At the beginning of Voicing the Popular Richard Middleton asks of the British chartists’ 1848 proclamation “the voice of the people is the voice of God” the following question: ‘Where was this voce to be located, who owned it’? This question is what drives Middleton’s book and what, in classic Middletonian style, opens up an extraordinarily rich line of argument. My question today will be to ask, in manner indebted to Middleton, how the histories of the voice and the people are related. Is there a longue durée of the popular voice?
Is there any sense in which we might speak of that voice as having a history unto itself, as having a certain autochthonous agency, as engaging certain actions, as intervening even, in ways that are not imaginable in other contexts, other materialities, other medialities? Is the specificity of voice at all generalisable, available to the re-scaling of periods, epochs, trajectories? Is there a story to tell of the voice, a narrative that begins and unfolds. And, if such a narrative were tellable, if such a trajectory were traceable in the movement of history, is there anything we might recognise as a song of origins, beginnings?
For Virginia Woolf, beginnings are always about errors, and can only ever be the beginnings of a modernity that is sick; for Woolf, that which is captured, taken down, made legible, is that which is modern, that which has fallen, been turned. In Anon, she speaks of a voice that emerges from the swamp, anonymous, empty. It is, in some sense, ready, prone and give itself up immediately to capture:
The voice that broke the silence of the forest was the voice of Anon. Some one heard the song and remembered it for it was later written down, beautifully, on parchment. Thus the singer had his audience, but the audience was so little interested in his name that he never thought to give it.
And so the story of literature itself begins, or so Virginia Woolf would have it: the voice in song breaks the ‘silence’ of the primordial forest, emerges, as it were, from the swamp and grounds literacy, (and, by implication, the origins of modernity itself); song is modernity’s beginning and its Other. For Woolf, then, the voice in song works to both found and ground writing (notation), to set it in motion; at the very moment when the voice breaks the ‘silence’ of prehistory, it has already fallen under the disciplinary sway of that scripture.
What is striking in Woolf’s modernist myth of vocality is its appeal to the voice in song as in some sense primordial or pre-linguistic: the discipline of that scribing, of making marks to record the apocryphal moment of modernity’s birth, is thus beholden to the moment of spontaneous oral abandon that precedes it and which works as its violent and disturbing Other – the violence of that discipline must batten down the spontaneity of that first abandon.
And it is not simply that the scriptural disciplining must attempt to overcome or overturn this Other (although it surely attempts to do this too): this pre-historical Other, the primordial birth pain of modernity, persists at the core of the Law of literacy, a persistence that Anglophone Lacanians like to term a “nugget of enjoyment” and which, far from constituting just a potential undoing of modernity, is absolutely key to its continued operation, as something to which subjects can attach themselves, a materiality, a texture, a grit, mud, friction.
When, in Mrs Dalloway, the merest traces of that mythic voice is let loose into the urban cityscape of London, thousands of years after the apocryphal moment of Anon’s emergence from the forest, it is all the more intense, all the more debilitating for its acute incommensurateness with modernity into to which it is poured, and which it paradoxically grounds.
A sexless, ageless voice interrupts Peter Walsh’s misogynist ruminations on the ‘icy’ Clarissa and the Woolfian articulation of the voice in song as a kind of trace, a remainder out of place, as a staging of some first innocent jouissance; the woman singing felt it during that enchanted moment, so many years ago, when she walked, in May, with her lover. Her voice stages her expulsion from Eden, that moment when Law intervened in enjoyment. Woolf imagines Peter as someone caught up, ensnared in this nugget of enjoyment, this material that persists and persists, this grit, this friction. She has him imagine it as permanent, as formidably material beyond the reach of history:
Still remembering how once in some primeval May she had walked with her lover, this rusty pump, this battered old woman with one hand exposed for coppers, the other clutching her side, would still be there in ten million years, remembering how once she had walked in May, where the sea flows now, with whom it did not matter…
Other literary representations of the voice in song (Kafka’s 1914 short story, ‘Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk’, Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Proust’s Memory of Things Past, Wackenroder’s essay ‘The Naked Saint’, Hoffmann’s The Golden Pot, and many others) situate the voice in song squarely outside the realm of history, of speech, of writing, as somehow always already struck out of the flow of discourse, an excess, but as a remainder, a stubborn stain, a mark, something that persists and yet, paradoxically, as something that has been and could again, any minute, be lost.
What also holds these disparate imaginations of the voice together is their commitment to an imagination of the voice in song as in some sense enchanted and enchanting (from the Lain root cantare, to sing and incantare, to incant). The enchantment, literally the ‘ensonging’, works for these disparate authors as a moment of epistemological uncertainty, but also, paradoxically, of raised or intensified consciousness: song interevenes in the flow of the everyday, changes things, puts the world out of sorts. In this sense, song might be said to have an agency all of its own; indeed we might say that the voice in song, for these authors, does cultural work.
It is here, then, that a certain story of voices (note my shift here into the plural) might be told; their longue durée might be traced in this notion of voices as doing cultural work, as , in some sense, agents, material incursions, textures, grits, frictions. The Woolfian narrative seeks to draw all voicings, especially those that enchant, transfix or undo, to a singular utterance before all utterances. Its singularity, its radicalising incursion into the silent forest, the radical impossibility of its recuperation is what gives it its force. Popular and traditional musics from Europe and North America abound with origin myths of the singular voice: born on the air, the first seduction, the first calling, the first turning, this interpellation before all interpellations – this voice above all is cherished as the site on which is built the edifice of the vernacular utterance. It is a voice that presents itself as always already lost, as the greatest of all losses, an unknown, silent and mythical voice, before all voices, the first sigh, the first murmur, the first quiver.
The point I want to make about the apocryphal voice here is that, despite its mythical reverie of origins, born out of an atavistic theology of singularities, it is historically quite specific, or, at least, shows itself to be sufficiently malleable to emerge again and again as constitutive of modernity itself: with each intensification of the technological rationalisation of the forces and means of production, this singularity emerges again to sing of loss, to recount the end of days.
Vernacular song traditions from around the advent of recording technology all engage in an intensified discourse of mourning for lost voices: in fado and flamenco traditions, for example, the advent of recording technology marks a particular shift in their conditions of dissemination and reception. For both traditions, certainly, this was the period of rapid urbanisation, and the period in which both musics appeared for the first time on the commercial urban stage: Fado’s revistas (reviews) & casas do fado and flamenco’s cafes cantantes and peñas flamencas.
The period in which the impact of commercial recording begins to make itself felt is also the period in which these traditions become fixed, held in place by the discipline of the new technologies: certainly, the earliest recordings are akin to field recordings, but the first commercial recordings (from the mid-1920s after the advent of electronic recording) already reference these earlier recordings as somehow magically charged mananciales de nobre (noble sources) fuentes de sueños duros, as if to suggest that the slightly later recordings were mere faded traces of an earlier ‘golden’ practice. The nostalgia industry gets to work extraordinarily quickly in this context. [Adorno: ‘Nadelkurven’]
In the early commercial recordings of fado and flamenco, moreover, record labels seem to be attempting first of all to ‘naturalise’ the technology of recording which would have been marked as undoubtedly ‘new’, as implicated in industrial processes ‘alien’ to the two traditions: We can see this ‘naturalisation as working in two distinct ways
• naturalisation by referencing the pre-history (i.e. recording already belongs to this tradition)
• naturalisation by utilising advances in that technology to elide the technology – commercial electronic recordings appear as early as 1927
Clearly then, these discourses on flamenco and fado are already touched by the dissemination of certain kinds of objects – recordings. Whilst these objects are not readily mappable onto the psychoanalytic object, they do change the symbolic dynamic in some striking ways. The playwright and folklorist Frederico Garcia Lorca referred to the gramophone as early as 1920 as a kind of tecnología mentira de la escritura [false technology of writing] and Adolfo Salazar, documenter of the famous 1922 concurso de cante hondo refers to the technology of recording as un arañar violente [violent scratching].
Clearly, for both commentators, recording technologies constitute an unwelcome intervention in flamenco practices. A strikingly similar discourse can be seen in the reception of the famous fadista of Lisbon Adelina Fernandes who, having signed to HMV’s Portuguese franchise by the late 1920s, her albums outselling anything else in their catalogue, was nonetheless ridiculed by puristas and connoisseurs as unspeakably commercial.
In both the flamenco and the fado context, furthermore, recorded objects seem to have created an ‘imaginary’ loss, - the great voices of the tradition before recording are now lost forever since they cannot now be recorded: nostalgia, in this context, as a condition of this modernity, seems to have emerged here as a response to the very technologies that shape that modernity: this is a common trope in recent scholarship on trauma and in this context, it is the displacement enacted by recorded objects on the popular imagination of the locatedness of the tradition in specific places, specific cultural spaces that is crucial to my reading of this nostalgia work: recording technology intervenes in a these musical cultures’ imagination of themselves.
This loss out of capture, this reaching back into a lost space before capture was ever possible, is, in a crucial sense, then, constitutive of modernity. When Middleton asks who owns the voice of the people, he is asking about the very terms on which modernity constructs political agency. The terms of that agency, its complex mediation and distribution across a number of medialities and cultural fields, are inextricably linked to the necessity for a grit or friction in the system that gives traction.
In my crudest Lacanian terms, the apchryphal voice of Anon must always stay lost, and its evocations, however fulsome or ‘authentic’ must always remain enchanted, incomplete, since to capture it fully, would be to bind it too consistently into the symbolic order, and to smooth out all its surfaces, to seamlessly reintegrate it into the flow of discourse, to absorb it and leave nowhere for subjects to bind themselves to it. To invert a commonplace wisdom about collective agency, for a Lacanian, voice must always precede the people.