Ars Electronica 1987
Festival-Program 1987
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Festival 1979-2007


An Abstract

'Kaja Silverman Kaja Silverman

As other writers have stressed, classic cinema's sonic regime stresses unity and anthropomorphism. It subordinates the auditory to the visual track, non-human sounds to the human voice, and "noise" to speech. It also contains the human voice within the fiction or diegesis. Hollywood smoothly effects all four of these ideal projects through synchronization, which anchors sounds to an immediately visible source, and which focuses attention upon the human voice and its discursive capabilities. This emphasis upon diegetic speech acts helps to suture the viewer/listener into what Stephen Heath calls the "safe place of the story", and so to conceal the site of cinematic production. It is thus the sound equivalent of the shot/Reverse shot formation.

However, it has gone largely unnoticed that like the visual VRAISEMBLABLE, the sonic VRAISEMBLABLE is sexually differentiated, working to identify even the EMBODIED male voice with the attributes of the cinematic apparatus, but always situating the female voice within a hyperbolically diegetic context. This talk will attempt to show that classic cinema's sound track is en-gendered through a complex system of displacements which locate the male voice at the point of apparent textual origin, while establishing the diegetic containment of the female voice. It will also suggest that interiority has a very different status in classic cinema from the one that it enjoys in the literary and philosophical tradition which Derrida critiques. Far from being a privileged condition, synonymus with soul, spirit or consciousness, interiority in Hollywood films implies linguistic constraint and physical confinement – confinement to the body, to claustral spaces, and to inner narratives. It is, indeed, synonymous with castration. Finally this talk will argue that classic borrows not only from the Freudian model of female sexuality, but from the Jonesian model as well, and that its female subject is consequently organized around concentricity as well as castration.

The paper will begin with a general discussion of the ways in which film theory has conceptualized sound, with particular emphasis upon what might perhaps be called the "ideology of presence". It will then introduce, via the 1950's film SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, the closely related topics of sexual difference and sound/image synchronization, attempting to show that female characters are held more fully to that norm than are their male counterparts. I will also provide an overview of the codified deviations from synchronization within classic cinema (post-dubbing, voice-off, voice-over), and of the way in which each intersects with gender.

The major part of the paper will constitute an attempt to identify three large operations through which the female voice is contained within a hyperbolically inner space within the classic film text, and through which the male voice or ear is located as a point, of seeming exteriority, in apparent intimacy to the cinematic apparatus each of these operations exploits that ambiguity in the concept of interiority which permits it to designate both a psychic and a diegetic condition, and which makes it possible for the former condition to signify the latter. As a group, they are more or less synonymous with sexual difference in the dominant narrative film.

The first of the operations folds the female voice into what is overtly indicated as an inner textual space, such as a painting, a song-and-dance performance, or a film-within-a-film. Through it the female voice is doubly diegeticized, overheard not only by the cinema audience, but by a fictional eavesdropper or group of eavesdroppers. Male subjectivity is then defined in relation to that seemingly transcendental auditory position, and so aligned with the cinematic apparatus.

Psychoanalysis provides classic cinema with a second strategy for situating the female voice within an exaggeratedly diegetic space. This strategy, which I will call "the talking cure", anchors woman to a fantasmatic interiority through involuntary utterance; she is obliged to speak, and in speaking to construct, her "own" psychical "reality" – a reality which, we are told, has been there all the time, albeit long repressed and forgotten. The talking cure is negotiated with astonishing frequency and openness in the so-called "woman's film" of the 1940's. Many of the films which call into this category focus on the interaction between a male doctor and a female patient, and they all manifest an intense fascination with a space assumed to be inside the patient's body. However, in each case the internal order clearly derives from an external source, so that these films dispute the very divisions they are at such pains to establish.

The third of the operations through which Hollywood inscribes the opposition between diegetic interiority and exteriority into the narrative itself is by deposting the female body into the female voice in the guise of accent, speech impediment, timbre or "grain". This vocal corporealization is to be distinguished from that which gives the sounds emitted by Mae West, Marlene Dietrich or Lauren Bacall their distinct quality, since in each of these last instances it is a "male" rather than a "female" body which is deposited in the voice. Otherwise stated, the lowness and huskiness of each of these three voices connote masculinity rather than femininity, so that the voice seems to exceed the gender of the body from which it proceeds. That excess confers upon it a privileged status vis-a-vis both language and sexuality. The contrivance to which I refer, on the other hand, involves the submersion of the female voice in the female Body, and results in linguistic incapacity and a general vulnerability.

Although the focus of my paper will be classic cinema, I will conclude with a few remarks about the female voice in some experimental films by women, if time permits.