The title of this scintillating collection of essays, which grew out of the interdisciplinary Voice Project and an international conference, is a self-conscious reworking of Mladen Dolar’s A Voice and Nothing More, itself intended ironically as a critique of an idealist reduction, as he explains in his afterword to this volume.1 The stakes of the three modifications to the title are all high in their own way. The decision to adopt the definite article for the published collection, unlike the indefinite “a” chosen for the conference, may seem perplexing given the cumulative effect of the sixteen chapters (plus introduction and Dolar’s afterword) to demonstrate, as one might say with Jean-Luc Nancy, that “there is no ‘the’ voice.” Rather, as the editors highlight in their introduction and acknowledge in its title, “The Clamor of Voices,” the voice, if there is such a thing, immediately splinters into myriad things: musical, spoken, live, recorded, sounded, transcribed, gendered, racialized, cinematic, radiophonic, high, low (in multiple senses), mine, yours, ventriloquized, mimicked, staged, or unbridled in spontaneity. The volume also embraces an impressive array of disciplinary voices, from musicologists, music theorists, composers, and poets, to classicists and scholars of Chinese, Japanese, and German literature and culture.

The voice heard in the myriad animated voices, individual and (cross-)disciplinary, of the volume’s contributors is decidedly not one. It is perhaps “more than one” in the syntagma of Adriana Cavarero, who makes multiple appearances.2 Or perhaps more accurately the book presents a picture of plus d’une voix in the more Derridean sense according to which one more voice is at once no more voice, although, as I shall suggest, deconstruction is not the volume’s strong suit. Rather, the editors and contributors steer a course—closer to Cavarero (who herself mounts a rather ill-conceived critique of Derrida in the epilogue of her book), Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Roland Barthes—“toward materiality,” as the volume’s subtitle has it. Conceding that “materiality admits of no easy boundaries,” the editors, as well as many of the contributors, tend to figure it in terms of physical or bodily presence, in an explicit attempt to redirect psychoanalysis—specifically in the Lacanian mode that informs Dolar’s work—“in a more materialist direction” (p. 3).

Dolar, for his part, is rather more circumspect about materialism and its idealist temptations in his afterword, especially as manifested in the cluster of so-called new materialisms, rejecting, rightly in my view, the substantialization of matter. He is as eager to avoid the Scylla of materialist reduction as he is the Charybdis of the idealist one. The voice accordingly is always somewhat cut off or broken free and somewhat bound up with and to the materiality of the world. Some of the musicological and literary accounts in the volume could benefit from this degree of suppleness. Whereas James Q. Davies argues in his chapter that the aura of the voice is more a product of its deep worldly connections than of its detachment, Dolar will counter that, far from being a case of coexistent coalescence, “this is a world still based on a break and antagonism” (p. 346).

So, on the one hand, the voices in this volume (I shall insist on the plural if not dispensing with the definite article) are not some thing more; they are many things more and always multiply and uncountably: blues voices, country voices, jazz and operatic, musical and poetic, virtuosic and broken. The voices here are rarely simply imagined or symbolic but typically always “real” in a way that is no longer always especially Lacanian (“something more” also means no more the Lacanian voice) and that, at times, frustratingly, remains underdefined even when richly described. There is, then, a certain attachment in various different ways to the “thingness” of the voice, often conceived in opposition to the linguistic or metaphorical. (Dolar tackles this head-on by arguing that not only are the categories of bodies and languages intertwined but, or precisely because, neither is a self-identical category.)

But for this very reason, on the other hand, this something more is always also something that is no more. One thread that runs through some of the most theoretically intriguing chapters explicitly engages with the voice in retreat, withdrawn, broken (purposely or otherwise), or wounded. These chapters and others push back against the widespread metaphysical assumption that associates the voice with authentic, unalloyed, immediate subjective expression. Seth Brodsky alights on a tantalizing little syntagma, “the same as nothing,” which he develops with theoretical and music-analytical brilliance via a series of close readings of passages that stage the impossibility of making operatic or composerly voices appear from Lachenmann through Nono and Berg to the locus classicus of late Beethoven, in which Adorno heard the withdrawal of the subject. Like Marcelle Pierson, who analyzes Nono’s relation to the voice alongside Stockhausen’s, Brodsky, closely tracking Brian Kane’s riveting “spacing” out of the voice alongside Dolar,3 seeks to identify the specificity of the modernist voice and finds it not in the demystification of the fetish but in a certain doubling down on fetishization: “In traversing the fantasy of voice, in losing its voice as a fetish object, musical modernism comes to fetishize ‘losing its voice’ as its object” (p. 243).

In a dazzling reading of vocal breaks and cracks, understood in multiple, shifting ways, Martha Feldman also picks up on this theme to highlight, in contrast to Carolyn Abbate’s seduction by the drastic,4 the possibilities for “managed” misfirings of the voice or a carefully modulated tightrope walk between success and failure in operatic and jazz performance. Analyzing a scene of staged vocal performance from Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg as a restaging of a similar diegetic scene of performance in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, David Levin notes that the former dispenses with the latter’s sadistic aspiration for totalization as the cure for the wound (premised upon the expulsion of the “bad,” racialized object) and instead creates a more masochistic identification with its expression of the split condition of subjectivity. Neil Verma too is interested in rehearsed vocality on the edge, specifically the multivalence of the radio scream.

A number of other chapters, especially in part 6, which is devoted to technology and difference, address the substitutable or prosthetic character of the voice, presenting a direct challenge to Cavarero’s attachment to vocal uniqueness. In a chapter on ancient Greece, Sarah Nooter proposes that musical instruments be explicitly recognized as prostheses that displace and ventriloquize the human voice. This character of the voice as substitute or prosthesis is also foregrounded in ways both broad and narrow in earlier chapters, including Steven Rings’s deft discussion of the slippages, more or less continuous or discontinuous, between speech and song across a range of popular music genres and Laurie Stras’s analysis of Ethel Waters’s mimicry. Robert Polito’s discussion of James Merrill’s poem The Changing Light at Sandover explores the erosion to breaking point of the poetic voice precisely through its self-conscious tussling with this facet and through what poet Delmore Schwartz, writing about T. S. Eliot, called “sibylline listening,” to refer to the way in which his poems “are often dominated by a listening to other voices—the voices of other poets, in other centuries and countries” (p. 124). In his essay on Japanese kabuki theater, meanwhile, Jonathan Zwicker observes the conjunction of heard voices from unseen bodies and unheard voices from seen bodies, exploring the interplay between silent embodiment and sounded disembodiment in the archive. It would be interesting to see the kind of fetishistic disavowal with which Zwicker characterizes the historicist endeavor, in which we want to make the dead speak, contrasted with decolonial and abolitionist discourses on the lacunae of the archive, such as Saidiya Hartman’s practice of critical fabulation, and specifically from the perspective of the sonorousness that inflects her writings.5

One area not considered at any length in this volume is the existence of vocality beyond the human except insofar as it explores kinds of ventriloquism as a technologization of the human, thus gesturing toward an originary imbrication of human and machinic vocality. Whereas in Nooter’s essay it is gods who technologize humans as mediums of divine communication, Andrew F. Jones’s attention falls on the ways in which Auto-Tuned Jamaican dancehall and other technologically modulated distortions of sound open up possibilities for other voices—“voices of the vulnerable, the silenced, and the dead” (p. 305)—to be heard while also complicating the boundaries between human and nonhuman by “producing an almost unprecedentedly elastic sense of the human voice and its possibilities” (p. 302).

Davies sums up this inherent dispossession of the voice by observing that “voices have never been themselves” (p. 151) and that all voices are to some extent “put on” (p. 145). In an enjoyable romp of a polemic that examines the politics of voice through the lens of the techniques and technologies of vocal performance, he discards both appeals to authenticity implied in Cavarero’s model of singularity and also “the sort of metaphysics of (self-)presence that Derrida so eloquently scorned” (p. 150) in which the voice is thought to be identical to itself in an enclosed circuit before any technical mediation. This is a fair enough account of the deconstruction of Husserl in Derrida’s La voix et le phénomène.6 And yet Davies also unashamedly declares himself “an essentialist.” I have considerable sympathy for his rejection of the liberal fetishization of “speaking up” and “breaking silence” as analyzed in Wendy Brown’s critique, which observes how such exhortations to emancipation risk reinstating the very disciplinary governmentality they seek to challenge.7 Davies is unequivocal that essences or bodies are not transparently indexed by voices, and that bodies are not made self-present in voices, but he nonetheless insists that “essences are formed in [the] voice” (p. 163). Given all the precautions against racist, sexist, and classist essentialization, in what sense these formations are “essences” is unclear to me, as is the way in which this position might constitute another metaphysics of presence (yet to be deconstructed or at least not deconstructed by Derrida). If by “essence” Davies intends to highlight the actually existing effects of racial, gendered, and classed inequalities in which voice is “embroiled,” then few would surely disagree, but I remain perplexed by the suggestion that recognizing the necessarily conditioned taking place of the unconditional would amount to metaphysics.

In this and many other ways, the volume under review succeeds in rendering the voice uncanny—in tracking its well-trodden paths toward something more. But for all that it destabilizes the traditional understanding of voice—including venturing beyond Eurocentric models to reckon, for instance, with historical Chinese theories of the voice in Zeitlin’s fascinating contribution, or to gesture toward its theorization in the Black radical tradition—it remains surprisingly Hegelian, or perhaps not so surprisingly for a collection of essays that wear their Lacanian inspiration to a greater or lesser extent on their sleeves. The notions of voice announced here tend to remain confined within a dialectics of presence and absence, absence made present and presence thus made all the more palpable for its being the presence of an absence of a wound, a gap, a gaping hole filled by its own void. I would argue that this extends to Dolar’s Lacanian notion of the voice as the index of the irreducible cut in the body that just is the body. For Derrida, by contrast, the cut is the effect of a self-differentiation that ruins the possibility of transcendentalizing or substantializing the voice from the outside. Contrary to a common misunderstanding, this differential dissemination is not on the side of writing in opposition to the phonē and sonorousness; rather, it undercuts that very oppositionality, which is already a gathering and dialecticization of the originary scattering of voice that just is écriture in the broadest sense. Deconstruction proposes a more disseminatory notion of the voice that resists gathering into the familiar binaries into which its power is all too often contained—exactly what this volume strives to achieve, it seems to me.

The voice, if there is such a thing, that emerges from this volume is multiple, heterogeneous, multicolored, or poikilos—which variegation Plato lambasts both in democracy and in mimetic poetry. But—and here the stakes are both intellectual and political—is pluralizing the voice enough? There is a world of difference between describing the voice “as” something, even if that something turns out to be multiple, and saying, as I have now done casually a couple of times, “the voice, if there is such a thing.” This syntagma, beloved by Derrida to the point of becoming a tic, renders the distinction between something more (or some thing more, one more thing) and nothing more (just that, but also no more a thing, over, done with) not dialectical (which would allow it to be sublated) but undecidable (which means it must be decided upon each time anew). This is perhaps a democratization of the voice in the radical sense of each singularly in its difference but moreover equally so. It would also challenge the fascist co-option of the radiophonic voice described in its psychoanalytic import by Tom Gunning, who illustrates that “the voice that is not mine” need not only have progressive implications but, in its capacity to traverse or erode ego boundaries, can also be bent to reactionary ends.

This moves in the direction of the kind of singularity elaborated by Derrida, which precisely is not one but always already self-differentiating. This is why Michel Chion’s claim that Derrida is “misguided” “when he theorizes ‘writing’ in the singular” (p. 250) is an egregious misreading. Other misunderstandings of deconstruction elsewhere in the volume matter because they limit the ability to engage critically with psychoanalysis by cutting off one of the most sustained critical engagements with Freud and Lacan. The editors, for their part, are correct to say that the voice, in Derrida’s hands, “is exposed rather as a site of difference and alterity” (p. 5), though it does not follow from this that deconstruction is about dethroning or demoting the voice in its privilege over writing because that very hierarchy, inverted or not, is unraveled via deconstruction, as Derrida was at pains to explain on multiple occasions. Shane Butler argues that the Derridean deconstruction of presence neglects to reattach “structuralist langue to its linguistic root, its Latin lingua, and thereby to the bodies and other matter from which it was abstracted” (p. 181). But one could draw this conclusion only by overlooking Derrida’s early discussions of Artaud, his interests in cannibalism, or the sonorous homophonic and homonymic glee with which he reclaims a carnality of the letter from Hegel in a text such as Glas; the deployment of the notion of silva (wood) in De la grammatologie would, I suspect, be quite useful in helping to take the path from Narcissus to Echo that Butler otherwise skillfully navigates in a rich and agile reading of Ovid.8

“If there is such a thing” turns the voice not from absence into presence but toward a condition. If there is a voice and what kind of voice depends on our ears, on listening. It is in this sense that the voice is unconditional or the real in a Lacanian sense: it calls on us to decide, to be responsible to the other, and there is nothing certain in how we will hear or respond to the voice. That is why I would argue that a deconstruction of the voice necessarily goes hand in hand with its decolonization—a voice that resists appropriation, commodification, economization, exoticization, barbarization, and the fetishization Dolar is so eager to evade, as he discusses in his afterword. There are traces of it in these pages—in the Black fugitivity and maroonage of Fred Moten cited by Feldman or in Chion’s unpronounced or differently pronounced letters—and this beautifully crafted set of essays, in their intersecting exchanges with one another, offers hope that the voice may continue to be thought in ever-dispersing ways that make its conventional formulation tremble. But in the end, such a voice is in the gift of our ears, in the supplement that haunts all voices, that is their condition of (im)possibility and of which voice is the necessarily imperfect echo. As Gunning concludes his chapter, “and how will it be heard?” (p. 334). Listening—now that is something more, always another ear and no more ears.

1.

Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).

2.

Adriana Cavarero, For More Than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005).

3.

Brian Kane, “The Voice: A Diagnosis,” Polygraph 25 (2015): 91–112.

4.

Carolyn Abbate, “Music—Drastic or Gnostic?,” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 3 (Spring 2004): 505–36.

5.

Hartman first expounds “critical fabulation” in “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 1–14. Her long-standing attention to sound comes especially to the fore in the chapter titled “Riot and Refrain” in her Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: Norton, 2019), 263–86.

6.

Jacques Derrida, La voix et le phénomène: Introduction au problème du signe dans la phénoménologie de Husserl (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1967).

7.

Wendy Brown, “Freedom’s Silences,” in her Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 83–97.

8.

Jacques Derrida, Glas (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1974) and De la grammatologie (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1967).