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.