The twin spirits of Sigmund Freud and L. Frank Baum, both born in May 1856, preside over Mladen Dolar’s invigorating and elegant new study A Voice and Nothing More. The father of psychoanalysis and the children’s fantasist par excellence each published his most famous book—The Wizard of Oz, and The Interpretation of Dreams, respectively—in 1900, and brought to the public’s mind, intermittently at least, the curious nature of that most common yet elusive of human expressions.
In Baum’s dream-redolent story, the wizard (Oz himself, “the great and terrible”) wields power through his voice—now thunderous, now calm—while a screen conceals his frail body. Dolar devotes a whole chapter of his book (part of MIT’s Zizek-curated “Short Circuit” series) to “Freud’s Voices.” The classic analytical model, the analysand lies on the couch and speaks, with the (silent) analyst out of sight. The analyst, he writes, “assume[es] this silence as the lever of his position, thus turning the silence into an act.” In other words, the analyst’s silence becomes as potent as the wizard’s booming voice, almost magically directing the flow of the patient’s speech, shaping it, imposing interpretation.
Through a Lacanian ear-horn, Dolar listens to the way the voice (“a bodily missile which has detached itself from its source…yet remains corporeal”) has asserted itself, or evaporated, over the centuries, and thrillingly arrives at the very root of philosophy itself. Both the Baumian and Freudian setups, for example, owe something to the idea of the acousmatic voice, the “voice whose origin cannot be identified.” (“I am everywhere,” Oz tells his audience.) Michel Chion first elaborated on the concept in 1982’s The Voice in Cinema—tracing it back to the mother’s voice, heard omnidirectionally in the womb—and Dolar notes that the word (acousmêtre) has its roots in the Acousmatics—per Larousse, “Pythagoras’ disciples who, concealed by a curtain, followed his teaching for five years without being able to see him.” This practice enabled them to concentrate on his voice in the absence of his body, the better to concentrate. If Pythagoras is indeed history’s first philosopher, then from the beginning philosophy has concerned itself with the split between mind (for which voice will substitute) and body.
It’s Toto, Dorothy’s dog, who accidentally tips Oz’s screen, revealing the “little man,” in reality a mere ventriloquist. Like a cultural dogcatcher, Dolar chases down another pooch with an even more iconic relation to sound: The gramophone-listening Nipper, whose depiction eventually became the logo for HMV. As Nipper (who died before he was painted) searches for the ghost in the machine, the illustration solves the problem of how to depict sound graphically. (The shattered glass of “Is it live or is it Memorex?” might be a close second.) “The acousmatic master is more of a master than his banal visible versions,” Dolar writes, and we might note that Nipper first appeared in advertising in that Baumian, Freudian year of 1900.
Other highlights from this brief but dense cultural history include the hiccoughs that interrupt Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, the concept of the “voice of reason” and the voice’s persistent superior status to written law, and why Stalinist leaders sometimes sounded like they didn’t understand what they were reading.
II. The Portable Carrie Bradshaw
Once you read Dolar, your ears turn into satellite dishes, picking up signals from all over the culture. What does it mean that some of the most popular TV shows today, like Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, frame each episode with voiceover? Is this laziness, à la Adaptation and real-life screenwriting coach Robert McKee, or does it tap into each viewer by simulating her own “voice of reason”? Does it function as a built-in variation on DVD commentaries (in which aural marginalia stands in for secret knowledge)? (And why is it that, as I type these rhetorical questions, I “hear” them the way viewers heard Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw recite generalizing sentences from her column in Sex and the City, the show that started kicked off this recent trend?)
III. Pull My Jetée
If Freud and Baum are twins, a similar case might be made for Jack Kerouac and Chris Marker. Robert Frank’s 1959 film Pull My Daisy (featuring Kerouac’s hilarious, shaggy-dog narration) and Marker’s La Jetée (1962) clock in at 26 and 27 minutes; hoary relics of slightly different avant-gardes, both films were finally released on DVD this year. Various Beat players appear in Daisy, but Kerouac is outside it, providing all the words (indeed, none of the sound from the set is recorded at all), slipping into different characters’ voices from time to time, veering from (“The Lower East Side has produced all these strange, gum-chewing geniuses,” he has Allan Ginsberg muse) to Dada-ready riffs. (A pan over a kitchenette elicits a catalog oof roaches, ending, “Chaplin cockroaches, peanut butter cockroaches! Cockroach cockroach! Cockroach of the eyes! Cockroach, mirror, boom, bang—Freud, Jung, Reich.”)
Marker’s science-fiction tale couldn’t be more different. Still photos pass before our eyes, and the squawking looseness of bohemian life is miles away from La Jetée’s ruined post-WWIII setting, where a crucial experiment is taking place underground. Likewise, the voiceover sounds like that of a stern god (despite the advent of time travel, chronology remains tragically fixed) rather than of Kerouac’s playful Pan. But think of the new subterranean worlds that might emerge if you laid the nearly synchronous soundtrack of one atop the other.
IV. The Empty Orchestra and the Drowsy Chaperone
“Karaoke makes no one marginal,” write Zhou Xun and Francesca Tarocco in their recent book Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon (Reaktion). As opposed to the godlike quality of voiceover (or in-the-know DVD commentaries), then, karaoke (literally “empty orchestra”) sounds a little like democracy. (On Broadway, the musical The Drowsy Chaperone is introduced and narrated by “Man in Chair,” a devout fan of the gleefully formulaic ersatz-’20s entertainment we’re about to see—but essentially a spectator like us.)
Xun and Tarocco turn up some curious facts (Japanese magazines feature karaoke etiquette columns; “90 per cent of the Filipinos sing well,” according to one leader) as they dutifully chart the phenomenon’s rise worldwide, but too many dull anecdotes clog the narrative, and the authors lack Dolar’s incisive way with connections. Karaoke is both exhaustive and already out of date. It doesn’t cover the hypersuccess of a program like American Idol (essentially karaoke to the millionth power), which has found a strange mutation in two new television programs, The Singing Bee (CBS) and Don’t Forget the Lyrics! (Fox). Unlike Idol, these shows emphasize knowledge over emotion; contestants need to sing the right words to chestnuts of various genres.
Passionate vocalizing adds entertainment value—but then so does out-of-tune wailing. Neither determines whether you take home the purse. (You could probably just recite the lyrics.) A flubbed line in Idol can be salvaged by inspired improvisation, but on these shows you get sent home. Interestingly, though these contests would seem to eliminate the hierarchy of voice over writing (which Dolar asserts in his “Voice of Ethics” chapter), in the end they maintain the status quo. Though logically the challenge would be the same if competitors wrote out the words to “Fortunate Son” or “Have You Seen Her?,” few televised challenges outside of Final Jeopardy have a written component. The title of The Singing Bee alludes to its spelling-bee format, but this reminds us that a spelling bee isn’t simply a spelling test. The vocal component is theater—but theater is the only thing worth watching.
When words elude the contestants of Don’t Forget the Lyrics!, they try to commune with the collective memory by riding the rhythm, searching for the great jukebox in the sky or their own internalized iTunes playlist.
VI. Blending bloodlines of greatness
I caught both of these singing shows on TV, but I caught much more of them on YouTube, that brilliant Library of Babel that elevates fresh paradigms on a weekly basis. On YouTube, you can find Wizard People, Dear Reader (2004), a beautifully sustained voiceover creation by Brad Neely. (Neely is now best known for “Washington, Washington,” his viral rap cartoon in which the father of our country is imagined to be multiply endowed.) In Wizard People, Neely recorded a commentary track for the first Harry Potter movie; going beyond the fizzy snark of Mystery Science Theater 3000, he took the time to craft an actual character, an older-sounding Potter fanatic who actually has nearly all of the facts wrong. This leads him to invent backstory, mangle names, and generally turn J.K. Rowling’s universe into his own. (Further adding to the textured confusion, he apparently thinks he’s recording some sort of audiobook.)
Recall Kerouac cataloging unseen cockroaches, and then marvel as a flotilla of dragonflies (at the start of ““Chapter 28”) launches this non sequitur, an elucidation of the unseen that is actually a fabrication of what is not even remotely there: “Harry is totally disinterested in the next challenge…as his mind’s eye daydreams. He sees himself dressed as a conquistador…arriving on the coast of an undiscovered America. He mingles peacefully with the natives, and trades secrets of magic with their shamans. He makes friends, blending bloodlines of greatness…He learns to slay deer with laser beams from his eyes.”
Though Neely hasn’t done voiceover recently, he’s attuned to the dementedly “contaminated” pleasures floating around YouTube, mildly illicit shorts like a series of redubbed G.I. Joe PSAs (the originals were shown with Saturday morning cartoons of yore) and snippets in which a James Earl Jones soundalike reconceives Darth Vader as a total jerk. “I like the stuff that feels like the fruit of a good idea instead of the stuff that feels like an audition piece,” Neely tells me.
“Sometimes I want to buy the rights to a forgotten movie and redub it,” he says. “But maybe not. I think that half of what makes voiceover work so delicious is the theft. Somehow the taking is part of the thrill, in both making and seeing. If you buy the rights, you take the sweet out of the dessert.”
Synching your voice—or voices—to megabucked cultural product is pirate karaoke, now with a web-ready reach greater than the film or show being reimagined. This impression of anarchic energy holds true as long as we forget that these pieces flourish under the benevolence of the Google-owned YouTube.
VII. Coda: Dummy Text
Every emission of the voice is by its very essence ventriloquism. —Dolar
You’re the only thing about him that seems to have a soul. —Mary to Otto, ventriloquist’s dummy, in The Great Gabbo (1929)
He became a fanatic about the mysteries of the East. He believed you could separate a man from his soul. —a former assistant to the hypnotist/ventriloquist known as the Great Virelli, in Devil Doll (1963)
Occasionally the doll will say something that you have not heard before. —Dennis Alwood, consultant on the film Magic (1978), speaking about the “spontaneous schizophrenia” that all veteran ventriloquists have experienced onstage
In bicameral men…volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey. —Julian Jaynes, On the Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
(Original version of piece that appeared in Modern Painters)