The Lawfulness and Lawlessness of Voice

Rana Hamadeh’s performance “Can you Pull in an Actor with a Fishhook or Tie Down his Tongue with a Rope?” is an eight-channel sound play that is premised on a claim that justice is equivalent to one’s access to the dramatic means of representation. The performance takes the Shi’ite ceremony of Ashura, alongside the political, military and legal aspects of this ritual within the Lebanese and Syrian contexts, as a field for commentary and research. Andrey Shental attempts to decipher her work and locate it within the wider context of discursive artistic practices as well as philosophy of language.


Contemporary art is undergoing if not an ontological break, then at least a transformation of its system of values. This is manifested in a gradual deviation from the paradigm of inauthenticity, replicability and anonymity, which became influential in the 1960s. While the notions that had been considered radical (including subversion and radicalism itself) in their time are now appropriated and turned into sources of surplus value, such seemingly old-fashioned and reactionary modernist categories as aura, absorption, or presence, on the contrary, are critically reevaluated and re-actualized in different artistic practices. The figure of writing as it was described by Jacques Derrida — self-erasing, deferred in the play of différance — gives way to the figure of voice, as it has been defined by Mladen Dolar: freed from the burden of words and meanings, lawless enjoyment beyond the signifier. In this regard one could also say that instead of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, undermining the cult of uniqueness of an artwork per see, a less popular Walter Benjamin’s text “The Storyteller”, glorifying the authentic experience of living speech, could become defining and central for art theory.

In this essay, published in the famous collection “Illuminations”, the philosopher describes the gradual decline of the oral form of storytelling, which with the expansion of capitalist society has firstly been challenged by the novel and then by the mass media that juxtaposed it to “information” — the new form of communication based on verifiability, understandability, and plausibility. Even though Benjamin does not discard information as such, his view is nostalgically imbued and he sees in oral tradition, like in other disappearing phenomena, the “beauty in what is vanishing.” One could say that artists working today with spoken language hold the same nostalgic pathos while aestheticising narrative form. The popular genre of lecture performance is in many respects based on the dialectics of information and storytelling where theoretical and conceptual content of the lecture is opposed to the elements of artistic fiction, autobiographical experience and corporeal performative presence. Simultaneously, academic and institutional context of the public speech parallels intimate commonality or intersubjective co-presence in the mode of orality.

On the second day of the 6th Moscow Biennale Rana Hamadeh, the artist from Lebanon, in whose works oral speech plays a crucial role, presented experiential and immersive eight-channel audio-play “Can You Pull In An Actor With A Fishhook Or Tie Down His Tongue With A Rope?” In this performance, which is itself a part of a larger long-lasting project “Alien Encounters”, Hamadeh resorted to the Islamic oral tradition of public reading and narrating. Similarly to other Lebanese artists belonging to the elder generation, such as Walid Raad or Rabih Mroué, who also used spoken language and lecturing, Hamadeh tried to overcome the discursive impasse, to which any discussion of violence in the Middle East inevitably leads. But unlike them, she set aside the theoretical and academic aspects of art speech, reflecting rather on its theatrical and performative dimensions.

In her projects Hamade questions relevance and incontestability of some judicial and political notions. Particularly, she demonstrates how “resistance” that was indissolubly linked to the left movement compromised itself in Lebanon, when it was integrated into the repressive machine of the state and became a counter-revolutionary power. As a way to end this deadlock Hamadeh suggests creating an imaginary alternative “archive”, discursive formation or the new form of communication, from which one could speak of oppression and justice. Throwing the whole series of propositions and establishing parallels between different spheres of knowledge (especially between medicine and biology, on the one side, and politics and jurisprudence on the other), in her performances she creates a space for actualization and staging of the notions. She does not represent events, but reconstitutes them in such a way that they, in her own parlance, can mobilise different types of politics. In other words, they could so to speak embody themselves through the body of a performer, and then become disembodied again into language. Thus, after the performances, the artist quite often organizes discussions that she uses not as auxiliary, but as an integral part of her artwork. The notions that experienced performative actualisation could again become politically relevant terms.

In several episodes of her project “Alien Encounters” Hamadeh uses different plots to create a field of such actualisations: Sun Ra’s film “Space Is the Place”, the Plague of Athens, or stories of undocumented emigrants she met in Marseilles. However for the part that was presented in Moscow she decided to resort to the experience of the Middle East, choosing as a structure the Shi’ite ceremony of Ashura, which, as a child, she could have witnessed in her neighbourhood. In her work Hamadeh proposes this phenomenon as a “structural dramaturgical framework that underlies the entire politics of oppression in the region”, while, in my view, she explores ambiguities and potentialities of voice as the medium that epitomises and gives one to experience all its hidden ambiguities and potentialities.

Ashura is a perennial theatrical religious ceremony that, almost like artistic genre of reenactment, re-stages the battle of Karbala, during which Imam Al Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, was killed. In span of this rite, Shi’ite mourners organise readings that re-capture the events of the battle of Karbala, during which Imam Al Hussein, alongside his family and followers were slain. The orations gradually transform into collective ritual of self-flagellation. In her piece, Hamadeh plays on the exaggerated theatricality of Shi’ite ceremony that is based on the constant oscillation between fiction and reality, between the conditional character of ritual and its physical and affective dimension: particularly, ecstatic chest-beating and bloodletting by means of chains and daggers. The more theatrical and conventional the act becomes, the more direct and violent its impact on the physical body. The same happens during the “Can You Pull In An Actor” performance: it is harder and harder for a viewer to set a boundary, which would divide the sacred and the profane, the aesthetic and the extraaesthetic.

On the formal level Hamadeh’s play reproduces the underlying structure of Ashura ceremony, but filling it with contemporary content where ancient figures coexist with new technologies such as CCTV-cameras or loudspeakers. Her performance starts, when a female voice announces the first act, but is immediately transformed into formidable post-humanist, even queered, voice, that does not have any age or gender indications. Invoking in memory animatronic puppet from the horror series “Saw”, this voice is amplified through a series of speakers, mutates and, subsequently, alienates from artist’s body, becoming acousmatic, i.e. having no identifiable material source, disembodied, virtual, and almost divine revelation “from above”. But time and time again the voice — following the artist’s own instructions — comes back to its normal, natural state, reuniting and resynchronizing with the orator’s body, sex, and age and thus rendering voice material and sensible.

Presented as both a kind of an “insight”, as it happens in case of a lecture or a sermon (it is no chance that the word “professor” comes from the Latin word “profess”, to publicly admit one’s faith), this voice, as linguists might say, is produced by nearly all the striate musculature of the orator’s body. Reading out the script with the help of organs of speech, the artist continues its enveloping with the help of expressive gesticulation, like Benjaminian storyteller, who establishes “old co-ordination of the soul, the eye, and the hand.” Finally, in the end of the performance this tension between ideality and materiality of speech is resolved by dialectical sublation, when the play organically and almost imperceptibly morphs into the discussion with curator Defne Ayas (who herself had a “cameo” in the play). The state of the beyond or transcendence — to which contemporary art appeals, but usually poorly — is overcome and “secularised” by the formality of institutional settings. The orator turns out to be an artist playing an actor playing an orator, while the witnesses of this ceremony turn out to be the visitors of the exhibition playing the audience playing the witnesses.

If in the actual ceremony the change of orator’s accent invites participants into trance and signals the start of self-flagellation, then in the case of the play the transition between the real voice, its mutated double, the artist’s own voice as well as the abstract sound — organizes and groups the viewers, moulding them in accordance with the logic of sound dislocation. As Dolar claims in his book “Voice and nothing more”, “the moment one listens, one has already started to obey, in an embryonic way one always listens to one’s master’s voice, no matter how much one opposes it afterward” (it is no coincidence that in Russian, like in some other languages, including the Arabic, the word slushat is etymologically connected to poslushanie meaning obedience). The orator’s voice in the meantime submerges the audience into internal contemplation (that is well communicated in the the documentation of the performance) or acts onomatopoeticially: thus one participant of this act started to beat his chest with fists. One could say that at the moment of “submission” the effect of disavowal plays out: the awareness of conventionality of storytelling and one’s own submissiveness to the power of sound is increased thanks to the content of the speech, that, describing the imaginary ceremony, “foretells” what would happen in a few seconds: “The orator’s voice is heard through a series of horn speakers before his body reaches the central platform. The horn speakers, hanging at ear level, address the audience, adding a metallic texture to the orator’s voice…”

This enchantment with voice could not be explained by means of performative utterances, as positivist philosophy of language does it, where the speaking subject changes social reality, producing specific forms of speech acts. Language here does not function as a conventional system of signs or a play of arbitrary signifiers, but reveals its “magical aspect.” The orator’s voice becomes the mediator or a guide between the microcosm and macrocosm, between spiritual story of Hussein’s unjust murder and profane history of oppression of “minoritarian resurrective ideologies”, between Shi’ite’s militant ceremony and the real militarism of Shi’a Islamist party Hezbollah, between the aesthetic and sensuous experience of an encounter with an artwork and its verbal and conceptual explication.

Benjamin has famously called this power of language to reveal connections between phenomena of different orders “mimetic faculty” (even though, of course, he had different things in mind). The allusion to this ancient human capacity allows the philosopher to overturn the ordinary hierarchy between meaning and form in such a way that semantics, i.e. the conceptual content of speech, becomes the medium, while the revelation of hidden correspondences becomes the message (“the literal text of writing is the sole basis on which the picture puzzle can form itself”). Establishing the ties between what is written and what is said, Hamadeh allows these notions to pass from political and judicial discourse into the mimetic circle, where coming in contact with the conventional and the actual, they are tested for strength.

Thus during the discussion that followed the play, Hamadeh claims that Hussein is not merely a historical figure, but the embodiment or the pure abstraction of the ultimate and eternal figure of the oppressed as such. His murder is paradoxical: For the oppressed to gain access to language, the killing of Hussein is a necessary event (Christ had to sacrifice himself on the cross). Yet, the killing of Hussein, simultaneously, is the event of the erasure of the oppressed from the domain of language and the possibilities of representation. The simultaneity between the access and the denial of access to the means of representation, is what constitutes, in Hamadeh“s words, Shi”ite thought. Transforming the witnessing of his death into a theatrical action, Ashura mourners constitute themselves as “testimonial subjects” outside the court of law; i.e. outside the genealogies of power throughout the history of Islam. Starting with this proposition, Hamadeh proposes that “justice shall be viewed as the extent to which one can access the dramatic means of representation.” Taking cue from the genre of legal spectacle where show trials demonstrate the justice that is manifestly known to be unjust, — Hamadeh questions the entire epistemological foundation of the conceptions of justice.

To reclaim, reactualize and rehabilitate justice would be to access alternative ways of performing. Instead of choosing the legal language that is similarly to information is based on the criteria of verifiability and persuasiveness, that could be easily forged, Hamadeh, just like the Shi’ites, resorts to the art of storytelling (telling the story of killing and resurrection, which, to paraphrase Benjamin, “keeps a story free from explanation as one reproduces it”). Like in case of the bygone figure of narrator, participant “takes what he tells from experience — his own or that reported by others” and “makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale.” The merging of discourses that Hamadeh is preoccupied with, could not have come at a better time: to perform also means to infect, i.e. to unite viewers with the shared virus.

However, the main conclusion that Hamadeh makes in her discussion of the mimetic work of establishing connections between the Ashura and contemporary state of affairs in the Middle East, is the ambiguity of the very notion of oppression. During the Shi’ite mourning, the figure of a mourner doubles or splits, revealing inside itself both the oppressor and the oppressed that are interchangeable during the rite. Playing the victim and highlighting one’s victimhood, the participant of Ashura cuts his subjectivity in two, so his hand separates from his body and becomes the hand of the oppressor. The same happens with the orator who turns out to be simultaneously both the master and the slave. Submitting visitor to the authority of voice, he at the same time, according to Dolar, externalises himself through this voice, reveals one’s intimacy to the Other. However, what I find the most important in this work is the way the voice — which gives the right to talk about oppression and call for justice — itself becomes the means of oppression.

In order to write the script for her audio-play Hamadeh used structures, affects and rhythms of the ten-day Ashura ceremony, which she transformed into verbal narration that consists of respective ten chapters. The written text that was read and recorded by an actress (Caroline Daish) and was then “re-choreographed” into music by means of infinite reverberation, which morphed the speech acts into abstract and asemantic sounds. This double rendering of a text from a nonlinguistic experience into words and then back into abstraction of experimental music, could be seen as an act of “de-signification” or emancipation of speech from its semiotic functions, transforming spoken language into a formless mass of presenting, breezing and living voice of an orator.

In the history of Western metaphysics, which Jacques Derrida wanted to deconstruct, speech was traditionally considered as a specific mode of being that provided humans with presence and self-equation. Breathing and living, continuous and uninterrupted, it guarantees immediate transmission of meaning and proximity between the speaker and the listener to whom the truth was open. This ontotheological idealism was juxtaposed to the idea of self-erasing writing, leading to deferral, difference, death, absence, non-presence and non-being. Establishing ties between the written and the spoken, Hamade rehabilitates the speech after its Derridean deconstruction.

In his recent rereading of this tradition that chronologically coincided with the development of lecture performance, aforementioned Dolar tries to retrace the alternative genealogy of “phonocentirsm” and proposes the metaphysical tradition in fact has been guided by the banishment of the voice. Dissecting voice from speech, which Derrida and especially his interpreters did not always do, Dolar talks about the pure voice, freed from the burden of words that has been considered the source of decay and dangerous to the production of meanings. This unleashed and lawless voice suggests the “enjoyment beyond signifier.” If in the Derridean description of philosophy the speech could only be transmitted unmediated, then Dolar finds the object — an unattainable object of desire — that exists between the ear and the mouth mediates the perception like loudspeakers in Hamadeh’s performance.

On the one hand, this lawless unbounded voice that is not burdened with semantics could establish proximity and kinship between the speaker and the listener. Escaping from the hiatus of difference and deferral, which is endemic to writing, this self-transparent voice of storyteller establishes co-presence, where the experience ceases to be individual (unlike in the novel, the news or in court), but becomes communal. But as Dolar has shown, voice does not only unite the oppressed as a new extrajudicial subject, but can itself establish new laws. The staging of oppression for the sake of justice itself becomes an act of oppression, reimposing new form injustice. Through setting up the conditions by which the military oppression in Syria becomes criticizable and not merely polemicized, Hamadeh opens up the problematics of transition from militancy towards militarism, from the specificity of Lebanese and Syrian histories of violence, towards a broader global context. Thus, like a true storyteller renders this personal and local experience collectivised.