Edison’s Teeth: Touching Hearing

Edison’s Teeth: Touching Hearing

Steven Connor

This paper was written for the conference ‘Hearing Culture’, a conference organised by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and scheduled to take place in Morelia, Mexico, October 4-12th 2001. The conference was postponed in the aftermath of the September 11th attack on New York.


1. Intersensoriality

The senses are multiply related; we rarely if ever apprehend the world through one sense alone. Indeed, under conditions in which any one sense predominates, closer inspection may disclose that the predominating sense is in fact being shadowed and interpreted by other, apparently dormant senses. Indeed, we might enunciate a paradoxical principle: that the more we concentrate, or are concentrated upon one sense, the more likely it is that synaesthetic spillings and minglings may occur. To look intently may be to long to grasp and consume; to be surrounded by sound is to be touched or moved by it. The more dominant a particular sense, or the apparatuses used to support and supply it may seem to be, the more it will implicate other senses, and therefore the more complex, and the less “pure” its dominion will become. The development of the microscope in the seventeenth century allowed the extension of the powers of the eye into regions and dimensions that had previously been unavailable to it; but in provoking a new sensitivity to the swarming surfaces of things, it also extended or rarefied the sense of touch. The microscope not only looked intently at the skin, at the populous surfaces of living things, it also looked with the skin: gave the skin eyes. Similar synaesthesias are precipitated by more modern visual machineries. If it is true, as is often said, that our contemporary lives seem dominated by the technologies of vision, then the effect of this may be to give visuality the same complex hegemony as English: because it is everywhere dominant, it is everywhere subject to corruption and contamination. Douglas Kahn and others have pointed to the interest in synaesthesia that characterised modernism (Kahn and Whitehead 1992, 14-19). If it is true that the impulse to compound the senses belongs to an avant-garde desire to go beyond the ordinary sense-economies of the everyday world, we would be wrong to see synaesthesia as always exceptional, revolutionary or transcendent. To understand the workings of any of the senses it is necessary to remain aware of the fertility of the relations between them.

The relations between the senses are not all of the same kind. We can mark out a distinction, for example, between the sound-sight relation and the sound-touch relation, as they currently subsist. In our culture, and perhaps others besides, the relations between sound and sight may be said to be largely indexical; by which I mean that the evidence of sight often acts to interpret, fix, limit, and complete the evidence of sound. Seeing may then appear as the destination or terminus of sound – “Oh, now I see what you mean.” Perhaps because of the imperfect nature of hearing in humans, hearing tends to ask questions which get answered by the evidence of the eyes. As the two senses on which human beings seem most to rely, hearing and sight are closely interwoven, but not necessarily synchronised. Though light moves faster than sound, these relations are reversed in the logic of human perception; it is sound which seems to be immediate, and sight, as the sense with which we achieve balance and understanding, which follows after it. Hearing proposes: sight disposes.

The relations between sound and touch, by contrast, tend to be mimetic: touch accompanies, mimics, performs sound, rather than translating or defining it. Touch doubles sound rather than dubbing it. This may imply a hierarchy of senses with regard to the information they give and the finality of that information, with touch participating on a level with sound, as opposed to sight which processes, transforms, counters and commands it.

There is a long tradition of the denigration of touch in Europe. Touch signifies the proximity, the undifferentiation of the body. Ficino wrote, “Nature has placed no sense further from the intelligence than touch” (Ficino 1989, 124). Kant argued that “By touch, hearing and sight we perceive objects (on the surface); by taste and smell we partake of them (take them into ourselves)” (Kant 1974, 35). Kant’s distinction seems to leave touch as a hinge sense, able to be lifted into perception by the differentiating senses of hearing and sight, but also able to sink into the grosser participations of taste and smell. Touching yourself is the worst kind of touch, because it disallows even the minimal differentiation involved in being touched by another body.

There is good reason to posit the disproportionate role of touch in the coordinating of the senses one with another. Because all of the primary senses are lodged in the skin, on the outside of the body, one might say that in literal terms they are connected to each other by a membrane of tactility, and that this is reproduced in the way in which we experience them – as may perhaps be testified to by a term such as “sense-impressions.” More than this, though, touch seems to be the primary or favoured mode of our sensory self-attention, which is perhaps why our models of the workings of the senses tend to be topological. This is not to say that we only have knowledge of our senses through touch: knowledge and understanding of the senses will also be encoded in visual terms. But our investments and identifications and above all our feelings of love for the senses, along with their reversals and negative correlatives, such as the wish to mortify or deny the senses, tend towards the tactual. As Michel Serres suggests, the act of beautifying the face involves the touching, the touching up, as we may say, of the senses as they are manifest in the head and face – the lips, ears. It is with the hand that we stop the nose, block the ears, or cover the eyes.

Touch appears to be the most versatile and various of the senses, partly because it threads through all the other modes of sensory apprehension, and also because it seems itself to be formed differently depending upon the particular kind of apprehension it delivers, whether of shape, texture, volume, space, tightness, heat, or weight. It may help to understand and appreciate the comminglings of hearing and touch to suggest some distinctions between some broad modalities of touch. There is the apprehension through touch of what we might call qualities of measure, by which I mean qualities of shape, distance, space, volume and texture. Then there is the apprehension of what might be called pitch; included in this heading would be all the sensations of weight, force, tension, and balance. Then there are relations of temper; these include the whole range of sensations of greater or lesser degrees of excitation, whether in heat, cold, itch, inflammation, or sexual arousal. (I have of course skewed the matter by giving these categories names that suggest the elements of music.)

Another reason that the relations between the senses are so complex and variable is the fact that we do not have a merely client relationship to them. We not only use our eyes, ears, skin, nose and tongue to convey information to us about the world; we also establish strong bonds of pleasure, identity and even love with those senses and their associated organs. Amid all the vast literature about the powers and protocols and pleasures of looking, there is actually surprising little about the particular pleasures taken in one’s own activity of sight. It is perhaps only when we confront the possibility of our senses being dimmed, damaged, or taken away from us that the intense love which binds us to them become apprehensible. This love for the senses expresses itself in and may derive from the need to protect organs which are at once extremely important to us, and also, by definition, sensitive and easily damaged (damage will recur later in what I have it in mind to say). The love for the senses takes cultural as well as individual forms: in the formalising of particular kinds of sensory pleasure – in the experience of perfume, music, food – the senses themselves are set apart and invested with a kind of collective narcissism.

It was thought by medieval philosophers that there must be some sixth, overarching sense, a sensis communis, which allowed the individual senses to be coordinated one with another. Often we seem to assume a radial model, in which each of the senses conveys a different form of information to a central command and control module which receives and processes the sensory input from these five channels. But we do not merely “use” different senses to give ourselves a more three-dimensional fix on the objects of our apprehension. The sense we make of any one sense is always mixed with that and mediated by that of others. The senses form an indefinite series of integrations and transformations: they form a complexion. So there may be no such central module, no statue on which the senses may be thought of as being hung or draped. The senses communicate with each other, in cooperations and conjugations which are complex, irregular and multilateral. This complexion of the senses knits itself together anew with each new configuration. We cannot merely reflect on the operations of sense without performing active sensory operations, or enacting sensory apprehensions. Writers seeking to account for the relegation of the sense of hearing and to redeem it from that relegation, may often nowadays evoke the idea of a cultural sensorium, or a mansion of the senses. But what a culture offers is not just a static consortium of the senses, disposed like a molecular structure in a particular configuration, but rather a field of possibility, a repertoire of forms, images and dreams whereby reflection on the senses can take place. Intersensoriality is the means by which this is enacted. Cultures are sense-traps; which bottle and make sense of sensory responses; but they are also sense-multipliers.


2. In Touch

One of the most important features of hearing, for example, or of the human relation to hearing, is that it seems incomplete and interrogative; hearing provides intensity without specificity, which is why it has often been thought to be aligned more closely with feeling than with understanding. We need not necessarily think of this in terms of the definition or rounding-off which sight gives to hearing. We might, for instance, think of it as an orientation towards the future in sound, rather than the past: hearing, we might say, is usually more provocative than evocative. But, precisely for this reason, sound may be supplied with compensatory substance, its indeterminate force given an imaginary but determinate form, for example, in the form of the “voice-body” about which I speculated in my book Dumbstruck (2000)

One apparent paradox of hearing is that it strikes us as at once intensely corporeal – sound literally moves, shakes and touches us – and mysteriously immaterial. Mythology provides examples of the power of sound to form and manipulate substance, for example in the story of Amphion, who used the magic sounds of his lyre to cause the fortification of the walls of Thebes, the stones moving into place apparently of their own free will. Perhaps the tactility of sound depends in part on the fact of this immaterial corporeality, because of the fact that all sound is disembodied, a residue or production rather than a property of objects. When we see something, we do not think of what we see as a separable aspect of it, a ghostly skin shed for our vision. We feel that we see the thing itself, rather than any occasion or extrusion of the thing. But when we hear something, we do not have this same sensation of hearing the thing itself. This is because objects do not have a single, invariant sound, or voice. How something sounds is literally contingent, depending upon what touches or comes into contact with it to generate the sound. We hear, as it were, the event of the thing, not the thing itself.

But if sound necessarily parts from, comes apart from its source, it rarely does so completely. To think of a sound as the “voice” of what sounds is not only to humanise or animate the sounding world, ascribing an Aristotelian quality of soul to it; it is also to think of the sound as owned by and emanating essentially from its source, rather than being an accidental discharge from it. Precisely because of its default condition of disembodiment, sound may be apt to be thought of in terms of how it clings or stays in contact with what begets it. During the medieval period and after, a distinction was commonly marked between unvoiced, or whispered sound, which lingered in the mouth, and voiced sound, which went forth bodily from it. Bacon, for example, describes whispering as an “interior” sound, which “is rather an Impulsion or Contusion of the Aire, than an Elision or Section of the same” (Bacon 1626, no. 288). Even some “voiced” sounds seem to have this continuing tactile relationship with their source, as though they emanated, seeped, wept, leaked, or spread from that source rather than being emitted or launched by it. There is a lingering continuity in the mode of the separation of source and target that resembles the effect of aroma. The most important determinant on thinking about the executive power of breath and voice is the Christian idea of the Word. The African theologian Lactantius distinguishes between the Son of God as speech, and the angels as silent breath of God.

the Son of God is the speech. or even the reason of God, and…the other angels are spirits of God. For speech is breath sent forth with a voice signifying something. But, however, since breath and speech are sent forth from different parts, inasmuch as breath proceeds from the nostrils, speech from the mouth, the difference between the Son of God and the other angels is great. For they proceeded from God as silent spirits, because they were not created to teach the knowledge of God, but for His service. But though He is Himself a spirit, yet he proceeded from the mouth of God, with voice and sound. (Lactantius 1871, 224-5) 

But most early theologians also insisted that the Son of God was a particular kind of voice, which must be thought of as coming into being “by partition, not by section,” as Tatian put it, comparing the giving of voice to the lighting of a torch, which in no way diminishes the fire that is its source (Tatian 1982, 11) The voice as fire suggests air made substantial and active. We can see this as an idealisation of the umbilicus, the physical link between beings that is cut shortly after the issuing of the first cry (Vasse 1974).

There is no more telling enactment of this idea of the umbilical continuity of the voice than the telephone, the most important feature of which was not that it separated the voice from the person emitting it, but that it conducted that voice along a wire which the receiver of the call knew had to be in real-time contact with the speaker. It was the magically condensed tactility of the new medium which thrilled and intrigued users as much as the capacity to hear at long distances. The telephone revived or confirmed mesmeric ideas about the migration or transposition of the senses (mesmerists claimed that deaf subjects could hear sounds transmitted to their abdomens through the mesmerist’s fingertips). Sound had previously been counterposed to sight in terms of the quality of its movement: where sight travelled in straight lines, sound was understood to radiate and diffuse evenly in all directions, like a gas. But the wire seemed to provide a new tactual image of the voice, as capable of immense extrapolation or extrusion, its powers concentrated and accelerated into a vector rather than a radiation. The telephone uses the principle of electromagnetic induction to translate sound vibrations into fluctuations of electrical charge, which are then translated back into movement at the other end. It is the capacity of electrical impulses to be transmitted long distances without significant degradation by and into noise, which accounts for the illusion of bodily presence, the sense that the voice which arrived at the other end of the line had not been transported, so much as stretched out. It was, and is, this which makes for the surprisingly undisturbing disturbance it effects in our sense of the relations between proximity and distance, and the sense that, despite its reliance upon the new, clean, dry power of electricity the telephone remained a moist and dirty medium (hence its still-operative associations with sexuality and disease). We may nowadays have dispensed with the wire, and may even, in the era of disposable phones, be on our way to disposing of the very apparatus of speech; but this may be part of a volatilisation rather than a complete abolition of the idea of touch in technologies of hearing.

Perhaps the most important feature of the wire was that it embodied the possibility of two allotropic states: the coiled, or compacted, and the extended. The extended wire gave an image of the voice thinned almost to nothing; the coiled wire is an image of the voice stored, concentrated, and magnified by compression. The coil of wire recalls the whorls of the inner ear. From the earliest times, the idea that such coiled structures might detain sound, preserving it from decay, has been in evidence. Early representations of speech in pictures took the form, not of bubbles, but of scrolls, unrolled into the empty air. The religious and legal powers traditionally embodied in the scroll pass across into stories of the magical power of rolled-up words, such as the Golem brought to life with a slip of paper put under its tongue. The orality of the scroll is suggested also in a magical threshold object like the Jewish mezuzzah, the little cylinder affixed to the doorpost of the house, containing on a scroll of parchment the profession of faith which begins with the words Shema Israel - “hear, Israel..” The scroll coiled in an enclosed space suggests an ear, though the awareness of the injunction to hearing inscribed on the scroll also suggests a recording apparatus: a way for an ear to be a speaking mouth, as it is in the horn gramophone. Is the scroll imagined as being secreted in the mezuzzah as it is laid under the tongue of the Golem (in Hebrew, matter without shape), to make the doorpost speak (the devout Jew will touch his lips and then the mezuzzah, on entry and exit)? The technologies of recorded sound revert with an odd insistence to such helical images: in Edison’s phonographic cylinders, the spirals of the gramophone disk, the spoolings of audio and videotape, and the spiral sequences of optical data inscribed on the CD. Helical sound not only allows the endlessly uncoiling and irreversible line of natural sound to be suspended or wrapped around a single point; it allows confers the magical power of running sound backwards. Like saying the Mass backwards, or speaking on the inbreath rather than the outbreath (believed by many for centuries to be the explanation of ventriloquism), the reversal of sound is profoundly unnatural. That this it is still so regarded is suggested by the periodic panics induced by revelations of secret Satanic messages secreted backwards in gramophone records, the most famous being the mysterious phrase “Never could be any other” to be heard right at the end of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The practice of ventriloquism, which, in the West and in modern times, has become associated with a very precise relationship between sound and touch, provides a commentary on the tactualising of sound in the telephone. Edith Lecourt helps explain some of the allure of ventriloquism when she evokes the phenomenon of what she calls the “untouched voice” (Lecourt 1990, 215) Ventriloquism plays variations on this fantasy of a voiceless or mouthless voice. But the voice of which the ventriloquist’s countenance gives no sign, which appears to be separated absolutely from him and to be issuing from the dummy or doll, is nevertheless tethered to him. The wireless transmission of sound between the performer and the ventriloquial figure is in some way guaranteed by the “wiring” represented by the hand which connects the two. There is no practical reason why the dummy needs to be manually operated by the ventriloquial performer himself or herself and indeed, performers have experimented at intervals with remote control of their figures. But ventriloquism seems to need the confirming circuit of touch, which acts both to intensify and to protect against the disembodiment of the voice.

The lingering of touch in sound is particularly in evidence in music. Bruce Smith (1999, 96-129) and Penelope Gouk (1999, 115-53) have pointed to the importance in the early modern world of schemes of entablature for preserving and spreading the sense of touch in musical notation. We can define an instrument as a sounding posture of the body. We learn to hear the postures imprinted in sounds: the fat, farting buttock-cheeks of the tuba, the undulant caressings of the cello, the hooked, crooked intensity of the violin (the violin is an instrument of acute angles; chin, elbow, armpit). I am grateful to Roland Barthes for his evocation, following Jacques Attali, of the “muscular music” that one plays, rather than merely, passively listening to it, in which it is “as if the body was listening, not the ‘soul’ “; but I think he is wrong to imply that supersession of the hand in the ear by modern habits of listening (Barthes 1991, 261). The more that the artificial production and reproduction of sound, in amplification, for example, threatens to lead away from this sense of embodied source, the more we learn to replace or refuse this loss, as with the extravagant, martyred postures of the electric guitar, enacted both in the ecstatic writhings it evokes, and in the ever more baroque contortions of its own shapes. What a marvellous invention is the despised “air-guitar”! When we hear an instrument that we have never heard before, we cannot fully or properly hear it until we have guessed or supposed in it the manner of its production, the mutual disposition of body and instrument that results in the sound, and of which the sound bears the impress. Sometimes, perhaps a little at a loss for an adequate sound-posture to project, we will treat the instruments of reproduction or transmission as instruments, as in the manipulations of tape and vinyl practised since the musique concrètistes of the 1950s. We are not simply touched by this kind of sound. We take it into us, hear it in the mode of producing it, in an instrumental coenesthesia. This mode of touch gives us not so much touch as pressure, or as the impending of things upon us, as the touch of shape, or touch as the guarantee of shape.


3. Pathos

The imaginary power of maintaining continuity of contact in sound is in conflict with another feature of the physics and the phenomenology of sound, namely its stubborn association with violence and suffering. Unlike the other senses, which have been conceived in terms of the neutral or contingent commingling of traces, sound can only come about as a result of some more or less violent disturbance: the collision of objects with each other (we never hear the sound of one thing alone, any more than we can hear the sound of one hand clapping), and the transmission of this agitation through the air to the ears or skin of another. Sound beats, stretches, compresses, contorts. Sound always brings a difference into the world, and is associated with sometimes painful change or disruption. Sound has a “gestalt of force,” to borrow a term that Bruce Smith borrows from Mark Johnson (Smith 199, 23; Johnson 1987, 41-64). It is for this reason, perhaps, that Aristotle uses the word “pathos” in describing sound in Book 3 of his De Anima. It may be this very power of unbalancing settled states of affairs that suggests the possibility that sound itself might be subjected to or itself have powers to balance and steady. Thus, the psychoanalyst Oscar Isakower (1939) makes much of the vestibular function of the inner ear, suggested that the coincidence of location of hearing and balance may account for an association between the ideas of power and truth projected on to the figure of the superego and the voice.

Sound is both process and object of pathos. Sound is produced by pathos – suffering, agitation – and reproduces it in others. The psyche seems more at risk from excessive sound, sound that threatens what William Niederland calls “auditory extinction” (1958, 474), than from any other sensory input, except perhaps the excessiveness of touch we register as pain. Sound itself may also appear to be subjected to these processes, as though sound were both the assaulted body of the world and the cry of pain it emits. Sound is closely and recurrently associated with the deliberate application of pain to the body. In the contest of Apollo and Marsyas, a sonorous victory leads to a literal flaying away of the organ of touch. The association of sound and violent touch is prominent in the practices of penal and sexual flagellation. An enquirer to Notes and Queries in 1866, mindful possibly of Aristotle’s remarks about the pathos of sound, asked readers to help him locate the passage in which Aristotle recommends the use of a lighter cane in the punishment of young slaves, since “the reverberation of the lighter rod made its strokes more stinging and severe than had a heavier instrument of punishment been used” (“Quaere” 1866). (None of the readers of Notes and Queries seem to have been able to supply the reference.)

Hearing has the reputation of being more passive than seeing. The association of hearing with feeling rather than cognition probably comes from our modern sense that feelings happen to us rather than being willed or subject to conscious direction. This has sometimes impelled claims that a culture based more around sound and hearing than around sight might be a gentler, more participative, less dominative culture (Fiumara 1990). The strong association between cultural acoustics and ecology would seem to offer further evidence of this irenic dimension of the ear. However, the pathos involved in sound can itself have two contrasting sides or dimensions. Hearing is not always listening, which is to say, silent, reserved, withdrawn, passive or alert responsiveness to sound. Most of the time, hearing is accompanied by different kinds of action, most typically, perhaps in the production of sound in speech, which is perhaps best thought of as a kind of continuous, indistinguishable composite of hearing and speaking, rather than a simple, s to speak, deaf production of sound. Just as we cannot speak without listening or overhearing ourselves, so we cannot listen without taking in to ourselves the sounds we hear. Hearing always operates to some degree on both sides of the active-passive, productive-receptive dichotomy. This means that hearing can participate in both forms of the sadism of sound, which is to say domination exercised both through sound, and exercised over it. The one who barks a demand or screams an insult is using sound as a weapon to effect his will; but the means whereby this is effected is through an assault on sound itself. Sound is imagined in the same-two-sided way as skin: both as that which touches and that which is touched; both a medium through which we feel and as something that is itself subject to touching and assault.

Certainly there is as much evidence of violence in an oral-aural culture as there is in a visual-alphabetic culture. Walter Ong (1981) makes it clear that the very difficulty of holding on to time which is a feature of oral-aural cultures can result in formulaic rigidity and occasional outbreaks of ungovernable rage. The distance and objectifying power that may strike us as inseparable from the regime of the eye are also what provide the space of reserve and withdrawal against the sadism or violence of hearing, a space that shrinks, for example, in the experience of some paranoid schizophrenics subject to the appalling tortures of sounds and voices from which it is impossible to retreat.


4. Hand to Mouth

The modes of touch that I distinguished earlier in this essay; measure, pitch and temper, may be thought of in terms of how we are affected by what touches us. But touch doubles the duplicity of hearing, in that it has an active or executive side as well as a passive. Just as we have the capacity to touch as well as the susceptibility to being touched, we also have the capacity to produce sound as well as to receive it. There seems to be a striking homology between the power to send out voice, and other sounds of the body, into the world, and the executive power possessed by the hand. The hand and the voice cooperate with and in part become each other. The history of attempts to prove universal patterns of oral enactment in language, ultimately deriving from the idea that spoken language replaced gesture language when the hands were full – the association of “i” sounds with littleness in English, for example, or, even more improbably, the smoothing action of the mouth to convey the idea of “flatness,” by having the tongue “outstretched in the bottom of the mouth… [while] drawing the top or front of the tongue backwards from the teeth to a velar position” (Jóhanneson 1958, 9) testify to the recurrent will-to-belief in the power of this “primal cavity” (Spitz 1955) to dance out space and shape.

Although we are accustomed to thinking of touch as focussed on the hand, the most active and exploratory portion of the skin, a primary association of hearing and touch is formed, not on the exterior skin, but in the interior skin of the mouth. For it is in the mouth that we form our first sounds, and may at first apprehend sound as a sort of plastic tangibility: the burring of the lips, the sibilant puffs of air between teeth and tongue, the uvular gulps and gurgles. Sound and touch meet, mingle and part, in the mouth.

Once again ventriloquism provides us with an enactment of this relation. In archaic ventriloquism, the performer would attempt to create the illusion of being nowhere near his voice, of throwing his voice out of his reach. In modern ventriloquism, the performer keeps a grip on the voice that he pretends to put away from his mouth. His hand operates the dummy, dancing along to the play of his vocalisations. For those watching the act of ventriloquial dummy-performance, what is being suggested (without in fact ever being shown), is the idea that one might be literally manipulating a voice, squeezing. extruding and palpating the sound into being, just as the nineteenth-century performer Professor Faber seemed to as he pressed the keys that operated the wheezing vocal apparatus he named Euphonia (Hollingshead 1895, I: 67-9). The hand of the ventriloquist becomes a vocal apparatus. No more intimate and delightful a mirroring and interchange between the postures of the mouth and of the hand occurs than in the glove puppet. Hogarth illustrates an early version of this kind of puppet in which the mouth is formed simply by the seam between thumb and index finger, and a number of ventriloquial performers have specialised in this kind of “soft dummy.” What is a muppet, after all, than the mumbling together of the two words “mouth” and “puppet”? The shape that most people mime in the air when evoking ventriloquial performance involves a crooking of the wrist and elbow and the performance of a pecking motion with the fingers and thumb, indicating clearly enough the fantasy of a hand that reaches through the body of the dummy. Ventriloquism with a dummy gives us the mouth rendered as an oral hand; the dummy is an oral allegory.

There is, perhaps, no more ubiquitous example of the persistence of tactility in the age of apparent technical disembodiment than the microphone. The sound of the microphone is a touched sound. It not only selectively amplifies the noises of the mouth’s own slidings, impacts, poppings and palpations, it also joins to these noises the sound of the tactile contact between the mouth and itself: the bangs, bumps and scratches. The distinction between classical and popular performance has come to be a distinction between self-projective singing at a distance from the microphone and close, wet and “dirty” proximity to it. It is appropriate that so many performers should seem to wish to incorporate the microphone into their singing, when the microphone has already been made into so obvious an extension of the oral apparatus. Few have missed the phallic significance of the microphone, especially when mounted on its own prosthetic support, the microphone stand. But the phallic aspect of the masturbatory relation may be less important, or at least less interesting, than its manual aspect. The grippings, bendings, brandishings and more violent repertoire of “tactations” effected upon the microphone seems to enact the determination that the production of sound should be not so much highly and spectacularly visible, as visibly tangible, a plastic work of hands and mouth combined, an exteriorisation of the minor agon of sound production in the mouth.


5. Hard and Soft

The mouth presents a particularly complex and fascinating tactual landscape, in terms of the different shapes and textures which cooperate to produce sound. The role of the teeth in the mouth is particularly striking. Teeth seem alien elements within the mouth, their hardness and impersonality making them seem older, stranger and less truly of oneself than the fleshier, more elastic and more sensitive portions of the mouth, especially the mouth’s most mobile element, the tongue, which is so continuously at risk from the teeth’s harsh inattention. The teeth are the hard in the soft. They are the fundamental means of transforming the not-self into the self. Language is born, not with the accession to the symbolic order, but with the growth of the teeth. Adult words, as opposed to the toddler’s shrieking, lisping and gurgling, can be formed in one’s mouth only when there are teeth to capture them and chop them up.

Ventriloquism dramatises the contrast between the hard and the soft mouth. Most ventriloquial figures have not been soft, but hard. The woodenness of dummies has often been associated with their unfeelingness, their violence. The contemporary ventriloquial performer David Strassman is like many in having a hard and a soft, a nice and a nasty character – Chuck Wood is violent, demonic, grotesque, unnaturally precocious, while Huggy Bear is cosy and furry (and subject, we are led to believe, to violent mistreatment by his wooden sibling). Strassman manufactures a familiar sassy voice full of strident attack for Chuck Wood and a dopy, dozy, rural voice for Huggy Bear. Edgar Bergen similarly played the hard and the soft voice out into a distinction between the streetwise city-kid Charlie MacCarthy and the sluggishly rustic Mortimer Snerd. We may think of the distinction between these two characters in terms of Bacon’s distinction, quoted earlier, between the cut, or articulated voice, and that insufficiently-voiced voice which is a mere contusion of air in the mouth. There is a sexual dimension, too: the hardened voice spits itself out, while the soft voice chews its own cud in autoerotic fashion. When we say that the voice is a matter of articulation, it is never quite clear whether our emphasis is on the idea of breaking up, or on the idea of the joining together of what has been broken up. Recurring through all of these contrasts between the hard, hyper-articulated voice, and the soft mumblings of the imperfectly-delivered voice, is the antagonism of teeth and soft tissue in the mouth. The teeth are not involved in the production of all consonants, but the stopping or blocking of the breath always seems to involve the hardness that is the quality of the teeth. Hence the links, on which I attempted to enlarge in the final chapter of myDumbstruck, between ventriloquism and anatomy, mutilation and surgery. (The dentist’s chair was itself a very popular ventriloquial setting in the nineteenth century.) Ventriloquism is always more than a touching: it is a tearing, a cutting, a severing.

Ventriloquism acts out in advance some of the violent imaginary assaults upon the idea of continuous bodily shape which are characteristic of cinema. Douglas Kahn has suggested that sound accompanies and redoubles the stretching of the body which is characteristic of Disney cartoons, the quality of “plasmation” which struck Eisenstein. The function of sound in cinema, he says, is not to highlight, or punctuate, or distinguish, but to blend, associate and transform, seeming to heal the violence involved in cutting.

Sound stretching across the cut drew from the same elastic force that worked on bodies. In terms of cinematic montage, sound did not resemble a suture, which as a figure is too inscriptive, it resembled a gum or a glue, an adhesion that could stretch. (Kahn 1999, 150)Cartoons reveal by exaggeration the sonoro-tactile pathos of cinema. Cinema is driven, not by lip-synched dialogue, but by certain violent sound-tactations, six grades of which may be distinguished: the kiss, the punch, the cut, the shot, the crash and the explosion. Contemporary cinema, especially action-cinema, is conspicuously full of Deleuze’s sound-images, images which have been, so to speak, moulded or penetrated by sound; imagings of violent sound agitating, blasting holes in, bursting out of the ideal, embattled “dream-screen” (Lewin 1946). I have elsewhere (‘Sounding Out Film) described the ‘mutative commixture of substance’ of which so much cinema sound seems to consist. But the very tactility which cinema promises, the ecstatic collapse of projective seeing into loud, blinded touch, preserves that reference to the skin (the sounding tympanum), even as it dissolves the film – the pellicule, as it is in French – that is the support of sight.

Perhaps the many mediations and magnifications of sound in contemporary culture are an assault on shape, on the possibility that stimuli might be held or articulable on some membrane or ground. We have lost, we might think – but we have enjoyed losing – the coordinates of in and on, in favour of the archaic-new coordinates of the “among.” But sound always seems to carry touch with it, perhaps more than ever in our era of “disembodying” – the preservative touching within the pathos that destroys touch. But touch will always preserve the something to be touched: the skin of the world, the skin which joins us to the world.

If our culture of sound technology is one of cut and paste, then indeed it may be sound which provides the paste, the emulsification, which can join together what those same technologies of sound capture have parted. I have pointed to the close analogy in human experience between manuality and orality – the purpose of our hands being after all in our beginnings to grasp and convey to our mouths objects of our hunger and curiosity. But there is a closer analogy still. Acting as this imaginary paste or rubbery adhesive, sound not only exudes a universal imaginary skin, it also seems to refer the actions of manipulation – the drawing out and distortion of bodily forms by the hands and fingers of the artist and the editor – to actions of mastication: the ideal joining of substances in the baby’s mouth which corresponds to the joining of skins at the breast. The play of teeth and soft tissue in the mouth reenacts the primal divisions and amalgamations of sound in the animated cinema or in the practice of montage, the teeth tearing and morcelising, the tongue rolling and folding and blending. (All of this implicates the remaining two senses, of tasting and smelling. Speech is an idealised form of self-consumption, self-tasting. Speech is a way of consuming your own mouth without annihilating it, tasting your own mouth without swallowing it. Speaking eats itself, is a way for you to eat yourself.)

Like fingernails and toenails and hair, teeth seem to have no sensation. And yet, unlike those other forms of tissue, we can and do feel through our teeth. We feel our teeth and feel through them because we can hear with them. Hearing is the mode of tactility of our teeth, the way in which teeth feel. For most of us, the pain of the dentist’s chair is inseparable from its characteristically concentrated and amplified sounds. The unpleasant sensation caused in many people by the sound of fingernails drawn across a blackboard – even just the thought of this sound – is described as “setting one’s teeth on edge.” In this sensation, one hears the sound of the fingernails through one’s teeth, establishing a close, enactive analogy between teeth and fingernails. This sensation is not wholly localised in the mouth, but also involves the prickling or raising of the skin. Perhaps it also involves the subtle cooperation of hair with teeth. For, just as teeth convert sound into sensation by transmitting and amplifying it, so hair also transmits and amplifies sensation, especially delicate sensations like the movement of air or breath. I do not know if the hair has ever been shown to have any role in the transmission of sound to the skin, but the cat’s-whisker radio-receiver is one enactment of this imaginary sense of the hair as the receiver and magnifier of sound sensation.

As the mediators between the skull and the mouth, the teeth play a large part in effecting that short-circuiting of speaking and hearing which is essential to notions of identity in the West. This short-circuiting, which seems to allow for a contact between the mouth and the ear that is faster and more direct than that delivered by the airborne sound of the voice, also makes for the dream of the mouth itself as a kind of ear. Teeth have long been implicated in the idea of the mouth as a receiver as well as an emitter of sound, for example in the many stories of radio signals picked up by the fillings in one’s teeth, stories that we may read as the reclaiming or rehabituating of what Douglas Kahn has called the “deboned” voices of modern sound technology (Kahn 1999, 7).

Teeth seem to be involved in the transition from the touched sound of a pre-recording era and the untouched sound of a post-recording era. This is because teeth represent an alternative route into the ear, or even a way of short-circuiting the ear. It is said that the deaf Beethoven gripped between his teeth to convey the sounds of the piano to him. Similarly, Thomas Edison would champ on the wood of a gramophone in order to hear faint overtones that, as he claimed in a 1913 interview, were normally lost before they reached the inner ear:

The sound-waves thus came almost directly to my brain. They pass through only my inner ear. I have a wonderfully sensitive inner ear… [that] has been protected from the millions of noises that dim the hearing of ears that hear everything… No one who has a normal ear can hear as well as I can. (“Edison’s Dream,” 798)Edison’s other method of monitoring sound was to inspect the grooves incised by the actively listening tooth of the stylus: he was particularly alert to the visual distortions of line produced by the tremolo effects he so disliked (Israel 1998, 437). The use of teeth represent a markedly active way of taking in sound: a listening that is also a kind of aggressive consuming. One of the most remarkable of the sensory conversion-machines produced in the wake of the telephone and the phonograph was Edison’s “phonomotor,” which would turn sound impulses into rotary motion; Edison hoped to be able to make his machine powerful enough to bore through wood (Israel 1998, 152).

These applications of teeth may be seen both as a primal resort to the medium of touch, the earliest, because the most proximate medium of sensory contact, in which hearing is only possible at the cost of speech, and also as a rewiring of the body’s hearing-speaking circuitry which anticipates or mimics some of the mechanisms of modern sound production. Beethoven’s stick is a stylus; Edison’s teeth are in part an aerial. Beethoven’s stick, along with hearing trumpets and other devices for channelling and amplifying sound, are reversible speaking ears: they gather and concentrate sound in order to broadcast it inwards into the body. Nowadays hearing aids – Edison called his versions “autophones” – work with electronic versions of this acoustic structure. The very minerality of the teeth, that which makes them seem inorganic and archaic, strangers in the most intimate parts of ourselves, also renders them sensitive to the most rarefied auditory signals, receiving and amplifying vibrations. By bypassing the outer ear, the teeth highlight the role of the ear as a transmitting station, in something of the way that Michel Serres evokes when describing the involuted structure of the ear, which transform the “hardness” of exterior sounds into the “softness” of information or meaning:

In this new trap, the hard is made soft: the box defends itself against unfamiliar assaults, deaf to all that exceeds its powers; the membrane of the tympanum presents a skin surface to the outside and a membrane of mucous to the inside, the skin harder and the mucous softer, separated in the milieu of the membrane by a more resistant armature; the acoustic wave emanating from a shock changes into a chemical signal carrying the information electrically towards the centre… What centre? Does this box receive or transmit? To hear means to vibrate, but vibrating means emitting. Unfold the cochlea, for example, and an inverted piano appears, on which high and low are inscribed from left to right. But a piano sounds, it does not hear. The reasoning continues; The ear needs a more central ear in order to hear what is transmitted by the three ears, the external, the median and the internal, which are heard in succession. The centre hears. What centre? (Serres 1999, 182-3)Serres imagines the senses as part of a cluster or network of black boxes each synthesising a noisy, “hard” input and yielding it up as a “soft,” or informational output. But the senses do not merely move in this direction. The softening of sensation into information – what Serres calls the progressive ad-diction of the body to language – may be accompanied by knottings or clusterings of the hard in the soft, as information is returned to sensation in the mode of pathos, the mode of collision, the mode of the “mixed body.” It is hearing, its organ a magical transformer of hard skin into the soft touch of sensation which preserves the complex, unintegrated language of the senses, the way in which we are spoken to by the world in which we participate.

Serres’s use of sound and hearing to provide an image of a labyrinthine delay in the entropic conversion of hard into soft, is anticipated by Barthes’s arguments about the immanence of the body in music, song and certain modes of speech. Barthes connects the apprehension of the “grain of the voice” in music with a new kind of listening which he believes is coming into being. Primary listening involves “listening out” – for signs of danger. In a second stage, listening becoming a forensic or hermeneutic sense, a way of detecting unseen secrets. Like Serres, Barthes centres on the image of the ear, the “folds and detours” of which appear to prolong the contact between the individual and the world, while in fact acting to reduce and synthesise. The ear “receives the greatest possible number of impressions and channels them toward a supervising center of selection and decision…[I]t is essential…that what was confused and undifferentiated becomes distinct and pertinent” (Barthes 1991, 248). The third stage of listening, into which Barthes hopes that we are now entering, is instanced both in the everyday use of the telephone, and in the alert openness of psychoanalytic listening. Barthes says that the telephone is an instrument which “has abolished all senses except that of hearing,” but straight away contradicts himself in his characterisation of its effects and capacities: “the order of listening which any telephonic communication inaugurates invites the other to collect his whole body in his voice and announces that I am collecting all of myself in my ear” (Barthes 1991, 252). In telephonic listening, the body is not abolished into meaning, but collected and preserved, in the soft touch within the act of communication. The telephone leads, via an approving appropriation of Freud’s own appropriation of it as a model of psychoanalytic listening, to Barthes’s evocation of a new mode of open and intersubjective listening, which is at once a foretaste of a new sensory dispensation, and a return “at another loop of the historical spiral, to the conception of a panic listening, as the Greeks, or at least as the Dionysians, had conceived it” (Barthes 1991, 258). Although Barthes is often attentive to the pathos of sound – its buffeting, or lacerating force – it is the soft, plasmatic body which dominates in this new, dialogic listening, in which hearing and speaking peacefully, erotically alternate.

This phantasmatic soft body, held in suspension in the synaesthetic coilings of the ear, between the inside and the outside, the self and the other, the dominative distance of the eye and the immersive melding of substance in taste and smell, governs much of the return to hearing of which we are currently hearing. One way of interpreting the pressure of touch in contemporary hearing is as a restoration of this equilibrium in the face of the extreme disembodiment of hearing, a reclaiming of the proximal tactility of the here-and-now body. But it would be better for us not to think in terms of such relations of simple equilibrium (while noting that equilibrium is a tactual metaphor in itself – for in what scale might one weigh hearing and sight?) The more apparently distanced, disembodied or deboned a sound might seem to be, the more substantial, the more bodily our relations find a way of becoming.

We will mistake if we try to use the history of the senses as a way of softening the rigor mortis of a social body that we imagine has gone deaf and dumb, blind and numb. If there seems to be plentiful evidence of a demand to “feel the noise,” for sonoro-tactile pathos, this need not be taken as evidence of a deficit to be made good in the social body. Sound and hearing are not the coil of parchment which will bring the social Golem back to breathing, responsive life. We should give up thinking of a culture or collectivity as a kind of super-body, a scaled-up sensorium, and give up thinking of a history of the senses as a way to restore to us the soft, lived body of a culture. There is no such sensorial church, no summary social body that could feel these quantities of plenitude or need. The body of a culture is, in Serres’s phrase, a mixed body. It is neither hard nor soft, though it is made up of intricate passages between them. It is not an orchestra, but the shimmering body of a multitude; it has the kind of mobile, diffuse intactness possessed by a swarm, or shoal, or horde or cloud. We cannot bring it any more, or less, to life than it already is.


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