12 September 2008

Sonic Unconscious

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:57 am

“The unconscious is structured like a language,” says Lacan — a loosely-linked array of signifiers decoupled from signifieds, possibly connected on the back end, behind the unconscious, to the primeval Real. On the front end, in the Symbolic Order, the conscious self is spoken by the Big Other. Here’s an excerpt from my novel Prop O’Gandhi, where the eponymous hero (formerly known as Ulrich Daley) is getting in touch with the sonic unconscious and with the Voice of the Other whose Face appears to him in the bathroom mirror…

Only once before had Prop “heard voices,” as they say. At a Jesus-freak commune in North Africa, long before he became Prop, Ulrich had learned to position himself in that realm between wakefulness and sleep where, from the deep past, mystics wait. In the semiconscious twilight he became aware of a physical pressure bearing down on his prone body. Then he discerned the voices: low, muttering, guttural, incomprehensible. “Jesus come into my soul,” Ulrich petitioned within himself. Suddenly the voices stopped, the pressure lifted. Had the voices been the angels of God to whose summons he had at last responded, or had the dark angels tried to take him and failed? Maybe he had been eavesdropping on an internal dispute among supernatural beings without their being aware of it. Never again, except in memory, was he to hear those inhuman grumblings.

Later during that same week Ulrich would receive, by the laying on of hands, the gift of tongues. The phrases he would speak, though possessed of a structure and a rhythm, an apparent grammar and syntax, carried no conscious meaning. The little group of expatriated hippie neo-Christians espoused an explicit theology of tongues-speaking: God could understand what was being said, and that was good enough for them. Words were spoken that the Hearer could understand – this was the important thing. Understanding your own speech isn’t important. When you speak words you can understand, pretty soon you start conforming the words to the understanding, instead of simply saying what God wants you to say. What you need is a gift of speech that bypasses consciousness altogether, that makes connection with the super-consciousness of mystical presence. Surprisingly even now, long after Ulrich had forsaken the faith, he could speak in tongues if he wanted to, whenever he wanted to. He still didn’t know what the words meant.

This new voice, the Voice of the Face, was nothing like those other voices. “For one thing,” Prop thought matter-of-factly, “I can understand the words.” He supposed it was possible that the Voice didn’t understand its own words – “like tongues,” he speculated, “except this time I’m on the receiving end of the line. Maybe when I answer he has no understanding of what I say. But I don’t think that’s true,” Prop concluded, for he and the Voice could carry on a rudimentary conversation. It simply seemed to Prop that the Voice wasn’t much interested in chatting.

Most of the time the Voice issued commands: Go to the grocery store and buy three dozen eggs; open a new checking account and deposit in it a small sum of money; draw with a black marker a particular configuration of arrows and numerals on your right forearm. The Voice didn’t explain why Prop should undertake these seemingly arbitrary actions. If he asked, the Voice ignored him. On the other hand, if Prop asked, say, where the thick black arrow pointing toward his wrist was supposed to intersect with the “9” he had been told to draw onto his right forearm, the Voice would clarify. Surprisingly, when Prop held up his arm for the Face to see whether he had done it correctly, the Voice said nothing. It seemed as though the Face was unable to see. Thinking that perhaps the Face was incapable of redirecting his gaze to the right coordinates, Prop held his right forearm above his left shoulder, where the Face always seemed to be looking. Still the Face showed no recognition; still the Voice made no comment. Within the realm of the spoken word the Voice could instruct and Prop could respond to the instructions; only then could they understand one another. But for Prop O’Gandhi there was no knowing whether he was doing it right.

If you follow the words through the Symbolic order, do you ever reach the other side, touching or even penetrating the sonically Real that surrounds you? Here’s the text of a piece of music, composed in 1969 by Alvin Lucier, entitled “I Am Sitting in a Room”:

I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.

These aren’t the words to the tune; the words become the tune through the recursive process of speaking, recording the speech, playing the recording of the speech, rerecording the recording, etc. Here’s a recording of Lucier’s original performance of this piece. This is a quick version; other performances, in other rooms, with other recording devices, take longer to complete their inevitable transformations. Still, if you’re short on patience, listen to the first couple of rounds then jump ahead to the end.


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