Much is written in psychoanalytic research about language, speaking and listening, but little on the sonic ‘affects’ of the voice. Perhaps this is because the experience of sound is the opposite of intellect and language. The sound of the voice is affect (emotion) discharged orally, as opposed to concepts expressed in writing.
This presentation started off as a theoretical investigation of the sonic affects of the voice in the psychoanalytic encounter. However, after exploring various Freudian and Post-Freudian concepts about speech, language, listening and music, the presentation became a vehicle through which to gain a foothold in Lancanian psychoanalytic theory. In retrospect, my unknowing approach to Lacanian analysis via the sonic, seems an obvious starting point.
In the Lacanian paradigm, the voice occupies the centre position of the ego, alongside images in the Imaginary realm. Yet I would like to argue that the visual image is closer to the symbolic realm than sound, which is closer to the real. It is this close connection between the sound of the voice and reality that makes sound the ideal resonating instrument for psychoanalytic diagnosis and treatment.
The sound of voice ties language to the body, but the tie is paradoxical as voice does not entirely belong to either the real body, or to language. It is a part of the body (real), but also a part of the linguistic (symbolic) and this ‘in betweeness’ is why it is considered an imaginary phenomenon. Sound detaches itself from the body, yet at the same time it remains corporeal. The momentary, existential experience of sound floats off, but its direct connection with the body makes it more immediate and effective than a visual or written signifier.
Speech is a sophisticated exchange of harmonic, rhythmic, intervallic (the space or gap between objects), and scalar (the quantitative measure of libido/emotion) relationships. An analysis of the sound of the voice involves attuning to the movements and modulations of speech that suggest emotions, easier to hide in language, than in sound. Pre-verbal rhythms, tones, timber, staccatos and patterns, reflect and trigger unconscious memories of early life traumatic experiences a person had in childhood, long before words can rationally analyse unresolved conflicts.
Early on in psychoanalysis around 1895, Freud used hypnosis to temporarily remove neurotic hysterical anxiety symptoms such as speech disorders, but the underlying cause itself remained. To relieve speech disorders in the long-term, psychoanalysis aims to identify a patient’s psychosexual libidinal economy and objects of desire. Not to permanently remove or even adjust the intensity or site of anxiety or pleasure, but to facilitate awareness of one’s psychosexual energy and the obstacles to and causes of one’s anxiety and desire.
In On Aphasia (1891), Freud distinguished between primary unconscious thing-presentations prior to language and word-presentations that are a mental construct. The sound of the voice constitutes primary instinctual pleasure seeking processes of the id, while language constitutes secondary processes of the ego. Freud’s distinction between the Ego and the Id (1923), elaborated his antinomy of things versus words and his hypotheses that the ‘split’ between the material (body) and the idea (mind) is a defence against intra-psychic conflict. Voice and image attempt to ‘bridge’ and fill the gap of the split ‘I’, so that we can not only identify as an individual imaginary ego, but also see the true self in the sounds and silences of the voice.
Diagnostically, the sonic quality of the voice and its speech patterns can signal where and how emotional conflicts and their resultant unorganised states of being are held in the body. It is common knowledge that neurotic and psychotic disorders ‘affect’ speech. (Nobus, 2000) Neurotic speech is characterised by words that are not entirely cut off from feeling the body, but their meaning is repressed and driven out of consciousness, yet continues to exercise its influence as a symptom or unconscious representation. Psychotic speech is characterised by the prevalence of words over feelings and the connection between body and mind is severed, resulting in a closed circuit of empty words without relation to anything real.
Lacan re-read Freud’s theories of the development of language through a Structural Linguistic lens, to show that a symbol is something which connects a sound or image to a concept, but entails the murder of the thing. (Lacan, 1977) This is the same as saying that when the pleasure seeking instinctual drive of the body encounters the symbolic field of signification, the big Other, it is castrated. The real enjoyment of the body must be annihilated by the process of signification, as a subject can only enter language by negating the blood-and-sinew reality of self, for a concept of subject to identify with, expressed in sounds, images and words. To some extent, our empirical sense perceptions – sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch – must be repressed and denied, so that we can enter the intellectual world of society, read books and newspapers and understand ideologies. This means that the grammatical intellectual empty subject is actually a substitute for the true self. The price we pay for our admission into the universal realm of language, is the loss of our full embodied true self.
According to Lacan, the goal of psychoanalytic treatment is, “the advent of true speech and the realization by the subject of his/her history in relation to a future.” (Lacan, 1977, p.88) This true or full speech, as opposed to empty imaginary talk, uncovers key signifiers that represent the desire of the patient. The most important effect of full speech is that it makes the speaking subject aware of him/herself as a subject of speech, the ‘I am what I say I am’ because I realize there is nothing beyond language and that I myself am the nothingness situated between the elements of my speech. Detached from the embodied sound and emotion conveyed in the sound of the voice, the subject becomes just as dead as a language without a subject, but a death he/she already is. For Lacan, the recovery of a patient is only possible if he/she recognizes the real place and function of speech and language and his/her real position in relation to it. Success of the psychoanalytic treatment therefore, comes out of the reconciliation of the patient with the real master. It is a transition from an unconscious state of servitude to a false master, into a conscious state of servitude to a real one.
Freud, Sigmund. (1891) On Aphasia: A Critical Study. International University Press, New York.
(1923) The Ego and the Id. Vol. 19, S.E.
Lacan, Jacques. (1977) ‘The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis’, in Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Tavistock Publications, London.
(1968) Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis. Trans. Anthony Wilden. John Hopkins University Press.
Nobus, Dany. (2000) ‘Diagnosis via Speech and Transference’, Chapter 1 in, Jacques Lacan and the Freudian Practice of Psychoanalysis. Routledge, London.