thoughts on the voice

Responses for 09/09/15

Roland Barthes’ “The Grain of the Voice” theorizes the implications of describing the voice through language, and poses other kinds of ways to think about the voice. As I was reading, I reflected on the different ways in which the voice has been described (in popular newspapers, music reviews, etc.), and thought about why it’s been such a struggle for me to describe aspects of the voice in my own analyses. Barthes says that in describing music via language, we are reassured as subjects hearing it (504). Barthes later emphasizes the role of embodiment for the judgment and assessment of the voice. The “grain” of the voice can be the twofold production of “the encounter between a language and a voice” (505). I’m curious about what it means to hear the body (506). For example, he gives an example about not hearing breath, but instead the dividing up phrases. I have a question about this—many musicians will talk about the “musical breath” or a group breathing together, in a heard and recognized musical way (if that makes sense). I’m curious if this somehow is something that is diminished in Barthes’ context. In addition, what are some of the implications of genre of music as connected to Barthes’ piece? (For example, he talks about how consonants need to be articulated to get meaning. Is this just in classical music? What happens when this is a different genre? Or when consonants aren’t articulated?) Barthes argues for the potential of the “grain” in evaluating music (moving beyond “I like” or “I don’t like”) by focusing on the body (509).

Toward the beginning of the piece, Barthes says that we have to look at the whole of music criticism to see if there are (verbal) means for talking about music without adjectives (505). Even though he doesn’t take this on, it’s a very interesting project to me, (and perhaps something I want to take on in my own small way). For example, for my dissertation work, even locating those adjectives that were frequently used to describe the voices of women jazz singers is interesting to me(and even the frequency at which particular words were used—a quantitative study/distant reading?!), despite Barthes’ urging to move beyond this kind of understanding and beyond the adjective in general. Understanding the implications of how language is used in this way, especially in conjunction with the voice, seems like an intriguing way to understand the elusive nature of the voice and how people have grappled with it.

I’m not sure if I got everything that he’s talking about in this article (and why is he allowed to use so many parentheses?) For this article, can we talk about the role of materiality in conjunction with Schlichter’s piece?


In Teresa A. Nance’s “Hearing the Missing Voice,” she discusses the importance of Black women in the civil rights movement by looking at the range of activities and organizing in which they participated.  She also argues that many of these activities can be placed in-line with the roles of Black women played in communities during slavery and reconstruction (544). The implications of what Nance proposes are significant—she sees her intervention as a way to alter how we understand activism and proposes a different framework “that recognizes the voices of Black women and validates their contributions” (544). I also found it interesting that Nance argues that Black women were not categorized necessarily as one type of person (i.e. “activist” or “mother”) but were viewed as a whole person to the community (548-549).

Nance says, “The activities of Black women engaged in the grassroots southern civil rights movement did not generate the kind of rhetorical artifacts (policy statements, speeches, etc.) that would catapult their names or words into print. They were, however, the kind of activists who served as the catalysts for the civil rights movement throughout the country” (548). I think this can give us different understandings of how we think about voice, who has it/can have it, and in what forms it can exist. Nance reflects on why Black women’s voices were not heard, and discusses how we need to consider what “counts” as recognized rhetorical artifacts of social movements (554). She argues, “Critics need to expand their focus and study the meal-making, child-tending, friend-supporting acts of women as rhetorical and capable of serving to advance a number of different social justice movements” (555). What I see as the important intervention for this in terms of the voice list is what makes up a rhetorical artifact, and that she proposes we “filter their interpretation of the artifacts through the themes of self-definition, interlocking oppressions, and African American women’s culture” (558). The ideas Nance engages make us think about the role of voice in different dimensions, what is recognized, and how we need to add an intersectional lens to see the ways in which power has operated with regard to these issues.


In “Amiri Baraka Analyzes How He Writes,” Amiri Baraka and Kalamu ya Salaam discuss Baraka’s artistic engagement. It was interesting to see how Baraka understands his own work and his processes. A couple ideas stood out to me in particular. The connection between form and content, and the process through which one chooses a particular form struck me because of how the form-content connection can either act as inspiration or seem like a box. The role of imitation here that Baraka brings up is also another piece—he says that sometimes you have to get away from a certain form so you can stop imitating (211). It makes me think about how people come to “master” certain forms of art, and the labor that goes into practicing particular forms. (In classical music, this could mean mastering the music of the “greats” and then writing back against it.) Later on, Salaam says: “That’s one thing about using the music as a reference: All the cats who were innovators, who make a breakthrough and made a contribution and created a new form, they had first mastered a previous form” (216). The two also discuss the understanding of the form-content connection as a western dualism (223). Baraka also brings up the importance of needing to hear things. In addition, he says, “It occurred to me that as a musical presence the human is the instrument; that’s where all those instruments come from. We have created all those instruments, so we must be able to create them in some kind of approximate way by ourselves” (232). This is where I am interested in where the voice comes in, and what role that plays in the human as instrument

This is kind of an unrelated question I have, but I was wondering what happens when we break up peoples’ lives into “phases” or “chapters” of life. I’m wondering about how this has an impact on the narratives we craft about people, or how we understand their artwork throughout their lives (or their changes in artwork styles). (This is something that has come up in a few other books that I’m reading as well.) I think it also has implications for how we remember generally.


In “Do Voices Matter? Vocality, Materiality, Gender Performativity,” Annette Schlichter critiques Butler’s notion of gender performativity (and subsequent scholarship on this) that does not account the voice’s role or acknowledge the role that sound technologies play in the mediation of vocal acts (32). This is important because in Butler’s theorization, the bodies are voiceless (32), and the logic of the visual dominates (33). Schlichter points out that this has the effect of trying to make bodies speak while muting their voices at the same time (33). She recounts the work of theorists like Sundberg (complex materialist of the voice, 33), Dolar (the intersection of language and body, but intersection belongs to neither, 34), and Duncan (embodied voice in opera that produces material effect of body on body, 34). I like the notion that the singing voice has a transgressive character, but Schlichter also points out that we need to include the socio-cultural conditions of vocalization and be sure not to essentialize “vocal acts as ontologically excessive and overflowing” (34). Schlichter also brings up Cusick’s notion of the disciplining of vocalizing bodies (34). Butler’s emphasis on the visual represses the voice, Schlichter argues (39). She says, “Rather, voice functions as a medium of intelligible speech but as material object also transgresses its boundaries. An analysis of Butler’s work via the consideration of her treatment of voice will confront us with a material multiplicity of the body” (40). I was also interested in Nina Eidsheim’s racialization of the singing voice and her idea of “performative listening” (44).  (In this, there is always a visual element that plays a role.) I found the differences between a singing and speaking voice to be interesting, as well as the potential for the subversion/disruption of gender heteronormativity. Overall, this article to be very interesting in how it engages in these debates, but a bit challenging to understand.

Do you think it would be helpful to read any work of the theorists that she discusses briefly?

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