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.