Department of Theatre and Film
Gendering the Acousmêtre Or, “There is no such thing as Woman”
In his study of the ontological status of sound in cinema, Michel Chion points out that his interests lie with the human voice; more specifically, Chion is interested in that form of (human) voice in cinema which is “neither entirely inside nor clearly outside” (4). In other words, Chion seeks to theorize the ontology of voice as that particular sonic event which does not fully coincide with the representation of its material-objectival cause in the visual domain. Borrowing from Pierre Schaeffer, Chion uses the word “acousmatic” to signify the partial status—in the experiential field of the human subject—of the voice in its ontological and experiential manifestation. Following Chion’s discussion of the significance of “acousmatic voice”—especially that of a female acousmêtre—in cinema, a particularly salient example of the power of the acousmatic voice might be found in the 1960 pseudo-documentary The Savage Eye (Dir. Ben Maddow). However, in order to properly understand the ways in which the acousmatic voice is employed in this film, one needs to first take a detour through the topography of the acousmatic voice.
Although it might appear, prima facie, that Chion’s formulation insists on the placement of the acousmatic voice within the aural/oral register only, it soon becomes clear that Chion’s conceptualization of the acousmatic voice engages the aural/oral register with the visual register. However, the nature of this engagement—and consequently the ontological status of the acousmatic voice—is deeply problematic, as Chion’s elaboration on the “complete acousmêtre” points out: it is “the one who is not-yet-seen, but who remains liable to appear in the visual field at any moment” (21). The acousmatic voice, according to this formulation, is that which stages an aural “missed encounter” in the visual domain; it is a point in the field of vision that is yet to reveal itself to the subject. Given this paradoxical juxtaposition of the visual and the aural/oral registers, one wonders about the locus of the acousmatic voice.
It is in context of this structural paradox that one understands the significance of the “neither-nor” condition that Chion posits apropos the locus of the acousmatic voice. The acousmatic voice, as such, exists precisely in this in-between locus: ontologically, it is neither fully sonic, nor is it fully visual. However, critical to our understanding of the locus of the acousmatic voice is its possibility to “appear … at any moment.” It follows from Chion’s formulation that the acousmatic voice is fundamentally negative: as such, it has not yet appeared—it is always already in the process of appearing. Thus, the acousmatic voice is nothing but a promise of presence: its core must be engendered by the absent capture of the “neither-nor” formation. Insofar as the acousmatic voice remains fundamentally promissory—not yet revealed—it simultaneously continues to frustrate and titillate the subject, for whom the acousmatic voice is always something to-be-had. In the simultaneity of frustration and titillation subsists the unique seductive power of the acousmatic voice—as Chion points out when he says that such sonic events “gain the spotlight, for they are perceived in their singularity and isolation” (4). Clearly, the acousmatic voice lures the subject through its “promise”: a guarantee of full access that lies beyond the promise. As such, this “promise of a beyond that guarantees full access” is analogous to the function of the Lacanian objet petit a: the object/cause of desire.
Slavoj Žižek formulates the objet petit a as that which “can never be attained … is always missed; all we can do is encircle it” (4). The objet petit a is therefore not the finite object after which the subject runs; rather, it is the infinite structure that frames—as a closed set—all the possible finite objects after which the subject might run. Insofar as the objet petit a holds the infinite number of (replaceable) finite objects within its frame, it lures the subject with the possibility/promise of “complete satisfaction,” if the subject is able to access it. If we apply this formulation of objet petit a to our understanding of the acousmatic voice, we will be able to understand the full extent of its seductive power. The acousmatic voice qua object/cause of desire promises us a fantastically perfect juxtaposition of the visual and the aural registers: a coming-together of the (human) voice and the lips/face of the (human) subject that is the source of the sound.
Insofar as the acousmatic voice promises the fantasy scenario of the perfect juxtaposition of voice and face, it appeals to the primordial misrecognition of the Cartesian subject: a fantasy of being a “unified subject” at the center of the Derridean “metaphysics of presence.” Žižek speaks precisely to this fantastic convergence of the visual and the oral/aural domain apropos the birth of subjectivity when he rewrites the “metaphysics of presence” is “‘seeing oneself looking’ in the mode of ‘hearing oneself speaking’” (95). Thus, when the acousmatic voice is represented in cinema, it occupies the crucial position that can engender—although through a fundamental misrecognition—the fantastic plentitude of the unified subject. However, we should never forget that precisely because the acousmatic voice is not a positive/finite entity it can offer to the (viewer) subject its inherent lack as a space to engage in the fantasy-act.
Insofar as the acousmatic voice offers the subject the “gift of lack,” it re-enacts the function of the Lacanian Phallic Father, who, via castration, introduces the subject to the Symbolic order, and thereby constitutes the subject qua subject of desire.1 It might appear, therefore, that cinematic acousmatic voice will have to be a male voice: a sonic representation of the Phallic Father. However, Chion points out in his discussion of the female “scream” and the male “shout,” that the acousmatic voice par excellence is the female “screaming” voice. If and when the female “scream” is present in the cinematic space, it does not remain contained in the body/face/lips of the female screamer. Rather, the “scream” as an instance of the acousmatic voice envelopes the cinematic space, in that the “scream” becomes that point between the aural and the visual registers which the cinematic narrative endlessly attempts to articulate/embody. The crucial point here is not that the acousmatic voice is seductive because it belongs to a woman: it is rather that the acousmatic voice par excellence is fundamentally feminine.
Consider, in this context, Lacan’s formulation “There is no such thing as Woman” (72). This formulation does not claim that the feminine gender is non-existent. Rather, the formulation contends that Woman, as a category, cannot be universalized. In other words, Woman represents that fundamental impossibility which is analogous to the structure of the objet petit a. As such, both Woman and the objet petit a are beyond attainment. The subject can attain/have a finite object in the place of the objet petit a; similarly, the subject can attain/know a particular female subject in the place of Woman. If we apply the structural impossibility of Woman to the fundamental negativity of the acousmatic voice, then we will understand why the acousmatic voice par excellence is fundamentally feminine.
When a male and a female acousmatic voice co-exist in a cinematic space, our attention is called to the immensely seductive, centrifugal power of the feminine acousmêtre. The Savage Eye depends precisely on this contest between a male and a female acousmêtre.2 The film stages an interior dialogue between Judith—a young divorcé—and a male voice that identifies himself to Judith as “your God, your angel, your ghost.” Although the male acousmêtre’s voice becomes available to us as the film opens, the viewer is instantly and deeply captured when Judith’s voice qua acousmatic voice appears. A close-up shot of Judith’s face—non-coincidental with the feminine voice—introduces the viewer to the acousmatic presence of Judith. The off-hand, matter-of-fact, objective quality of the male acousmêtre’s voice instantly transforms into a passionate, eager and inquisitive tone, as he keeps talking to Judith. In contrast to the volubility of the male acousmêtre, Judith’s acousmatic voice appears meager. As if determined to elicit from Judith a positive response to his questions, the male acousmêtre assumes an aggressive, almost hectoring tone. However, in his desire to possess Judith by dominating the feminine acousmatic voice, the male acousmêtre loses its status as the acousmatic voice: he reveals too much of himself. The film attempts to restrain the seductive feminine acousmêtre by attempting to obliterate Judith’s bodily presence via a car accident. However, undefeated, the acousmatic voice of Judith assumes the tone and style of the male acousmêtre’s voice. In a final act of desirous desperation, the male acousmêtre reveals himself once again by reappearing at the end of the film, only to be frustrated by Judith’s strange agreement to what the male acousmatic voice has to say. Fundamentally, Judith’s acousmatic voice remains unknowable, always already a “missed encounter.”
Even though the limited scope of this analysis of the acousmatic voice reveals, in a fundamental way, the significant position of (human) voice, cinema studies, as a discipline, is still largely tethered to the analysis of the visual domain of an entity that is emphatically audio-visual. Moreover, the scholarly works that do pay attention to the aural register of cinema often miss the ontological partialness of (human) voice. Voice in cinema, when taken to be a finite, fully integrated and complete object—rather than as a part-object—can neither sufficiently reveal the topology of voice/sound, nor can it account for the object-causal role that voice/sound plays in engendering the seductive power of sound-cinema. My brief analysis of the ontology/topology of (human) voice—especially, that of the acousmatic voice—seeks to direct the attention of cinema scholarship to the analytical lacunae mentioned above. Rather than presenting an exhaustive ontological/topological analysis of voice, through this essay I merely wish to gesture towards the singular import of the study of (human) voice in cinema in revealing the way in which subjectivity is precipitated in and through representation.
1It is important to remember, however, that what the subject gives up in castration is not the real phallus; that which is castrated is the imaginary phallus. Therefore, the subject gives up something that s/he does not have in the first place. Consequently, the lack that castration introduces is not a lack in the real. However, what the introduction of the lack does is ultimately constitutive of the Symbolic subject: the lack transforms that which the subject does not have into that which the subject may have in future, precisely because it is something that has been “taken away” from him. Thus, lack creates positivity in retrospect for the subject.
2The Savage Eye, directed, written and edited by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers, and Joseph Strick, follows the aesthetic modes of the American cinema verite movement in the 1950s and ’60s. In the film, the camera—at least initially in the documentary-objective mode—follows around a divorced woman through the mundane activities of her daily life. However, The Savage Eye ultimately takes a narrative form, whereby the central character, Judith (Barbara Baxley), journeys through the fantasies, failures and struggles of her own life towards some kind of resolution, which ultimately remains unavailable to the viewer. Throughout her physical journey through the nameless city, Judith seems to participate in a conversation with a male and a female acousmatic voice.
Chion, Michel. The Voice in Cinema. New York: Columbia UP, 1998. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992. Print.
---------------- “‘I Hear You With My Eyes’: Or, The Invisible Master” in Gaze and Voice as Love Objects. Eds. Renata Salecl and Slavoj Žižek. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1996. 90-126. Print.
Lacan, Jacques. On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX, Encore. New York: Norton, 1999. Print.
The Savage Eye. Dir. Ben Maddow. Perf. Barbara Baxley. City Film Corp. 1963. Film.