This essay critiques the liberal axiom of “having a voice,” using readings of Leslie Thornton's experimental films. Drawing on cultural critics such as Rey Chow, Mladen Dolar, and Frances Dyson, I show how the notion of the voice, as it has been taken up by feminist media critics and documentary practitioners, is thoroughly mired in the cultural politics of objectification. I focus on the trope of voice-over commentary, which has been favored among feminist filmmakers working to subvert the representational conventions of narrative cinema and ethnographic documentary. I argue that the associations of verbal commentary with textual authority and liberation in contemporary feminist debates extends a metaphysical narrative that favors certain ideal, and therefore more human, voices over those voices encumbered by the matter of embodied difference. Contrary to giving a voice in the conventional sense, Thornton's unusual manipulations of the voice-over behave as a defense of voicelessness. In Jennifer, Where Are You? (1981), Adynata (1983), and Peggy and Fred in Hell (1985–2013), Thornton explores the violences of the voice, as well as the alternative modes of relation that its abjected, ephemeral materialities can enable. Thornton's films offer counterintuitive insights regarding the way that sound operates in relation to the image in cinema and, in the process, rearrange our understanding of the voice and of the horizons of humanity onto which it can open.
In Defense of Voicelessness: The Matter of the Voice and the Films of Leslie Thornton
Pooja Rangan is assistant professor of English in Film and Media Studies at Amherst College. Her first book, Immediations: Humanitarianism, Otherness, and the Documentary Logic of Intervention (Duke University Press, forthcoming), examines the humanitarian impulse in documentary, with a special focus on questions of childhood, animality, ethnicity, and disability. Currently she is working on a new research project on the voice in documentary and critical theory. Rangan's writing has been published in Film Quarterly, differences, Camera Obscura, South Asian Popular Culture, World Picture, and other anthologies and journals. She serves on the board of the Flaherty Film Seminar.
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Pooja Rangan; In Defense of Voicelessness: The Matter of the Voice and the Films of Leslie Thornton. Feminist Media Histories 1 July 2015; 1 (3): 95–126. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/fmh.2015.1.3.95
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