Teacher Voice Treatment Lecture 3, by Sarah Hayden
Introduction by Nisha Ramayya:
In Arjuna Neuman and Denise Ferreira da Silva’s tender-dispersing film Soot Breath, DFdS asks us to set aside Narcissus and his mirror stage and think ego otherwise, to find another image that might indicate our material sensibilities and shift focus from singular subjecthood to earthly enfolding. She offers Echo: ‘the acknowledgement of that deep implicancy existing in the world by already taking into account the fact that we are just one singular composition, made out of something that is also entering the composition of other things. […] Then I think Echo, who immediately – which is defined by, precisely the fact that she … (chuckles) … resonates, and that’s all she does.’ When I hear this – and, even more so, when I read the chuckling caption, nestled between gendered pronoun and sympathetic vibration – I think of Sarah. Against the traditionally “tragic lidlessness” of ears’ susceptibility to sound, as figured by certain philosophers and scholars with their everso odd anxieties about acous(ma)tically sticky fingers, SH unveils through layering the tragedy that buzzes right by such ears and remains out of range – that of the lid, of not hearing, of closing oneself to the messages, of swatting flies. You put your hand up to your ear to hear better, to feel through listening and listen through feeling, to vary the tuning without turning off (and I hope this sonic/haptic image, these mixed metaphors, gesture towards the many ways we might embody, experience, and understand ‘listening’ in our differently perceiving bodies).
Reading Sarah is like talking with her, is like thinking alongside her, the way that her voice, her style imbues, so that I gladly drape myself in asterisks, chatty compounds, snoring bearcreatures; I dream in density, in the ideas, artworks, and creative-critical invitations that SH bricolages; and, yes, I learn, I study with Sarah and Roland and Zap and Ellen and Tony in the spiralling classroom whose walls keep changing colour and transparency/opacity so that we may understand new things about focus, about the situatedness of the classroom within the world. Reflecting on the voice of the teacher/father/Father that lays out the law, whether ‘speaking well’ professorially or ‘excusing oneself for speaking’ pedagogically, to mix Barthes’s and SH’s terms, Sarah draws out the necessary presence of the student who intervenes even without speaking (or listening, or turning their camera on!). Whether in person or online, the classroom depends on the co-presence of teacher and student. As Barthes says: ‘the Other is always there, puncturing his discourse’. The same cannot be said for art galleries showcasing video-works that reproduce teaching scenarios, whose artists speak in Teacher Voice. Whether they mean to raise consciousness in earnest or subvert didacticism, the issue remains: the ‘essential co-presence, the confrontation’ between artist/teacher and viewer-listener/student is not required, is, in fact, unlikely. Authority, however ironically presented, remains unchallenged – impervious to intervention – when the artist recuses their presence no matter how well excused their speech. As Sarah asks: ‘What happens, then, when there is no risk of puncture?’
I think of a meeting with my former supervisor Kristen Kreider, who interrupted my flow to stand up, remove the white wall clock, and place it outside the room; Kristen ended time so that I could keep going on and on about Dictee, was how it felt. I think of all the teachers who have never marked my work, whose lines have triggered my fallings-in-love, who’ve dared Edmund and me to ring the chapel bell at Churchill, whose playing has sent my fingers eeling, who’ve answered my questions in farts. I think of all the teachers who know the openness of the score, the beautiful scam, that we’re studying across-ways, that they/we’ll never know everything and there’s so much to learn from us/you. Sarah begins this lecture-poem with effluvium and rub and ends with stickiness, the flows and feelz of her work not simply evoking but really doing pedagogical reciprocity – echo’s eternal, inevitable, essential resonance. We can’t/won’t answer her question, but send it spinning in more directions, taking further and further circumstances into account – universities, art galleries, poetic forms, messenger apps, parks, zines, all the official and unintelligible spaces where study is denied, takes place anyway, earthwormily struggling, kissing the rain, listening athwart. Polycentric tones like punctures in an expanding field; social rhythms anticipating total-body-hearing experiences; SH’s classroom entropics, mhm yes and and and –
‘he said “theyre students they come regularly every day students come into school they sit down and you can talk to them” and i thought this was so freaky I said “wow”’.[i]
WHETHER BY ROTE…
Rancière, in th'oddity that is The Ignorant Schoolmaster, figures ‘the childlike minds of the people’ – the would-be, could-be learners – as ‘fragile young plants’.[ii] Though not, I think, a knowing reference, Baldessari’s Teaching a Plant the Alphabet (1972) makes th'analogy manifest.
Th’artist works methodically through a pack of alphabet cards, employing the pedagogical principle of trebled demonstration: phoneme/symbol/image – to teach a small banana plant that sits on a small round table, in front of a wall of schooldays-summoning white or whiteish breezeblocks.
The plant does not look especially scholarly. But Jacquetot and Rancière would, I think, have liked it like this. What the plant does do is cast its shadow over the alphabet cards.
For Jacquelyn Ardam, this video is the Cal-Arts post-studio king’s somewhat smug parody of the sorry fate his (no syllabus, no assessment, no subject) teaching escaped — fate of the punitive pedagogue that found him anyway, elsewhere, in I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art.[iii]
In JB’s image of plant pedagogy, we see the repetition that is teaching. We hear it, too. Still more so. ‘A’, it says. Then ‘A’ again & ‘A’gain. And so consistent, so steady is he (mosttimes) that he might be mistaken for an automated voice: mechanical teaching machine. In listening, I visualise the finger held to depress a button. Its even intervals = the predetermined gaps between each uttered sound.
Occasionally, the voice wavers, so-slightly, like the hand that sometimes makes the card flap, also-so-slightly. But then the Baldessarian body makes itself heard in the lip-tongueflesh-palate congestion that arises when the same mouth must try to re-launch, re-peatingly ‘wwwww’.
The curriculum is set by the order of the alphabet.
The teaching philosophy is really, unrelentingly rote, and the students never respond.
This is instruction without joy, without change, without result : a futility beyond Beuys’ explication of pictures to a dead hare.
If Prouvost’s film throws us back into the student seat, the chaos of failing learning, Baldessari’s film evokes the existential horror of teaching as a suffering of the blankness of vegetal student bodies.
Or maybe it’s a just-er allegory for all teaching, as experienced from the POV of instructor, whose situation (however lofty) can (rightly) never disclose a view onto the interiors of the listening students.
To teach is always to teach banana plants: beings of other ilks, their responses unknowable.
Or, as Graham Allen puts it, ‘There is no guarantee. No calculability in one’s texts and, by implication, one’s teaching’.[iv] A humbler, warmer lesson for all instructors.
… OR, ALTERNATIVELY, BY GUT
Nietzsche prided himself on his small ears. He was especially angsty about the primacy of the aural vocal interface within 19th c. German higher ed. Horrified that the channel linking individual and university should be that of the ear, that it should be ‘as a hearer’ that the student’s role was construed.
And so he raged, in his lectures On the Future of our Education Institutions, against th' ‘acroamatic’ method of teaching.
Contra all tiresome consternation in sound studies about the ear’s tragic lidlessness, for Nietzsche, what makes the ear such a preposterous point of connection between individual and institution is, precisely, its capacity to be (metaphorically if not membranically) closed, such that: ‘He’ (for his student, of course, can only ever be a he) ‘himself may choose what he is to listen to; he is not bound to believe what is said; he may close his ears if he does not care to hear’.[v]
Here: academic freedom is a ‘double independence’. Generated, diabolically, in the circuit linking a mouth that is free to speak what and as it will & ears that blink open and closed, on nothing more than a whim: th' opposite of the ‘obedience [...] subordination [...] discipline [...] subjection’ quadrumvirate that Nietzsche (being Nietzsche) holds as prerequisites for culture proper.[vi]
What’s worse, by his reckoning, is that the disastrously independent student is left free to 'withhold all belief and authority from what he hears’.[vii] Nietzsche’s students languish for the lack of a leader, and in the absence of appropriate guidance, develop ears both long and floppy enough to, unknowing, unnoticingly, receive thereby the invidious, treacherous voice of the state.
Derrida’s reformulation of Nietzsche’s paranoia drives the latter’s oto-analogy into still deeper, fleshier territory: way past the threshholding portals of ear and mouth and all the way to an ‘umbilicus’ that ‘dictates to you the very thing that passes through your ear and travels the length of the cord all the way down to your stenography’.[viii] It is in its conjoining of the bodily and the machinic that this analogy gets most interesting, as Derrida goes on: ‘The writing links you, like a leash in the form of an umbilical cord, to the paternal belly of the State. Your pen is its pen, you hold its teleprinter’. (…!)
Connor reminds of the stomachiness of early ventriloquism, audible still in th'engastrimythos: ‘a particular manner of speech which gave rise to the illusion of a voice proceeding from elsewhere than the person of the utterer’.[ix]
Here, too, the voice that cannot be seen to be orally produced claims powers (& knowledge) beyond normal human ken. Bouncing us back (on blackboard?) to the first lecture in this series: the voice emitted straight from the stomach bypasses the articulation system that would index it to a single body and grants it the possibility of being apprehended as transcendent truth.
The weird thing afoot here registers on both ends. The voice that never passed through a mouth is also received otherwise than by the ear. Or, thinking in less aurally-bound terms, via
any sensory organ of perception. Kant’s pure philosopher is presumed to hear ‘before he needs physical ears, and from within a pure interior where his hearing organs are, in any case, cut off — disembodied’.[x] Dawn McCance ties it up neatly: ‘He is supposed to hear reason speak (in words) immediately, that is, before there has been any movement to the outside, and before a material signifier, a figure, has intervened’.[xi]
This, I think, is what’s going on in Grace Weir’s Time Tries All Things (2019): a 2 channel video installation in which we watch two theoretical physicists at their (nostalgic, rather nicelooking) professorial ‘duties’ – writing, diagram sketching, window-gazing as long prelude to note-making. We hear, meanwhile, their voices but never glimpse any audiovisual synch-up.
Weir’s work acousmatizes the teacher voice after the fact: effecting a throwing of voices in time rather than space.
Weir fantasizes a model of pure pedagogical communication in which the teacher could bypass the mouth to beam in truth about time.
That’s knowledge, from the belly (or brain), right into the student ear (& consciousness).
In 1973, Nancy Holt set up another of her circle-centric experiments. For Going Around in Circles, a site was chosen, and the camera trained onto it from a height some floors above. Movement scripts and walkie-talkies were issued to the participants on the ground: 5 Oneonta art students who moved between points marked with 5 rocks on an open field that contained a steep hill. (5 rocks lining up with 5 apertures in a board placed over the camera lens upstairs).
Operating the camera and watching from a window, Holt zooms in and out on this perceptually flattened space. She covers and uncovers various of these circular holes in the cardboard. Meanwhile, down below, the students bustle (across slipperily wet grass) between points of viewability, disappearing from one circle to turn up somewhere else. In Going Around in Circles, we watch footage of this experiment. We watch, crucially, with the participants and we all (across time) watch the fieldwork twice. Meanwhile, what we hear is the artist in conversation with the students. The effect is something like that of a DVD extra ‘making of’ documentary: albeit a rather raggedy-edged homemade one.
But what interests me more than any of the circleplay or artfrat japes caught within the circles is the work’s modelling of something like seminar teaching. It’s there in the repetition: the re-iteration of the video playback so as to harvest every possible learning opportunity. It’s there too (and maybe most obviously) in the relative altitudes of students and artist/teacher/puppetmaster while the going around in circles is going on.
At one point, Holt alludes to how, from the window, she was both looking down upon the field and down onto the monitor, so that ‘my whole vision, all the time, was a downward vision’. And the students allude to how ‘all you saw was a window, and much of Nancy’s face ....’ towards which they were ‘always looking up’.
Moreso, though, the seminar situation subtends in what is instantiated between their voices.
Holt’s, here, is the voice of the seminar teacher: Pushing, coaching, pressing, commending, setting the students up to speak.
Dragging rhetorical springboards into sentences so as to encourage them to hold forth : ‘I wonder how the people who were there on the ground felt about this. How did you feel, Bruce, when you were walking around?’.
Just as the teacher performs overt interest in the students’ opinions, so the students flatter the instructor’s prompts. When one introduces an unanticipated angle, the artist graciously admits her surprise, exclaiming ‘I hadn’t considered that before’. The artist-teacher’s pleasure in their learning warms, lifts her teaching voice to confirm and commend: ‘That’s right! Yes! that’s right’.
‘the songbirds try out sounds. one pipes up, pitch a little off. others add in notes. this doesn’t ever hold for long but there are moments of real song’.[xii]
Someone asks: ‘Is being the biopower of the enlightenment truly better than this?’[xiii] / Someone answers: <obvs, no>.
What keeps Holt's interlocutors speaking are these re-assurances of discursive hospitality, rhetorical invitations re-offered that renew the vocational vow to provide a safe and receptive landing place for the voice of the student. In return for her teacherly assiduousness, they seem to stretch themselves towards more artful constructions. If listening hard, we might also discern another kind of terribly teacherly pause, a missed beat or two or three that precedes the apt word towards which a sentence strains.
From the sound of things, Holt’s position here is something like that of the visiting/guest tutor: counterbalancing generosity with readiness to temper and redirect the students’ assertions. This balancing, maybe, is the crux of the seminar format. So Holt deploys copious calculated ‘mhms’ and other audible indicators of receipt without agreement, responding ‘mhm yeah well there was a “patterning” but also I think there was a certain kind of chance....’.
Seminar-teaching-voices run on ‘mhm and’ constructions: <<Mhm yes I hear you and appreciate your contribution. And (but) there’s more that you haven’t encompassed in your response>>.
Seminar speech is appreciable in Holt’s in-phrase self-corrections: ‘the ordered’, she says, and then revises, ‘the seemingly ordered system’. We can hear this either as self-auditing autocorrect or, as concerted performance thereof. For, while the second phrase alone might have sufficed, the combination of the two — the ordered and the seemingly ordered —anticipates and underlines just how misleading this semblance might be. <<it’s a mistake anyone could make; look, see me nearly make it too, so you don’t have to>>. Not ordered, but seeming to be so.
So, Holt half-makes mistakes in order to audibly correct them. And from this, presumably, the student learns how carefully, self awarely, they must learn (in language, or in their perception) to tread. And in this way, teacher voices model habits of thinking and talking that we learn & reproduce thereafter.
Throughout, Holt’s phatic hesitations, her langorous ahs and uhms sonorize her live thinking, in convocation with other voices, other minds that countersign her mental/emotional as well as physical presence: communicating responsivity. <<Here I am with you, among you>>, says this voice, before it says anything at all. <<And your interjections and contributions are eliciting my responses>>. The distancing here is enacted upon us, but not, notably, on the space between students and teacher. Shut out of the thrust and parry of their classroom speech, we are onlookers and eavesdroppers both on the scene of interlocutory instruction.
Meanwhile, out in the field: the recordings, the interminable uploads, the lossy formats, the little boxes, the new ways of working. What hope then (though) for the lecture, the thing (is it over? it’s nearly over) itself?
LASTLY, LATELY: LECTURE
For his 2019 Testament A (MF FKA K-P X KE RIP), Tony Cokes took the Memorial Lecture delivered by theorist-artist-educator Kodwo Eshun on the occasion of the first anniversary of the death of theorist-writer-educator at large, Mark Fisher.