholy room. As a crowning display, the head sang a sepulchral version of “God save the Queen,” which suggested inevitably, God save the inventor. This extraordinary effect was achieved by the Professor working two keyboards – one for the words, and one for the music. Never probably, before or since, has the National Anthem been so sung. Sadder and wiser, I, and the few visitors, crept slowly from the place, leaving the professor with his one and only treasure – his child of infinite labour and unmeasurable sorrow.

Nobody seems to know what happened to Professor Faber, or his talking machine. But we do know that the young Alexander Graham Bell was set as a task by his father the reconstruction of Euphonia. The development some decades later of the telephone seems to have been shadowed and conditioned by the dream of this automaton. Late nineteenth-century automata and dream-automata quickly incorporated apparatuses like telephones, phonographs, and loudspeakers: the android produced in Villiers de L’Isle Adam’s Eve future had two golden phonograph cylinders in place of lungs, and Edison’s ill-starred talking doll incorporated a gramophone disc and stylus.

But the electrical apparatus of the telephone was no mere component or supplement; it was a whole body: a kind of refolding or anagram of the body, the body reconceived as an electrical apparatus. But this new apparatus did not simply supervene upon a given, organic body. Rather, we should conceive this as an uneven giving way of one kind of apparatus, the pneumatic, to another, the electrical. (What this sets aside, of course, is the order of clockwork, which governed the production of automata for centuries, and out which, if one’s focus were purely mechanical, the evolution of electrical apparatus might easily be shown to evolve. My focus, however, is on the production of a more specific kind of movement or vital sign, in which clockwork never had an important role, namely speech.)

My suggestion will be that ‘actual’ automata are to be seen as embodied improvisations upon the idea of the body. Automata are imagings or modellings of the body, which make it clear that the body is always already figured as some kind of apparatus. This relation is in fact reciprocal, since mechanisms often arise in the ‘first’ place as embodied theories or dreams of the body’s functioning.

The most influential mechanical pneumatist of classical times was Hero, or Heron of Alexandria, who lived and worked between the second century BC and the second century AD. He invented a formula for calculating the area of a triangle, and, among the five complete works of his which survive are the Pneumatics and the Automata, which deal the principles of constructing machines operated by steam and screw. To him must be given the credit of inventing the first steam-engine, the aeolipile, a device in which steam escaping from a sphere caused it to rotate.

Heron’s ideas were reported in one of the most influential books of natural magic, Giambattista della Porta’s Natural Magick of 1584. Book 19 of Natural Magick is devoted to the topic of ‘Whether material Statues may speak by any artificial way’. The book begins with the report that, in ancient times, ‘there was a colossus of Brass, placed on a mighty high pillar, which in violent tempests of wind from the nether parts, received a great blast, that was carried from the mouth to a trumpet, that it blew strongly, or else sounded some other instrument, which I believe to have been easy, because I have seen the like’. Della Porta goes on to discourse upon the properties of sound upon which both musical instruments and speaking statues depend: ‘We see that the voice of a sound, will be conveighed entire through the air, and that not in an instant, but by degrees in time. The fact that sounds are preserved and conveyed ‘entire without interruption, unless they break upon some place’ makes it possible to convey sounds great distances: ‘If any man shall make leaden pipes exceeding long, two or three hundred paces long (as I have tried) and shall speak in them some or many words, they will be carried true through those pipes and be heard at the other end, as they came from the speaker’s mouth.’ This principle of the preservation of sound convinced della Porta, as it did others, that cunningly engineered pipeworks might be able also to trap sound, not just conveying it through space, but holding it up in time, thereby adding a phonographic to a telephonic principle:

Wherefore if that voice goes with time, and hold entire, if an man as the words are spoken shall stop the end of the pipe, and that is at the other end shall do the like, the voice may be intercepted in the middle, and be shut up as in a prison. And when the mouth is opened, the voice will come forth, as out of his mouth that spoke it. But because such long pipes cannot be made without trouble, they may be bent up and down like a trumpet, that a long pipe may be kept in a small place. And when the mouth is open, the words may be understood. I am now upon trial of it.

John Evelyn recorded in his diary of 1654 that the inventive John Wilkins, who maintained a scientific circle around him in Wadham College, Oxford, had manufactured a speaking head on this principle. Evelyn described it as ‘an hollow Statue, which gave a Voice, & utterd words, by a long and conceald pipe which went to its mouth, whilst one spake thro it, at a good distance, & which at first was very Surprizing.’

The making of speaking heads has been rumoured and written of at intervals for centuries. One of the earliest English stories of a speaking head is The Famous History of Friar Bacon of 1637, which tells how the famed magician Frier Bacon assists the aid of a Friar Bungay to construct a speaking head of brass that will tell him how England might be walled all round with brass. The mechanism is complete, but it has no breath and therefore no speech: ‘in the inward parts thereof there was all things (like as is in a naturall mans head): this being done: they were as farre from perfection of the worke as they were before, for they knew not how to give those parts that they had made motion, without which it was impossible that it should speake’. In order to animate the head, they summon a devil, whom they constrain to reveal to them ‘with a continuall fume of the six hotest Simples it should have motion, and in one month space speake’.

Brass has been the metal associated with speaking heads partly perhaps because of its association with brass instruments, particularly those in use on the battlefield, as well as in their power of blaring forth the power and majesty of God. The power of brass is that it both encloses and releases the sounding power of air itself. It is for this reason that brass also on occasion has associations of meretricious vacancy. Brass is both everything and nothing. It is strong enough to contain the air, and yet also identified with the air that bursts from it. Friar Bacon foolishly sets his servant to watch the head and listen to what it might say. When the head says, at intervals of a couple of hours, simply, ‘Time is’, ‘Time was’ and Time is past’, the servant thinks it nothing, as a result of which the head simply explodes, dissolving into ‘a terrible noyse, with strange flashes of fire’. When the magicians return to the room, it is filled no longer with the animating ‘fume’ which they hoped would give the head life and speech, but simply the smoke of the head’s dissolution.

The use of pneumatic technologies depends upon two associated identifications. First of all, there is an identification of the air through which sound travels with the sound itself. Sound is thought of not just as a perturbation of the air, but as something fashioned of air, or kind of airy substance. Air is sound’s body. Secondly, there is the identification of sound with a kind of life-force. The breath which filled and animated all living bodies was a sounding breath. Silent air, it seems, is mere matter; sounding or sounded air is animation.

Sound has always been identified with power. Sound is not merely, passively produced or apprehended: sound does things and has effects. Divine majesty may have been signalled in the creation of light and the efflux of light from the creator, but divine power is signalled in the Judaeo-Christian tradition through the exercise of sound. Thus, in his Religio Medici Thomas Browne evokes the force of divine creation as a saying or sounding out: ‘at the blast of his mouth were the rest of the creatures made, and at his bare word they started out of nothing’. Predestination is to be explained as the continuing presence throughout time of ‘a definitive blast of his will already fulfilled, and at the instant that he first decreed it; for to his eternitie which is indivisible, and altogether, the last Trumpe is already sounded’. The last trump would have the power of resurrection which would gather together all the life which had been expended and dissolved. Though Kenelm Digby, who wrote a long response to Religio Medici, said:

Methinkes it is but a grosse conception to thinke that every Atome of the present individuall matter of a body ; every graine of Ashes of a burned Cadaver,Trumpet be raked together againe from all the corners of the earth, and be made up anew into the same Body it was before of the first man. scattered by the wind throughout the world, and after numerous variations changed peradventure into the body of another man ; should at the sounding of the last

Nevertheless, the strong association between sound and creative power, or the power to give life, encouraged and authorised attempts to make living mechanisms through pneumatic means.


That Being Indoors

The stories of ventriloquism which abound up to the eighteenth century emphasise the capacity of the ventriloquist to conjure voices at will out of the air. During the 1790s, ventriloquism started to become a more established entertainment in France and Britain. Like other forms of popular entertainment, juggling, conjuring, acrobatics and various kinds of `body performance’ (the display of freaks and marvels, fire-eating, sword-swallowing, and the like), that had previously featured in fairs, markets, circuses and outdoor pleasure-gardens ventriloquist performers found that they could make a more regular living in the `legitimate’ playhouses and exhibition halls that multiplied as part of the commercialisation and centralisation of entertainment in the city. Ventriloquists began to perform more often for a paying public, in assembly rooms and in the `minor’ theatres – the Argyll Rooms, the Adelphi, the Olympic and Sadler’s Wells Theatre particularly would become popular homes for ventriloquists. Increasingly, the more successful ventriloquists would not be touring local markets and fairs, but moving from theatre to theatre in urban locations, and could sometimes command extensive periods of residence in particular London theatres and halls.

The most important thing that happened when ventriloquism became more legitimate, commercial and urban was that, like much popular entertainment in general, it went indoors. Some of the hugely improbable stories of ventriloquial powers en plein air are going to survive all the way through the nineteenth century and beyond. However, reflection suggests that a ventriloquist performing in the open, and therefore under less than ideal conditions (as opposed to simply exercising his powers of deception out of pleasure or malice), would actually have been more likely to have used figures to draw and fix the audience’s attention. Performing indoors, where the acoustic space was more predictable and the audience’s attention easier to focus and control, ventriloquists were able to do without figures. The illusions they practised were illusions of the distant or invisible voice and sound. So the reputation that ventriloquists enjoyed and cultivated, of being able to conjure voices at will in unrestricted open spaces, was gained and fostered during a period in which the actual conditions under which ventriloquism was performed were beginning to change, and ventriloquists were becoming more used to being able to perform in restricted and indoor spaces.

The enclosure of the voice allowed for a dynamic of power. Ventriloquists who are described as squeaking, muttering and whispering in earlier centuries suddenly begin to conceive of their art as one requiring and producing enormous physical energies. Ventriloquism became the fantasy of vocal power, centred on the trained control of the breath. Where ventriloquism had once been strongly identified with women, nineteenth-century guides to ventriloquism, like that of George Smith, were doubtful that women could ever be successful as ventriloquists.

It has been remarked by physiologists, that in those cases in which the ventriloquial effects have been produced by the female organs of speech, there has always been a marked deficiency of power, that the artificial voices have been imperfectly defined, and that in number they have rarely exceeded two or three. (Smith 1856, 13n)

Writing in 1861, G.W. Kirbye agreed, saying of female ventriloquism that `the effect that it produces on their vocal organs has a tendency to almost deprive them of the power of speech. There always has been a great deficiency, or lack of power in the female voice’ (Kirbye 1861, 5). The guides to ventriloquism which multiplied in the later nineteenth century similarly emphasise the qualities of strength and vigour required of the voice, along with the necessity of continuous care for the vocal organs. As late as 1921, the ventriloquist Arthur Prince was recommending deep breathing at an open window every morning for the aspirant ventriloquist, and insisting on an elaborate routine of oral hygiene, involving regular douching of the nose, and massaging of the throat and jaws (Prince 1921, 20-7).

One wonders whether the age of steam, with its hissing pumps and pistons and its pounding hammers, was not in some sense producing its bodily counterpart in these fantasies of the excursive, omnipotent voice. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: ‘Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:/Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;/Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,/Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came ‘ (Hopkins 1970, 90). Just as a steam engine requires a chamber in which air can first be enclosed and compressed, so the ventriloquial voice required enclosure for the magnification of its power. Not only did ventriloquism become a definitively indoor art, it also began to play out dramas of the enclosed voice. The most important form of this enclosure was the doll or dummy, which only became a fixture of the ventriloquist’s act from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards. As the century wore on, the full-size mannequin or automaton figures which featured on the mid-century stage shrank into the diminutive figure of the child-doll, as though to amplify the power of the voice through diminution and condensation. The voice derives its power through struggling against constriction. The dangerous power of the voice compressed in the dummy was then subject to further enclosure, in routines in which the dummy is variously bolted down, inhumed, immured, locked away into suitcases. One of the most legendary performances of the nineteenth century, Monsieur Alexandre’s one man ventriloquial show entitled The Rogueries of Nicholaswhich ran throughout 1821, climaxes with a routine in which all the voices of the different characters which have been conjured during the performance are gradually driven into a box:

Nich. I beg pardon, Ma’am: but an’t the Captain and Miss Flirtilla –
Flirt. behind. Yes, we’re both here, Nicholas.
Capt. behind. Aye, aye; we’re both here, my boy.
Mrs. Pill. behind. Wait a moment, till I have finished dressing. There, I am ready now, and you may take away the screen. I shall want you to hold the child.
Nich. I thought they were all pigged in together here. Come along.

[Removes screen; no one there.

Not here, neither! Oh! it’s some enchantment! But, perhaps they are up the chimney. Are you up the chimney?
Capt. up chimney. No, we are in the cellar.
Nich. In the cellar! They are playing at hide and seek. Are you in the cellar?
Flirt. in cellar. No; we are in the box with Mr. Pillbury.
Nich. Oh! I thought they would not be so low as to go in the cellar. Mr. Pillbury! Mr. Pillbury!
Pill. in box. Ulloa!
Nich. You have got your family in the box with you.
Pillbury, in box. Yes; we are all here; let us out directly.
Nich. I will; for they must be nearly stifled, so many of them. Now then.

[Turns the box over; no one in it.

The dummy becomes the jack in the box – literally so in a story of Edgar Allan Poe’s entitled ‘Thou Art the Man’, at the climax of which the corpse of a murdered man springloaded with whalebone sits up suddenly during his funeral to denounce his murderer by ventriloquism.

The conception of the voice as an effect of force produced under compression seems to make it pneumatic in some of the senses which I have been distinguishing here. Perhaps the most important function of the speaking figure or automaton is not so much to focus the voice, as to suggest that it comes out of nowhere, out of a kind of sonorous vacancy. Walter Ong has suggested that one of the defining features of sound is that it can signal invisible interiority. Aristotle can claim that a voice is the sound of anything that has soul in it because of this sense that the voice comes out. But what does the voice come out of? It comes out of a nothingness. Where is my voice, before it is in my mouth, before it is released into the air? It is nowhere. It is my speaking scoops out this space, by a kind of backformation (that telling linguists’ term), the fine and private place of vacancy which is my being, the space where I am, the dark cavity out of which the voice comes. The difference between living beings and machines is not that living beings are possessed of an invisible spark or flame of life, but rather that living beings have something in or behind them, an unlocatable interior void, out of which they emerge. Dead, or soulless things, mechanical contrivances, for example, have no such interiority, or have only visible interiority. But this is why the insides of automata, even silent ones, are so fascinating – why, for example, the famous illusion of the chess-playing Turk should have focussed so much attention on the inner workings of the machine.


Crossed Wires

When Alexander Graham Bell turned to thinking about the electrical production of speech, he had to solve a problem that the producers of automata had not needed to concern themselves with, namely, how to create a machine that would not only speak, but could also hear. Like his father and other synthesisers of speech before him, Bell was working to try to repair the link between hearing and speech that was broken in the deaf, by enlisting the aid of the eye in place of the ear as the means of monitoring speech production. When he began to experiment with ways of using sonorous vibrations to induce fluctuations in electric current rather than to leave traces in lampblack, he had made the necessary first move towards the idea of an automatically reversible machine, a device that would have input and output. At one end of the process, the diaphragm vibrating in response to the source sound was acting as a kind of ear. At the output end, the diaphragm made to vibrate in an exactly corresponding fashion by the conversion of the electrical fluctuations back into movements, was being made to `speak’.

Of course, electrical apparatuses of all kinds borrowed the phenomenology of interiority. Humming, buzzing ‘black boxes’ of all kinds abounded and, as we have seen, Edison put a phonograph into the body of a doll. But electrical apparatuses also gradually began to reconfigure the interiority that a pneumatic conception of the body had conjured and kept in being. For the telephone and the phonograph worked, not by the production of interiority, but by the meeting of surfaces. The phonograph and later sound inventions like the tape recorder and laser disc would inscribe encoded sound almost depthlessly in the furrows of a surface.

Ventriloquism focussed upon sonorous interiority: electrical apparatuses focussed on sonorous skins. Like the skin, which both feels and is felt, the eardrum is a reciprocal organ; it both receives and reproduces sound, just as a drum, when struck (as the eardrum is struck by sound) produces and reproduces sound. The skin, in other words, is an audiophonic aggregate, both a kind of mouth, or sounding board, and also a kind of ear. The automated production of sound and the production of amplified sound has moved away from strings – as in the hurdy-gurdy – and horns – in megaphones, speaking tubes and other kinds of enhancement of the windpipe to the use of diaphragms and membranes. In the newly-invented telephone, one spoke into a diaphragm in the mouthpiece that seemed almost identical to the diaphragm in the earpiece. Held just inches from the mouth and up against the outer ear, the telephone seemed to link together sound production and sound reception in a single connective tissue. The whole, vastly extended network of wires was thinned to this fantasy of a single vibrating membrane, on either side of which the interlocutors spoke and listened in turn. The membrane of the loudspeaker is still characterised by its reversibility; when one sees a vast bass speaker visibly pulsing, it resembles nothing so much as a vast ear. Though they do not collect and broadcast sound, satellite dishes preserve a fantasy of the transponding ear, as an elastic skin, which gathers, harbours and re-radiates sound.

In exteriorising the operations of voice, the human body was replicated as a wiring apparatus, an exteriorised nervous system, rather than a system mimicking the kinetic operations of the body. Reconceiving the body of speech as an electrical rather than a pneumatic apparatus allowed the idea that the body might itself be wired and rewired in different ways. The striking coincidence in time of Bell’s and Edison’s discoveries of the telephone and phonograph, allows us to see the two inventions as different forms of, or relays in, some single, but polymorphous prosthetic apparatus. Not only did this apparatus allow a single body to be connected up differently to itself, it also put different bodies in connection with each other. The circuit of hearing-oneself-speak passed not only through the apparatus, but through one’s interlocutor; the collusion and interanimation of hearing and speaking, input and output, required that one’s voice pass into and through another pair of lips and ears at the other end of the line.

The invention of the telephone signalled not just a new resource in the production of automatic speech, but a new conception of the body. The pneumatic body had been soft, warm, moist, melancholic, tremulous, fragile. The electrical body would be a much more abstract thing; a matter of circuits and networks which were capable of being wired and configured in ways that would require and procure a fundamental reshaping of the body.

It took some time for this shift to be perfected. Early users of the telephone, for example, worked hard to pneumatise this abstract, algebraic apparatus. The Times articulated the startling difference between the telephone and its predecessor the telegraph in a leading article of 19th November 1877, which declared that `[g]ushes, sighs, tears, sallies of wit, and traits of fondness do not stand the ordeal of twenty words for a shilling’. By contrast with the telegraph, which presented only `the dry bones of correspondence’, the telephone seemed a miraculously moist medium:

The known tones and inflections of the speaker, a whisper, a cough, a sigh, a breath, can be heard. The little incidents of human utterance which it takes a wakeful ear to detect, aided by the eye and by familiar acquaintance, are found to pass along miles of wires, many of them under the earth or sea. Silent as the medium may be, and dead as it seems, the sound comes out true. (The Times, 29103, 19 Novermber 1877, 9)

It was indeed these `little incidents’ testifying above all to the breath, which fascinated early users of the telephone. The first discussions of the telephone in The Lancet were in fact concerned with its capacity for electronic diagnosis or diagnosis at a distance, especially of respiratory complaints. The East Anglian Daily Times was immensely impressed with the powers of the telephone to convey coughing, sneezing and whispering:

about half-a-dozen of the party called out “Hear, hear,” upon which Mr. Sach asked them not to do that again, or they would split his ear-drum. This caused a laugh, which, as well as a slight cough – a mere phthisic, in fact – was heard at Liverpool Street, and when Mr. Sach sneezed, the listeners at Ipswich heard him…The marvel of the experiments, however, was yet to come. Capt. Turner gradually lowered the tone of his voice till he spoke much below ordinary conversation pitch, and very little higher than a whisper, and even then Mr. Sach heard what was said, and repeated the words…This startled the whole party, as such a thing was never anticipated. (East Anglian Daily Times, January 2 1878, quoted Field 1878, 62-3)

In fact, as telephones quickly improved in quality, especially after Hughes’s discovery of the carbon microphone, they may actually have tended to amplify such features of speech. What early telephone users were hearing was in fact an amalgam of the sounds of the breath as heard naturally and the previously unheard sounds of the interaction between the voice and the mechanical ear upon which it was sounding: the pants, gasps and hisses, the clicks, pops and percussions, of the breath sounding amid its originating body and amid the sensitive body of the telephone apparatus. The voices that emanated from the telephone were both more mechanical and more human than ordinary voices. Talking on the telephone was more than having a conversation face to face: it was like being coiled alongside your speaking twin, their lips pressed to your ear, and your lips murmuring into theirs. The erotic possibilities of the telephone are demonstrated by Kate Field, an American journalist and early convert to the telephone, who put together a celebratory history of the invention from Alexander Graham Bell’s collection of cuttings in 1878 (and never returned them, much to Bell’s chagrin). Under the persona of `Puss’, writing to her friend about the pleasures of the telephone, she describes her flirtation with an invisible interlocutor:

Didn’t I laugh when my unknown acquaintance sang, “Thou art so near and yet so far!”
“Why did you laugh?” asked the Invisible, at the conclusion of his song.
Did you hear me? My mouth was some distance from the Telephone.”
“I heard you perfectly. Now hear me breathe.”
When that breath came to my ear I was startled, Ella. Then we whispered to each other, and finally the Invisible exclaimed, “Just one more experiment,” and he kissed me! I heard him. I can’t honestly say that this final experiment was as satisfactory in its results as the ordinary way of performing the operation. It is not likely to supersede old-fashioned osculation, but faute de mieux , it will serve. (Field 1878, 15)

Spiritualism too effected a kind of rearguard action against the abstraction of the body. Spiritualists were quick to seize on machines like the telegraph and the telephone to act as analogies for communication between the living and the dead. But they gave this communicative machinery a new, or rather, archaic inflection. One favoured theory, absorbed from late nineteenth century popular physics, was that the universe was no more than electromagnetic fluctuation. The dead inhabited a region characterised by much higher rates of vibration than in our material dimension. Spiritualism added to this conception the idea of a substance that mediated between energy and matter, in its linked, tenacious fantasies of ectoplasm and the ether. The ether, which continued to be thought of as having a special relationship to air or gaseous states, is electricity made substantial. ‘It is by clothing organs of speech with matter slow in vibration that the words of inhabitants of the etheric world may sound in our atmosphere’ wrote one spiritualist theorist ‘and after this has been done, an individual in the after-life has no more difficulty in speaking than he had when in the earth-life’ (Randall 1918, 48) Etheric substance, ectoplasmic vocality is sound-energy given form: it is electrical effigy.



Nevertheless, and despite the great tenacity of the pneumatic conception of the voice as the sounding of hollowness, we have moved decisively away from the old pneumatic paradigm. The fundamental shift is from the idea of automata that possess interiority to automata that have no hidden insides. We are growing less and less perturbed by the idea that there is nothing substantial behind or inside our mechanisms, even though makers of computers have maintained this fiction for a long time. For years we have lived with these fat, enigmatic boxes, these three foot high buzzing and whirring towers, imagining them to be stuffed with pulsating and densely coiled electrical innards. But what was inside them all the while? Just a small number of wafer-thin boards, cards and chips: the rest of the space is air, thin air, now reduced to the subservient function of ventilation rather than ventriloquism.

As Michel Serres has noted, this change not just in our machines, but also in the conceptions of the body that we model on these machines, suggests the need for even more fundamental reorientations of thought. Serres expresses this in a shift of the prepositions which govern our sense of bodies and their relations:

Has not philosophy restricted itself to exploring – inadequately – the ‘on’ with respect to transcendence, the ‘under’, with respect to substance and the subject and the ‘in’ with respect to the immanence of the world and the self? Does this not leave room for expansion, in following out the ‘with’ of communication and contract, the ‘across’ of translation, the ‘among’ and ‘between’ of interferences, the ‘through’ of the channels through which Hermes and the Angels pass, the ‘alongside’ of the parasite, the ‘beyond’ of detachment… all the spatio-temporal variations preposed by all the prepositions, declensions and inflections? (Serres, 1994, 83)

And yet, of course, there is another sense in which the pneumatic might be said to be being reinstated. For the tangles of wires and complex webs and networks into which the powerful pneumatic interiority of the soul had been transformed is now in the process of undergoing a further round of immaterialisation, as our technologies become newly detached from each other, in the interests of an ever-more densely intercommunicating wireless world, where the mediations take place in the noplace of midair, as the air becomes no longer kinetic, but informational. The medieval and early modern world thought of the air as thronged with demons, spirits and influences, indeed, of air space itself as full of the contending winds, each with their different characters. Our air is saturated with signals. The air has become, once again, allegorical.

This condition perhaps has its anticipation in a vanished illusion. The sensation of 1803 in London was an exhibition known as ‘The Invisible Girl’. A contemporary handbill promises that

From an Aerostatic Globe of Eighteen Inches Diameter, Suspended between two ornamental Hemispheres in the middle of the Room, the VOICE OF A LIVING FEMALE is distinctly heard as if originating in the Centre, and will answer questions put by any person present…the Lady of the Balloon, who, though herself invisible to the Keenest Eye, seems to be in the middle of the Assemblage, and sees everything that passes in the Room; she is distinctly heard to breathe, to sigh etc. and by her answers returned instantaneously to all proper Questions, this Mysterious Incognita seems to be in possession of every hint, thought and action of the Company.

The Invisible Girl was rumbled soon enough (she was in a basement observing the room through mirrors and whispering to her public through pneumatic tubes.) Monsieur Alexandre boasted of his greedy ‘ubiquitarity’. Thomas Hood’s poem ‘To The Invisible Girl’ celebrates the nonlocation, or nusquitarity of the Invisible Girl

In the wearisome days I am fated to rove,
To have you for ever invisibly nigh,
Inhaling for ever your song and your sigh!
‘Mid the crowds of the world and the murmurs of care,
I might sometimes converse with the nymph of the air,
And turn with delight from the clamorous crew,
To steal in the pauses one whisper from you.
O! come and be near me, for ever be mine,
We shall hold in the air a communion divine.

Hood anticipates a world in which a gaseous ether has become an informational ether, a susurrus of signals and whispers. But his life in and on the air misses something that is there in the more archaic dispensation of the pneumatic represented by Professor Faber’s automaton. Automata are often said to be uncanny, but there is another body of affect which hangs around the eerie, croaking Euphonia. She strikes Hollingshead as ‘an imprisoned human – or half human – being, bound to speak slowly when tormented by the unseen power outside’. Her voice is ‘hoarse, sepulchral’. Her maker shares in the atmosphere of labour and fatigue, she being his ‘child of infinite labour and unmeasurable sorrow’. Automata are supposed to be labour-saving, are supposed to be a way of surpassing or rendering unnecessary the pains of the body. But it seems that one of the corollaries of giving breath to automata is that they inherit the freight of weariness and grief that are instinct in the breath, along with its vital powers. It is perhaps for this reason that the electromagnetic order has never been able to leave behind the pneumatic order, which survives as a kind of interference, or noise on the line. How apt that such disturbance of electrical communications should have come so early to be known as ‘atmospherics’.


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