McMurray: Speech-Noise, Part 1 (Session 5)

Once again I’m the beneficiary of having a great overview post in place (thanks, Felix!) so I’m going to take a more narrow focus. I also had the bizarre, painful, intriguing and (maybe) even entertaining experience of losing my voice this weekend. The timing couldn’t have been more awful/perfect, as this happened while I was at a conference in the run-up to a talk I was giving on…the voice! And particularly the materiality of the voice. In this case, I had plenty of materiality (extreme raspiness) bordering at times on a complete loss of actual words, as they were swallowed up in pure “grain,” to borrow Roland Barthes’ term. So the question of the sonic force of speech (and the way it can fail us) is on my mind—and it seemed a nice thread to pick up in Siegert as well.

(In doing so, I forgo at least for the moment a discussion of tables/Tafeln/tabula/tablets as media, something I’ve been thinking about for the past few months with regard to religious utterance and scripture, especially in the case of Muslim accounts of the process of revelation of the Qur’an. I personally hope that as we get further into the book, a few of our bloggers might share some applications they see in Siegert for their own work. I’m also holding off on commenting on the whole discourse of the Universalbibliothek by way of Alain Resnais’ 1956 documentary, Toute le mémoire du monde, itself the inspiration for an intriguing new book and film by my colleagues at Harvard’s metaLAB, Jeffrey Schnapp, Matthew Battles, and Cristoforo Magliozzi.)

By way of (further) disclaimer, I’m not sure that Siegert is particularly concerned with sound or that he even thinks of speech as sound necessarily. Instead, his account of Leibniz begins with the question of “seeing seeing” (das Sehen des Sehens, 162) in the dreamworld of his mythical “palace of fates” and arrives at analysis, his central theme in this chapter, as the culmination of a triptych of “fundamental sign-system of the modern sciences” alongside typographic print and Renaissance perspective (164). Nevertheless, Siegert (drawing on Leibniz) relies on speech, Rede, to show how transformative analysis can be.

He quotes Leibniz at length on speech to open his section, “Operation versus Representation”:

It is, however, especially noticeable in the use of speech that words are not only signs of thoughts but also of things, and that we have need of signs not only to indicate our opinion to others but also to help our thoughts themselves….[For] just as a Rechenmeister [ed: a kind of proto-accountant in the Middle Ages] who refused to write down any number whose value he could not simultaneously bear in mind and likewise add up on his fingers like one reckons time, would never be ready with a calculation, so too, if one would avoid speaking any words in discourse [Reden] and even in thought [Denken] without forming for oneself an actual image of its meaning, one would need to speak extremely slowly or even fall silent [verstummen], and also necessarily inhibit the flow of thoughts and thus not proceed far in discourse and thought. (176)

This form of speaking-without-visualizing seems to encapsulate Siegert’s notion of “operation” moving beyond “representation”: speech, language and thought are all moving at a level that exceeds literal, step-by-step representation. But reading more narrowly for sound, the whole conditional might be restated as follows: If one must see in order to speak, silence ensues. But Siegert is more interested in a kind of sublimation of speech from a sonic level (Ebene) or register—which he calls “rhetorical”—to an analytical level. Speech is not a materiality of communication, but rather a sign, which he memorably suggests with an extended meditation on Leibniz’s aphorism comparing words to the Rechenpfennig, a coin that doubled as an early calculator (177-179). Leibniz apparently wrote in the margins of his manuscript: Sunt nobis signa, sunt vobis fercula digna: to us, they are signs; to you, they are dignified silverware. (In its most literal enactment, Louis XV even turns such coins into gold plates in France.)

The mediatization of seemingly mundane objects (coins > calculators, paper > data in this chapter alone) is a hallmark of this kind of archaeological approach to media, as seen in work by scholars like Cornelia Vismann (on files) and more recently Lisa Gitelman and Ben Kafka (on paper) or Siegert himself (on doors). While such theoretical interventions can be extremely helpful in rethinking the communicativeness of materiality, it seems to be complicit, at least here, in eliding the materiality of communication. Speech has no connection to a bodily voice here, and words in turn are barely connected to speech: sunt nobis signa. This dematerialization sets up a binary which I’m sure Siegert intends to avoid (and likely succeeds in doing so as the book goes on) in which the digital is presumed to be immaterial, while the analog (or non-digital) is material. Earlier in this chapter, Siegert points out that Sextus’ visionary world is a fissure (Spalt) between the discrete and the continuous (165). As we edge toward the “rupture” presaged by that fissure, these two spectrums (discrete-continuous, material-immaterial) should remain independent of one another.

Siegert proceeds from speech to noise (all the while following Leibniz), a trajectory I hope to trace further in a follow-up post. In fact, it was Melle’s presentation of some of these aspects (of Leibniz and noise) that catalyzed our collective reading, so he may join in with some things he has already written.


4 thoughts on “McMurray: Speech-Noise, Part 1 (Session 5)”

  1. Your reference to Siegert’s ‘Türen’ made me curious. I thought it might be worthwhile to link the essay to analysis and discuss it since thematically they seem closely connected. The following quote for instance accounts for the passage as activity:

    Was soll es bedeuten, dass es kein Haus mehr gibt oder, wie Adorno 1944 sagen wird, dass »das Haus vergangen« ist, wenn nicht dies, dass das Haus aufgehört hat, eine >existentielle Anordnung< oder, mit einem anderen Wort, eine condition humaine zu sein? Die Existenz des modernen westlichen Menschen wird nicht mehr entworfen vom Haus, und das heißt mit Heidegger gesprochen, vom Wohnen. Das Bauen gehört nicht mehr ins Wohnen, sondern in die Passage. Die Existenz wird entworfen vom Transit her. (164)

    The passage is clearly a phenomenon of modernity in Siegert’s media theory. The many oppositions Siegert mentions in Passage des Digitalen (on and off, 0 and 1) derive their meaning from the passage. The passage, the moment of transit, designs the activities between actors as well as the roles of the actors. Siegert adds to Latour’s ANT by accounting for the passage, although volatile and momentary, as a very significant activity. He somehow manages to freeze the moment of passage, to zoom in and analyse it.

    I haven’t really sorted it out yet, but might a digital proto-passage show through in Analysis als Staatsmaschine? As Analysis operates with numbers, ‘die tatsächlich rechnet, anstatt nur zu zählen und zu klassifizieren,’ doesn’t it introduce the moment of passage (difference and mediation) to the organization of data?

    Siegert’s ‘Türen’ in combination with Passage offers insight in the material character of the symbolic (which Melle and I discussed in the previous post), and might denote the changing relation of the symbolic realm and reality in the modern time: ‘Wird die symbolischen Ordnung (das Gesetz) indes verworfen, wie das in der Psychose der Fall ist, nimmt die sogenannte Realität halluzinatorische Züge an.’ (169) Through the symbolic we stay in touch with a sense of reality. Although it has an immaterial connotation, the symbolic clearly has material significance in Passage des Digitalen. Siegert here states that doors, through their binary ‘Schaltungslogik’, were essential in helping us to construct laws, rites and symbols by which we give meaning to ourselves as subjects entering different realms (the realms of others) and to the relation between the inside and the outside. Doors still exist in modernity, of course, but they didn’t have door handles anymore. Hence, automatic doors (machines versus tools) don’t account/take time for the ritual of leaving one space and entering another, nor for the subjects performing it. The modern nomad inhabits ‘zones’/architectures of transit like airports or Cyberspace, that deconstruct the difference between the inside and the outside and turn subjects into currents of bare life. Doors become the technological managers of ‘Menschenströmen’. I sense a continuity with the digital passage and I am curious to find out how this will eventually work out.


    1. Nina, thanks for this comment and lucid recounting of the “Doors” essay. That essay does add nicely to this moment, all the more so as we approach the looming “Riss.” (For those not familiar with it, an English translation appeared in Grey Room, Spring 2012, with the title, “Doors: On the Materiality of the Symbolic,” translated by John Durham Peters, a friend of our digital venture here. There’s also a talk on the same material here:

      As someone (too) often zeroing in on questions of sound, I find myself fascinated by the question of what we do and don’t materialize in the humanities. I guess I take it for granted that the voice has sufficient materiality that speaking of speech as a kind of immaterial, free-floating text seems odd. (And thus far, my sense is that Siegert treats it as such, though I’d welcome clarification if I’m missing something here.) Yet the symbolic itself is made material–through doors, through Rechenpfennig coins, or arguably through analysis itself–which seems like a much bolder leap. Is Siegert just overlooking the sonic materialities of speech? Or does he simply have bigger fish to fry (as my grandfather might say)?

      Also, are we materializing too much stuff? It seems like a productive scholarly move to materialize communication, communities, gender/bodies, doors, archaeology (Foucault-styles), etc. A material symbolic would seem to be about as far as such a materializing movement could go. Will we then simply start dematerializing/deconstructing/re-idealizing things?


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