Tentacular Voice an Essay
The Tentacular Voice project made up of ‘The Voice of the Synthetic Human 1’, ‘The Voice of the Synthetic Human 2’ and ‘Get User Voice’ is an exploration of the struggle to find a voice under the weight of suffocating, restrictive forces. A horrific stretching outwards into a desolate mediation of the world. Pulling through the voice as an active movement, as an intense force that moves from the depths of the body to the surface of the skin and penetrates outwards into the environment (LaBelle, 2014, 1). The voice can be a powerful intensity on the body that can feel equally invasive and incredibly empowering at the same time. When we think of our voice we think of the power it can hold to express who we are and how we want to be heard, it can hold our deepest emotions, our complex sexuality, concealed longing and extensive intellect. The want to extend our physical presence into the world and forge a connection with another being makes us consider how we can go about this, to speak out and have a say in order to be heard. But this power only goes so far when it is bound up in the complete inadequacy of language, of words, and the reliance on the interpretation of meaning by another body. Even if we are able to formulate what we want to say, which in itself is an act of confident shaping and moulding of words swarming with apprehension and self-doubt, to physically sound that out is a further horrific stress on the body. The voice can be viewed as a conflict within the body made up of varying sounds and manifestations competing to force themselves out into the environment. This act itself has an intensity we don’t perceive, but when written down you see the full horror of a process enacted constantly to put the body under conflict. ‘It is the noises themselves that square off as the inherent violence of their withdrawn essences confront each other on the aesthetic plane. It is a battle of wills between two sonic events, with little regard being paid to the status, effects or outcomes their battle will have on the human hosts.’ (Montrose, 53, 2014). What we are consequently faced with is an inability to use our voice in the fundamental and biological way we are conditioned to.
As Steven Shaviro highlights ‘anyone whose “orientation towards the world does not privilege the human voice – or the human face” tends to be accused of “mindblindness”: the lack of a so-called “theory of mind”, or the inability to imagine the mental states of others at all.’ (Shaviro, 2016, 60). But this suggests if you don’t privilege the human voice then you are lacking the ability to relate and empathise, however those who are sensitive beyond human modes of speech and can find relations to both the organic and inorganic can hold the view that ‘”everything is somewhat alive”’ (Shaviro, 2016, 60). Or to put this differently, that everything can mediate beyond conventional modes of language. But there always seems to be restrictive forces acting upon our voice, suffocating, constricting and stopping it from reaching out into the world. The linguistic is itself wrapped up in restrictive power dynamics of particular structures to encompass the familial – relating to or occurring in the family, the pedagogic – relating to processes of teaching and learning and the governmental – the form or system of rule. Together these restrictions result in ‘a voice that is subsequently often overheard, underrepresented, and interrupted.’ (LaBelle, 2014, 1).
If we begin to look beyond the voice to the process of mediation as an exploratory action of probing the environment, then we can form a physical substance with a distinct materiality. The notion of sentience in both human and non-human beings has undergone a ‘“dramatic shift in perspectives from input/output to output/input”’ (Shaviro, 2016, 13); meaning beings engage with their surroundings to probe the environment with spontaneous actions and then evaluate the sensory feedback to produce action. Sentience in this sense is not passive, it does not wait for a command but rather makes an active decision to alter and control the environment. As an effort to mediate with another and the environment surrounding us, we regularly perform these actions of probing and poking in an attempt to extend our presence into the world. The voice becomes our primary physical tool to do this and if we re-imagine it as an exploratory force we can glimpse at the prospect of a voice beyond the failures of language. As Franco Berardi states in After the Future (2011) we need to become attuned to a way of mediating that doesn’t involve the voice, as language is the first step towards violence, confusion and disorientation between people in a group. This level of violence then carries through into digital processes of communication and forms of the written voice that permeate through the network (Berardi, 2011). We must therefore turn to forms of communication that are non-verbal, an expression or intensity that comes before anything else as a bodily affect. Perhaps then we can produce an encounter with the voice as the physical substance that is emanating not only from the body but also from sensation. In order to probe its environment the tentacle of the Cephalopod is used both for movement and as an extension of its intelligence, ‘Cephalopods, especially octopuses, have attained a level of sensory and neural development that facilitates the performance of highly complex adaptive behaviours. This fact makes them the most intelligent of invertebrates.’ (Oldfield, 2002). A fleshy and probing entity that mediates in a confrontation to expand through its own network of the oceanic seabed and – to return to Shaviro’s discussions on sentience – isn’t limited by this fleshy organic body that has a point and a plateau where maturity is reached and development stops. To make this connection we need to perceive both the tentacular being of the Cephalopod and what we know of the voice as not limited ‘on a biological model that doesn’t necessarily apply’ (Shaviro, 2016, 88). Shaviro here is relating this to machinic sentience, but we can also use it to see fundamentally biological beings as not restricted to the boundaries of the body. Similarly Donna Haraway employs the tentacular being in her discussions on the fact that ‘human exceptionalism and bound individualism’ have ‘become unthinkable’ (Haraway, 2016). We are no longer predicated on human-only histories, as our time on Earth is profoundly transformative to again perceive the biological beyond limits of biology.
‘The tentacular are not disembodied figures; they are cnidarians, spiders, fingery beings like humans and raccoons, squid, jellyfish, neural extravaganzas, fibrous entities, flagellated beings, myofibril braids, matted and felted microbial and fungal tangles, probing creepers, swelling roots, reaching and climbing tendrilled ones. The tentacular are also nets and networks, it critters, in and out of clouds. Tentacularity is about life lived along lines — and such a wealth of lines — not at points, not in spheres. “The inhabitants of the world, creatures of all kinds, human and non-human, are wayfarers”; generations are like “a series of interlaced trails.”’
The reaching outwards and exploratory nature of the voice is in itself a wayfarer; the attempt to find its place in the world is again impossible under the weight of a language that is so bound up in classical rules and interpretations. Potentially this wayfaring action from the point of view of feeling and sensation – as derived from the tentacular – can go further to form a network of connection and mediation between beings. However, where Haraway doesn’t explore connections fully between the tentacular and the body we can apply these from elsewhere within the notion of the plastic body. Historically there have been two opposing point of views as to the structure of the body, that it has a rigid core not open to being manipulated or transformed and, on the other hand, that there is no structural body at all as it is an anonymous field of desire in constant flux. The plastic body is neither; it is an in-between state of the rejection of rigidity but not the total anonymity of it either (Sparrow, 2015, 190). Similarly to the tentacle, the plastic body has flexibility to both take form from its environment and also act as the sculptor to give form. To unbind our voice by way of plasticity attempts to free it from thresholds that, as we have seen from Shaviro and Haraway, are constantly becoming unthinkable. This can potentially result in an identity that is never definite and rigid, nor pre-supposed on our body’s maintenance of external intensities affecting us at any given moment (Sparrow, 2015, 181).
Here we need to break down the voice in an effort to find its core, of the pure mediation of the self. To do this we must first strip away language, words and communication to expose feeling and a voice that wants to be felt. To expose sensation as the feeling of your presence being received by another, forging a connection rather than a mediation in the space currently muddied by re/miss-interpretations of language. Berardi’s notion of connection redirects mediation to feeling and sensation as an operative tool to distribute information, ‘Connection is interoperability and it makes possible the circulations of abstract information. It involves conscious and sensitive bodies, but the conscious and sensitive body is only a passive carrier of connection. Consciousness is only an operational ability to react. And sensitivity is slowness, hindering acceleration and competition.’ (Berardi, 2011, 57). However, as Berardi highlights, this is an impossible undertaking, the conscious body is only passive and it cannot actively exchange feeling for feeling and so we are met with an inability to mediate in any other way than the flawed voice. But if we consider feeling as coming before conscious thought then we can bypass the need for an active exchange, Shaviro states that thought and feeling are a primordial phenomenon in the technical sense and this results in entities appropriating themselves from what is left behind from others (Shaviro, 2016, 16-17). To put this differently if we exchange feelings before we are even aware consciously that we have made a connection, then who we are has already been extended out into the environment and absorbed by other beings. Movement beyond conscious language in order to displace bodies and minds forms an act of change, but this can only work in a collective effort and actually first requires conscious thought in order to do so. This form of movement can then take us back to Berardi who uses ‘the word “movement” to describe a collective displacing of bodies and minds, a changing consciousness, habits, expectations. Movement means conscious change, change accompanied by collective consciousness and collective elaboration and struggle. Conscious. Collective. Change. This is the meaning of “movement.”’ (Berardi, 2011, 12). The problem here becomes the contradiction of a conscious action to result in a move to a pre-conscious process and ultimately we find ourselves in the complete inability to perceive this exchange, we are again left with the sense that we cannot be heard.
Berardi, F. (2011) After the Future. Edinburgh, Oakland, Baltimore: AK Press.
Haraway, D. (2016). Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene. [online] e-flux. Available from http://www.e-flux.com/journal/75/67125/tentacular-thinking-anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/ [Accessed 9 September 2016].
LaBelle, B. (2014) Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary. London: Bloomsbury.
Montrose, A. (2014) Human. In: Jeffery Jerome Cohen (ed.) Inhuman Nature. Washington DC: Oliphaunt Books, 39-59.
Oldfield R.G. (2002) Choice of arm usage in a Giant Pacific Octopus, Enteroctopus dofleini (Hochberg, 1998), is based on relative proximity to object of interaction. [online] The Cephalopod Page. Available from http://www.thecephalopodpage.org/arms.php [Accessed 9 September 2016].
Shaviro, S. (2016) Discognition. London: Repeater Books.
Sparrow, T. (2015) Plastic Bodies: Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology. London: Open Humanities Press.