This article concerns a collaborative sound and poetry artwork titled Thirst, created by this author and a sound artist. The poetics invoked in the title of the paper refers to the cultural tradition that informs my work, including manifest and tacit authorial intentions. The argument draws mainly on Lacan’s conception of the voice in order to account for the apparent negative reception of the artwork by the curator and the audience. It approaches the voice as ‘invocatory drive’ (Lacan, 1986: 104), a concept that requires us to take into account the ‘experience of the unconscious’ (Lacan, 1986: 104) in order to acknowledge its full impact on the writing subject and her audience. The essay explores the paradoxical nexus between surface relations and their deeper psychological implications uncovered in the production of Thirst. As a model of interactions of aesthetic and psychic modes, the project revealed a discursive struggle that highlighted the dominance of the field of vision over the field of hearing in the reception of our artwork. I show here that the field of hearing opens up another aspect of reality which is experienced as disturbing precisely because it is transmitted by pure sound. As such it makes heard a real of limitless sound unconstrained by the dimension of language which is experienced as a threat to the foundation of the subject. I interpret the negative response to the artwork as a defence against this threat.
The tension between what can be signified and what lies outside the realm of representation has fascinated writers from French Symbolism onwards when Baudelaire first articulated his concept of correspondances in the eponymous poem published in Les Fleurs du mal (1857). As is well-known, this poem influenced revolutionary works such as Mallarmé’s L’Après-midi d’un faune (1876) and Verlaine’s Romances sans paroles (1874). Although the history of Symbolism and its impact on anglophone poetry and poetics is clearly beyond the scope of this paper, I wanted to mention this interest in Symbolism because it informs my own poetic practice, if only in that it comes out in the work itself in a liminal waya. It may even have been this interest that drew me to the writings of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan via incursions into Julia Kristeva’s La Révolution du langage poétique (1974) translated and abridged as Revolution in poetic language (Kristeva, 1984). Thus the foundation of my poetics, understood as ‘the means by which [I] formulate and discuss an attitude to [my] work (Lasky, 2013: 17), including its literary and theoretical underpinnings, its communicatory and invocatory intentions, is that language operates as much in signifying as non-signifying fashion.
Were I not concerned with that which escapes the articulation of words, I would not write. What I seek in the writing process is in fact what escapes mimesis and meaning in language. What is at stake, though, is not that which escapes meaning as such, but that something I do not yet know as I begin to write. In Lacanian terms, this points to an insistent conflict between the ‘symbolic’ and ‘imaginary’ dimensions implicated in the writing process on the one hand, and the ‘real’ which precludes symbolisation on the other hand. Since one of the key issues in this paper is the reception of an artwork in relation to authorial intention I will begin with a reflection upon the genesis of the artwork. I will then introduce the Lacanian concepts which I think are crucial for an understanding of both the development of the artwork and its reception. These concepts include the scopic and invocatory drives which, paradoxically, cross over the fields of vision and hearing with respect to the experience of the subject in visual or auditory interactions with the symbolic order of language. And yet we have to bear in mind that the scopic and invocatory fields are totally distinct (Lacan, 1986: 118). I will pose questions as to the nature of the object at stake in the interactions between the two. Finally, I will discuss the reception of the artwork to expand on these questions with pointed reference to Lacan’s understanding of the real.
Approaching the real
In the early winter of 2008 a curator interested in coordinating a one-year project comprising interdisciplinary touring exhibitions to be launched at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival approached me. Her project focused on the theme of drought and involved collaborations between artists from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The curator suggested that I work with a visual artist, or even that I produce an artist’s book. I agreed to write a narrative poem. As I wrote the prologue to this text it became clear to me that my collaborator needed to be a sound artist rather than visual artist. Indeed, as the hand moved across the paper the recording of a cicada previously heard at an installation by sound artist Catherine Clover kept whirring its way into my inner ear. As I wrote, I became aware that I was seeking to write an elegiac poem ‘in which it is neither possible nor desirable for the elegist’s desire to be deflected, renounced or spent’ (Kennedy, 2009: 581). Why?
Consider the opening of the prologue: ‘Tongue a pebble, rock porous as skin, sand / cold hot frost’ (Hecq, 2008: 1). We are on the site of loss – linguistic and physical and cultural. As the imagined speaker of the text I start from a melancholic position, negotiating as I do, the loss of an object—a tongue as (imaginary) organ, language and cultural matrix. The prologue proceeds to evoke and perform this theme of loss, defamiliarising the reader by utilising languages other than English while at the same time focusing on loss in terms of global warming; loss of the planet. The mood is melancholic and the tacit desire is to transfer this melancholia to the audience: ‘To show the world in a blanket of lethal emissions / Dan zouden de stenen spreken’ (2008: 1). A desire to make the audience experience sorrow, an experience that escapes the articulation of words, one that would by default make the inanimate speak (Dan zouden de stenen spreken—then the stones would speak). The point of using languages other than English is to signify mere sound effects that would defamiliarise the audience, all the better to make them receptive to what is about to be said about global warming. The point is to foster the audience’s own mnemnic associations:
Flames of memory dig out funnels
in the gardens where we would play and dream
forgetting the slow implosions of progress
the dying trees, the raucous cries of thirsty birds
Wenn du siehst dass Himmel grün wird
so ist es Zeit für dich aufzustehen, leise
wie Kinder aufstehen
wenn am Morgen Licht schimmert
And when you think history
is about to crash
in this gorge of grey, green, glib
where once was a whitewashed house—
Qiere que yo hable…
In hindsight, it is at this point that I made a connection between mood, theme and form: sparing paper (and water) seemed appropriate in the context of the drought. The cicada Catherine had recorded, the greengrocer (cyclochila australasiae), is known to be singing at the end of the hot season, and also at the end of its adult life. On first hearing it, I had been struck by the audible struggle that the cicada is having while trying to sing its last few songs of life. I could feel how powerful it could be to convey this struggle through purely auditory means in the environment constructed to convey harshness of Federation Square with its brutal architecture, rough surfaces, and patterning of angular shapes in stones of assorted colours. At that point, the cicada’s song had to be part of the project. And so the collaboration began.
For me the drought became increasingly an event of the body as I ascribed meaning to words in the process of writing: I became the body of the cicada struggling as I strived to convey this struggle to my imagined audience; as I failed—only too aware that my desire to convey some message about the impending loss of the planet was preposterous. Yet on closer inspection, this ‘event of the body’ comprised something beyond the imaginary (and symbolic) dimension of the creative process: despite, or perhaps because of, my identifying with the struggling insect I was able to surrender to the ‘inner disturbance—the loss of equilibrium that impels rhythm’ (Hecq, 2013: 104). I was enjoying that which escapes the articulation of words before even attempting an imperfect translation of it.
The three registers that Lacan invokes in his conception of subjectivity were clearly implicated here. For Lacan, the self is an interlocking and dynamic constellation, differentiating between the ego and the subject, the subject of speech and the subject of being, with the former being a fictive creation of the imaginary order, brought into being by the misrecognition of the self in the Mirror Stage, while the latter is part of the symbolic order (2006: 75-81). Lacan sees both of these facets of the self operating within three orders: the imaginary order of the mirror stage, the symbolic order of language and law, and the real order of drives, the somatic and unconscious impulses. These three orders are interconnected, and operate at an intersubjective level, providing different perspectives on events in the life of the self: ‘it is in relation to the same actions, the same behaviour, that we can distinguish precisely the functions of the imaginary, the symbolic and the real’ (Lacan, 1988: 113). The real at stake here is ‘another aspect of reality’ which is beyond symbolization. And the disturbance I surrender to is a disturbance at the intersection of the imaginary and the real, which is then recuperated by the symbolic in the act of writing. I want to stress here that this ‘event of the body’ is symbolised in the process of the writing itself. Thus the poem had begun with an image—the image of a stone, which seemed to suit the speaker struggling to speak her struggle. Rhythm took over by way of an identification with the insect. And the written text came to enact a process of translation from images and sounds to words as if enhanced by the pulse of the cicada singing and by the sense of urgency it communicated to me in the context of the drought.
Although poetry is its own phonological event, Catherine’s sound-scape, a recording of my reading of the poem lined with the cicada’s song, conveys this sense of urgency for the listener and compounds the intended alienation. It adds the sound of my French accented speech patterns, as well as my tone of voice and rhythm of delivery, to the actual meaning of the words—or lack thereof. It also adds the sound the insect is making, which may be understood as a pure form of music that signifies nothing but pure sound effects. As such, the artwork amplifies the other aspect of reality I wanted to convey. Catherine and I discussed this and we agreed to display a purely sonic artefact at the touring exhibition, one that would achieve the status of autonomous artefact in an attempt to promote a poetics of defamiliarisation centred on sound rather than meaning while opposing the ontology of the art object as a silent, timeless, autonomous thing, as would have been the case if the work had been a written poem accompanied by, say, a painting. The collaborative work reflected, complicated, and enhanced this rejection of a comfort zone: because the poem addressed the theme of drought from a linguistic, physical, emotional and global perspective, the medium of communication needed to serve the concept .
Embedded within the complex relations at the heart of collaboration as public performance are also the subterranean forces of audience sensibilities, expectations and receptive abilities. All these forces, some conscious, some unconscious, influence the reception of a performance. So, let us consider some of the difficulties we encountered, ironically focused as we were, on our own vision of a sound-scape. First, the curator of the exhibition displayed some unease at our privileging of sound over what could be seen. She seemed peeved at my reluctance, and later refusal, to produce an artist’s book. This lack of visual support also later elicited mixed reactions from some patrons: surprise, unease, bewilderment. One young woman said it ‘gave her the creeps’—‘it’ being the insistent song of the cicada; her partner acquiesced and said that he found it ‘unnerving’. Another woman said that she felt ‘quite literally invaded’ by the background noise, while her partner remarked that it was ‘hypnotic’, adding that she ‘felt drawn in and forgot to listen to the words.’ What is interesting is that all these reactions are visceral and concern senses other than hearing, conveying a sense of bewilderment to the point of feeling invaded. One last example supports this, as the listener felt ‘queasy,’,unsettled as she felt by ‘interferences like static.’
Unfortunately, the technician responsible for our sonic exhibit became unwell on the third day of the festival. Our exhibit fell silent. When in November it was to be showcased at the Northern Notes Festival, the curator provided her own CD player—it had no stereo and the poem had to be read without the cicada’s performance. Finally, when it was last displayed in June 2009 at the Ballarat Post-Office Gallery, the sound equipment was adorned with a mounted poster reproducing the Thirst CD cover. As patrons gradually filled the space so was the sound gradually turned down. Then off.
These difficulties and bungled actions prompted me to reflect on a number of related questions. Why such unease on the curator’s part? Why such desire for visual cues? Why such mixed reactions on the part of some Melbourne Festival patrons? Why this apparent resistance to voice, and privileging of the eye? Why this undercurrent of negative affect? Was perhaps the ambient noise that lurked in the background of the spoken words generating anxiety? If this was the case, what prompted such anxiety?
In order to answer these questions we need to re-define the concept of voice as invocatory drive in order understand the relationship between the scopic and vocative fields (Lacan 1986: 104) that intersect at its core, even though the scopic and invocatory drives are to be understood as totally distinct (1986: 118).
Both ‘scopic’ and ‘vocative’ refer to the experience that the subject goes through in his or her interactions with the Other of language and law. The adjective ‘scopic’ is derived from the word scope, which in both ending form and full word form inform the word scopic. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary tells us that, used as an ending, –scope comes from the Latin ‘scopium’ which means to look at or examine (Brown, 1993: 2721). In its full form of the most relevant definition of scope it signifies, ‘something aimed at or desired; something which one wishes to effect or attain’ (1993: 2721). Vocative is both an adjective and a noun. As an adjective, vocative ‘refers to that case of nouns, adjectives, or pronouns, which in inflected languages is used to express address or invocation,’ or more generally ‘characteristic of, pertaining to, calling or addressing.’ Rarely as a noun can it be used to describe ‘an invocation or appeal’ (1993: 3595).
In ‘The Split Between the Eye and the Gaze,’ chapter six from his eleventh seminar, Lacan investigates the ‘scopic field’ as understood by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Lacan, 1986: 71-77). Merleau-Ponty identifies the eye as the ‘guide’ (2002: 23) in his examination of ideas in the aesthetic world, and also points out the primary difficulty in apprehending the ‘scopic field’: ‘we are beings who are looked at, in the spectacle of the world’ (Lacan, 1986: 75). And further, ‘The world… appears to us as all-seeing I see only from one point, but in my existence am looked at from all sides’ (1986: 75). The scopic field is not limited to the subject’s view, but indicates all visual angles, which is difficult to achieve when the medium for experiencing this field is limited to the eye—unlike flies, human beings can only have one single view.
Lacan’s famous split between the eye and the gaze takes place in the scopic field. As he continues to define this split in the next chapter, ‘Anamorphosis,’ he articulates the concept of the ‘scopic relation’ (1986: 82). This relation establishes the gaze as the object a as cause of desire from which the fantasy of the subject is derived (Lacan, 1977: 83). The experience of seeing oneself seeing oneself is thus the result of the experience of the scopic relation: the gaze enables the subject to believe the fantasy that he can see himself. The gaze is ‘imagined by me in the field of the Other’ (Lacan, 1986: 84) The fantasmatic element of this moment lies of course in one of the fundamental definitions of the scopic field: ‘I see only from one point’ (84), and that point is inside me qua subject.
The gaze, then, as is made clear with reference to an incident from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1956), belongs solely to the object of the fantasy, which reinforces the limits of the subject in the scopic field. It is from here that the scopic field and scopic relation can make an entry into the realm of aesthetics. There are considerable ways in which objects interact with viewers in particular, continually propagating the fantasy that as a viewer I can see myself, while simultaneously acting as a reminder of this impossibility. In Lacan’s diagram of the eye and the gaze, we see that the object and the subject are forever involved in a mediation that begins with the eye, but is connected to all other forms of the scopic field (1986: 106). The scopic support on which image and sound are projected can take many forms in the arts: canvas, sculpture, page billboard, television screen, computer screen, etc. Thus the experience of visual mediation usually takes place primarily in the scopic field and engages the scopic relation.
As art historian and critic W.J.T Mitchell points out in What Pictures Want, such framework ‘provides an especially powerful tool for understanding why it is that images, works of art, media, figures and metaphors have “lives of their own”’ (2005: 352). The scopic relation means that every mediated image or written word, through the eye and beyond, adds another layer of the gaze and the ‘stain’ (Lacan, 1986: 85) that is recuperated symbolically by way of the fantasy, as happened during the writing process reconstructed above. Now, this brings us to the voices that we see, but don’t hear.
For Lacan, the vocative acts on a similar level as the gaze within the scopic field. But vocative images go further than simply implicating the viewer; they directly interact with the viewer, for the invocatory drive has ‘the privilege of not being able to close’ (Lacan, 1986: 200). By calling or appealing to the viewer, the vocative incites more than just the viewer’s self- reflexive knowledge; it enforces the gaze of the object and gives it agency. The object is thus elevated to the level of subject as stones and insects are in Thirst. We can better understand the vocative as provider of agency in the visual realm by looking to its function in language. As a ‘calling’ tense, the linguistic use of the vocative implies the existence of an other outside of the subject being called. There needs to be a caller, or the vocative cannot exist. Thus, when translated back into the visual realm, there must be an object from which this call is coming. This point of origin—person, animal or inanimate object—becomes a subject when it actively interacts with another subject, as we have seen in my relationship with the cicada. Thus, the vocative works to animate the object in as much as it implies the agency of the caller, real or imagined.
The vocative exists in the scopic realm as one way the subject and object a, as cause of desire, can interact. The gaze, while implicating the subject, does not necessarily give agency to the object. It is here that the vocative alters the scopic relation and may go far beyond this disturbance by annihilating the scopic field, as we shall see. Although there can be a gaze without a calling, there cannot be a calling without the gaze in the field of the Other of language and law. But this is only in so far as the vocative is what animates the other object in the scopic realm. However, I suggest below that there is an invocatory element that remains external and resistant to the scopic field, one that complicates the relation between the subject and the object, indeed forces a split between the object of the fantasy and the object of the drive, the invocatory drive. As such, it poses a question regarding the reception of artworks, especially those, which, like our sonic artefact, privilege some other aspect of reality defined not only as culturally and linguistically alien, but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, psychically alien, by which I mean repressed, foreclosed or disavowed.
The above comments on the genesis of Thirst insist on the necessity for the text to exist independently from the author’s experience by creating a defamiliarising world. Yet the yoking of disparate elements—such as the use of foreign languages is characteristic of this process of defamiliarisation for the listener was familiar to the author. Further, the decision to present a sonic artefact without the use of visual support which can also be accounted for by a belief that attention to visual material, including the line breaks, syllables in a line, end rhyme and stanzas on the page, would limit or distract attention from the text’s metaphorical density and emotional power may have pushed defamiliarisation to its limit for the listener who, unlike the author, had no symbolic grasp on the unfolding of the piece, unlike herself, in the process of putting words together. The affective import of the text on the audience seemed to match my own intentions and compositional strategies, but for some members of the audience, the presence of the scopic field (and its imaginary and symbolic anchoring) may have been out of bounds. While compositional decisions such as interrupting the narrative flow, defamiliarisation, foregrounding subliminal possibilities and steering away from meaning may have been received within the audience’s receptive abilities, the total lack of visual cues may have made it too difficult for some to find their bearings. Perhaps our sonic artefact was, in fact, threatening to ‘unsubject’ some listeners to the Other.
Surely, the relation of all writing and lived experience derives from their subjection to language, and, at a deeper level, desire. And the relation of language and desire derives from their virtuality. But at the root of poetic experience is an event of the body. It is this event of the body which informs the audio-tactile model of the poem as performance piece. At the heart of this model is the voice. Roland Barthes writes of the vocal performance in terms of ‘pulsional incidents, the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony’ (1975: 66-67). Because of this unifying and characterising of speech, even the most polysemic texts take shape when given voice. But what happens when the voice is being heard not only as a thing without a body, but lined with alien matter?
Barthes’ focus on the ‘pulsional incidents’ inherent in vocal performance is congruent with the more general ‘definitive discontinuity of the text’ that he promotes in The Pleasure of the Text whereby writing becomes ‘writing aloud’ or vocal writing’ (1975: 66), a form of writing that is opposed to linguistic closure and to the cultural subordinations for which it stands. Thus it could be argued that what we call ‘voice’ is a distributive, rather than univocal, dimension of the signifying chain according to which the subject of the signifier is assigned a place in the symbolic. I want to argue that the experience was radically different for the listener of our sonic artefact. In light of my discussion of the scopic and vocative fields it is clear that our listeners were positioned to experience a voice in the (imaginary) scopic field and that something prevented symbolic anchorage—for some at least. The key to understanding what happened is tied up with the notion of the Other.
In his work, Lacan differentiates between the ‘Other’ and the ‘other.’ As Ellie Ragland-Sullivan puts it, the Other is the ‘discourse of the mother, father, culture, and of language itself’ (1986: 191). The ‘other’ is another person, or possibly the image of the self in the mirror stage. For Lacan, the subject experiences the unconscious as ‘the discourse of the Other,’ (Lacan, 2006: 193) and it is this alterity that is also to be found in the polyvalent play of images in poetic discourse. Lacan outlines this in his schema L, where he has traced the interaction between the ‘wall of language’ of the imaginary, and the modes of communication between the subject and the discourse of the Other. Dylan Evans explains the point of schema L as demonstrating that:
the symbolic relation (between the Other and the subject) is always blocked to a certain extent by the imaginary axis (between the ego and the SPECULAR IMAGE). Because it has to pass through the imaginary ‘wall of language,’ the discourse of the Other reaches the subject in an interrupted and inverted form. (1996: 169)
Hence the imaginary identification between self and image forms a barrier to any satisfactory communication between self and other. Any messages which disrupt the specular dyad are filtered out of the communicative pathway, or if not, they are so distorted as to give rise to aggressive responses.
Thus meaning is endlessly deferred along the signifying chain of language: ‘it is in the chain of the signifier that the meaning ‘insists’ but that none of its elements ‘consists’ in the signification of which it is at the moment capable’ (Lacan, 2006: 78). Consequently, language as the signifying chain, does not allow for a clear passage between signifier and signified; he postulates ‘an incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier,’ and the result is that language tends to ‘signify something quite other than what it says’ (2006: 81). In terms of the subject, Lacan makes the core assertion that the definition of a signifier is that it ‘represents a subject not for another subject but for another signifier (1970: 194). The importance of this seemingly cryptic phrase is that language, whether for normal usage, psychoanalytic discourse or poetic language, presupposes a listener, an addressee, an ‘other,’ before it ever begins to signify. The crucial point about Lacanian notions of subjectivity is that they are extrinsic, they are derived from reflections, refractions and relationships with the ‘Other.’ It is worth remarking that it is the mother who first occupies the position of Other for the child, because it is she who receives the infant’s cries and demands and imbues them with meaning. Due to the intervention of the Name-of-the-Father, the child will discover that this Other is lacking, thereby relegating the mother to the place of mythical Other. The importance of the Other in determining the difference between the field of the ego and that of the subject with reference to the drives is the focus of the next section as it moves from the scopic to the invocatory drive that inflects the concept of voice.
At this point I want to return to Lacan’s eleventh seminar where he refers to a famous episode from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1956) to illustrate the split between the eye and the gaze. The episode is articulated in two steps. First, ‘I am looking through a keyhole.’ Second, ‘I hear the sound of footsteps in the hallway, I am being looked at’. Thus whereas Sartre is there, ‘looking through the keyhole,’ he is ‘a pure spectator subject, absorbed by the spectacle, unaware of himself’ (Lacan, 1986: 84). He is not ‘conscious of himself in a positional mode,’ as he puts it, and strictly speaking, ‘in this “looking through the keyhole,” I am nothing’ (1986: 84). He attempts to describe for us a moment of the subject’s fading, or aphanisis, as Lacan calls it. The second step, bound up with the sound, makes the gaze emerge as such. We can clearly see why the footsteps are necessary. Sartre wants to capture the subject before he recognises the one who is about to see him. It is prior to seeing the person’s face that he formulates his, ‘I’m being looked at’ (84). The gaze is anonymous. But behind this anonymity there is the gaze of the Other. And Sartre describes the downfall of the subject, previously eclipsed in his action, who now becomes an object and reduces him to ‘shame’ (84). Jacques Alain-Miller focuses on this particular point to extrapolate on the concept of the voice as split between ear and voice. Miller writes: ‘the voice as object a does not in the least belong to the sonorous register—just like the gaze as object a […] is very well illustrated by the noise that surprises the voyeur in the analysis that Lacan borrowed from Sartre’ (2007: 139).
This comment leads me to ask again what voice it is that we hear when it is not sounding as our own or the other’s? While I suggested in the previous section that what we hear is some alien matter, I am now inclined to say that it is rather bound up with some familiar, yet forgotten, Mater. What we hear has nothing to do with the Other of language and the law or something alien and foreign. It is, rather, something too close. Something reminiscent of the voice of the primary Other, namely the primordial Other embodied by the mother prior to the ‘primal separation’ (Lacan, 1986: 83). It is the voice of the Other before the scopic and invocatory drives became separated through the operation of primary repression; it is the left-over of primary repression, or that which has not been repressed, foreclosed or disavowed. And the grain of this voice is the unheard of, or that which ought to remain unheard. It is the thingness of the Freudian Thing which is too close to me and threatens to annihilate me. We are in uncanny territory—that which arouses anxiety because it ‘goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar’ (Freud, 2001: 124). It is that which veils my fantasy and my object of desire, because it is the object within, the object of the drive: the maternal, incestuous, and therefore forbidden, one. The uncanny, in fact, represents our terror at the possibility of non-being and non-signification. Why is this so?
Mladen Dolar remarks that the object voice is much more difficult to place than the gaze for it is a symptom of what is left over from speech. In this sense it is an uncanny object that speech cannot master, for it is inside the body. The voice as symptom is a thing without a body that resides in my body and that exceeds speech or that which exceeds speech’s capacity to make sound meaningful (Dolar 2006: 15. My emphasis). If the voice is the leftover of articulate speech, then it cannot be readily heard or understood as a sonorous object. It implies that the voice as object, in psychoanalytic terms, is the registration of a void, an ‘antinomy between ear and voice’ insofar as it exceeds conscious hearing (Miller, 2007: 139). It is precisely this registration of a void, this unconscious registration of death which produces anxiety because anxiety is, precisely, ‘the signal of the real’ (Lacan, 2004: 265).
The void at stake concerns the inherent (hearing ) dimension of the real, for which the French word entendre already hints at a hearing presupposing a tension emanating from inside the body. Psychoanalysis postulates that this impulse is aimed at an inner presence, a receiver that is unexpectedly created when the primordial Other ‘suddenly threatens to surprise us and cast us down from the height of its appearance’ (Lacan, 1986: 89). However as Miller suggests, this act of hearing, just like seeing, is not a matter of pure receptivity (2007: 139), which implies that the receiver invoked (by the invocatory drive) eventually becomes a ‘You of devotion’ (Lacan, 1992 [1959-60]: 56). This ‘You’ is not the ‘other’ person typically taken as object for an ‘I’, since we are not in the register of the imaginary here. This ‘You’ is a presence that is presupposed but not yet defined, one that instantly says, albeit unconsciously, ‘yes’ to the bewildering invocation of the Other, thereby making sure that it is heard even though it may be better for the subject if it remained unheard. This drive reversal is confusing as concerns the everyday meaning of what is made ‘heard,’ which is no longer limited to conveying reality as controlled by the symbolic and imaginary. What is instead made heard is another aspect of reality, previously underscoring the real made heard by the limitlessness of sound itself. As such, it is unconstrained by both the imaginary and symbolic.
What is prompted by the impulse which addresses itself to this ‘You’ consenting to the primordial invocation of the Other, is something that comes out of the blue, a non-remembered yet unforgettable moment of cohabitation between two kinds of reals – one transmitted by sound, the other by meaning. Once originary repression split them up, they seemed destined, like ex-partners, never again to pair up. But the reversal in the invocatory drive effects a return to this forgotten yet unforgettable moment (of successful—or not, originary repression), and the tension of their renewed encounter finds its resolution in the creation of the subject of the unconscious, through which the unheard makes itself heard as non-sense that surges and then disappears. Nothing will be the same again. Having heard, beyond what is specifically heard by the ears, the step forward made by what is not yet heard, causes the consistency of everything that has fallen under the category of the already heard – meaning itself –to fade.
The Object of Desire and its Spectral Voice
In the context of the creation and production of Thirst, my fascination with the voice was, in part, produced by its independence from articulated speech. While this independence opened up the space of desire that made my own relation to an Other of language and law possible, lurking behind was the spectre of my relationship with a mythical Other, harbinger of the real of madness and death. In attempting to promote a poetics of defamiliarisation centred on the audio-tactile dimension of poetry I may have encouraged a poetics of ambivalence, non-identity and perverse validation of sound and material medium against meaning precisely by foregrounded the spectral voices of the real, hence producing some unease, dismay, and anxiety in some listeners.
Lacan relates the arousal of anxiety to the desire of the Other (the mother) precisely because it is unmediated by the Name-of-the-Father. In his tenth seminar, he introduces us to the difference between the object a cause of desire and the pure object of desire. He does this by contrasting fear with anxiety. Using as an example Chekov’s short story, ‘Panic fears’, Lacan shows that what frightens us is not the same as what makes us anxious. Fear ‘is not a threat’, whereas anxiety ‘puts [the subject] in the disorder of a real panic (Lacan, 2004: 187). When subjected to fear, Lacan adds, ‘the subject is neither gripped nor concerned nor interested in the most intimate aspect of himself’ (2004: 187). Lacan refers here to the difference between fear and anxiety to the opposition between an intimate real and a real exterior to the subject. But in both fear and anxiety, we are aware of a danger. When frightened we defend ourselves from a real danger which is out there whereas when we are anxious we perceive a mere ‘signal’, the signal of a threat to the core of our subjectivity, the threat of the real which is ‘opaque’ (2004: 188) precisely because it is not signifier-able and thus in contrast to the symbolic function of the signifier whose vocation is to clarify.
As an enigmatic object of desire that resists symbolisation, the voice as pure sound is made of the stuff of the real which best remains unheard of. Those who experienced anxiety obviously heard something that usually remains unheard (of) and instinctively recoiled from the spectre of the mythical voice of the Other at the heart of some intimate real. Those who looked for a visual artefact no doubt displayed a similar bewilderment and yearning for the symbolic support of the scopic field made all the more wanting by the fragmentary nature of the text, the theme of the exhibition, and arguably Federation Square, the location of the event, and sought to project their unease onto some external real. What this paper suggests, is not only that audience responses to artworks are coterminous, yet different from artistic intent, but can also reactivate powerful subliminal impulses and their repressed, foreclosed or disavowed contents. As such, these are potentially dangerous, for they can neither be contained by the symbolic nor by the imaginary.
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