Thrown voices

A thrown voice is a voice that a person is “throwing” into something, traditionally a marionette or a ventriloquist’s doll that sits on their lap. This is a voice that is not their voice, a voice that they are taking on. Zadie Smith talks about this in her lecture, Speaking in Tongues; she describes it as “not the voice of my childhood”; as a child, she spoke as a child, now as an adult, she speaks as an adult. How has that voice changed and matured? What’s the voice that she uses now, speaking in front of an audience of NPR-fed adults? She talks about how Obama was elected because he could code-switch between Black and white audiences: “how can the man who passes between culturally black and white voices with such flexibility, such ease, be an honest man? … Why won’t he speak with a clear and unified voice?” Obama is biracial, and Zadie argues that “… it’s an equivocation; I know that Obama has a double consciousness, is Black and, at the same time, white, as I am, unless we are suggesting that one side of a person’s genetics and cultural heritage cancels out or trumps the other.”; he is experienced in “measuring oneself by the means of a nation that looked back in contempt” (W.E.B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk from the microlectures). He throws his voice one way or the other, code-switching between audiences, taking in careful measure of how each overreacts and underreacts in turn.

What is a speech but a play in which one person is talking? This brings us to NOT I, by Samuel Beckett, which cuts down all the other elements of a play except for the single speaker, the single mouth speaking, all else in shadow; “…whose only movements are four gestures of hopeless compassion, each shrug less pronounced than the one before”. The voice is not thrown, but hyper-concentrated into one space; without any other details in the play, all actions are expressed by the Mouth, nothing else can communicate with the audience (ie, stage directions, costumes, props, etc). It is the Mouth, the darkness, and the speaker’s diction and cantor. What if the Mouth code-switches each night, depending on what audience that the director perceives of the crowd? If the Mouth’s actor is Black, can they still use double consciousness with the audience, even though they can’t see the actor? (Yes! It’s not the perception of the voice, but how the voice perceives the audience). What about if the landscape of the plays around town change — if Ionesco’s The Rhinocerous changes to just mouths speaking words instead of communicating through a wide variety of means, does “Not I” still have the same effect on audiences? Does Obama’s code-switching become less effective if more people know about it, or if they are prepared for him to do it ahead of time? Are these questions without passage, aporetic, or are they digging out new perspectives? “We’re all surely Black people, but we may be finally approaching a point of human history where you can’t talk up or down to us anymore, but only to us.”  What’s a thrown voice if there’s only equal footing?

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