Wordsworth, Cavarero, and the Voice

As fall returns, so does my teaching voice. I don’t talk much during the summer. In its disuse, my voice grows soft and listless. Speaking becomes slightly—just slightly, just at moments—unintuitive. The first words out of my mouth each morning make my body feel like a chance habitation, an improbable accident that naturalizes itself over the course of the day. The intuition at the core of this dissociation is probably accurate, except that it implies I’m somehow distinct from my body, somehow less of an accident than my body.

And then class resumes, and my vocal chords are painfully reanimated. I don’t exactly hold forth in stentorian tones, but nonetheless teaching means, you know, projecting. Modulating, playing with tone. Even as this theatrical voice starts to feel familiar, there’s a residual alienation to its very familiarity. I love teaching, but precisely because I teach as a person I scarcely recognize, someone with his own voice. If that voice is also mine, it’s only incidentally mine, and it responds with reciprocal diffidence.

As far as I can tell, there isn’t much to it. Male. Otherwise impossible for me to predicate. More generally, it amazes me that anyone can identify with expulsed air given a surplus employment. Our physiology doesn’t include a dedicated speaking apparatus. As Alfred Tomatis notes in The Ear and the Voice, speech works by repurposing the digestive and respiratory systems away from their initial functions: lips, tongue, teeth, nose, lungs, larynx.

Enter Wordsworth!

My own voice cheered me, and, far more, the mind’s

Internal echo of the imperfect sound;

To both I listened, drawing from them both

A cheerful confidence in things to come.

(The Prelude 1805, 1.64-7)

The poet hears his voice inside and out, on his breath and in his mind, but this coincidence is no perfect convergence. Sound and thought are both nice, but thought’s better. And yet the internal echo that (“far more”) cheers the poet is modeled on the external voice, itself an “imperfect sound.” The higher audition of the mind is at once superior to and dependent upon the imperfect sound of the voice, which the mind rarifies of matter and purifies of imperfection. What is imperfect in the sound is the hard fact of corporeality. This materiality corrupts the nonsensual image enjoyed by the mind. By echoing and internalizing the material voice, the mind shears the sound away, and, having discarded the vehicle of transmission, extracts the uncorrupted meaning within.

One of Wordsworth’s strategies in The Prelude is to “phenomenaliz[e] the voice in the text as a human voice,” as Magdalena Ostas suggests, thereby working to fuse the poetic persona to the lyrical “I” (126). Yet he also insists upon the priority of the soundless ideality of the “voice in the text” in communion with the “mind’s / Internal echo.” The process is circular: the text simulates a human voice that claims to discard its own sound in favor of text. The self of The Prelude—part narrative construction, part grammatical “I”—emerges in the movement that seeks to resynchronize voice with mind. When this preludial work of consolidating mind and voice concludes, then the text ceases. The rest is grammatology. (This phrase stolen from Rei Terada, 29.)

Early mornings aside, I do generally experience a tight phenomenological proximity between consciousness and speech. I can say what I think as I’m thinking it and I can think what I’m saying as I speak. So why worry it? In his treatment of Husserl, Derrida calls this sense of self-presence the “inwardness of life with itself.” Despite (or because of) the circularity of this pronouncement, I feel I know exactly what it means: the sense of seamless simultaneity we feel in consciousness. When I’m immersed in myself I’m unaware of myself, such that thought is no sooner thought before it propels off my tongue. Once I start speaking, I begin thinking in speech, and breath becomes the medium of thought. “It is implied in the very structure of speech that the speaker hears himself: both that he perceives the sensible form of the phonemes and that he understands his own expressive intention” (78). Hearing oneself entails both: the passage between mouth and ear and the link between signifier and signified coincide in the self-consciousness that takes speech for its paradigm. I hear my speech through my ears, and I feel my speech in my chest and throat and mouth, and I image it as it passes through my mind. It matters tremendously that these events are synchronized. That synchrony is what grants the sense of “inwardness of life with itself.” What happens when the coincidence of thinking, feeling, and speaking is disrupted?

The simultaneity of hearing oneself from without and feeling oneself from within is shattered. As Nancy Holt’s voice returns in an untimely echo, her speech derails her thought. She begins to elongate her words, bracing for their echo, each impact shaking her expression. “Instantaneous time is an immediate perception, whereas delayed time is more like a mirror reflection… reflection… reflection… a mirror reflection.” Once speech is externalized, it begins to cut into signification. “It puts a distance between the word, and their apprehension and their comprehension.” As signifier and signified are knocked out of sync, her words “pour” in on her, becoming thing-like. What is lost here is the concurrence that gives rise to our sense of self-presence. Perhaps “lost” is the wrong word: destroyed. Violently split from her speech, she says, “I am once removed from myself.”

I read somewhere on the internet that if we could hear the voice box shorn of all the sound-shaping apparatus above it (i.e., our heads), it would buzz like the mouthpiece of a trumpet. I find both horror and solace in this image, in imagining the. The horror lies in the reduction human speech to meaningless buzz, of meaning to mere noise. That is also the solace: I’m just machinic fizz. The humanity tendered by my voice is an emergent—not inherent—phenomenon.

As I’ve sketched it, this scenario equates speech with meaning and noise with its absence. But perhaps what the headless larynx loses is not the capacity to make meaning so much as the humanity of the voice. I’m thinking here of the work of Adriana Cavarero. Cavarero has developed a relational ontology centered on the voice that, on first glance, seems roughly analogous to Emmanual Levinas’s ethical ontology, rooted in our interminable debt to the other incarnated in the singularity of the other’s face. What is different about Cavarero’s project, beyond the sense organ it emphasizes, is its refusal to ground the call of the other’s voice in the possibility of making meaning. Philosophy, she argues, tends to subsume the singularity of the body into abstraction and the voice “into the phonetic component of language as a system of signification” (9). This process begins as soon as meaning enters the picture, denying to the voice “a meaning of its own that is not always already destined to speech” (13). Instead, she focuses on a dimension of the voice ontologically prior to its capacity for signification—that is, its sound. In the kind of listening she theorizes,

it is no longer a question of intercepting a sound and decoding or interpreting it, but rather of responding to a unique voice that signifies nothing but itself. There is nothing ulterior behind this voice that would make it into a mere sonorous vehicle, an audible sign. (7)

This sonorous dimension of the voice communicates not content but the irreducible uniqueness of the voice. Yet typically, this sound is excised from philosophy through a series of metonymical substitutions that replace the voice with thought:

The metaphorical voice of the soul or consciousness, so dear to philosophy, is a crucial rhetorical figure through which the voice—through its identification with the silent work of thought—gets transformed into a negation of the voice. Thought has no voice; it neither invokes nor speaks—it cogitates. (173)

It follows that philosophy pictures a “thinking [that] is structurally immune to the musical and relational interference of the acoustic sphere of speech” (174). Cavarero’s goal is not to fetishize unmeaning, nor, on the other hand, to capture (in Levinas’s words) “the very significance of signification,” but rather to outline a sense of the human prior to semantics, centered upon “the uniqueness and the relationality that the vocal manifests” (42).

What especially interests me here is Cavarero’s sense of a particularity that does not depend upon any notion of subjective interiority or self-expression. Compare to Jean-Luc Nancy’s approach in Listening, which proposes a relational ontology grounded in a “sharing of voices” whose end is dialogue. For Nancy, even in infant vocalization, the voice moves ineluctably toward the production of meaning. Logos is incipient from the outset, and it is this logos­­-to-come that gives sheer vocalization its value. By contrast, Cavarero insists that what is disclosed by the voice is a particularity grounded neither in the content of my words, nor in any interiority that my speech might indicate or express. Instead, it is simply the acoustic sensuality of my voice that marks my irreducible uniqueness. The sound of my voice insists that I am, and that I am this “throat of flesh” that shapes my laryngeal buzzing just so. It matters not at all that I don’t identify with my voice or recognize myself in my voice. My uniqueness is not a property of the signification I might produce, and it is certainly not bound up with my “personality,” whatever that is. What is at stake is “not an unreachable treasure, or an ineffable essence, or still less, a sort of secret nucleus of the self; rather, it is a deep vitality of the unique being who takes pleasure in revealing herself through the emission of the voice” (4). The mark of my particularity lies in the bare fact that when I turn my expiring breath into vocal sound, the sound that emerges is this sound, a haecceity, a thisness. I am that thisness, which is less a thing than a resonance that reaches out to others.

Wordsworth—at least the Wordsworth I’ve exhumed here—may have coveted the mind’s echo over that of the sensual ear. But from William Hazlitt’s perch, Wordsworth’s own reading practices belied his anti-sensual rhetoric: “There is a chaunt in the reiteration of both Coleridge and Wordsworth, which acts as a spell upon the hearer, and disarms the judgment” (17.118). Looking back on his first acquaintance with the poets, Hazlitt found, inchoate, a mystifying musicality that threatened to overwhelm the egalitarian projects professed by young C & W. High Argument rides the fetishized voice directly into High Anglicanism. So Hazlitt concludes of the “chaunt,” “Perhaps they have deceived themselves by making habitual use of this ambiguous accompaniment” (ibid.). The chaunting voice of the poet radiates an unaccountable authority. The poet’s voice deludes him as to the value of his own language, tragically, over and against Wordsworth’s own insistence upon the cheering power of the “mind’s / Internal echo.” The Lakers had become sirens, beguiling their own damned selves to doom.

Yet I wonder whether there might be something worth preserving in the lost sound of this poetic voice, even if we grant Hazlitt his famously vexed claim that “the language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power”—and we grant that the voice, beyond language, is certainly a source of this delusive power (4.214). In Hazlitt’s ears, Wordsworth’s spellbinding recitation becomes a foreboding emblem of his native topography, “with a mixture of clear gushing accents in his voice, a deep guttural intonation, and a strong tincture of the northern burr, like the crust on wine” (17.118). In tones redolent of rivers, ravines, and mountains, this voice implicitly asserts Wordsworth’s patrimonial right via his deeply naturalized relationship to the land he occupies. Rooted in identity and ownership, this vocal employment is probably a good example of how poetry performs, for Hazlitt, an “anti-levelling principle” (4.214). What is perilous here is the sense of radical coincidence between self and voice, the same coincidence that The Prelude endlessly desires and endlessly troubles. (The same Prelude Hazlitt himself likely heard in coterie reading.) Could we imagine that enchanting voice of the lakes without imagining, in our mind’s echo, the authorial persona behind the voice? What draws me to Cavarero is the possibility that the voice might make singular without making a self. The Prelude often seems to sense this: a voice is not a guarantee of a self—indeed, a voice, in its beguiling excess, may be a self’s undoing. If I can’t recognize myself in my voice, perhaps that’s because I’m not whatever I think I am. Or: “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think” (Lacan 430). The voice marks something more earthly, and something more, than a self: not an identity, but a throat of flesh, shot through with dying breath. When I speak, I cannot speak my self, but only that I am.


Cavarero, Adriana. For More Than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression. Trans. Paul A. Kottman. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005.

Derrida, Jacques. Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs. Trans. David B. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973.

Hazlitt, William. The Complete Works of William Hazlitt. Ed. P. P. Howe. 21 vols. London: J. M. Dent, 1930-4.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton, 2006.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1998.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Listening. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. New York: Fordham UP, 2007.

Ostas, Magdalena M. “Keats and the Impersonal Craft of Writing.” Romanticism and the Object. Ed. Larry Peer. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 117–135.

Terada, Rei. Feeling in Theory: Emotion after the “Death of the Subject.” Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001.

Tomatis, Alfred A. The Ear and the Voice. Trans. Roberta Prada, Pierre Sollier, and Francis Keeping. Lantham: Scarecrow Press, 2005.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850. Ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M.H. Abrams, and S. Gill. New York: Norton, 1979.