Teacher Voice Treatment Lecture 1, by Sarah Hayden
Sarah Hayden's Teacher Voice Treatment is a set of 3 lectures, in two voices. What follows is an experiment in undermining the presumed point of powerpoint, and a faux-pedagogical, rampantly parenthetical pondering of what it means to “attend” (to) a lecture. Channelling the teacher voices of artists Tony Cokes, Laure Prouvost, Jayson Musson/Hennessy Youngman, David Blandy, Grace Weir, Hito Steyerl, Carolyn Lazard, John Baldessari, Nancy Holt (and Pythagorus), TVT tracks a course through voice-driven artworks (voiceworks) that stage scenes of instruction.
This head, these days, is full of art that’s full of voices. Full, which is to say simultaneously leaking and overspilling. Awash w/ videos w/ voiceovers.
Very many of the voices pervading galleries these past few years are in some way or to some degree didactic. Not just political or persuasive as they might own themselves to be, but properly pedagogical. All over: multisite classroomlike encounters between eager audient-pupils and charismatic artist-instructors who set their voices (& those of others & of Siri, Alexa & their sisters) to teacherly tasks: instructing, informing, enlightening. Occasionally perhaps rather too authoritatively, and sometimes without demonstrating, (dare we?), an altogether conscientious approach to the citation of sources.[i]
Since at least the ‘70s, certainly, there have always been ‘A few extant blackboards hung here and there on the walls’.[ii] But some have been heard, of late, to sigh on finding themselves over-earnestly schooled: folded uncomfortably between fliptop and bench.
‘It is awfully important to know what is and what is not your business. I know that one of the most profoundly exciting moments of my life was when at about sixteen I suddenly concluded that I would not make all knowledge my province’.[iii]
Against the bent, then, of the smuggling into artspace of variously rigorous (tick, tick) or random (underline with squiggle) syllabi, this lecture-poem steps deliberately round the earnestly didactic. For form's sake. Or, at least, it tries, maybe perversely to avoid engaging with its knowledge-content.
‘And why smoosh with knowledge? Maybe there are better or interesting things to smoosh with’.[iv]
This lecture, this poem, is not here (not right now) to learn. What interests it instead is how art stages teaching scenarios. More specifically: with manifestations in art of teacher voice.
Some first principles, so / Words before pictures / Dusty received wisdom on voice in teaching / The survey, the calcified canon course / afore the selection of modules. Which is to say that old men who like/d (to muse on) their own voices tell us things, before artists (to include Hito Steyerl, Nancy Holt, David Blandy, Bruce Nauman, Carolyn Lazard, Grace Weir, Jayson Musson as Hennessy Youngman, Laure Prouvost & Tony Cokes & Tony Cokes & Tony Cokes) do things, on video, with voices.
SPEECH IN & AS TEACHING
There is very obviously, as Barthes observes, ‘a fundamental tie between teaching and speech’.[v] Or, as Bourdieu and Passeron put it, ‘few activities which consist so exclusively as teaching in the manipulation of words’.[vi] Not just teaching, even, but professorial status itself, which the same pair characterize as ‘the privilege of speaking and the implied privilege of controlling the speech of others’.[vii] And, of course, education, for Freud, is one of three ‘professions of the voice’.[viii]
Outside of lecturing, voices are made to be heard in much else that happens in places pedagogical: in the oral exams that persist in certain pockets of Europe, the interminable roll call of graduands, in the Viva Voce.
In Mladen Dolar’s account, this trust in the ‘living voice’ threads a line between places of learning and those of law and legislation where the principle of orality persists in oral depositions, the reading of law into statues.[ix] All contexts in which, he says, orality transubstantiates constatives into performatives.
Dolar summons the image of the teacher who reads aloud from their own book as an instance in which knowledge is made effective ‘only when relegated to the voice’.[x] It is the teacher’s voice that releases dead-letter knowledge into live contagious form, makes it capable of dispersal. Almost as though aerosolizing a previously inert virus. This once-common classroom practice — reading as the recitation of pre-existing, even pre-published knowledge (monograph as textbook) — is quite the furthest thing from Seita’s idea of teaching as “the translation of reading into a room’: a lively, interactive ‘thinking [rather than re-telling] out loud’.[xi]
If, as Dolar, this MD maintains, it is the non-human machine voice that makes appreciable the ‘uncanny’ object voice that reverberates soundlessly within/under every human utterance... Then maybe when the Teacher Voice merely repeats, machinelike, words that already exist on the page and so already in public, for pupils, then the Teacher Voice betrays its own secret, (something-mysterious-beyond-itself) power.
The teacher voice is unique in its capacity to endure beyond its audition. That’s its job.
For Barthes, the Law is present ‘in the very fact of [the teacher’s] speech’.[xii] Even should the teacher wish to cast it off, to exchange lexical mortarboard for the linguistic equivalent of the 1990s awkward highschool movieteacher’s backwards baseball cap, there is, writes RB, ‘Nothing to be done: language is always a matter of force, to speak is to exercise a will for power; in the realm of speech there is no innocence, no safety’.[xiii] And for the teacher it is ever, doubly, doomily thus.
Bourdieu and Passeron’s thoughts on speech in teaching throws up a paradox that might serve us as we go forth from here, into th’actual stuff: ‘Communication [they say] can only be regarded as pedagogical when every effort is made to eliminate the faulty “signals” inherent in an incomplete knowledge of the code and to transmit the code in the most efficient way’.[xiv]
And yet clarity must be practiced with caution for, as B&P go on to warn, ‘the lecturer who foregoes the marvels of professorial language and gives methodical and explicit presentations risks appearing as a primary school teacher who has strayed into higher education’.[xv]
Meanwhile, in the charismatic speech of the magically magisterial profess-or, ‘Speech points to itself, rather than to what it formally signifies’ and ‘all attention is turned away from the signifier’.[xvi]
The lecturer must aim to be understood enough, but not devastatingly, diminishingly wholly. The pedagogical (content-oriented) and the professorial (formal fun) are maybe always at odds within the voice of the teacher. Prideful performances of expertise, and easylistening explanation. Perhaps, I want to offer, it is the friction produced by their together-grinding that raises the particular grain of the teaching voice.
That, and another teacherly conundrum: the at-every-moment decision about how much to say, what needs explaining, what should be illustrated. Realtime decisionmaking is made possible by the teaching scenario — the co-ins/ciding that allows for gauging the room, asking questions. It permits something more conversational. But without interlocutors, there can be only excess, this effluvium.
And it is that effluvium and this rub that will be evoked to some degree here, in the interference between the two channels of my writing-as-talking.
ALLOWING FOR THE TIMES
The liveness of talking in teaching was always, already a curious, contested thing. Something often half-masked, half-projected. Witness, just, the twitches that run round the room at any talk of sharing whatever it is — scripts/ notes/ moodboards — intended to be propped upon the podium.
There are those who were always going to become the those who would write ‘Twenty years ago, Blackboard entered my life, and I fell in love. […] I embraced Blackboard’.[xvii] There are the others who scratch away, with slate and sharpened stick, grousing (maybe sagely / with sage) that ‘There is no such thing as “digital” without “digital capitalism” and its unique techniques of control and manipulation’.[xviii] And there are the rest, weighing accessibility gains against atmospheric losses, while evaluating the cubic force of their own inertia and the likely duration of the apocalypse, seconding David Antin’s premonition-proposition, that ‘The visual effect of true face-to-face communication is I think less important than the belief that someone out there is really listening’.[xix]
These latter two find themselves speaking, as one, as prayer offered up: ‘Can we sit together / in blood and muscle?’.[xx] Well, maybe. But ideally not for the sake only of the accoms receipts. There is ‘self-immolation/ as MOOC’,[xxi] and there is also MOOC as self-immolation.
If this does not sound, already, sufficiently grim, lay on one side of the table the ‘blended system’ as modelled by the early OU with teaching mobilizing ‘virtually all of the resources and channels that were available at the time: print, radio, television, mail, telephone, and sometimes even local libraries’, and alongside it place the infinitely thinner thing that is ‘blended learning’. [xxii]
Teaching was also, (also always & already), about distance and delay. But now that institutions are massing voice & video files of teaching persons currently-but-not-necessarily-forever-to-remain under their employ, these features find themselves to be swelling in an attenuation of the vocal chords outside of all recognition.
The teacher has moved on to other pursuits, but their teacher voice speaks on into the future. Where the OU was announced at its inception as th'inauguration of a university ‘disembodied and airborne’, one that would ‘flow all over the United Kingdom’,[xxiii] the flow now envisioned is distinctly temporal rather than spatial. Only those students proper to (i.e. paying for) the place will be permitted to enjoy the wisdom-nuggets of videos that ‘will be recycled endlessly’.[xxiv] The lecture’s liveness, we’re promised, has been all emptied out.
From offstage, via Cortana <<Next time you’re recording yourself into redundancy, might you not also consider programming a chatbot to respond in your inimical style to student queries? It would be everso neat>>.
It has long been Undercommons knowledge that the university was working ‘for the day when it will be able to rid itself, like capital in general, of the trouble of labor’.[xxv] This ridding will call itself by all sorts of names but definitely finds its task easier when the teacher’s voice can be thrown so far from the contracted body, then maintained in mp3, in eternal echoing.
Is this to be a nostalgic paean to classroom conversations, then? Well, maybe. But after this opening, th’unzipping of the pencil case, it will do its sigh-ful would-that-we-coulding through the videos.
The hope is that through th’art, there might be learned something about teaching.
In the proliferation of voices in art today, and the preponderance therein of voices charged with didactic intent, there is found, unsurprisingly, a particular prevalence of acousmatic voices: voices we hear without seeing what causes or produces them. In the art-acousmatic, the affective, authority-instating affordances particular to the teaching scenario intersect with those familiar from the traditional documentary voiceover. Voice as Law, as Authority squared. (Well might we quake).
Speaking from everywhere and nowhere at once, within and on behalf of the text, unbounded by the banality of being anchored within a visible mortal, the acousmatic voice we know as the documentary ‘Voice of God’ attempts to insinuate itself into our thinking as straight fact, spoken from the authorizing position that denies it is a position at all.
We hear this ‘spirit without a body’ (Dolar),[xxvi] ineluctably, as ‘the voice of the master’ (Kane).[xxvii] In art, as in film, the acousmatic ‘voice that hides itself behind a veil’ does so, Kane tells us, ‘in order to enjoy the power of omnipotence [...] omniscience’ and ‘omnipresence’.[xxviii] And, as Doane, Silverman and Bonitzer variously remind us,[xxix] acousmaticity stems critique. In documentary film-making of recent-er decades, as Stella Bruzzi notes, this vocal convention has been exposed as a ‘mask’ or ‘hysterical barrier erected against the specter of ambivalence and uncertainty’.[xxx]Rangan writes of the various moves by which documentarians tried to cast off these troubling pretentions to the divine, the authoritative, expert who speaks for a (presumed or predestined to be) voiceless other.[xxxi] And yet, it seems that these lessons have not yet passed into the artworld, where the Voice of God thunders on, unabated and unabashed, in installations, on speakers and over headphones, presenting what it speaks as objective, unproblematic truth.
While appearing to commit enthusiastically to sound, in defaulting to traditional acousmatic voiceover these artists favour a form of voicing that, as Rangan describes it, ‘keeps at bay the impermanence, instability, and unboundedness implied by the phenomenality of sound’.[xxxii] With the result that the politics of these means can pull very strangely against the politics of their content. See, for example, recent works by, well, eversomany unnameable artists.
The figure of the ear as the body’s perceiving organ of least resistance is very (& very almost too) well rehearsed in the literature on sound and listening: Hans Jonas gives us hearing as contingency versus sight as active agency.[xxxiii] Connor: a cultural sensorium within which the ‘arousing ear’ is set against the ‘interpreting eye’, and obedience to god or tyrant guaranteed by manifestation (invisibly) through the ear.[xxxiv]Labelle equates giving one’s ear as giving ‘the body over, for a distribution of agency’.[ii]François Bonnet invokes Bernard de Clairvaux’s fantastically circular commentary on a sermon from the Song of Songs, in which the ear is elevated as that which “catches the truth, as truth comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the word of God, and the word of God is truth”. Although de Clairvaux constructs his ear in opposition to an easily deceivable eye, to be open to the word of God is also to be susceptible, surely, to other material that co-opts this channel.[iii]
This anxiety about how what we hear gets inside us, this penetration of the body by the voice of an another, has seeded innumerable metaphors, the most frequently invoked among them being, of course, that of the ear’s tragic lidlessness.
There is a point, a politics even, in re-incarnating the body — obscured — behind th’acousmatic voice. As there is a point, always, in being reminded that the teacher voice is received (by whatever means) by embodied beings. On the course co-taught by Dillon & Mallarmé, ‘if we fast for too long there’s nothing left for thinking with. no drop left in the tank’.[xxxvii]Howsoever high the peaks attained, and whether or not the whole is staged between walls or by means more attenuated, flesh weighs still, and exerts its various wills: ‘I cannot listen with wee sloshing at my eardrums nor can anyone though some fake listening better’.[xxxviii]Learning a sweaty business too, such that victory in the classroom ‘can be gauged through olfactory settings. if the air is fresh and unruffled at the end of an hour no thinking has taken place’.[xxxix] A good way off from the microphone, a toilet (treacherously) flushes and everyone not actually at school laughs — relieved not to be alone in not having yet, quite, ascended to immateriality.
It is in its predilection for defaulting to acousmaticity that the art voiceover comes back to its acousmatic origins—apocryphal though they be — in the teaching situation. In Schaeffer’s version of the Pythagorean veil story, the megamathematician introduced the screen/curtained arras so that his students –- henceforth akousmatikoi — might hear him better. Installed behind this screen, undistracted by his body and its gestures, they were then ready to listen really, really hard.
If, as Bourdieu and Passeron rather grimly opine, teaching ‘naturally implies poor reception of the best messages by the worst receivers’,[xl] the introduction of this technê, the screen, into the dispositif of pedagogical performance is supposed t’enable the more effective tuning in of these faulty receivers.
But it also produces the consequence that, as Carolyn Abbate writes, ‘Power accrues to the utterance and not the person; words are also freer, something more than the speech of a human being; they point not merely to Pythagorus and his earthly form, but become symbols that detach entirely from an agent of utterance to take on other meanings’.[xli]
Post-pythagorean rogue pedagogues (pedarogues) would find other means at their disposal, and achieve completer cuts of sound from vision, utterance from utterly ordinary body. More elaborate means by which to suppress their embodied actuality in the interest of evincing attention-or-authority: First, phono-graphic tools — voice recording technologies — enabled the casting of sound into a time or space other than that of its production. Then a ‘second mutation’ of the acousmatic voice in the digital age, as diagnosed by Dominic Pettman, with the voice undergoing a double dematerialization: split from the image and then losing ‘its lingering fidelity to the source’.[xlii] More recently, Text-To-Speech programmes have delighted diverse artists seeking after something they would fain call neutrality — seeking after an object-ive/ish voice, that seems to have been born without a speaker. The teacher voice, though (pulling it back to the plague, the platforms) has surely never before found itself so ubiquitously abroad, so separated from the mouth that lets it out.
FADE IN, DISTRACTION
Adorno, aptly Pythagorean in professorstyle, had his lecture theatre in Frankfurt painted grey (the colour of indeterminacy for Johns, of indifference for Richter, constitutionally undemanding of notice for Roberts) to keep his students focused. Attention being, as Rancière rather whimsically observed, ‘neither the skull surrounding the brain nor an occult quantity’ it can be coaxed, chromatographically.[xliii] Steyerl made a film about this (and Adorno’s horror of the breasts exposed to him by 3 female students on April 22nd 1969); it’s called Adorno’s Grey (2012).
As we hear from the film, after reportedly, nobly hiding ‘behind his bag’, ‘he collected his things in panic and ran away’ — never to teach again (but to write, instead, Aesthetic Theory).
In Steyerl’s film, a pair of frett-faced conservators try to uncover the apocryphal greyness that turns out not to have been there at all, only to have Steyerl advise that they will have to manufacture (on the wall of this modernized lecture theatre at the Goethe Universität, Frankfurt) what cannot be found.
Many acousmatic voices speak in this film, documentary style, but without in-time nominal indexing. Some are anonymised, others merely go unnamed until the end credits. (Endnote rather than footnote conventions, then). If we believe Kaja Silverman,[xliv] and I’m sure we should, then it must be that Steyerl’s splitting of acousmatic power through multiple voices amplifies the material specificities of each one and so diffuses acousmauthority even further than does, say, the materializing grit of an accent. As Adam Kleinman notes, the multiple story lines introduced by this proliferation of voiceovers sums to something prismatic. And that sthg propels us out of our devout testimony-receiving posture and into attention to the material evidence being physically revealed, or not, on the wall, by the ‘forensic work of the conservators’.[xlv]
‘Legend has it [we hear in the film] that grey is the only colour that helps you to concentrate’. And the film is, accordingly, greyscale with the English-language subtitles appearing in unusually small, nonstandard typeface, a soft white against the grey, rather than the stark high contrast graphics of captioning classique. In this film in which audible and legible voices self-divest of the authority and single-speaker-all-th’auditors focus for which Adorno so longed, neither clarity nor resolution are to forth-come.
Bouncing back across the Alsacien borderlands, skipping over the Maginot line, Bourdieu, Passeron & de Saint Martin’s treatise, On Academic Discourse, digests surveys of French university students in the 1960s and spits up a dire view of communication within a lecture theatre whose architecture has been designed to spatialize hierarchies and set apart those who profess from ineffectively attuned students who ‘cannot define the terms which they hear in lectures or which they themselves use’.[xlvi]
The teacher’s voice sounds out from across the vast auditorium. Imparting erudition but not information, its sound signals presence, co-presence with the students, but at a distance and from another point in the room. This (the long, long, all-read Eurolecture) is teacher voice as recitative that reaffirms, sonically, the qualification of entry that secured for the students a seat. This the song that proclaims their worthiness to be penetrated acoustically, vibrationally, within the space.
Egregious mis-understanding of ‘the academic livery of the word’ that is ‘destined to dazzle rather than enlighten’[xlvii] causes the students, in B&P’s intemperate terms, to ‘reduce the most brilliant theories to logical monstrosities and picturesque oddities’.[xlviii] More significantly, though (for us, if not for those who must mark their papers) the lack of shared linguistic ground creates distance — or, we could say, enacts a screen, a division.[xlix] For Bourdieu & Passeron, this distancing is integral to the ‘present organization of university teaching’[l] (curriculum design, assessment processes, the physical form and layout of the lecture theatre) in yes, France, of the 1960s.
Though in many educational contexts, at least until 2020, modern teaching trends have (in theory) undermined the drive to distance — this imperative continues to structure the ways that teaching voices address audiences in art. And because the artist is not ‘physically elevated and enclosed within the magistral chair’ the artist must find other means by which to achieve this distance that, as Bourdieu and Passeron put it ‘require[s] and enforce[s] respect’.[li]
‘The tenured professor sits down in the tutorial, unzips his flies, begins’.[lii]
For Dolar, speech entails exposure on both ends of the line. Both the ‘commanding voice’ and receiving ear of the other.[liii] The voice exposes its emitter and renders the Other exposed in return.[liv] Teachers feel this, students too.
This vocal being-in-relation is not just a merry bath of mutual co-mingling. Speaking in class, whether from the top of the room, the back row, or the Malevichian screensquare, can be too much, too raw. Barthes delineates a fully flaying teaching scene with the teacher as analysand: unprotected by the analytic infrastructure, wherein ‘I speak, endlessly, in front of and for someone who remains silent. [...] I am the person who, under cover of setting out a body of knowledge, puts out a discourse, never knowing how that discourse is being received and thus for ever forbidden the reassurance of a definitive image’.[lv] And here, hear every plague-duty teacher wail: but if they would only turn on their cameras!
In Barthes’ teacher’s voice that is not just the Law but also the analysand’s wordflow, there is a counterweighting of the power of the Teacher Voice as Law because when the teacher opens their mouth and Law spills forth, then at the same time, ‘the Other is always there, puncturing his discourse’.[lvi]
‘You only have the hearing-time someone is willing to give’.[lvii]
In art’s teaching scenarios, this essential co-presence, the confrontation, is largely foreclosed by videos and installations apprehended only when the artist/teacher is long gone on to their next install or gallery get-out. What happens, then, when there is no risk of puncture?
Co-incidence of art + teaching + talking will summon to many minds the performance lecture: that which pitches itself between art and academia, aspiring to overturn audience conceptions of, to quote Alex Roe ‘the relationship between art and knowledge [....] ’ as well as that between ‘ar