Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Voice in Bubbles

Here's a vococentric snippet from a longer post here about Peter Sloterdijk's 'Bubbles'

Secondly, and almost contradictory, in each of Sloteridjk’s metaphorical springboards of theory and his jerry rigging of countless conveniently homogenous examples, one can find exciting seams of thought provoking re-readings. The Siren Stage chapter is particularly fascinating for me; for after many weeks of enthralling but (distinctly Lacanian) voco-phronesis his approach to the Voice’s genesis via in-utero (specifically skeletal resonance through the mothers pelvis bone) aurality felt like a revelation, I may have paused for a moment or two to digest what I was reading, there may be critically important phenomena concerning aurality and voco-centric perception before a child is born, let alone the mirror phase:

“Recent psychoacoustic research, especially that of the French otorhinolaryngologist and psycholinguist Alfred Tomatis and his school, has attempted a suggestive explanation of the unusual selectivity of the human ear that manifests itself in the siren effect. Not only do these investigations in the human auditory sense and it’s evolution show beyond doubt that unborn children can already hear extremely well because of the ear’s early development – possibly from the embryonic stage onwards, and certainly in the second half of pregnancy; in addition, there are impressive observations showing that this early listening ability does not result in the fetus being passively at the mercy of the mother’s sonic inner life, or the water-filtered voices and noises of the outside world. Rather, the fetal ear already develops the ability to find it’s bearings in the ever-present, invasive sonic environment actively through independent, lively listening and non-listening. As Tomatis untiringly emphasizes, the child’s stay in the womb would be unbearable without the specific ability not to listen and to mute large areas of noices, as the mother’s heartbeat and digestive sounds, heard in such close proximity, would be like the noise from a 24-hour building site or lively barroom conversation. If the child did not learn to avert it’s ears at an early stage, it would be ravaged by permanent noise torture.” (Sloterdijk, 2011, pp. 501-502)

Allegedly Tomatis has shown that the unborn child has selective hearing, it ignores the cacophony of respiratory hummings and digestive gurglings in order to be at peace. However there is an more intriguing effect of this in-utero aural selectivity: in-utero vococentricism as subject creation (!):

“The child’s state as the object of the mother’s expectations is conveyed by the audio-vocal means to the fetal ear, which, upon hearing the greeting sound, unlocks itself completely and takes up the sonorous invitation. By adopting a posture of listening, the happy and active ear devotes itself to the words of welcome. In this sense, devotion is the subject-forming act par excellence, for devoting oneself means rousing oneself into the necessary state of alertness to open up to the sound that concerns you. (…)
From the subject’s earliest beginnings, the ray of intentionality with which it “relates” itself to something given has an echo character. Only because it is intended by the mother’s voice can it intend the enlivening voice itself. The audio-vocal pact creates a two-way traffic in a ray; enlivening forces are answered with a rising of the self to liveliness” (Sloterdijk, 2011, pp. 504-505)

“Because it is able to listen, the fetal ear can selectively highlight the mothers affirming voice amid the constant intrauterine noise. In this gesture the incipent subject experiences a euphoriant stimulation; according to Tomatis, it is the overtones of the mother’s soprano voice in particular that offer an irresistible stimulus of joy. To make these claims plausible, Tomatis interpreted the mother’s entire body as a musical instrument – albeit one that does not serve to play a piece to the listener, but rather brings about the original tuning of the ear. The transmission of high and extremely high frequencies in the soft, sound-swallowing bodily milieu is enabled, according to Tomatis, by the unusual conductivity and resonant quality of the skeleton; the mothers pelvis in particular is supposedly capable of conveying the subtlest high frequency vibrations of the mother’s voice to the child’s ear like the back of a cello. This ear listens at the mothers pelvic floor and spine as a curious visitor listens at a door behind which he suspects delightful presents. What the little guest cannot yet know is that this listening is its own reward, and that seeking to reach the other side would be futile. The joy of anticipation already contains the wealth of the enjoyable” (Sloteridijk, 2011, pp. 507)


“This shows that humans emerge without exception from a vocal matriarchy: this is the psychological reason for the siren effect. But while Homer’s Sirens produce sweet obituaries, the mother’s siren voice is anticipatory: it prophesizes a sounding fate for the child. In listening to it the fetal hero embarks on his own odyssey. The irreplaceable voice utters an immediately self-fulfilling prophecy: “you are welcome” or “you are not welcome”. Thus the mother’s vocal frequency becomes a Last Judgment shifted back to the beginning of life.” (Sloteridjk, 2011, pp. 508-509).

There is, or course a rather obvious connection here to the original acousmatic voice and its cropping up in literature and film, the original source-less vocal in The Wizard of Oz, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (Prince Myshkin listening behind the door) and Door scene in Stevensons The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: “"Ah, that's not Jekyll's voice--it's Hyde's!" cried Utterson. "Down with the door, Poole!"”. However, the idea of the matriarchal voice, selectively perceived through an intrauteral skeletal resonance, as the original moment of subject formation feels radical. Firstly because it departs with the well worn, western, and ocular-centric mirror stage, but more interestingly because it leads me to connect this original voice, to language – in particular to the relationship of vowel howls in language, and the mechanistically cranial dominance of consonants.

In reference my own musing’s around Vowel Stripped Tic-Talk of “the excavation of the vowel as screaming, howling primordial remnant” and “the dichotomy or extimacy of consonants and vowels as another manifestation of the conflict at the core of language, or conflict of the animal and flesh against order and post anthropoid communication constructs” I have a question to pose. Wouldn’t the soprano tones of the original matriarchal voice be vowels? Can such violent consonantal/vowel splices such as “Kcht” , “PPh” or “St” resonate though to the fetal hero via the mother’s skeletal vocal door? I doubt it.  So, I’d like to add to Sloteridjk’s observations of the original “subject-forming act par excellence”  and propose that, on top of being pre-mirror stage, the catalyst, the core of this intrauteral voco/aural revelation for the fetus is a vowel, and not a consonant. In regard to this I’d like to re-think the previous texts I’ve studied concerning the voice – for example, when Roland Barthes speaks of “The Grain of The Voice”- is he referring to the consonants as well? The dyadic relation ship of consonantal brutality inflicted upon the original vowel is, for me at least, emerging as an important dyad within the dyad of the voice.

Also - in light of this, I felt I ought to re-diagrammatize the voice diagram, I have removed the circle that denotes voice, as voice is spectral. I have also merged the different territories of voice so that their confluences can be thought around more. I have tried to label where Tic-Talk and intrautero original voice fits in. Don't ask me to label presence!


  1. This is REALLY interesting T. I need to get me some Sloteridjk. Particularly like your reference to 'ontological weather' - nice!

    Was thinking in the session this week about the mother's voice as Acousmatic. By Chion's definition this does check out, as the concealment / revelation aspect seems so wedded to the orifice / cavity / source of the sound rather than just to the visibility of the body... however perhaps it is arguable (more along the lines of the "Skin Ego" 'immersive & sonic dimension of subject formation' that Steve cited and indeed what crops up in your piece... that the foetus is VERY aware of the source of the maternal voice via proximity to corporeal details - bones, pelvis, organ's, spine etc... (barthes again)

    I reckon there are just as many disacousmatizations that occur without emphasis on the mouth - musical instruments for example - which i suppose fits with the analogy cited in the Sloteridjk ...

    Am basically trying to organise in my head where this mother/speaker - foetus/listener relation fits in the acousmatic model. Does it shift or diminish the power of the maternal voice? I don't think so but seems like a readjustment is needed... thoughts??

  2. Whoa - lots there. The whole mother/speaker - foetus/listener relationship is not too straight forward, as ever there are schisms along the way - precisely because the voice is horridly autonomous from body and also presence.

    Acousmatic is just a sound without a source, without a visible source, so thunder is often acousmatic....for our fetal hero (god I love that phrase) is everything is acousmatic - ? However, at this moment of selective hearing subjectivity is created, if something makes a sound (even if you can see it or not) it is a something, a thing that you are not - this is - I THINK - the creation of subjectivity, understanding you are a thing and that there is another thing there that you are not - Sloteridijk taking on massive ontological themes, what a don.... Thing is, if you track back to Dolar all the acousmatic refs are to gods voice - as male authoritarian voice (just to muddy things up a little).... you could argue that the deeper male voice resonating through the stomach and uterus IS the original other voice too, as it would not resonate through the pelvis but the body whole..... (1) - however I bet nowadays passing cars and urban dins take this prize through sheer ubiquity....

    ALSO - vowels are closer to acousmatic than consonants - thinkabaouttit - you can lip read th,sp, and ck, and tch.... but can you lip read EEEE or AAAA - vowels are resonance in breath, through the throat, consonants are teethly, lippy tonguey, facial, cranial things, that chop the warm vowels up! Tic-Talk! Also - think about flutes, and violins - you could, at a push argue about music (soft classical music, the type plato and aristotle despise and belittle as being too feminine - see my earlier ravings on those guys) BEING the original VOWEL!!! The mothers vowel! Ta-da!

    Skin Ego IS in the library, but it the special collections bit, annoyingly there was a class in there why I wanted to look at it - but year, sound like a dope tome that...

    (1)we could even crowbar in an freudian angle here, despite undercutting the typical post birth critical stages, about booty bass and why women respond more to bass... it's the father, and guys wan't their mother - total wacky digression.....

  3. God - Just think - the skeletal resounding voice VS the exterior male voice as an intrauterine sonic primer for the whole oedipal complex - I hope Sloterdijk doesn't read this, the whole Freud/Lacan 'dogma' is exactly what he's trying to undo!

  4. I think I go along with that aural/relational formation of subjectivity yes. And differentiation between the maternal body voice, external paternal voice and miscellaneous environmental noise is interesting to think through...there must be some scientific study on this????

    Re VOWELS - are they impossible to lip read? my S.I.T.R fetish would disagree.! There is ambiguity perhaps but no more so than with consonants - however I am by no means an expert on this.

    I meant to say also about the infant's reception of birth cries from the mother. What is the effect of this sound to the foetal listener?? An alarming change in pitch and register? Probably vowel heavy?? A point at which vocal communication begins?

    A mirror stage of screams??


      mmmmmm, and that's before we start questioning the reptilian aspect of the triune brain, binaural frequencies and infrasound... but guess this is straying off voice and on to audition.....

    2. Hmmmmm very interesting in terms of Laurie Anderson's work for next week - particularly this

  5. WOW - that VOWEL message in S.I.T.R. is quality - yours to post!. I'm no lip reader, but im pretty happy in saying that vowels are resonantal and breathy - they are much more deeply bodily than consonants... We can scream, moan and cry in vowels only. Our excitment, anger or fear is given away in the vowel, not the consonant?

    The mothers birth cries first being heard by the child on the outside in the world? I reckon that that'd be the first time that vaguely consonantal sounds are heard with the sounds from before - when consonantal utterances join tones, join vowels. According to how I understand the Sloterdijk the sonic mirror stage would've already been and gone - perhaps?

    I need to pin down mirror stages and the creation of subjectivity I think - a question for next week perhaps... if the mirror stage is the dawn of subjectivity - as some stuff on wiki leads me to believe -- or if it's not as straight forwards as that and is more about image and the symbolic order instead? Mmmm.

  6. Quick comment on the bass/ father thing, making a generalisation based on personal experience. I spent a lot of time in the dub scene in the early '90s - Jah Shaka, Mad professor, Scientist as well as Bush Chemists, Disciples and then the whole Wordsound thing... anyway, the personal observation is that the majority of males I knew in that scene had issues with their fathers. As i say, just a personal observation. There were fewer women so even more spurious but I don't know of any healthy father-daughter relationships, but I do know of a lot of mother-daughter issues.

    If i was to say anything, outside intra-uterine trauma (quick aside: Massive attack - Teardrop video), there may be an issue of intra-uterine safety that is later lost (a Lacanian lack).

    I thought of a test but it would have to go through serious ethical checking (I work with a group that has mental health survivors sit on ethics committees to double check psychology ethics) but one could look at the response to bass heavy music for people whose mothers had issues with their fathers (arguments etc) during pregnancy (thus breaking inter-uterine safety - I'll explain some Damasio on reply to comment on other bubbles post -), although their would be later cultural issues perhaps there may be a baseline respomnse that can be seen to be significant enough through the noise.

    Also with regards to this what do you two think of the effects of responses to sounds based on chemicals secreted by mothers stress responses with regard to this subject formation. ie loud bangs, or shoutsd, versus soothing sounds etc. The mother-child is in many ways at this stage a symbiote with regards brain chemical formation

  7. Hi SS - It's interesting you mention the effects of bass, in a seminar with steve goodman recently, he mentioned that women, generally, respond more to bass than men do - which would explain the increasingly prevalent uses of extreme bass in social control, the rumbler siren, military use etc etc, as these realms are, or tend to be quite male dominated, so conversely bass is thrown around in ever increasing degrees.... On the musical tip though he mentioned booty bass (mythopoiesthesizing? I don't know), a club music genre that is bass heavy and, er, supposedly appeals more to women - again, im slightly dubious of such straightforward connections though, I'd like to see some good old fashioned empirical data from relevant studies - if there are any. Don't bother googling booty bass, you don't get sub bass on you tube....

    The loss of our uterine companion (physical and metaphysically), our original twin is about 200 pages of Bubbles (it's the bi-bubble, the duo-bubble we later regain x ∞ -------we erect crosses as their graves and symbolise this loss through religion - Sloterdijk says. In fact the planting of the umbilical cord is a pretty prevalent practice across cultures and histories. To lump this altogther and call it a Lacanian lack would leave Sloterdijk seething as these rather narrative and western readings of subjectivities through psychoanalysis are exactly what he is trying to undo/re-think.

    Are there any interesting studies about the primal/mammalian/reptilian reactions (thinking triune brain again) and their effect on the unborn? Are frequencies that illicit a sympathetic nervous system response audible in utero - outside of the existing biological din? Are the chemical changes that these frequencies cause in the mother, (adrenaline and noradrenaline imma thinking) passed though to the umbilical cord quick enough to be associated with the frequencies? Rather than get bogged down in something that would require more than amateurish biology knowledge, for myself here, I be tempted to strafe around the biological pandoras box and pursue the sub-bass line (hoho), as I reckon this is felt, with little sensory distortion by both mother and child.... I guess the first lot dubstep babies are just about going to school now right? Mmmmmm