UWE Graduate Philosophy Conference: Feminism, Embodiment, and Technology, sponsored by the Royal Institute of Philosophy
University of Western England, Bristol, UK, April 3-4 2014.
“Vocal Corruption: Cybernetics and the Automated Female Voice”
Abstract: Feminist theory of the late twentieth century propelled the proliferation of utopic proposals for a radical reimagining of the world, and its violent binary systems, through a communion between the body and technology. Most notably, Donna Haraway’s chimerical cyborg no longer insisted that bodies end at the skin, but rather that the penetration, modification and dispersal of bodies through the machine is an inextricable aspect of embodiment. This creature composed of “illegitimate fusions” permitted by biotechnologies promised the material realisation of a previously unimaginable hybridity that would demand an unravelling of hierarchical definitions of gender, species and subjectivity.
Today, however, thirty years following Haraway’s declaration of these techno-utopian potentialities, the encumbered nature of this vision is evident. The work of contemporary theorists such as Jodi Dean, Franco “Bifo” Berardi and Hito Steyrl reveals the ways in which human participation with digital technologies such as the Internet is permeated by dynamics of ensnarement, libidinal attachments and the deployment of affect as an aid in the circulation of capital.
Expanding upon political theorist Paolo Virno’s assertion that the virtuosic speech act provides the prototype for wage labour under post-Fordism, this paper will take as its central thesis the proposition that the voice is the point at which the body is co-opted into the flows of capital that constitute the contemporary digital matrix. Furthermore, when bureaucratic and corporate entities are enlivened, personified through digital technology, they interact with their users through a serene cybernetic female voice. From the vocal robots that speak on behalf of banks, governments and corporations through machines and switchboards, to the automated placatory announcements in airports and trains, affiliations between femininity and passivity provide the emollient for the implementation of systems of surveillance and exchange.
It is my intension to look to contemporary avant-garde modes of vocal production in order to propose a counter-position to the corrupted cybernetic female voice. Composers such as Holly Herndon, Maja Ratkje and Laurel Halo employ digital technology in order to create vocal performances that are plagued by chokes and glitches as if relishing the frictions and ensnarements that characterise the affective experience of the female body in the digital matrix. Artists such as Aura Satz, Beatrice Gibson and Heather Phillipson also manipulate and disrupt conventions of serene female narration, producing malignant and nonsensical performances that strip the voice of its communicative capital. These works provide fertile ground from which to consider how we might reclaim and reinvest the cybernetic fusion with subversive potential.