Saturday, 21 December 2013

"Tell me about your mother" - Xpression App and The Vagus Nerve

Thanks to Anja Kanngieser for flagging this up. - Xpression is a smartphone app that "listens for telltale changes in a person's voice that indicate whether they are in one of five emotional states: calm, happy, sad, angry or anxious/frightened. It then lists a person's moods against the times they change, and automatically emails the list to their psychologist at the end of the day."

The obvious question here is: do all voices change in the same manner when a persona is happy or stressed - I do not think so. Voice changes when a person is happy or sad but not all peoples voices change in the same way (Anecdotally, I know my voice sounds calm when my adrenalin surges, I'm not sure why this happens but it bemuses my friends and family who I have to call after things like exams, car crashes, accidents etc... but then my voice sounds nervous generally!) So whilst increased blood pressure, or tension, or sympathetic nervous system changes may alter the physiological components that are involved in making voice I would suggest that voice changes in a unique way for everyone. The vocal change is unique to the individual precisely because voice is firstly a sound of many different parts of the body interacting. Secondly because despite the voice not being reducible to these parts; the sum of these parts do not make voice, voice is always an excess as well as the sum of parts of the vocal apparatus. Alfred A Tomatis knows this well, even in his reductionist pursuit of understanding singing, taking account of diet, posture, athleticism, mouth shape and vocal tract size he still admits that lifestyle, well being and emotions play a major part in determining the nature of voice - in effect he reconciles the excess of voice with some general grey zones. (see The Ear and The Voice).

One particular peculiarity of vocal production that points to why our voices change under stress or elation is the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve is strange, it loops round the aorta, taking the long way round as if it got snagged as our hearts moved in the process of bi-pedalism. It controls many aspects of speech production but also stimulates other organs such as the stomach, sphincter, gall bladder, as you may guess, the Vagus nerve plays a major role for both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system responses (which is why Tomatis proposes singing as a means to combat "neuropsychological imbalances"). Likewise, just as singing may be able to sooth an imbalance in the stimulations from the Vagus nerve, its influence can go the other way too - we see and hear this all the time, breaking voices, stutters, confused speech motor skills etc. But, there is still no direct connection between emotions, the body and voice, there may be a neuro/motor/bio-logical constellation of empirical causations and influences to map out but these will always be subject to the ultimate status of the voice - as an excess, it is everything we are, and a little bit more - always irreducible to our clunking bodies and the organs we employ for the production of voice. There is certainly not uniformity across peoples vocal changes either.

The use of technology to listen, to reduce our voice to content and differ-ences is perhaps the manifestation of our bodies being required to adhere to formats. Technology has mothered and listened, but it also insists on a format: 0/1. Berardi comments on how our speech is learnt in a heavily technological environment: "For the first time in human history there is a generation that has learnt more words and heard more stories from the television machine than from its mother." - FB - PR. pp.36-37. And Connor comments about how from a very early stage our voice is augmented, amplified and transported by technology:

"Much of this book has been written in the early mornings to the accompaniment of the cries, gurgles, and babble of my youngest son, whose room is equipped, like that of many young children, with an intercom alarm. Joe's early-developed capacity to summon his mother and me to his presence through the power of his voice has been considerably enhanced by this technology. It is tempting to feel that the meanings and powers of the voice for this particular young child have been affected by his growing awareness of the powers of the little plastic box in his room to enhance the already magically extensive powers of his voice" (cue Home Alone scene)

In a sense, because of the ubiquity of technology we owe much of our voice to technology. It has been modulated and afforded by media and communication networks.

The Xpression app rests on many presumed reductions. Of uniform reactions to emotional or biological states, and the reducibility of the voice. But I think its reductionism plays into the Turklean concept of being alone together. Technologies like Xpression play into, or performatively elucidate, how we want our voices to be ours and to be listened to, we feel we are responsible for our voices and that these voices tell others something special about us. Whereas our voice is never ours, but leads a strange life of autonomy from our control and our body (hence Connor's What I Say Goes). Also for human listening, the hidden nuances of voice do not 'tell' or 'communicate' on an empirical basis, but rather, on the subjective basis of the listeners intuition (how many troubled singers voices are made infinitely more bittersweet by our knowledge our the singers misfortunes?). Xpression shows our (Turklean) anthropologizing of the machine, we want a machine to understand us, like a mother's subjective audition may sense distress in the night. Machines have played a role in teaching us how to speak and allowing us to be heard, we want them to listen too now.

In the first chapter of Cold Intimacies Illouz explores how the therapists strategies of listening have migrated into managerial practices under capitalism. A good manager must, before all else, be able to listen. In todays world, with our heavy subjectivities, plethora of concerns, short time and attention the desire to be listened to manifests itself through technology and business. The Xpression app is the poor surogate, the Harlow wireframe mother, the app cannot listen, but only read and identify particular patterns.

(There is a riff to be made here about Ted Bundy's relationship to listening and reading, his mother would type all his school work, Ted would dictate. I half-want to suggest that Ted was read and not listened too, but this judgement is perhaps a touch too quick.. nonetheless - P.18 Ted Bundy Conversations with a Killer is fascinating along with P.21. I'm not suggesting any 'family values' correlation between his crimes and his early years - what intrigues me is his frustration over the surface play of language.  There is a big difference between being listened to and being merely read, and some of Bundy's comments and the Xpression app highlight this.)

Monday, 16 December 2013

Heather Phillipson & Erik Bünger

Heather Phillipson's "polyrhythmic swim-time in a bath of unspilled feelings" really struck a chord with me, evoking so many thoughts about the tyranny of language and corporeal co-ordination - swimming as speech! Swimming as speech in that one has to badly and awkwardly co-ordinate all these body parts (mouth, arms and lungs) together to do something they were not "evolved for" or "meant for" - swimming or speaking! I also pondered about lane control as bio-politics and language. The LOAF/LOVE punning and life guard segments made me recall concepts of occularcentricism and faciality - life guards as gods who you can never see but only idealise and mis-hear and set their mis heard orders to false mantras. Also rhythmic control and lane choice, in facialized conversation we cannot help but rhythm match, just like swimmers! All these notions are fascinating, but especially so when held in hand with the aspect of her performance - speaking alongside her piece.

I urge you to visit her website to watch some of the other videos, in particular A is to D what E is to H is excellent and focuses on the overlap of eating and speaking, there are also shades of eucharistian cannibalism.

Whilst "polyrhythmic swim-time in a bath of unspilled feelings" provoked many musing on voice, language, occularcentricism, bio-politics and social control there are two particular videos that may be interesting for anyone on the Sex, Gender, Species course; the "Well This Is Embarrassing" excerpts one and two.

Heather mentioned another artist to me, Erik Bünger. His videos are excellent too. I urge you to watch three particular excepts of his films on his site:

A Lecture On Schizophrenia
The Third Man
The Girl Who Never Was

I think all of these videos/pieces will resonate with the texts on vocalities. Siren themes, Echo and Narcissus themes, vocal subjectivity themes, Technological modulation themes, haunting technology themes, engendering voice themes etc etc.

I know this post has been scatty, I'm simply too excited by these films at present but wanted to share them so they could be watched and thought about over the holiday.

Lastly, I'll bow out with a Bifo quote (although I heard him in a talk say this quote is actually an observation from Rose Goldsen's book, The Show & Tell Machine):

"For the first time in human history there is a generation that has learnt more words and heard more stories from the television machine than from its mother." - FB - PR. pp.36-37.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Haunted Apparatus

Forgive me for posting Radio 4, but this could be a lightly interesting documentary about the uncanniness of the telephone. On tonight (14/12/13) at 8pm... contains Chuck Palahniuk

Reminds me of Long Distance Call, a great Twilight Zone episode where a young boy talks to his recently deceased grandmother on the telephone. For most of the episode his parents, as ever, try to talk him out of his illogical conviction and blame his imagination and grief for the problem. Nevertheless, the boy swears he can talk to grandma. At the end of the episode his mother snatches the telephone from him and, upon putting it to her ear, exclaims "It is her, I recognise her breathing!" Great episode, can't find it online but you can probably torrent it.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Knowledge Exchange Lecture: Marc Couroux

As part of the Common;sense online platform, we have now started a knowledge exchange between PhD/MA students and anyone interested in presenting and discussing ideas.

The last event before the holidays will be on:


Professor and schizophonic magic(k)ian Mark Couroux from York University Toronto will speak of neoliberal modes of capture operating in the audio-visual register, which he pressures via infra-medial practices and technologies of (as yet un)lived experience. | |

In preparation for the lecture check out Marc Couroux's PREEMPTIVE GLOSSARY FOR A TECHNO-SONIC CONTROL SOCIETY (WITH LINES OF FLIGHT) here: