The failure of voice

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I’ve been writing a paper about the voice recently, its materiality and technologisation. These ideas reminded me of a brilliant gaffe from Radio 4’s Jim Naughtie a few years ago. I’m not sure if this will make it into the paper, but here’s a bit of what I’ve been writing about it, with YouTube clip of the memorable moment.

Voices are machinic from the very beginning. They arise through the coupling of multiple vibrational systems, as lungs, vocal cords, throats, tongues and ears get hooked up to architectural spaces, bodies of air, microphones and amplifiers, telephones and answerphones, audio and video recording, headsets, headphones and loudspeakers, scripts and autocues. Voices proliferate as versions, like the infinite variations of dub music – sounds spoken, sounds heard, sounds recorded, sounds repeated, replayed or re-remembered like echoes of echoes. They are transmitted on radio waves and through fibre optic cables, pumped out of public address systems, or inscribed onto magnetic media. As voices move amongst machines, digitisation strips them to bits, or they are left rotting in archives on old analogue tapes, or munged into crisp-packet crackles by low bit rate MP3 encoding. Voices are recomposed with pinpoint precision by high end studio gear, disseminated worldwide on radio, or brought alive in surround sound cinemas. From the first moment that Bell spoke to Watson on the telephone, from the earliest etchings of Edison’s words into phonograph foil, audio machines have pulled apart the humanist subject, reminding the voice of its humble origins amongst vibrating body parts. In this context, not only does listening to the technologized voice tell us as much about contemporary existence as the classic interpersonal interview encounter, but that encounter itself must be rethought to recognize the involvement of the dictaphone or digital voice recorder.

In its restless movements through multiple machines, voice can never completely express the self as a conscious, contained, definable identity. It may present an illusion of rational self-possession and self-presence; it may be eloquent, articulate and clipped, with received pronunciation; the machines may black box its body out of sight and out of mind; and yet still the voice fails. Take the Scottish radio presenter Jim Naughtie. For over two decades his voice was a regular feature of the Today programme, BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning news and current affairs show. Naughtie’s voice, like most official BBC voices, produces a sense of effortless rationality. It is a male Scottish accent with perfect clarity of enunciation, authoritative without ever being overbearing, combining with large diaphragm condenser microphones, pre-prepared scripts, acoustically treated studios and carefully optimised dynamic range compression to produce the most articulate and comprehensible of utterances. Phonemes roll out fully formed. Cadences rise and fall properly. And yet on one memorable occasion in 2010, when introducing Conservative minister Jeremy Hunt the Culture Secretary, Naughtie’s voice accidentally swapped the ‘H’ of Hunt and the ‘C’ of Culture to shocking and hilarious effect.

Whether this incident was simple Spoonerism or Freudian slip is beside the point. Of more interest is how Naughtie’s voice broke down in the immediate aftermath, like a tower block crumbling following the dynamite blast of demolition. Valiantly continuing to read out the headlines, the voice starts choking on its words, beset by dry coughs and awkward pauses, as though it is wrestling with itself. Utterances are spat out, forced through hoarseness, vocal cords seizing up. In this thickened, viscous tone, impossibly veering between laughter and tears, mundane lines about high speed broadband networks and Egyptian shark attacks take on a strangely gasping, almost morbid quality. The rational voice-from-the-ether suddenly acquires a body, which intrudes noisily, all-too-human in its frailty and fallibility. “Excuse me,” Naughtie eventually splutters, “coughing fit” – an excuse whose obvious inadequacy reveals desperate vulnerability. Listening back to the clip on YouTube, my shocked guffaws at the swear word gives way to pangs of compassion for a man struggling with his own mouth. At points his voice is reminiscent of a toe-curlingly embarrassing scene from TV comedy I’m Alan Partridge, in which the eponymous antihero, invisible in a darkened bedroom, tries to speak about the pedestrianisation of Norwich city centre whilst receiving fellatio from an ill-advised Valentine’s date, vocal tone becoming warped by sexual arousal.

Such incidents, where the body trips up the voice, are not uncommon. Broadcasters, presenters, actors and singers routinely experience voices misfiring, script lines being forgotten, communication lines going dead, bouts of laryngitis, guests who say too much or not enough. There is a whole programme genre based on outtakes and bloopers, exploiting the humour that bubbles out when gaffes and fluffed lines puncture the performance of voice. If vocal breakdown can happen to trained, experienced, rehearsed voices surrounded by sophisticated technologies, it can happen to anyone.

Teach ballet to dogs

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Yet another splendid plan from David Cameron: teach English to Muslim women living in the UK, to help them integrate and reduce the risk of becoming radicalised.

The PM has made it clear that of course there is no simple cause and effect going on here, that it would be nonsense to suggest that a Muslim who can’t speak English will automatically become an extremist. Nevertheless, he says, not speaking English probably contributes to a lack of integration, which probably makes people at more risk of something or other, affecting something something, and in the end you get more terrorists.

Reportedly, Cameron said this actual sentence:

“some of these people have come from quite patriarchal societies and perhaps the menfolk haven’t wanted them to speak English” (source: here)

First, calling them ‘menfolk’ instead of just ‘men’ makes them sound like some tribe whose primitive rituals he is documenting during an expedition in the 1800s. Colonial cringe. Second, if the statement is true, then Muslim women whose male family members are trying to set the parameters of their language abilities now face a situation where a highly privileged white man they have never met is trying to set the parameters of their language abilities. They must be delighted.

Inspired by all of this, here are some more bold policy ideas based on imaginary chains of possible influence that certainly seem plausible inside my own mind. I hope Team Cameron will give them full consideration:

  • Teach ballet to dogs to prevent them fouling our streets.
  • Teach camouflage to black people to decrease their likelihood of being shot by police.
  • Teach tax evasion to junior doctors to help them get by on lower wages.
  • Teach badminton to lesbian wheelchair users to make them get out more.
  • Teach law to criminals to stop them filling our jails.
  • Teach swimming to Syrian migrants to enable them to avoid drowning.
  • Teach Mandarin to bigots to broaden their horizons.
  • Teach suicide bombing to pigeons to reduce their numbers.

All of the above will definitely work.

Power, surveillance and digital media

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Yesterday I was teaching some of my students about Foucault, power and surveillance. These themes have never been more relevant to everyday life. The expansion of digital communications has created innumerable opportunities for the exercise of power through monitoring human activity, creating new kinds of vulnerabilities. This is especially the case for children and young people, whose lives are increasingly being played out online, warts and all.

Take Paris Brown, a 17 year old appointed in 2013 as the UK’s first youth crime commissioner. Her remit was to represent young people’s views to the police in Kent, and she invited them to use social media to do so. But social media came back to bite her. The tabloid press dredged up offensive posts from her Twitter account, including ill-advised racist, homophobic and violent comments, probably written whilst drunk. Her reputation was trashed, and a few days later she resigned.

Taken literally, the Tweets are lewd and unpleasant. Thinking about the context, however, it looks like this was just an adolescent seeking attention, perhaps showing off to her friends, expressing anger and confusion in a clumsy and foolish way, and pushing social boundaries to see what would happen. So – normal teenager stuff. For my generation growing up, you could say and do stupid stuff to get a reaction, cause a bit of outrage, and it was rarely recorded. That has all changed.

I also talked to my students about the UK government’s monitoring of communications through GCHQ. Afterwards, the question came up: is this sort of surveillance really such a bad thing? One student pointed out that GCHQ came out of Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park, including cracking the Enigma code during World War II, which helped defeat the Nazis. GCHQ’s current work involves foiling terrorist plots, saving lives. What’s wrong with that?

Clearly it is too simplistic to suggest that surveillance systems are driven by malice, like a bunch of Bond villains trawling people’s emails in a secret underground lair. Surveillance is more rational than that: the state is threatened by actions such as terrorism, and the production of knowledge is a crucial way of exercising of power to regulate these threatening actions.

But in any kind of rationality, there is always an irrationality. The power exercised by GCHQ doesn’t just block terrorism. It helps to produce terrorism as a definable thing – a set of ideas and subjectivities that can be monitored, documented and regulated.

Mass surveillance also has unintended consequences, like the unpleasant side effects of a medical treatment. Storing all electronic communication in the name of counter terrorism compromises the privacy of entire populations. That changes the nature of social life, in ways that may be hard to perceive but which are nonetheless pervasive. Autonomy is inevitably curtailed. An email, for instance, might look like communication between two people, but it isn’t. Other people can examine it, log it, store it. It could be used in a court of law at a later date in some way that is impossible to foresee.

We don’t have to look hard to find examples of such powers being used abusively. I imagine many of those who helped gather information for the East German Stasi believed that they were doing good, protecting their state from dangerous ideologies. The power they exercised no doubt enabled certain things, protected certain values – but it also crushed people and ideas that didn’t fit with the dominant view. It is all too easy for power to slip into violence.

Foucault poses the question of how to let power flow whilst avoiding it solidifying into authoritarian forms of domination. There are no easy answers. But we have to at least keep asking the question. It may well be that many of those working in surveillance wrestle with this on a daily basis. However, if you believe Edward Snowden’s description of America’s National Security Agency, the employees there were definitely not questioning what they were doing enough, or even at all – and that is when power becomes dangerous.

Alan Turing’s groundbreaking role in surveillance may have helped to win WWII, but look what happened to him: suicide, following persecution for his sexuality. The state monitored his private activities, criminalised him and subjected him to enforced medical castration. Government interference in the most intimate of matters caused him irreparable harm. It is an unfortunate irony that the machines he dreamt up are now being used to insert surveillance ever deeper into people’s lives.

Corbyn mania

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Jeremy Corbyn is a threat to our national security, our economic security, and the security of your family. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership poses a threat to our national security, a threat to our economic security, and to the security of your family. The Labour party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, now threatens not only our national security, but also the future of our economy, the future of your family, and the future of every single subatomic particle involved in your entire existence, including the ones we haven’t discovered yet. And Jeremy Corbyn will continue to be described in this way for as long as the cameras keep rolling.

Jeremy Corbyn is so obviously unelectable that we are spending all of our energy explaining to the electorate just how unelectable he really is, to make sure they understand.

Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance to wear a suit and tie is a worrying sign of his antipathy towards Great British traditions, and his u-turn on wearing a suit and tie shows that he is too easily influenced. Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to wear, or not wear, a poppy, which may be red or white, is an insult to the Queen and the veterans who fought for our freedoms. Jeremy Corbyn did not sing a song about the Queen, and this non-singing was a narrow-minded, bigoted affront to our much-loved monarch. His decision to sing the song in future is a disgraceful betrayal of his own principles. Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to agree, in a BBC interview, to kneel before the Queen, is a national disgrace and a gross abdication of his responsibilities as a party leader.

Jeremy Corbyn describes the IRA as “great craic” and says that Hezbollah militants “just need a hug”. Jeremy Corbyn thinks that Batteries Not Included was superior to ET, and that the Police Academy films got better as time went on. Jeremy Corbyn insists that the acting in Hollyoaks is quite good, and was genuinely disappointed when Judy Murray was voted off Strictly. Jeremy Corbyn thinks it would be “really, really cool” to form a soft rock covers band called “The Jeremies” with Jeremy Clarkson, Jeremy Paxman, and a Jeremy Beadle look-a-like standing in for the dead Jeremy Beadle.

Jeremy Corbyn keeps forgetting whether envelopes go in the paper recycling bin or the packaging one. Jeremy Corbyn’s glasses show dangerous levels of pixellated jaggy artefacts when viewed in low resolution JPEGs. Jeremy Corbyn still thinks it is hilarious to answer his mobile phone by shouting “whazzaap!”

Corbyn jaggies

Terrible jaggies on Jeremy Corbyn’s glasses in lo-res JPEGs: an insult to Britain, The Queen, politics etc

Jeremy Corbyn is too old, too tall, too short, too grey, too left, too rebellious, too red, too pale, too republican, too weak, too strong, too straight, too male, too woolly, too wrinkly, too bearded, too direct, too ordinary, too inflexible, too dogmatic, too democratic and too autocratic. His voice is too brittle, his hair is too uneven, his smile is too angular, his clothes are always the wrong colour, size and style. His teeth are not white enough, his skin is not tight enough, his bow is not deep enough. His feet slope too steeply, his chin is too simple, his eyes are too elliptical and his policies are incoherent outdated rehashed fantasies from the past which no-one will ever vote for at all. If you type Jeremy Corbyn’s phone number into a calculator and turn it upside down it says “bumtrousers”.

Jeremy Corbyn is a socialist, a trade unionist, a communist, a Marxist, a Leninist, a Stalinist, a sexist, a racist and a cyclist. Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet appointments show his terrible lack of judgment, and have brought politics into disrepute. There are too many men, not enough women, the wrong distribution of women, too many lefties, too many people who set fire to hotel curtains ten years ago, not enough experience, too many divisions, not enough ethnic minorities, not enough working class disabled lesbian transgenderpeople, not enough [**add more here. Midgets/dwarves? Cancer survivors? Possibly link to Madeline McCann somehow**]

Jeremy Corbyn is utterly inept at evading journalists’ questions. He is disturbingly incapable of the obfuscation, on-message repetition and trite focus-grouped sound bite shite required for his profession. He struggles to give the same answer over and over again, and his reluctance to trade in facile clichés is deeply troubling.

Jeremy Corbyn’s toxicity is so potent that even the tiniest exposure to his face on TV will pollute your children forever. Jeremy Corbyn will come into your house, Jeremy Corbyn will eat your crisps, Jeremy Corbyn will do a dump in your toilet without flushing, and use up all the toilet roll without buying any more.

We respect Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate and congratulate him on his victory. It is a remarkable achievement, and we will do everything in our power to undermine it. We are on your side. We are all in it together. We support hard working families. We want a Britain for the strivers, not the shirkers, in which work always etc etc. Something about curtains in the morning. A Britain where those with the broadest shoulders bear the something something. A Britain based on some other things that initially sound good but on closer inspection turn out to be vacuous. A Britain dominated by English values, although the other UK nations do make quite nice holiday destinations. A Britain whose sense of its own importance in the world is vastly overinflated. A Britain that is truly Great again.

We did not extort public funds through parliamentary expenses. We did not deregulate the banks, or bail them out with billions of made up government money when they crashed. We did not defend the right of bankers to continue receiving lavish bonuses. We did not try to tax pasties or caravans, nor did we hastily change those plans in the face of popular opposition.

We did not exaggerate the case for war, or contribute to death and destruction in distant lands through the questionable deployment of our armed forces. We did not refuse asylum to people fleeing foreign conflicts, some of which we did not help to start. We did not turn a blind eye to widespread child sexual abuse. We did not allow the police to cover up the avoidable deaths of 96 football fans. We do not keep pushing for ever more privatisation of the NHS. We have not sold off major public assets to people who were already rich. We have not invited state run companies from other countries to operate our railways at a profit.

We have not persisted with an outmoded, unrepresentative electoral system. We have not allowed tax avoidance to continue on a massive scale. We have not presided over increasing poverty, inequality, the use of food banks and widespread public disillusionment with mainstream politics. We did not appoint a cabinet mostly made up of millionaires to oversee massive cuts in services for poor people. We did not appoint profit-making companies to reduce the benefits bill by inaccurately assessing disabled people’s fitness to work, and these assessments have not led to any deaths. We did not introduce tuition fees for higher education, and by not doing this we have not left many young people with crippling debts.

We did not claim public funds for a duck house, or for pornography. We did not award peerages to tax exiles. We did not take drugs or use prostitutes. We do not have a leader with a face that looks a bit like an oversalted ham, and he did not put his genitals inside the mouth of a dead pig [**CHECK – have photos emerged yet, what do they show?**]. We do not have a boss with a shrivelled punched-up raisin head whose journalists did not bribe police or hack the phones of murdered children.

Jeremy Corbyn wants to go back to old ideas from the mid 1970s, which no-one will vote for because they are ridiculous idealistic garbage which no-one will vote for. We have fresh new exciting modern ideas, developed by Thatcher in the late 1970s, and by Blair in the 1990s, which have led to untold prosperity and joy for the country. Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas can bring only despair and a return to the three day week. Jeremy Corbyn is made up of too many molecules, his name has too many syllables, his initials are blasphemous, and he’s so old and out of touch he probably doesn’t even realise that Zayn Malik has left One Direction, if he’s even heard of them, which he probably hasn’t.

We congratulate Jeremy Corbyn on his overwhelming victory, and wish him all the best in his new role. [outro music: Things Can Only Get Better by D:Ream]

Concrete modernism: architecture about us

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I love post-war modernist buildings, particularly the hulking grey concrete ones. I like their repetitive patterns and the textures of their weathered surfaces. Many people find them horrible, but for me there is inspiration in their scale, their boldness and civic, socialist values. It is also fascinating – if sometimes depressing – to observe what happens to them over time, as historical remains in an age of voracious capitalism.

Over the last few years I’ve been researching the ruins of St. Peter’s College, a contested 1960s modernist site near Cardross in Scotland (see this website and this journal paper). This year I’m part of a project about Modern Futures, which has given me the chance to think more broadly about what post-war modernism is, what it does, and why, against all the odds, I like it so much.

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The most common attitude to these buildings has become a popular cliché: “concrete monstrosities, knock them down!” Demolitions attract crowds of spectators, in a late capitalist mutation of the public hanging. In some cases charity raffles have been held, with the lucky winner appointed to press the button to trigger the dynamite. It’s as if society has decided that this kind of architecture is unarguably worthless, that it must automatically be complained about, like traffic, wet weather or Simon Cowell. But this view is increasingly being challenged. As well as blistering pro-Brutalist polemics from commentators such as Jonathan Meades, and architectural experts insisting on the historical value of post-war modernism, there have also been surprising levels of public support for campaigns to prevent the demolition of controversial modernist relics such as Preston bus station and the Apollo Pavilion.

It is important that any celebration of concrete heroics doesn’t airbrush out the trickier details of post-war modernism. Many modernist buildings were experimental, failing to function as was hoped. Some quickly became grim places, usually due to a complex mix of factors. The uncompromising aesthetics of this type of architecture can be intimidating, particularly in the UK, where damp climate and overcast skies turn concrete into a drab mass of rainy grey. There is also an undeniable white male arrogance in Le Corbusier’s ideas about rectilinear rationality triumphing over nature, as expressed in Towards A New Architecture. That arrogance has been mercilessly exposed by the premature ruination of many modernist buildings, either through neglect or deliberate destruction.

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Yet the remains of modernism have much to offer. Aesthetically, they are uncompromising landmarks that stand out against the increasing blandness of contemporary cities. Culturally, they are material remnants of 20th Century social history. Politically, they provide a connection to a socialist worldview, in which architecture was seen as a way to engineer better lives for people, rather than as a way of wringing profit from space. These things are all important, but most of all I love modernism for its anti-romanticism. I find it honest – refreshingly, shockingly, brutally honest – about the nature of modern life.

Take the St. James Centre, a shopping centre, hotel and ex-council office block in central Edinburgh, shown in all the photos in this post. A grainy charcoal slab looming over the genteel Georgian new town, it is widely hated. For the majority of Edinburgh residents, its imminent demolition, making way for a more upmarket retail and hotel development, will be an occasion for cheers not tears.

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I’m one of the very few people who like this building. For me, there is a mischievous joy in how the St. James Centre punctures the cosy heritage theme-park feel of the city. Its presence is audacious, disrespectful to the point of being outright rude. Scraping against the veneer of its picturesque surroundings, it blocks scenic views from all directions. The building is so offensive that in recent years a giant redevelopment banner has been hoisted across one of its most visible façades. The effect is like a loincloth failing to cover up an embarrassing erection – a desperate attempt to preserve modesty until the wrecking balls swing into action.

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Scottish arts promoter Richard Demarco apparently claimed that “no argument can defend the overscaled, heartless and meaningless modernism of the St. James Centre development.” (source: here) Well, here’s my argument.

The building functions as an insitu critique, showing the city for what it really is: a utilitarian, functional, impersonal space, where goods are traded and services provided. The St. James Centre affronts the bourgeois sensibilities of Edinburgh like the Greek cynic philosopher Diogenes defecating in public in Athens. His behaviour was neither dirty protest nor exhibitionism, but rather an attempt to cut through the bullshit of Athenian manners by living in a way that exposed the basic nature of human existence.

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Buildings like the St. James Centre are unavoidably modern, unmistakeably urban, unashamedly rational. They don’t pretend to be anything else. Their direct, upfront qualities are the result of an optimistic post-war mood. Modern life was seen as something to celebrate, to display with pride, not something to be ashamed of or hide away. Brutalist architecture openly expresses the incessantly repetitious, mass-mechanised character of late industrial societies, just as a thatched cottage in a rural village reflects the agrarian culture within which it was built.

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There is a serious incongruity when people aspire to live in country manors or mock tudor houses, but spend their lives eating food produced by industrial farming, operating mass-produced machines, immersed in a haze of electromagnetic signals, all powered by fossil fuels extracted through heavy engineering. We can denigrate this way of life as escapism, distraction, pretense, denial, or we can enjoy it as bricolage, mash up, a post-modern merging of past and present. But either way, the fact is that a lot of architecture conceals rather than reveals the structures and processes on which contemporary society is built. Dispirited by the violence of modernity, by its ravaging of life, we try to cover it up, or knock it down.

This is why we need modernist architecture, in its successes and failures, in its rationality and madness, in renovation and in ruins: to help remind us of who, what, when and where we are.

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Thanks to Hannah Neate, Ruth Craggs and the AHRC-funded Modern Futures network for providing space in which to think about these ideas.