Reflections on the deep “high-tech” connaturality of our vocal medium in the age of speaking avatars
The end of a translation work inevitably leaves echo of faced topic, especially if we have dealt with our ancestral medium. Indeed, publishing of Italian version of Steven Connor’s Dumbstruck operates as an irresistible invite to begin some reflections stimulated by an opera that is unique to understand human voice as process and product of a body living in close interaction with its cultural and social environments, sprouting a sonorous phenomenon at same time physical and immaterial, capable to mediate our own internal and external realm, allowing, because of its transitive nature, to communicate other life dimensions.
Summing up, it is ventriloquism the red thread with which Connor faces a so peculiar feature of human being. Contemplating of voice both naturalness and disembodied aspects – story starts from Greek oracles up to our actual condition of human beings living between, and in, mechanical and electronic systems full of disembodied voices – the book can unfold us some mediation dynamics that, fed and filtered through different socio-cultural environments, make voice such expressive tool to which we have always reserved both a careful attention and obliged and absent-minded reception.
Recalling implicitly some aspects of this seminal work, and strong of its innumerable and sophisticated observations, we’ll try to develop further reflections. The topic we would face is the challenge that new media bring in terms of permeability among different realms, putting in relation vocal dimension – our early powerful prosthetics of intermediation – with its actual applications for some new kinds of transit. In the essay we’ll help us with some actual works that, although coming from different fields, seem significantly converging in the analysis. The first part is more functionalistic while second one has a more structurally symbolic approach.
Personally, we confess to be often victims of that kind of experience Sherry Turkle compares to reactions felt when submitted to Rorschach test. The American social psychologist, a pioneer of ICT studies, affirms that interfacing new digital tools and virtual worlds is similar to elaborate an actual description around the strange and enigmatic images of this common test.
Under her point of view, new information and communication technologies, forcing us in a continuous exercise of re-elaboration, try to bring another sense of things, challenging our categories, suggesting us to see phenomenons from other points, pushing us to reflect on our way of living, speaking and feeling.
Connor’s work is a somehow powerful propaedeutic for such kind of reflections following proliferation of virtual interfaces, especially vocal ones, including, in their more philosophical layers, the very meaning of life in a period of our history so full of bodily, social and cultural hybridizations.
Human being as communication machine
In an essay dedicated to mobile video communication we have evidenced as the ancient and reliable ability to identify humans through voice, combined with potentiality of wireless technology, sets out a double transformation: while human being, integrating it in its body, is inclined to become a cyborg, the world of objects acquiring this vital fluid animates itself.
The voice, for its whole features, seems to be the natural place of reception, absorption and transit of the two tendencies. In that context – developing a brief but deep reflection that has the merit of tieing past and present tempting to explain relationship between voice and modern media – John Durham Peters points out how historically our experience/knowledge of vocal phenomenon has been organized, showing it in terms of power, art, medium and eros, finally exploring the revolutionary aspects of acoustic registry in the modernity.
However, Peters complains the poor cross-fertilization among different research fields, a limit for a fuller understanding of vocal dimension, a recalling that we want to pick up putting in the same riverbed different kinds of researches.
A first positive answer undoubtedly comes from the last work of two MIT scientists, Clifford Nass and Scott Brave (Wired for Speech. How Voice Activates and Advances the Human-Computer Relationship, Mit press). After a 15-years period of lab experiments the two researchers assign an enormous value at the studies that face argument from a more social and cultural point of view, defining it as the most productive. Their book shows as evolution has resolved many complex questions around vocal communication, obtaining a human being perfectly “wired for speech”.
Nowadays machines that are appropriating of creative and factual speech processes are increasing and the task of two scholars is, pragmatically, understanding the best integration strategy. In their vision voice is able to insert talking machine in a social environment because human brain is shaped to answer emphatically to its stimulus. In presence of a voice we overcome awareness on its real origin, and brain “automatically” engages itself to find inside vocal sign the social and cultural cues useful for preparing us at relationship. As Steven Connor explains very well following other convergent trajectories, for us voice always implies a human “presence”.
It’s true that – given constraints in terms of memory space, computing performance, bandwidth, dynamics of context – the most vocal interfaces, not reproducing pre-recorded but synthesised words known as “text to speech” (TTS), often have a voice quality that reveals a sense of artificiality. But, all that is not sufficient to stop this human mechanism and, listening to a voice, we however try to find cues that normally help us opening and addressing relationships among social beings. More exactly, we establish not only a natural empathy but, for overcoming an unbearable position of ambiguity, object ensouled from voice becomes even a person to which assigning a well-defined gender. How is it possible?
Human beings are biologically characterized for processing and understanding human voice. The most evident proof is that even people with low IQ rate (50) or scarce dimension of brain (400 grams, one third of a normal weight) can speak. Voice is the primary means of relationship in every culture. Human being is the only species to be peculiarly shaped for a such feature; for example, left side of brain (right ear) is more advantaged for understanding native language (but also foreign ones) as well as syllables that sound “strange”, while left ear shows a better understanding for all the other kinds of sound, a feature reflected in biologic terms by the specific capabilities of right ear cells to better amplify sounds of voice. In human being this specialization appears soon, since the first day of life, and it is possible noticing a better reaction regarding to a voice speaking in a native language since the fourth day of life.
The vocal expertise of our mind is fundamentally utilized for social purposes. The result of evolution has transformed human beings into automatic experts for extracting social cues from speech. Knowing about what has a social value has been one of the most important evolutionary factors inside human groups. In about 200,000 years, human society and its processes of voice and listening are coevolved in a system incredibly interconnected, efficient and stable that has transformed human beings into “voice activated” creatures. Specifically, it is gender to saturate the meaning of voice.
The process of vocal identification is very engaged by this feature, allowing it to categorize people between males and females through the tone of voice, cadence and other factors for establishing an appropriate relationship – gender as well as expressive forms affect also the articulation of content expressed. Of course, there are even other speech characteristics such as speed and volume to evidence personality, feelings or origins – people denoting extroversion, excitement or a peculiar origins can speak more speedily and loudly compared to the average ones.
People individuate each other speedily by voice but a fetus already reacts differently – increasing pulsation of its own heart – to the voice of its own mother as well as to a familiar one, while a newborn is able to tune in a specific voice among others at the age of eight months. All that doesn’t require a formal education, even if society provides rules about voice and words categorization for addressing attitudes, thoughts and behaviours.
These rules, once followed and selected, offer a systematic guide to determine actions in terms of gender, personality, feelings and even trust matters – recently somebody explained me that call centres use all the expedients improving customer relationship so that an English company providing finance assistance has hired operators having a clear Scottish accent because resulted more reassuring.
In a world where proliferating electronic devices and platforms proposing themselves directly as our interlocutors or where voice is adding as further interactive attribute – see avatars of Second Life –, Nass and Brave utilize these indications to “technically” improve a full integration.
In a certain sense, for us their strategy is clear and illuminating: if capability of speech production and listening is also moving toward machines, then question concerns the full “externalization” of those sophistications embodied and interiorised in human being, more precisely their social and cultural aspects – trying to simulate externally what is for us a “mechanic” and autonomous whole. Briefly, to objectify into artefacts those functions that already go ahead for itself, recovering in this operation awareness of the many thresholds we have already overcome.
The symbolic value of language
Remaining in acoustic registry, in the modern age that has already happened many times, specifically with telephone and phonograph, as Connor has phenomenologically showed.
Yet, recalling evolutionary aspects of organism-voice relationship in terms functionalistic provides us only one side of medal, hiding a part of complexity in which vocal phenomenon lives.
Then, we’ll end essay questioning the more properly symbolic domain, abandoning the tightly evolutionary aspects. Steven Connor insists very much on the deeper, ambiguous and less linear facets of vocal expressiveness recalling frequently psychoanalytic studies, especially lacanian ones.
In fact, psychoanalysis has had to deepen symbolic specificity to explain neurosis and psychosis that grip human being since the beginning of its life, beyond every so-called stage of an incremental maturity. In an actual work, Il corpo e il linguaggio nella psicoanalisi, psychoanalyst Alfredo Zenoni offers in a very clear way some interesting keys to explain origins of symbolic impulse, a useful interpretation to understand what makes voice a projective force of relationshipness in perennial searching of the missing Other.
Zenoni defines the “speaking being” as more precisely a “being into the language”, a creature “wired” by language that does not realize itself starting from a certain age in a process that adds functions to other elementary ones, but a human being living since the beginning in a state of “primordial identification” that impregnates, alters and denaturalises the supposed condition of animality from which childhood, and generally humanity, would begin. In a certain sense, it is as if the structural dimension that defines humanity in its cultural accomplishments “took also that living organism defined human, making it a body affected from a desire completely extraneous to animal experience”.
For explaining trans-evolutionary action of symbolic dimension on human being we have to distinguish language as “structure” from language as “function”. Before being a function of mental contents, language determines both a new realm and new corporeity with respect to animal experience, inscribing every people of species inside a dimension that allows her/him to be “named, of being singular, to occupy a place in the sequence of generations, to be desired, regardless of her/his mental capabilities”, even before these can develop.
An organism coming in the world with language from its own part is immediately inserted in a dialectic process that does not result from its animal base but because of having forgotten it. This immersion does not involve only the whole equipment of culture but also the previous generation, doing of her/him something different from a organism that needs care, “a pole of identification and attributes, initially determined as an ‘x’, an unknown meaning in a point of confluence of desires that have generated her/him”.
Then, speaking being is found to receive, unique among diverse species, “an effectuality made of speech, generated as who is ‘spoken’, still before being speaking”. Human being receives from language immersion (the condition in which it is since birth) the basis of its behaviour, and what it produces, namely culture, becomes in turn an essential component of its structuration. In the whole of morphological and functional characteristics rising from interaction process between its own organism and environment there is the result of a symbolic, cultural and ethnic feature, and this is true not only for “nobler” activities but also for corporeal operations supposed as elementary, for example alimentation and sexuality.
The feedback of symbolic plane does not absolutely implicate that “biochemistry, cellular organization or human physiology have to be eliminated”, but simply that it’s their “pertinence” in explaining behaviour to become critical because of lack of equivalence with animal world.
The human neonate is a small being of language that immediately establishes a relationship that “has the function of meaning the desire of Other into the symbolic element”.
Since it is already absorbed in the speech dimension, infant is a living answer to what “in the Other is sign of lack that lives it, especially an answer to the discontinuity of its presence”. Under the condition that the Other “answers” rather than limiting itself to bring things, its screams and cries will be already “appeal” and “demand”.
At the same time, what satisfies elementary needs loses the simple vital function for transforming itself in “gifts, signs of Other’s love: gift signs of its desire, of gift of what it does not have”. Being something other with respect to what they are in biological terms, infant could still refuse them in the case the Other doesn’t insert the answers of its own lack into given cares. It is as if the subject, despite infant state, “would demand love”, opening to possibility of being deprived of something of real in favour of this void of desire: a phenomenon, Zenoni says, “simply inconceivable out of symbolic registry”.
The atrocious experiment of Frederic II – that aspired to known which kind of language would have gone out from the mouth of infant nourished with care but without any linguistic contact, and finished with the death of all the infants – is a clear proof. It’s the so-called “hospitalisation syndrome”, that shows an elaborated reaction – despite of the certainly underdeveloped level of their cognitive and verbal functions – to the presence “of the Other as Other of speech, and of desire behind person that provides the satisfaction of needs”.
Nourishment has to be assured not only in terms of development but also as “answer to an appeal”. For a speaking being it is the dimension of Other to be real since its structural grasp in the field of answer and demand, and then since its membership of human species. For human species social and cultural aspect represents its fundamental “biologic” feature, often affecting the same biological plane translating results of this grasp in a dimension “Other”.
Compared to an animal organism the body is affected from a minor vitality, a less accented connivance with natural environment, the same distance from animalness that seems to have the behaviour of a “domesticated” animal compared to wild one. It is this “less” that has been able to make human being as a being biologically “premature”.
Maladjustment and unprovidedness regarding the necessity of survival have finally obliged it to secrete from its own body the tools that allowed it hunting and cultivation of land. And this is the condition of its symbolic constitution, namely, of researching of “a being that by now it can receive only from Other”.
Connor, S., 2007, La voce come medium. Storia culturale del ventriloquio, Roma, Sossella.
Nass, C., Brave, S., 2006, Wired for Speech. How Voice Activates and Advances the Human-Computer Relationship, Chicago, Mit Press.
Zenoni, S., 1999, Il corpo e il linguaggio nella psicoanalisi, Milano, Bruno Mondadori.