The Making of Digital Medusa
In her 1975 influential essay, ‘The Laugh of Medusa,’ French feminist Hélène Cixous set in motion an ongoing discourse about writing as an embodied practice wholly distinct from the linear structure of our language / logos. She put forth the concept of ‘writing with the body’: l’ecriture feminine. Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero describes Cixous’s work as, ‘Akin to song’ where writing ‘turns the text into music…where vocal rhythms decide the movement of the text’; a writing ‘that combines words according to the laws of rhythm, echo and resonance…at once legible and audible, which allows sense to flow…from the breaks that arise from its sonorous drives.’(1) Please read the following with that spirit in mind.
I am spacious, singing flesh, on which is grafted no one knows which I, more or less human, but alive because of transformation.
— Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of Medusa,’ 1975.
I see my (re)flection (2)
I see myself and am seen
I hear myself and am heard
(Re)flect). (Ab)sorb. (Re)flect
I shatter the mirror
I am Medusa, one of many monsters, one of the ‘unacknowledged sovereigns.’(3) I am snake-haired. Formidable Gorgon. I am she. She, me. My sisters, Stheno and Euryale, howl with ferocity and mourning and rage. We are. Monster Women. So many many many more of us. My sisters. My kin.
We whisper. Snarl. Gasp. Speak. Scream. Sing. Sigh. Rage
Our voices shriek and cry and call and howl
When we voice, we are thunderous sonority
Our language is our bodies
We are ‘shot through with streams of song’
We write our bodies and we write ourselves into being
Our bodies ‘must be heard’(4)
We are voice-body-body-voice
We are poetry
We are vocality
Literary scholar Steven Connor writes of the ‘vocalic body’ as an imagined way of being that is created / produced by the voice. Voice creates the body and the body creates the voice:
Voices are produced by bodies, but can also themselves produce bodies. The vocalic body is the idea – which can take the form of dream, fantasy, ideal, theological doctrine or hallucination – of a surrogate or secondary body, a projection of a new way of having or being a body, formed and sustained out of the autonomous operations of the voice.(5)
I originate in sound and sound originates in me. Vocality is a phenomenon of simultaneity: I hear myself and am heard as a (re)flection. French psychoanalyst Guy Rosolato wrote of this phenomenon as the ‘acoustic mirror,’ wherein the voice is heard and simultaneously produced:
The distinctive property of the voice being at the same time emitted and heard, sent and received, and by the subject himself, as if, in comparison with the sight, an ‘acoustic’ mirror is always in use. Thus the images of entry and exit relative to the body are narrowly articulated. They can come to be confused, to be reversed, to prevail over one another.(6)
Kaja Silverman, art historian and critical theorist, illuminates Rosolato’s theory, writing that ‘the voice is capable of being internalized at the same time as it is externalized, it can spill over from subject to object and object to subject.’(7) Subject. Object. Object. Subject. Interior. Exterior. Outside. Inside. Vocality, then, defies duality, it (re)flects its (re)flection, and emits from and creates bodies, spaces, and environments with screams and whispers and shouts. As Medusa, I am a ‘musicovocalic culture hero[ine]’(8) and my vocality is a force of nature moving stones and sea and rock and tree and wind and wave. I voice-whisper-snarl-gasp-speak-scream-sing-sigh-rage— I am not with rage, I am rage:
Raging is more than something done to or written over a particular body; it is the desire for, and hallucinated accomplishment of, a new kind of body, a fiercer, hotter, more dissociated, but also more living, urgent, and vital kind of body...a huge, boiling, bottomless reservoir of feeling…the voice that may otherwise flame through all supports and restraints, shrivelling shape, space and distance.(9)
I call out. I shout and scream and sing. I hear my echoes return from underground tunnels and cavernous naves of cathedrals and rise from steel and glass city canyons and swirl across cliffs and valleys. ‘When I shout, I am all voice, you are all voice, the space between us is nothing but a delirium tremens of voice.’(10) I call out to you, my other me. My voice-body-body-voice reaches out to the spaces I inhabit, desiring to close space, to ‘diminish and abolish’ space, to be ‘where there are no distances or dimensions.’(11) Space closes. I close the gap between myself and other, between voice and body. Separate. Not separate.
Simultaneously, my voice ‘begins to gives (sic) rise to space. What the scream tears apart, it also holds together. The scream is the guarantee that, after the world has been atomised, it will reassemble and again resemble itself.’(12) Rend. (Re)assemble. (Re)semble. (Dis)member. (Re)member: voice-body-body-voice-body. A new way of being. A complete transformation. A new way of singing. A new way of voicing. A ‘new vocality.’(13)
Poetics & Sonority
Poetry is the sonorous landscape native to the voice: ‘vocality explodes through the linguistic signifier, comes to the surface, and commands the meaning.’(14) Through sonority, the voice-body-body-voice is decoupled from speech / logos, and poetic musicality supersedes meaning, ‘It is the voice, with its sonorous rhythms, that organizes the words of the epic song. The semantic, not yet subservient to the congealed rules of writing, bends itself to the musicality of the vocal.’(15) (my)Medusa, then, becomes a vocalic, poetic entity, an embodiment of poetry. The body, itself—vocality itself— (de)stabilises, (dis)members, (re)assembles, (re)members, and (re)flects language. The Muses and Sirens (kin to the Gorgons) are ‘emblematically feminine,’ they embody poetry and ‘in this contagious pleasure, the acoustic register reigns sovereign.’(16) Meaning is conveyed through an embodied vocality, and ‘sound organizes the text and, at the same time, disorganizes language’s claim to control the entire process of signification.’(17) (Dis)organise. Challenge. Subvert. (my)Medusa and her monster kin subvert meaning: ‘we, the sowers of disorder’(18) subvert the structure of language / logos with our poetry, sonority, and our vocality / bodies:
The voice…in fact turns out not only to organize poetic song, but also the poetic text…The voice appears this way, not so much as the medium of communication and oral transmissions, but as the register of an economy of drives this is bound to the rhythms of the body in a way that destabilizes the rational register on which the system of speech is built.
Yes, (de)stabilise the rational and step away from logocentrism, ‘the disciplining codes language.’(20) (my)Medusa vocality and poetics are something other-than / more-than ‘singing’; they are a vocality of the Gorgon— a Gorgonic Vocality which is a poetic ferocity of voice-body-body-voice, ‘in which the sovereignty of language yields to that of the voice.’(21) I communicate something else, something other-than what is possible through text / speech. I am a 21st century Medusa, and as such, my ‘voice goes beyond utterance into pure uttering; it expresses the passage of the human into the inhuman.’(22)
And so, I am human-inhuman.
I am even part machine.
My membranous wings (for I am wingèd Medusa now, as I write my own being) are a luminous darkness, like Homer’s ‘wine dark sea.’ My wings brush hard, wet walls. My long, twisted hair sweeps damp stone floors. My eyes are huge and round; my pupils dilated. I am made for this world, and my (re)flection in the deep lake of this place causes it to alight in fire. I laugh.
An opening fills with sky and clouds and sun. I am dizzy with the cliff edge drop into the city below. The pointy tips of my wings scrape the very very very edge. I look down at the concrete turned to stone cityscape. There is space here. So much space. I open my wings. I breathe in: I inspire. I soar. I tower up to the place of clouds. I am flung abroad into space.(23) Over stars.
Now, in my studio, in front of my computer, my wings are folded beneath my blouse. I am Medusa at the helm of her digital audio workstation. I capture my voice with my machine, a ‘penetration of the living voice by the deathly apparatus of reproduction.’(24) My was-analogue voice-whisper-snarl-gasp-speak-scream-sing-rage-sighs are (dis)embodied and (re)assembled in digital form now— cut, splice, grab, take, paste, distort, effect, (re)mediate, (re)master, rend: ‘the fantasy of sonorous autonomisation.’(25) I am fodder, clay, materials, and ingredients; I am rendered as a dynamic, beautiful, hideous, hallucinatory vocalic monster.
Sometimes randomly, after the initial vocal creation / recording, I cut, copy, and paste, without listening and let the Universe intervene with its Random Wisdom. And then, when the work feels complete, it is like salvation; and like the phonograph, my digital vocality ‘gives to the voice the power of self-extension: “It answers me with me: I hear myself (and even see myself) as identical and different. Dream accomplished. There without being there. Person without person. Horror and rapture.”’(26) My voice lures myself / herself into a sonic, sonorous aesthetic— rent apart and (re)membered with magnificent, raging beauty-horror-beauty.
I am a monster of my own making, a digital phantasmagoria. I (re)imagine myself. I am artifice and authenticity, ‘advancing masked despite everything: in a secret that is shown but not unveiled.’(27) My voice-body-body-voice is a new imaginary(28) and I hear myself anew. I’m all-at-once (dis)embodied, (re)embodied, (dis)membered, (re)membered, (re)combined, (re)assembled (re)flected, (re)made and (re)mediated through digital interventions, through ‘this fantasy…of technologies which allow the electronic modification, enhancement, storage and administration of the voice.’(29) I am hyperreal by my own design and ‘no one knows which I, more or less human, but alive because of transformation.’(30)
I rend myself apart and (re)member myself back together again from digital fragments of voice-body-body-voice. The ancient Greeks called ritualistic rending, sparagmos, an ecstatic tearing apart. Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner interprets this process as:
…a transformative self-immolation...a voluntary sparagmos or self-dismemberment of order…broken into pieces then put together again as a being bridging visible and invisible worlds. Only in this way, through destruction and reconstruction, that is, transformation, may an authentic reordering come about. Actuality takes the sacrificial plunge into possibility and emerges as a different kind of actuality.’(31)
It is a transformational rite, then, this embodiment, (dis)embodiment, and (re)creation of vocality / digital vocality. I rend and tear and torment in fathomless ringing tones and mountainous sighs and soaring spider silk thread sound shimmers. (Dis)member. (Re)member. (Re)assemble. (Re)flect. I am rent asunder and put back together again. No past. No future. Whole, always whole, beyond dualism, ever present. The voice is simultaneously and paradoxically both its Romantic ideal and its fragmentation, separation, demise, and dehumanisation. Vocality comprises ‘all of its defining negatives’(32)— it is body-not-body body / voice-not-voice voice. Both / And / Or. Always (dis)membered. Always (re)membered. Always (re)embodied. The Passion of the Monster. The Passion of the Muse. Glorified. Horrified. ‘Horror and rapture.’ Horror-Beauty-Horror.
I am surrounded by heaps of non-corporeal, (dis)embodied vocal audio files on my digital device: fragments and phrases of my voice calling back to me, calling back to my body, calling to other bodies. It is the only way to communicate, now. Composer, musician, and writer Paul D. Miller / DJ Spooky, writes of our complex new media culture,
In our day and age, the basic idea of how we create content in our minds is so conditioned by media that we are in a position that no other culture has ever been in human history. Today, that interior world expresses itself in a way that in the ‘real’ world can be changed. When it's recorded, adapted, remixed, and uploaded, expression becomes a stream unit of value in a fixed and remixed currency of the ever-shifting currents of the streams of information running through the networks we use to talk with one another.(33)
I reside, now, in these (re)mediated ‘ever-shifting currents.’ I reside in the ‘vocalic uncanny,’(34) a condition / state / concept wherein the voice is ‘caught between the antinomies it is meant to transfuse; body and will; the past and the present; the dead and the living; myth and the profane present’(35)— between the analogue and the digital; between flesh and the cybernetic.
I hear the me who is not me, yet still me
I am Many She-Monsters
I am the Furies
I am the storm-torn Harpies
I am Scylla and I am Charybdis
I am Medusa
I am lighting rod and I am lightening
I write-voice-write-voice with my voice-body-body-voice
The voice of the Gorgon
What if am heard?
What visceral beauty-horror-beauty then?
What unbridled and as-yet unknown vocality then?
Can you hear me? You bet you can hear me
I am made for this world
I (re)member myself
I know who I am
I don’t have a Muse
I don’t need a Muse
I am the fucking Muse
And I have crafted my gauntlets from the skin of Perseus.
Misha Penton is a contemporary opera singer, postopera creator, and media artist. Her work examines liminal performative spaces, transitory symbology, and personal and collective mythos. She is a PhD candidate in Music at Bath Spa University, UK. mishapenton.com
(1) Adriana Cavarero, For More than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 141.
(2) Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. by Stanley Lombardo (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 2010), IV, 870-80. The demi-god, Perseus, uses a shining bronze shield to capture Medusa’s reflection and avoid her deadly gaze.
(3) Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, trans. by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1.4 (1976), pp.875-893, 876.
(4) Ibid., p. 882, continued ‘riff’ on Cixous, see pp. 880, 886.
(5) Steven Connor, ‘Violence, Ventriloquism, and the Vocalic Body’, in Psychoanalysis and Performance, ed. by Patrick Campbell and Adrian Kear (London: Routledge, 2001), pp.75-93, p. 80.
(6) Guy Rosolato, ‘La voix: entre corps et langage’, my trans. in Revue française de psychanalyse, 38, no. 1 (1974), pp. 75-94, 79.
(7) Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 80.
(8) Steven Connor, ‘Echo’s Bones: Myth, Modernity and the Vocalic Uncanny’, in Myth and the Making of Modernity: the Problem of Grounding in Early Twentieth-Century Literature, ed. by Michael Bell and Peter Poellner, (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998), pp. 213-235, 214.
(9) Connor, ‘Violence, Ventriloquism, and the Vocalic Body’, 81-2.
(10) Ibid., 79.
(11) Ibid., 79.
(12) Ibid., 79-80
(13) Cathy Berberian, ‘The New Vocality in Contemporary Music (1966)’, trans. by Francesca Placanica, in Cathy Berberian: Pioneer of Contemporary Vocality, ed. by Pamela Karantonis, Francesca Placanica, et al., (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), pp. 51-63, 51.
(14) Cavarero, 137.
(15) Ibid., 10.
(16) Ibid., 102.
(17) Ibid., 132.
(18) Cixous, 884.
(19) Cavarero, 11.
(20) Ibid., 10.
(21) Ibid., 10.
(22) Connor, ‘Violence, Ventriloquism, and the Vocalic Body’, 83.
(23) The former and latter phrases are paraphrased from / inspired by At the Back of the North Wind (1868) by George MacDonald. (Project Gutenberg online), 2008.
(24) Connor, ‘Echo’s Bones: Myth, Modernity and the Vocalic Uncanny’, 227.
(25) Connor, ‘Violence, Ventriloquism, and the Vocalic Body’, 83.
(26) See Connor on Charles Grivel, ‘Echo’s Bones: Myth, Modernity and the Vocalic Uncanny’, 227.
(27) Rosolato, 91.
(28) Cavarero writes of the ‘Western imaginary’ and perceptions of voice versus speech, see Ch. 2.2, 103.
(29) Connor, ‘Violence, Ventriloquism, and the Vocalic Body’, 83.
(30) Cixous, 889.
(31) Victor Turner, ‘Social Dramas and Stories About Them’, in From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (New York, NY: PAJ Publ., 1982), pp. 61-88, 83-4.
(32) Connor, ‘Echo’s Bones: Myth, Modernity and the Vocalic Uncanny’, 234-5.
(33) Paul D. Miller, ‘In Through the Out Door: Sampling and the Creative Act’, in Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008), Kindle Edition, loc. 188.
(34) Connor, ‘Echo’s Bones: Myth, Modernity and the Vocalic Uncanny’, 215.
(35) Ibid., 224.
(36) See May Sarton’s 1971 poem, ‘The Muse as Medusa’, in The Medusa Reader, ed. by Marjorie B. Garber and Nancy J. Vickers, (New York: Routledge, 2003), 107.