Mladen Dolar’s beautiful new book, A Voice and Nothing More, is as lucid and compelling an account of Lacanian theory as I have encountered anywhere. Dolar, like his friend and sometime collaborator, Slavoj Zizek, is a philosopher from Ljubljana, Slovenia, who has deployed Lacan for the understanding of contemporary culture. In the course of A Voice and Nothing More, Dolar goes through the question of voice as it is manifested in linguistics, in metaphysics, in “physics” (having to do with both the physics of sound and the physicality of the body), in ethics, and in politics. He then concludes with two lengthy readings of Voice in Freud and in Kafka (the latter through brilliant readings of some of Kafka’s parables, and of his often-ignored stories “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” and “Investigations of a Dog”).
A Voice and Nothing More as its title indicates, works to complicate our understanding of the role and meaning of the human voice in culture. Dolar rejects as overly simplistic Derrida’s famous opposition between voice and writing. For Derrida, the stress on voice and speech, at the expense of writing — a valorization found in philosophers from Plato to Rousseau, and also in such modern thinkers as Heidegger — is a symptom of the metaphysics of phonocentrism and logocentrism. To champion the voice against writing means to embrace the illusions of self-presence, immediacy, identity, interiority, etc. And Derrida works hard to show how all the assertions of the authenticity of the voice, throughout the Western philosophical canon, in fact surreptitiously discredit or ‘deconstruct’ themselves, by calling in spite of themselves upon the difference and mediation and metaphoricity which are figured by writing in contrast to vocal speech.
Dolar, however, argues and demonstrates that the phenomenon of Voice is in fact far more uncanny and slippery, and already inclusive of difference, than Derrida gives it credit for. The voice always stands in between: in between body and language, in between biology and culture, in between inside and outside, in between subject and Other, in between mere sound or noise and meaningful articulation. In each of these instances, the voice is both what links these opposed categories together, what is common to both of them, without belonging to either. The logic here is in fact not all that different from a Derridean or deconstructionist one, except for two things. First, it complexifies the role of the voice in the deconstructionist schema of binary oppositions and the instance that both produces and disqualifies them. And second, it gives a psychoanalytic location — in terms of the contradictory imperatives of desire and drive — to what tends to remain just a cognitive or logical paradox in deconstruction.
A Voice and Nothing More clarifies for me a distinction that Dolar, Zizek, and Alenka Zupancic have long made about the changes that occurred in the course of Lacan’s teaching. If a certain (early, 1950s) Lacan suggested that everything in the human, cultural-social world passed through the articulations of language of the signifier, then the more mature (later, 1970s) Lacan emphasized, conversely, the points of resistance to linguistic totalization and articulation, the Real that insisted outside every invocation of the Symbolic. The “object-voice” (voice as objet petit a) is one crucial example of this resistance. For if the voice-as-speech is entirely within language (this is what differentiates speech from screams, inarticulate cries, and animal calls), it also, at the same time, manifests an embodiment that goes beyond, or is irreducible to, the idealized and non-physical differences that define the signifier.
Throughout the book, Dolar focuses on the “object voice,” the voice as paradoxical objet petit a, in explicit contrast to two tendencies. On the one hand, there is the metaphysical sort of understanding that would ignore the quality of the voice, ignore its physicality, in order just to extract its signification, its Symbolic import, the meaning of its words. To do this, of course, is to miss the whole point of the voice, to ignore its uncanny presence. On the other hand, there is the converse aestheticization of the voice, the failure that comes from “turn[ing] it into an object of aesthetic pleasure, an object of veneration and worship, the bearer of a meaning beyond any ordinary meanings. The aesthetic concentration on the voice loses the voice precisely by turning it into a fetish object” (4). If the first approach ignores the insistence of the voice in order to extract its signification, the second ignores the signification in order to extract and valorize its pure expressive potential, or what Roland Barthes called “the grain of the voice… the materiality of the body singing its mother tongue” (cited disapprovingly by Dolar in a note on page 197). Both these approaches, Dolar says, look at one side of the paradoxical duality of the voice, and ignore the other; both therefore obscure or “obfuscate” the object voice.
My own interest, which I will only cite here and not endeavor to “prove,” or pursue in any more detail, is to affirm — to rehabilitate and pursue — the fetishization and aestheticization of the voice. Think of Bob Dylan’s voice; Joey Ramone’s voice; James Brown’s voice; Diamanda Galas’s voice; Roxanne Shante’s voice; Ghostface’s voice. I want to pose this aestheticization of the voice against Dolar’s psychoanalysis of the voice. If the danger of aestheticization is the attribution to the fetishized/aestheticized object of “a meaning beyond any ordinary meanings,” then the promise of aestheticization is a “fetishistic” (the psychoanalysts would say) suspension apart from meaning, before or after meaning, in something that is other to any meanings (the other of all meanings?). Both this dangerous attribution of higher meaning, and the aesthetic promise of release from it, are present in Kant’s Third Critique, the text I am incessantly drawn back to. The “aesthetics of voice” is the chapter missing from Dolar’s book, because he dismisses its possibilities too quickly; it’s this aesthetics, and the labyrinth into which it leads us — the labyrinth, I suspect, of what Hegel wrongly disparages as the “bad infinity” — that I still need or want to explore.