Who Speaks? Voices in a Post-Truth World

This is the transcript of a performance lecture I gave at the 4th biennual Performance Philosophy conference in Amsterdam in March 2019. 

My parents knew how much I loved dad’s record player. I was fascinated by it. So, for my birthday, they gave me a record. The greatest hits of Johnny Cash. To have a record of my very own…it was a magical feeling. I played it over and over again. I never got tired of the songs. Years later, when I went to college, my record player didn’t make the trip. I moved on to cassettes. My stereo became my pride and joy. In the eighties and nineties, I amassed a huge CD collection. I never stopped loving music. But I had forgotten all about our old record player. Fast forward to last summer. I took a road trip. Walk the line came on the radio. It brought back all those childhood memories. I had a vision of my parents living room. I could see the record player clear as day. As soon as we got back from our vacation, I made plans to visit my parents. I spent an afternoon in the attic. There was a lot of junk to dig through. Finally I found the old turntable. It was still in pretty good shape, after all this time. I pulled my old Johnny Cash record out of its sleeve. I set it gently in place. There were some crackles and pops. But the sound was clear enough. The record finished playing. I switched it out for something else. Again and again and again.

When I was twenty-three, I briefly lost my voice due to a prolonged and rather severe flu. Although I had been told by the doctors that the sudden muteness would pass, that I was in no danger of losing my voice permanently, the episode had been enough to scare me that five or so years later, in 2017, when voice technologies first started appearing, promising the legacy of the voice stored safely on vocal databases which we now know as the Great Human Voicebank, I signed up, like many others, just in case. For hours I sat in my room and recorded the sentences that were dictated to me on the screen, sentences that strung themselves together into strangely nostalgic stories, stories that emphasised the intimacy technology can afford us with: its ability to retain memories of the past. It was the first time I realised, just how much we relied on technology to remind ourselves of who we are, who we were, who we had been.

I know it must seem strange to you, me speaking, not as a voice in the air, delivering my words to you through the warm metal mouthpiece of your technology, pressed so often against your skin, but in flesh and blood, using my voice here, in the present, in-body, embodied. I know it must seem odd to see me speaking, un-synched, raw, my voice crackling through this ancient device, which protrudes so rudely out in front of me, so obvious in its crude, obstructing form, belonging to a time when technology was still a visible presence, a time before it found a way to wean itself so seamlessly into our increasingly machine-dependent lives. I know it may sound odd, uncomfortable even, having my words projected directly from my mouth, propelled towards you, edged in a distinctive harshness created by the natural graininess of this prop, not yet prosthesis, standing in for the other.

But today, in using this now near-redundant prop, more symbolic than functional in today’s fetishistic desire for the sleek and the hidden edges of our smart-homes, I only ask you to listen to my voice in its most organic production, cushioned with the expulsion of air, the natural graininess of breath transmitting through radio waves not as the imitation of liveness, but of life itself. You may be tempted to look away or close your eyes and I encourage that. Let my voice wash over you as you re-imagine the acousmatic, the vocalic shadow which inhabits the very forefront of our imagination. Allow your imagination to take over from your sonic senses, embody this voice consciously, allow it to become yours.

After all, it has been many years since ‘Alexa’s Laugh’, a phenomenon in March 2018 when Amazon’s voice recognition devices from all around the world began sporadically emitting a series of unprompted chuckles. The sound, a barely discernible ‘hee-hee’, was described as ‘bone-chilling’ and ‘evil’ by unsuspecting listeners, spurring a brief flurry of paranoia as people wondered if the science-fiction nightmares of machine sentience had finally become a reality. Following this brief interruption in which it appeared that the voice had become the autonomous consciousness, had given technology their own identities, Amazon was quick to regain control, citing the incident as a brief misunderstanding on the part of technology, mistaking the more frequent command, ‘Alexa, light’ for ‘Alexa, laugh!’. Technology, it seems, was still hard of hearing.

Not anymore. Now, technologies speak to us as much as we speak to them; our devices ask us about the weather, how we are, how we feel. They pre-empt our needs, our desires; we only need to ask, and we shall receive. The synthetic voices of Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa have long since been muted, used only as jokes in play-phones for children. Eradicating the fear of the unknown from their products, corporations began to encourage the now commonplace practice of uploading the voices of our loved ones onto our technologies, particularly of those dearly departed. Now, as you know, it is not unusual for people to speak to their devices, consulting the familial voice on matters private and public. Now, we don’t have to say goodbye. We continue to converse, albeit on matters more mundane, with the voices that we recognize and that resonate around us. Our technologies, now infused with the sentimental value of the voice, ensure that we no longer have to look inward to remember.

In today’s strange and unsettling society, with its international currents of news, fake news, advertising and social media, it may often seem as though we are walking through the set of a dystopian film, in which any semblance of reality remains only to be questioned. We would not be surprised, I don’t think, if suddenly one day, it was announced to us on our multiple, omnipresent screens, that artificial intelligence, reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s ominous Hal 3000, had taken over the world with a rendition of ‘Daisy Bell’.  We would be even less surprised, I should think, if we were to one day wake up in a post-apocalyptic world like Neo of The Matrix, to find out that we had been living in a simulated dream-world this entire time, our minds occupied by fictions fed to us by machinic terrors, whilst our bodies fed the system.

After all, what constitutes our reality in today’s post-truth world? Is it the messages of terror we receive from our world leaders, stating inconsistent facts about the future of our planet, delivered from the acousmatic registers which saturate our world, messages of prophecy, conspiracy, promises? Is it the corporations who have harnessed the power of the voice, its properties of hypnotization, utilizing rhythm, tone, accent and pitch in their gradual domination of the market, selling everything and anything through the voice, trespassing the most intimate of domains, that of our imaginations, with their aural projections?

We live now in a permanent state of collectivity, where the very notion of individuality has been all but eradicated, repurposed and repackaged, smoothed over in the guise of individual expression by today’s capitalist, corporate market. Developments across the decades in virtual and augmented reality and the prosperity of deep-learning in our machines have advanced our network systems to new realms of connectivity, redefining the hearth of the home as the space where we project ourselves outwards into the world behind a carefully curated screen. These sophisticated technologies, through which we can project ourselves in real-time using our prosthetic voices, have enabled us since the 2030s, to remain silent as we grow increasingly more reliant on the voice which inhabits our technologies to communicate for us.

‘Think of the voice like font’, famously claimed Rupi Patel, founder of the contemporary prosthetic voice as we know today. Rendering the voice external, unshackled and dislocated from the body, from the inner chamber of our own head, we hear ourselves for the first time with the ear of the other, our voices controllable with means beyond the mechanism of our own bodies, with the potential to augment, to cosmeticize, to bespoke. In turning the voice into writing, into font, Patel brought to the forefront Barthe’s notion of ‘the grain of the voice’, the writing of the voice, this individual pattern which intrinsically marks each syllable we utter to be our own, as idiosyncratic as the fingerprint. By rendering the voice physical, visible, suddenly, we were able to transform this voice by means aside from our own body. We made the voice literal, removed it from its aural register, and placed it like an offering before our eyes.

With the advent of voice technology, from programmes such as Lyrebird.ai and VocaliD, one which replicates with eerie precision and the other offering other services such as voice customisation and ‘bespoked’ voices, this final rendition of the self within our machines has enabled us to complete the puzzle, as it were, to become one with the image we project of ourselves on our screens, through our social media, severing once and for all the tie between self and body.  Offering our own voices as matter for artificial rendering, art crossed the threshold of reality. The intoxication of control, proffered to us by these programmes, indeed, encouraged, slowly took over as we began to adjust the rhythm, pitch and tone of these artificial voices, overwhelmed by the notion of choice, detaching ourselves further and further from the bodily production of voice, transferring authority over to our machines.

Do you remember?

And slowly, all our voices, these voices, began to sound the same. After all, how many times have we said that we hated the way we sounded, when hearing ourselves for the first time played back on a recording device, shuddered because we could not recognise the voice, the self, our self? Did we wish to be able to adopt the voice of somebody else, the traits of a voice perhaps that we perceived to be more assertive or desirable than our own, reconfiguring the voice like a sound-bite, augmenting our accent, pitch, pace, cosmeticizing the voice in the same manner as auto-tune, attributing the same photo-shopping qualities as a photo filter or face augmenter to the dimensions of our voice? The voice conjures up a presence, a bodily presence whose force can be felt beyond the screen, and if we could control the image of that person, well, who didn’t want to take the opportunity to project their visual presence as positively as possible through the possibilities of the voice?

And so, we stopped speaking. Or rather, it was only then that we truly began. Communicating through our technologies, we infused these machines with love, a kind of love that was never possible before; we were gifted with the capability of passing through walls, travelling distances, simply by typing our sentences on our keyboards, transforming the written word into pitch perfect speech. The voice, dislocated since the invention of the telephone, with its ability to disrupt, interrupt and punctuate, fell docile.  Then, slowly, as we grew accustomed to the voices that we send outwards into the external world, we began to sound ourselves the same.

In doing so, we became our own ghosts, our own gods, our own futures, pasts and presents. Facilitating our dependency, these prosthetic voices have seeped into the very fabric of our being, symptomatic of the post-truth world, where fiction and fact co-mingle in a permanent, fluctuating state, each depending on one and the other. These voices have autonomy, at mercy of whatever agent sees fit to use them, be it an algorithm, a corporation, or for personal use. Stored in our great human voice-banks with no fear of decay, these voices have been compressed into data, written into code, which can then be broken down and extracted into its individual qualities such as pitch and tone, used to assimilate new voices, voices that contain the elements of many others, no longer belonging to one body but containing the essence of many. Rupturing the real with their interjections, a collision of art into the quotidian, these voices intoxicated us, made us giddy, for finally we could not only hear how we ourselves sounded when we spoke, but we could control this voice too. By separating our voices from our bodies, we managed not only to ‘other’ the self, but to gain control over our voices, these voices, removing the necessity of breath from its production, of air.

If we take the voice to be inherently subjective, perhaps the question we should be asking is not who speaks, but more importantly, who listens, and how? How do they listen, the technologies who guard our hearth and home? The acousmatic echoes which permeate our sound-sphere in public spaces, the PSA announcements and self-serving supermarket check-out counters? And what about us and our selves, tuned in, tuned out, becoming machinic, rendering our own selves prosthetic, the mimicked turned mimicker?

Rupturing the real collective delirium, the following points are suggestions for alternative ways of listening, presented in this manifesto for the post-truth world.

Calling upon the faculty of the ear, let us turn back to cinema and its ways of voicing, a world of both fiction and non-fiction, where performance takes the place of the real. Return the voice to the individual through the act of listening, that vox populi becomes vox unius, resuscitating from the voice of the many the voice of the one. Open up your senses by closing your eyes, opening yourself up to a state of vulnerability, activating the organ of the ear, which, as Jean-Luc Nancy famously declared, never sleeps. Call upon this instrument of transmission, which, in its most primary level of awareness, which cannot, unlike the eyes, shut out the external world, is always consciously engaged.  In this state of active awareness, engaging the most primary level of awareness which is to recognize the presence of noise, traverse this the world, awash with unreality, listen closely, listen softly, but listen with intent.

 (Re)-engage with the self through the act of listening. Let us return to a space where technology, reality and representation are at the forefront of its considerations. Let us consider the functions of the voice without body, speaking off-screen, the acousmatic voice, unshackled, belonging perhaps to the protagonist, the antagonist, the narrator, the voice of conscience, the voice of god or the very voice of cinema itself. This voice which populates the imagination, conjuring up faces, bodies, physical associations as we see through our ears.

Let us find the surface, swim outwards from the overwhelming presence of these ghostly voices, detached from their previous bodies, free from the decay of time and the limitations of bodily ownership. Let us take back these voices, finding new ways of re-populating the world with our imagination and with the intent to interrupt, punctuate and interrogate the superficial, mass conception of individualism within this present. Let us turn ourselves into receptors, transmitters rather than mere receivers – if so, can we reinvigorate the prosthetic voice with our own active responses, becoming fluid, permanently engaged with these voices? Sounding out, sounding in, as we listen, we feel a resonation within the self, we engage the self through the presence of the Other, so many others now, leaving sonic residues within our ears, our machines, traces of the past stuttering into the present. And, as we listen, we are also listening to oneself, turning inwards in simultaneous recognition of the external sound. In a world where artificiality persists in blurring the boundaries between the real and the synthetic, where the human voice itself is imprinted upon technology, why don’t we resign our states of activity, momentarily, and become passive?

Is to listen also to know, to comprehend, to resound the sounds inside your ear and engage with the voice of inner thought, the silent word which sounds within? Listen, embody the body of the voice, projected within, feel a resonation within the self, engage the self through the presence of the Other. To be listening is to listen to oneself, turning inwards in simultaneous recognition of the external sound. In a world where artificiality persists in blurring the boundaries between the real and the synthetic, where the human voice itself is imprinted upon technology, let us resign our states of activity, momentarily, and become passive.

Re-inhabit the sonic space. The last frontier of the imagination. Meet me in the mind.

After all, I am here, and you are there. But that doesn’t matter, because we have technology now, technology that transgresses the distance between space and time, collapsing past, present, and future into one linear narrative. Not that it’s linear, of course, because, I am here, and you are there still, but we are connected, connected by this voice, my voice, that exists even after my body, not me, my body, has disappeared, my voice, is here, and it exists for you to keep, for you to use, so long as you wish it. This voice exists, is present, and is evidence, proof of your existence, once upon a time, use me, wisely, tenderly, use me, love me, listen, and remember.

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