In any critical engagement with masculinity, attention to sonic materials will inevitably challenge the field of men’s studies as it has been constituted since the late 1970s: much of that field has consistently emphasized discourses grounded in the visual (descriptions of male bodies, of uprightness, steadfastness, of muscles, the fetish, the veiled and unveiled phallus/penis and so on) or discourses of control, power and ideology. And with very good reason: the field has had to constitute itself in this way in order to make sense of the dominant mechanisms by which hegemonic masculinity goes about reproducing itself across its numerous cultural fields. Only very recently, then, has it become possible to think about gender, and about masculinity in particular, as part of a broader sensory field in which ideologies are, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s term, ‘somatized’ (that is, embedded in the body such that externally held beliefs come to appear as if originating ‘from within’) and which therefore draw on all the senses to construe masculinity as both cause and symptom of the male sensorium. In this context, then, emphasis on sonic materials is radicalizing, not just because it disturbs the traditional emphasis on the visual, but also because it contributes to an enriching of the field of men’s studies by requiring full and critical attention be given to the ways in which men are construed as acousmêtres or beings in sound.[i]
The relation among the terms ‘identity’, ‘voice’ and ‘discourse’ is best understood in the context of this new articulation, especially since the middle term, ‘voice’, brings the outer terms into a relation with the sonic which is not always granted to them. In particular, what thinking about voice in this context does is to enable the recasting of identities and discourses around notions of making and intervening in cultural meanings through and in sound. This is not something that many theorists outside of musicology have occupied themselves with until recently.[ii] This relation among the three terms, then, is one which makes claim to a radicalization in the name of sound.
The term ‘identity’ in English has a long and complex history, reaching back at least as far as early modern usages. It has been connected consistently both to the idea of ‘sameness’ or similarity and to what we now might call ‘personality’ or ‘individuality’. Even in its most casual of contemporary usages that duality remains, both in terms of the idea of being like something and in actively seeking out (or having thrust upon one) a certain ‘like-ness’. In this sense, then, the question of identity, which has been much theorized in the European philosophical tradition and continental theory, is a question about relatedness, even when liberal discourses might seek to hide that connectedness in discourses about autonomy, sovereignty and so on. In the context of gender studies, identity has been placed under intense scrutiny, from Judith Butler’s now famous Gender Trouble in 1990 to recent more empirical accounts such as John Colapinto’s biography of David Reimer, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl and Georgia Warnke’s controversial After Identity: Rethinking Race, Sex and Gender.[iii] The gender-identity complex is characterized for these scholars as an investment in thinking about the relationship between consciously-held views of gender and the more dispersed and culturally anonymous (but no less powerful) discourses that attend those views.
The relation of the voice to identity is one characterized both by inclusion (where voice has been taken as an instance of identity formation) and mismatch (where voice appears to mark a remainder or a leftover ‘after’ identity formation). It is important, I think, to hold this twofold function in place because this is precisely how voice has come to be understood in our culture, both as the marker of a personality trait and as something ‘unto itself’, stubbornly uncanny. It has become, one might say, both symptom and fetish. There has been relatively little attention paid to voice (other than a few notable exceptions in cultural history and philosophy[iv]) and this dearth of attention has as much to do with the complexity of constituting the voice as an object as it is with any kind of widely held hostility to the voice in the contemporary mindset. It is that complexity, perhaps, which has left most theorists circling around a few small texts on the voice.[v] In the context of thinking about masculinity, there is much work to be done on the voice. ‘His Master’s Voice’, the voice of authority, and the ‘voice of reason’ are all instances of gendered imaginations of voice that operate according to the discursive restraints of hegemonic gender designations; and yet, every time scholars have tried to pin down the characteristic of voice as ‘gendered’, they are confronted with the uncanny exception that disturbs the field. It is precisely here, I want to argue, that thinking about gender is changed, in this encounter with voice as capricious, wanton, unto itself.
It is in discourse that all this is held: in the statements that can and cannot be made about a thing; in the collection of possible statements which together constitute the discursive field of gender and of masculinity in particular.[vi] And it is discourse, therefore, that theoretical construct that Foucault made part of our everyday parlance yet again, that enables the kinds of analysis that disturb the everyday and estrange us from the mundane sameness thst voice refuses. What an emphasis on discourse enables us to do is to map out and determine the logic of statements that together hold gender designations together through an operation, as we have already seen, of somatization. That process whereby discourses become ‘embodied’ is precisely that process that I am interested in understanding. How, for example, is masculinity held in language? What kinds of statements attend it? How do those statements relate to one another? What are the logics by which one statement is deemed to belong to the discourse and another not? And, perhaps most crucially for our purposes, how do those logics come to feel natural?
[i] This is a term we take form Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, trans. and ed. Claudia Gorbman (New York, 1999) and Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York, 1995). An acousmêtre is a voice-character specific to cinema that derives its power from being heard but not altogether seen. The term is an amalgam of the Greek acousma, or ‘curtain’ from behind which Pythagoras is said to have lectured to his students, and être, ‘to be’ or ‘being’ in French. Although the voice character of the cinematic medium is a special case, one could argue, in fact, that, beyond the ‘voice-character’ itself, there is always some sense in which sound detaches itself from its source and in this sense, the relation of sound and character is always in some sense unstable. Hence, we might say, that we are always already acousmêtres.
[ii] See, in particular, Steven Connor, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (New York & Oxford, 2000) and Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Boston, MA., 2006). Also, with a specific focus on singing styles, but with much broader application, is John Potter’s Vocal Authority: Singing Style and Ideology (Cambridge, 2006). Of course there is a body of work produced under the banner of ‘acoustic ecology’ which, starting in the late 1960s, sought to understand how human beings (and, to a lesser extent, other sentient animals) use sound to mediate with their environment. See, in particular, Barry Truax, Handbook for Acoustic Ecology (Vancouver, 1978). It is striking that this body of work has not impacted on mainstream musicological methodology, other than in some ethnomuscologically-oriented work (see, for example, Steven Feld, ‘From Ethnomusicology to Echo-Muse-Ecology: Reading R. Murray Schafer in the Papua New Guinea Rainforest’, The Soundscape Newsletter, 8 (June, 1994): 9–13).
[iii] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London & New York, 1990); John Colapinto, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl (London & New York, 2006); Georgia Warnke, After Identity: Rethinking Race, Sex and Gender (Cambridge, 2008).
[iv] See: Michel Poizat, The Angel’s Cry: Beyond the Pleasure Principle in Opera, trans. Arthur Denner (Ithaca & London, 1992); Dolar, ‘Voice’; Dolar, Voice; Roland Barthes, ‘The Grain of the Voice’, in Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York, 1977), pp. 179–89; Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1988).
[v] Barthes’s ‘The Grain of the Voice’ is inevitably the key text at which most scholars outside the natural sciences begin. See also Guy Rosolato, ‘La voix: Entre corps et langage’, Revue française de psychanalyse, 37/1 (1974): 75–94 and Chion, Voice.
[vi] For a useful overview of recent developments in gender and discourse analysis, see Lia Litosseliti and Jane Sunderland (eds), Gender Identity and Discourse Analysis (Amsterdam, 2002).