Voice Is Not a Thing

Justyna Stasiowska

This audiopaper is a manifesto against the metaphor “to give a voice”. Underneath this positive action of giving agency there is a techno-geopolitical history of the disembodiment of voices through the technology of the phonograph and the loudspeaker. This detachment method became a tool of establishing a “norm” and a form of torture for outside hearing spectrum and further on outside English-speaking cultures. Those tools of discipline have been created in the name of scientific progress and profoundly impacted ways of thinking about voice, making it a object to shape, train or give.

I refer to critical analysis of history of experimental phonetics by Mara Mills where she shows how an invention of “frequencies” perceived as “pure science language” was to become a form of sound representation that will allows deaf people to perceive the sound of speech through another medium. The device was used to coerce into using it as a surrogate for hearing the sound of one’s own voice and assimilate and mask in people any form of different hearing modes. In the space of the theatre, George Bernard Shaw stemmed the use of the phonograph and techniques of voice training in his comedy Pygmalion, written in 1913. The author annotated the play with a preface in which he points out the need to educate the British public about correct pronunciation. He cites, among others, Alexander Melville Bell’s work on visible speech and the person of Henry Sweet, an English phonetician who lived in the late 19th century. His research focused on the phonetic alphabet of English spoken by educated people. In 1890, he wrote A Primer of Spoken English, which established the basic principles of accent pronunciation, referred to today as “received pronunciation”.

In both cases, the voice came to represent the ability to function in society – both as a way of masking deafness and assimilation, and as an opportunity for mobility between social classes. The audiopaper focuses on forms of shaping, cutting, mutilation of voice that became a thing and ask about what must be done to a voice for it to have agency and be human. This is also a manifesto for humanizing non-human voices and using text-to-voice, when using a voice strains you.





  • Lion King (1994, dir. Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff)
  • My Fair Lady (1964, dir. George Cukor)
  • The Remains of the Day (1993, dir.  James Ivory)