Music: Tim Buckley: Dream Letter: Live in London 1968
Teaching like crazy and publishing your ass off is not enough for the University of Texas. After a “Dean’s Retreat” the chair sat me down and instructed me that I need to be applying for grants. Of course, the key to the kingdom or “coin of the realm,” as my colleagues put it, is academic publication, but securing funding is quickly becoming the more important task of the professoriate. Insofar as most of my work does not require grant money, this leaves me somewhat in a pickle.
Now, if I had my way, I’d teach one class a semester (and consequently, teach very well) and write and research the rest of the time. Dean-ish types, however, would like me to secure thousands of dollars to fund my next road rage stressor study. This is not good for humanities scholars. I recall when I interviewed at the University of Georgia some years ago that a number of the professors were researching (that is, basically doing content analyses) internal tobacco company memos. They had won a grant from the government—hundreds of thousands of dollars I think—to do this. Talking with some of the PIs, it seemed a bit like the tail wagging the dog.
Regardless, I do as I am told. So I’ve applied for an NEH Summer stipend. I will apply for grant money to co-host a conference with Texas A&M colleagues for graduate students. And I am applying for a Summer Research Assignment grant (almost ten grand) for next summer. I thought I’d share my application with you all in hopes the more grant-y of you have some helpful suggestions. It’s modeled on a successful proposal crafted by my friend Angela.
I’m tired. Today I woke up to a telephone ring at 7:00 a.m. I remember thinking, as I came to consciousness, that sometimes I do not love my job at all. I didn’t want to get out of bed because I had to edit this &*$#@ thing.
2007 SUMMER RESEARCH ASSIGNMENT APPLICATION
DESCRIPTION OF PROPOSED RESEARCH
PROJECT TITLE: “Collective Memory and the Recorded Voices of Nine-Eleven”
DEFINITION OF PROJECT
A Summer Research Assignment is requested to support the research and writing of a chapter-length essay analyzing the voice recordings of victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001. This essay will form a chapter in a planned book-length project in rhetorical studies that examines the way in which the recorded human voice performs a number of important cultural functions, from mourning and remembering to repressing and forgetting. Because many scholars, journalists, and public figures have described ours as the “age of the image” or spectacle (e.g., Guy Debord; Neil Postman), it is commonly believed that human speech has declined in centrality and influence over the past century. The proposed book project, tentatively titled “Haunting Voices: Mass Media, Speech, and Transcendence in Postmodernity” (hereafter “Haunting Voices”), will argue otherwise, suggesting that as U.S. public culture becomes increasingly saturated by the image, the more central the human voice is becoming as a token of human authenticity. Strangely, the disembodied, recorded voice has become one of the primary ways in which human speech haunts our daily lives.
WHY RECORDED VOICES?
When one attends to the presence of recorded speech in daily life, it becomes ubiquitous. From voice mail messages to the replaying of a conversation in one’s head, traces of past speech saturate our lived experiences, from the mundane to the monumental. Regarding the latter, any cursory review of news media segments on the events of Nine-eleven reveals that the recorded voices of emergency personnel are frequently used to “anchor” an image as “real.” As Steven Conner has argued, because humans tend to forget speech in favor of imagery, each re-encounter with a victim’s pained voice in a Nine-eleven media event becomes a haunting experience of a human “presence” that shocks hearers into reckoning with mortality. Similarly, the canned-laughter or “laff track” on television situation comedies haunts viewers as a token of audience presence when, in fact, the laughing voices are just recordings. Canned laugher can be said to mourn the disappearance of the studio audience during the taping of television shows, and its continued use as a generic component of the “sitcom” can be described as an attempt to make the show not only seem funnier, but somehow more humanly authentic.
Another example of the use of the recorded voice as a token of authenticity is a recently exhibited collection at the Library of Congress titled “Voices from the Days of Slavery.” The collection features 23 voice recordings of former slaves and victims of discrimination speaking about their experiences. Leonard Kniffel reports that the recordings, many of which were made by journalists for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, are “amazing” and “stunning”: the director of the collection, for example, “points out that a written transcript cannot convey the anguish in a man’s voice as he explains to his 10-year-old grandson what it was like to fight for his country in World War II only to be denied, upon his return, admission to an American movie theater because he was black.”1 Whether or not it is true, the belief that the recorded human voice is more “real” than pictures is widespread in U.S. culture, and its use is most conspicuous in moments of cultural remembrance and memorialization. My project will document and explain this belief. “Haunting Voices” will also attempt to explain why the recorded human voice has functioned as a mark of authenticity.
Although my book project is predominantly concerned with an analysis of the use and function of the recorded voice in contemporary U.S. public culture, it also attempts to resist a trend toward the study of visual culture in my home field of Rhetorical Studies, which is a sub-field of Communication Studies. Because Communication Studies is a relatively new discipline in the academy, and because “Haunting Voices” addresses and draws from Communication Studies literature, a brief description of the field is helpful.
Scholars in Communication Studies generally trace the field’s history to the formation of the National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking in 1914, the debut of its journal, The Quarterly Journal of Speech in 1915, and the gradual emergence of departments of “Speech” or “Speech Communication” in the subsequent decade. Before the field changed its name from “Speech Communication” to “Communication Studies” in the 1980s, with the exception of singing and voice training, scholars in my field taught and researched the human voice in many contexts: phonology, physiology, sound physics, vocalics and elocution, the psychology of meaning and thought, argumentation and debate, oral interpretation and expression, public speaking, and so on, were included. By the 1950s, Speech Communication had incorporated both social scientific and qualitative approaches to the study of human speech phenomena, and had expanded the object of study from speech to virtually any form of human communication. Abiding this trend toward expansion was a gradual decline in the study of human speech as such.
Owing to our peculiar institutional history, today Communication Studies departments are typically a motley or “interdisciplinary” group of humanities scholars and social scientists. Here at the University of Texas, for example, the Communication Studies department is home to the following content areas: Interpersonal Communication (quantitatively based social science); Organizational Communication (both quantitative and qualitative approaches; e.g. ethnography and survey based research); Rhetorical Studies (close textual reading, theory-building); Linguistics (e.g. microanalysis); and Political Communication (content analysis). My area is rhetorical studies, which has historically focused on persuasive speeches or the ideological influence of cultural artifacts (e.g., film, music, memorials, and so on).
Over the past decade and a half, rhetorical scholars have devoted increasing attention to “visual rhetoric” and studies of the image. Noting the ubiquity and centrality of the image–especially the screened image–to contemporary public discussion and debate, leading scholars such as Barbara Biesecker, Dana Cloud, Kevin DeLuca, Anne Demo, Robert Hariman, John Lucaites, and Daniel Schowalter have published a number of studies that center on image and imagery as the most important locus of influence in our time. This trend in scholarship is part of a larger, disciplinary shift away from the analysis of human speech and speech activities. Although many of my colleagues would argue that “speech” no longer seems to represent the varied objects studied in our departments, some scholars have argued for a renewed interest in the object of speech. For example, Frank E.X. Dance has urged scholars not to abandon almost a century of scholarship on what remains a central form of human expression. My project participates in this ongoing discussion about what communication scholars in general, and rhetorical scholars in particular, should select as our objects of study. Although I agree that the project of “visual rhetoric” is valuable and helpful, “Haunting Voices” will advance an argument in favor of the centrality and persistence of the object of speech in our media-saturated environment.
PLAN AND METHOD
“Haunting Voices” continues an approach I adopted in my first book, Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005). In Modern Occult Rhetoric I compare the tortuous and difficult jargon of mystics and magi, such as H.P. Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley, to the contemporary argot of a number of communities and organizations. For example, I compare the function and motive of difficult prose in so-called postmodern theory in academic circles to the hermetic argot of alchemists. My approach to modern occult phenomena was to show how common occult rhetoric is to our everyday lives–how we are all, in one way or another, witches and warlocks using language to perform professional and social forms of magic. Although my current book length project differs substantially, I nevertheless approach my object of study the same way: “Haunting Voices” attempts to demonstrate how ubiquitous the recorded human voice is in our daily lives and the ways in which our use and reliance on these voices is often forgotten or overlooked. All of my research to date has focused on demonstrating how the ostensibly strange or unusual is actually quite common and often central to our daily lives.
The book will contain theory-building chapters and analytical chapters that inform each other. The analytical chapters, in which I apply the concepts developed in the theory-building chapters, are case studies that document different forms of recorded speech. The method of analysis used is variously termed “rhetorical criticism” or “discourse analysis,” which consists of a close reading of a text, object, or series of either. Although I have no allegiance to any particular school, theoretically I draw liberally from the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, and Melanie Klein to guide my research. Almost half of the book exists in draft form, and portions of four of the chapters have been published in scholarly outlets. I outline, seriatim, each chapter and briefly describe its contents.
1. Introduction: “Voice and the Idiom of Haunting”: The introduction of the book will double as a survey of thought on the human voice, including a detailed review of the work of Walter Ong and Jacques Derrida. Here I will directly address Derrida’s now famous critique of “logocentrism,” which refers to the privileging of speech in the West and the general human tendency toward “presentism” (e.g., the assumption that speech presences thought). Portions of this theoretical survey have already appeared in print.
2. Theory-building: “The Voice Abject”: This chapter will synthesize Jacques Lacan’s views on human speech, Julia Kristeva’s work on the abject, and a number of studies that show how humans are “hard-wired” to respond to particular pitches and frequencies (e.g., a baby’s cries). Here I will advance the central concept of the book, “the voice abject,” which refers to an ineffable quality of human speech. The voice abject refers to the cause of the ambivalent response we have to recorded voices–delight, horror, or both depending on the context-and particularly in terms of the infantile experience of the primary caregiver’s voice (the “acoustic mirror”). Portions of this chapter have been published.
3. Case Study: “Mourning Speech”: This chapter examines the recorded voices of emergency personnel trying to rescue individuals in the World Trade Center towers. The analysis draws heavily on Freud’s concept of the uncanny. A version of this chapter has already appeared in print.
4. Case Study: “Talking to the Dead”: This chapter examines the ventriloqual performance of psychics and mediums who claim to “channel” voices of the dead. The primary exemplar is Crossing Over with John Edward, a syndicated television program in which a psychic claims to speak to the deceased relatives of audience members. A version of this chapter has already appeared in print.
5. Case Study: “The Laughing Box”: In this chapter I analyze the history and use of canned laughter in television comedy shows. I will argue that the use of simulated laughter is actually a mournful practice that gestures toward an audience that is dying: the studio audience.
6. Case Study: “Speaking of Slavery”: Here I will examine two objects in relation to critical scholarship on the psychoanalysis of race. First, I will analyze the recordings of the slavery narratives of the “Voices from the Days of Slavery” collection at the Library of Congress. Second, I will examine the way in which the Library of Congress constructed and promoted the collection.
7. Theory-building: “Answering Machines”: This chapter examines the cultural practice of saving answering machine messages and voice mail recordings of loved ones, particularly those that have passed away. I have already collected a number of stories from friends, colleagues, and strangers that–to my surprise–mark the answering machine as a very common, though frequently overlooked, site of remembrance. In this chapter I will also engage the literature on hospitality in philosophy (e.g., I will suggest that human subjectivity is machinic and answers what Heidegger termed the “call of the Other” in responsible, humane acts).
8. Conclusion: “Collective Memory and the Recorded Voices of Nine-Eleven”: This chapter focuses on the legal battle between The New York Times and the New York city government over telephone recordings of the victims of Nine-eleven. I want to begin and end the case studies on Nine-eleven voices.
WORK TO BE COMPLETED OVER SRA PERIOD
For the SRA period I will write the concluding case-study on the much publicized attempts of The New York Times, ostensibly on behalf of a number of the families of Nine-eleven victims, to pressure New York City authorities to release the taped 911 calls of individuals trapped in the World Trade Center. After a five year legal battle with the newspaper, city government officials eventually released a number of tapes in March and August of 2006. In addition to providing a historical narrative of the struggle between the New York City government and the newspaper over the tapes, I will transcribe and analyze the harrowing, grief-filled emergency phone calls of two deceased individuals, Melissa C. Doi and Shimmy D. Biegeleisenk. I will also transcribe and examine the way in which The New York Times editorialized these audio clips, which are currently available to the public via an Internet webpage maintained by the newspaper. An analysis of the rhetoric surrounding the release of the tapes, what is actually said in conversation between the victims and the emergency personnel, and the way The New York Times’ journalists edited and framed the calls, will help to answer a number of questions: (1) Why do the families of the victims believe these disturbing phone calls are important? How do the families and their advocates describe these recorded human voices? (2) Do the advocates of the release of the tapes describe the human voice in ways that go beyond or transcend what was actually said (e.g., meaning)? (3) What is it about the calls that is “chilling” or stunning? How do vocalics, tone, timbre, and word combine to communicate a sense of traumatic “realness?”; (4) How does the newspaper frame the phone calls, and what motives and interests do the producers and journalists working on this project seem to have? Is the act of publicizing these disturbing phone calls an attempt to mourn loss, to make money, or both?
Once the case study is drafted, I will pursue a version of it as a stand-alone publication in a scholarly journal. I will then redraft the essay into a book chapter once a number of related chapters have been drafted. Finally, I intend to use this case study as a writing sample as I pursue a book contract with an academic press. A Summer Research Assignment will provide me two, solid months of time without teaching duties to write an essay and generate a book proposal.
SIGNIFICANCE OF PROJECT
“Haunting Voices” is an interdisciplinary book project, of which the essay on the recorded voices of Nine-eleven will form a substantive part, which contributes to scholarly discussions on collective memory, mourning, and memorialization. The book will appeal to scholars in the fields of rhetorical, cultural, and performance studies, as well as scholars interested in collective memory, cultural mourning, and media ecology. From a disciplinary vantage, the project intervenes in an ongoing debate regarding the proper objects of study in the field of rhetorical studies, which I argue should include actual speech. From a wider vantage, the book attempts to join the voices of my colleagues who argue in favor of the study of sound and the sonorous. We have ample studies of visual culture and the image, but relatively few book-length studies on sound and human speech as important cultural objects. Finally, although three of the case studies are not about cultural trauma or Nine-eleven, I think the project nevertheless contributes to a larger, scholarly reckoning with the events of September 11, 2001. “Haunting Voices” is not only a scholarly study, then, but also a project of mourning that I hope will contribute to our larger, collective attempt to reckon with the traumatic events in our country’s history.
 Leonard Kniffel, “The Haunting Sound of a Voice.” American Libraries (December 2005): 39.
 Joshua Gunn, “Mourning Humanism, or, the Idiom of Haunting.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 92 (2006): 77-102.
3 Joshua Gunn, “Gimme Some Tongue: On Speech and the Voice Abject.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 93 (2007): forthcoming.
4 Joshua Gunn, “Mourning Speech: Haunting and the Spectral Voices of Nine-Eleven.” Text and Performance Quarterly 24 (2004): 91-114.
5 Joshua Gunn, “Refitting Fantasy: Psychoanalysis, Subjectivity, and Talking to the Dead.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 90 (2004): 1-23.
Biesecker, Barbara. “Remembering World War II: The Rhetoric and Politics of National Commemoration at the Turn of the 21st Century.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 80 (2002): 393-409.
Brogan, Kathleen. Cultural Haunting: Ghosts and Ethnicity in Recent American Literature (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998).
Caputo, John D. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).
Caruth, Cathy, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).
Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).
Chion, Michel. The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).
Cloud, Dana. “‘To Veil the Threat of Terror’: Afghan Women and the in the Imagery of the U.S. War on Terrorism.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 90 (2004): 285-307.
Connor, Steven. Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. (Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 1995).
DeLuca, Kevin Michael. Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism (New York: The Guilford Press, 1999).
Demo, Anne. “Sovereignty Discourse and Contemporary Immigration Politics.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 91 (2005): 291-312.
Dance, Frank E. X. “Speech and Thought: A Renewal.” Communication Education 51 (2002): 355-359.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).
Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).
Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994).
Dwyer, Jim. “More Tapes From 9/11: ‘They Have Exits in There?'” The New York Times (17 August 2006); available http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/17/nyregion/17tapes.html?ex=1158292800&en=51ef096664f4edfa&ei=5070 accessed 13 September 2006.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny, trans. David McLintock (New York: Penguin, 2003).
Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
Hariman, Robert and John Louis Lucaites. “Public Identity and Collective Memory in U.S. Iconic Photography: The Image of ‘Accidental Napalm.'” Critical Studies in Media Communication 20 (2003): 35-68.
Kearney, Richard. Strangers, Gods and Monsters (New York: Routledge, 2003.
Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004).
Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978).
Oliver, Kelly. Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).
Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Routledge, 1982).
Ong, Walter. The Presence of the Word. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967).
Peters, John Durham. Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999).
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1986).
Royle, Nicholas. The Uncanny (New York: Routledge, 2003).
Salecl, Renata and Slavoj Zizek, eds. Sic 1: Gaze and Voice as Love Objects (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).
Schowalter, Daniel F. “Hallucination as Epistemology: Critiquing the Visual in Ken Burn’s The West.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 1 (2004): 250-271.
Schwarz, David. Listening Subjects: Music, Psychoanalysis, Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997).
Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).
Silverman, Kaja. The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).