Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What is the voice of the inhuman?

I will begin with the punch line and lure: have a look at
Scrambles of the Earth. The premise of the site begins with a cd of music sent in the 1977 Voyager spacecraft into outer space. The site claims the music was found by aliens who remixed it to their liking in order to make the sound more hip: “Aliens want state-of-art mega-hip scene. But music on Voyager record is hundreds of years old! No synthesizer, no drum machine, no dance remix! No wondering that, in ten year, not a one alien has called! Aliens hear old tunage, [then] puke out all kidneys from ear-pain. [They] say: 'Gaia beings are coma-toast lamo Gilligans.'” The samples on the website are haunting and aptly described by Rich Doyle’s concept of the alien: “the very essence of the alien presence … [is] its characteristic ability to proliferate and mutate, disturbing the various taxonomical categories that we bring to bear on ‘them.’” So, from aliens to animals… where do we go from here?

Wittgenstein's lion: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”(Wolfe Zoontologies 1). The lion problem is an issue of speaking and sound which is related to voice but different. In this problem the concern is social community, the discourse community in which language is fashioned to human (or nonhuman) experience of being-in-the-world or as Wittgenstein says "To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life." A lion’s sense of being is different and its use of language would be different—even, as Wittgenstein says—unintelligible.

Rather than speech and language I'm interested in voice (which I’ll enter as a new keyword in this animal revolution lexicon). Voice precedes speech and enables it but not just humans have voice: “Yes, there’s no speech without voice, but there is such a thing as voice without speech. And not just for animals, but for us as well" (Vox Clamans in Deserto 38). Nancy characterizes voice as singular difference--each voice, he claims, is more unique than a fingerprint. So, it is not a common ground since voice is not a ground but a plurality. It is a sort of shared difference.

Can we use this capacity to address the other in an address, admittedly, that would be outside of discourse community and outside of language?! It would be an odd address, indeed, and Nancy hints at it throughout his essay and particularly at the end where voices resonate and call out to the other from one other to an/other. Voice cannot hear but can voice; it can throw itself and articulates what it means to be bodily thrown into the world, a being who is situated in a world (more on this in a moment). Hearing voice transports the listener, possesses and intoxicates to listener who may well give voice in response—the Dionysian Nietzsche (see Birth of Tragedy) and even Nancy assert.

This is where we get to aliens, so hang on. First it is useful to understand Nancy's claim that "Every voice cries out in the desert. . . . the desert of deserted existence, prey both to lack and to absence”(41). The voice is corporeal but not by way of taking in (food, air) nor by expelling (vomit and shit) but as an opening and opening up, opening the body in and unto the world. By way of example, he quotes a poetic passage from Julia Kristeva about a baby crying which ends with "The voice springs from this rejection of air and nutritive or excremental matter; so as to be vocal, the first sonorous emissions not only have their origins in the glottis but are the audible mark of a complex phenomenon of muscular and rhythmic contractions that is a rejection implicating the whole body.”

Secondly, animals and aliens have bodies which give voice. Each voice is different—its own patters. Yet in each singular instance, the voices cry out, the bodies open themselves, throw the voice into the air and within hearing of the other:"The voice cries out in the desert because voice itself is the desert that unfolds at the very heart of the body, beyond words." It is rather important that this is an opening and unfolding beyond words since (recalling Wittgenstein) if the alien and animal speak, we could not understand them. But outside of understanding and beyond speech and words, what we can hear and become enthralled by is the voice of the other. Listen those who have ears to hear—as the biblical passage goes. And transported, carried (dare I say abducted? Or is this another matter?) and recognizing this opening, we give voice in return.

Nancy is not a lone voice in the desert crying out. He takes up a particular line of thinking from Kant, Bentham, and Levinas on the look and the cry of animals.

Kant: "Just as Descartes had the paradoxical opinion of animal-machines, so must I likewise say of humans and of myself as well, only to a greater degree: if that one howls like a machine, then I speak like one. Because of the similarity between our external behaviour and that of the animal, I judge that the inner condition of the other involves thinking and sensing like mine, for my behaviour is regarded by it just as it is regarded by me.I therefore have just as much cause not to take him as a machine as to take myself as one.” [p. 3 of Naragon, Steve.“Kant on Descartes and the Brutes” in Kant-Studien, 81: 1-23 (1990)]

Bentham: "The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Bentham, Jeremy. Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, second edition, 1823, chapter 17, footnote.

Levinas tells the story of the dog named Bobby who greeted the prisoners at the Nazi concentration camp and treated them with respect and dignity. The "mere” dog’s treatment of these humans stood in stark contrast to the treatment by other humans. And so the question asked is can animals have what Levinas calls "face” by which he means recognition within the (human) community as a moral citizen and toward which one has moral obligations. While Levinas disconcertingly says Bobby and animals should not be given this recognition, other philosophers have taken up Bobby's cause and argued otherwise. The look and regard of the animal—and I would add voice of Bobby—calls for recognition by us. (Here David Clark, "Towards a Prehistory of the Postanimal: Kant, Levinas, and the Regard of Brutes.” Unpublished manuscript. Critchley on Levinas is rather good: see Infinitely Demanding)

What voice offers us then is an ungrounded ground—a multitude of singularities—which calls to the other. Voice as the opening in the self is, as Nancy suggests, the space where the self is beside itself, leaves itself and in hospitality offers its openness to the world. We sense this vibration (here the play of sensation and sensibility works well) and in the hospitality of sense, sense surrenders itself to the foreign.

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