Conversations with the Voiceless Glass...
At the end of last month I finished a paper titled Conversations with the Voiceless Glass: Learned Glossolalia, Conduit Speech and the Machinic Grain, which explored our contemporary relationship to communication technology, focusing on the idealised and very physical form that these relationships can take.
I have been interested for a while in the idea of telephonic bodies and was inspired by a work called Anathama (2011) which The Otolith Group premiered in London in April.
This work is described by Kodwo Eshun as "The machine dream of a mobile phone," and it follows the secret life of liquid crystal (the sorcery of the LCD screen) alongside appropriated fragments of TV advertising in which the ubiquitous, portable black mirror is elevated to the status of the desired / adored body. Implicit with this proxy is a vocabulary of magic gestures which play on the libidinal economies of human touch, breath and voice.
The film also incorporates moments of glossolalia from mainstream news-casting - highlighting incidences when the hybrid human/machine breaks down in a struggle with codified language. But glossolalia is also a learned phenomena, taught by example and lauded in the context of religious dedication and we might imagine this tongue-talk as exemplary of the way in which we willingly adapt and reorder our subjectivity to better fit with the technologies that begin to overtake us.
The American theorist Jodi Dean (whose work Eshun and Sagar cite as influential to the piece) speaks at length about the nature of this relationship and more widely about the impact of this reordered, discursive hierarchy on democratic exchange. The lecture below outlines her theories of Communicative Capitalism and is well worth watching in its entirety.
Another trigger for the essay was this beautiful notion of the voiceless glass which is a line from Harold Pinter's 1950 poem "A Walk By Waiting".
I liked the idea of voiceless glass as descriptive of this contemporary relationship to communication technology - a space that we look to for reflection and confirmation of our ideal subject self. It seems such a vocal and reciprocal scenario - a digi dialogue that allows us to build who we are.... but perhaps closer inspection reveals these respondent voices actually to be our own, reflected and bounced back by the black mirror. The glass itself has no voice other than the one we willingly give - and give away.
What follows is the introduction to my text - I'll try and post the rest elsewhere.....
Poor foolish boy, why vainly grasp at the fleeting image that eludes you? The thing you are seeing does not exist: only turn aside and you will lose what you love. What you see is but the shadow cast by your reflection; in itself it is nothing. It comes with you, and lasts while you are there; it will go when you go, if go you can.
– Narcissus By The Pool
The story of Echo and Narcissus is one of attendant proximities and unrequited caress. Its vocabulary is one of reflections that suggest a coming together but which ultimately denies any proper touch. Echo becomes locked in a pattern of vocal loops and, bound by the flighty vernacular of birds and ghosts and air, is robbed of a full bodily presence. Denied possession of her voice she begins to waste away and can never properly express her feelings for the man she loves. Potential conversation is reduced to the re-voicing of his fragmentary call; flighty Echo is the original fan girl whose identity constitutes a series of appreciative re-tweets.
Narcissus too lives a life outside of his body. Thanks to the protective double-bind that prevents him from knowing his true identity, Narcissus is always on the run from the desires of others. He is set up to be the only person he could ever truly love and his undoing at the banks of the reflective pool reduces him to the same hopeless thrall that had consumed so many suitors. He is a perfectly formed profile, lacking the connections that would bring him fully to life.
The thing about reflections is that they elude proper contact. The moment of connection is caught up with rebound – the touch is always on the return. Contingent with reflection then is chase and desire “the echoplex turns listening into running” and this chase is never-ending.
Like the nature of the echo, this search is one of like for like, the “immutable periodicity of sameness” that organises the system of logos-giving shadows in Plato’s cave. The system dictates the primacy of a duplicate self which will neatly fit the scheme; expounding the power of a communal as opposed to an individual subjectivity.
Perhaps then, rather than the lament of two bodies failing to come together, the predicament of Echo and Narcissus is more the failure to fully constitute the self in this collective way. What they seek or lack is a space in which to manifest their communicable desires, a scenario which we may consider allegorical for our own relationship with the universe of information and communication technology which formulates and frames our idealised identities.
In Ovid’s tale the vocal individual is forced back to a pre-linguistic state where the only option is to copy. She has no choice but to face the acoustic mirror and deal with the hackneyed playback of her own adopted words. With nothing of her own, her voice becomes the everyvoice and the material of her subjectivity is itself this communicative ping-pong. Narcissus is both the cause of her broken heart and her rebound guy. Narcissus on the other hand, sees an ideality in the pool that he can only hope to possess and he attempts to do so up to the point of exhaustion. Rather than any real human interaction (he flees from embraces) Narcissus pledges love to a reflection of himself and also therefore to the watery screen that creates and holds his image.
What each spurned lover in the tale experiences is the confounding of their attempt to formulate themselves in the union of two halves - much as the world of communication technology presents us with an interlocutionary scenario that ultimately fails to deliver. As Jodi Dean discusses in her lectures on ‘Communicative Capital’ our experience of the contemporary communication network appears to present the promise of interaction and response while in fact remaining a repository for individual contributions where “facts, theories, judgements, opinions, fantasies, jokes, lies – all circulate indiscriminately.” Our speech and focus may be directed out towards the other - but it is the refracted ripples of the self that ultimately return.
So where does this leave us and who in fact, are we talking to? Ovid’s tale is one of fragmentary personae – subjectivities are shown to be made of component parts, physical, vocal and emotio-intellectual which seem available to be separated. This split is the basis of many discussions around the voice as a difficulty remains in attempting to locate it within a specific biological body; a discussion which becomes ever more pertinent as the mobile technologies which enable the majority of daily exchange, operate within a voice to voice hierarchy that separates out ‘face time’ as an executive extra rather than an originary constant.
To a degree, our inter-subjective experience is increasingly with machines, the conduits of speech and selfhood, rather than with a present discourse or physicality. Even within the metamorphosis of Echo and Narcissus, the bodies and voices of the story are transformed into screens and devices; Echo’s body becomes a stone, her voice alone emanating from the rocks while Narcissus’ brut presence dissolves into something as mercurial as his watery reflection.
These elemental proxies are no less fascinating however; if anything the renderings become more desirable than the originals. Rather than retrieving Echo for flesh and bones we may be compelled to keep her as a stone tape and mine the archeoacoustics of her body; we might also choose to save the beloved image of Narcissus on the screen, rather than risk the inconstancy of a true relational encounter.
What is the status of such conduits in their moment of transmitting the human voice and how does our willingness to adapt to their functionality affect relationships with language and with the formation of a subject self? Is it the case that we are speaking into a space capable of eliciting a response? Or is the contemporary communicative landscape merely a reflection pool, silent but for the echo of our own voices? Is our relationship with technology one of equivalence or if we have indeed been too quick in giving the corpus proxy what Michéle Martin refers to as “the privilege of the last word.”
 Luce Irigaray, “Dialogues” in Speculum of the Other Woman, Gillian C. Gill trans. (USA, Cornell University Press, 1985) 267.
 Michele Martin, ‘“Hello Central?” Gender, Technology, and Culture in the Formation of Telephone Systems”, quoted in John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999) 73.