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Speaking machines and ghostly phantoms: the claustrum poetics of voice and dysfluency

Faculty Advisor




dysfluency, stammering, stuttering, voice

Abstract (summary)

THROUGHOUT THE nineteenth century, experts in the study of voice and speech relied on a wide range of ghostly or haunted analogies to describe the enigmatic nature of vocal production and the causes and cures of stuttered speech. Phantoms, spectres, ghosts, incubi, and devils populate elocutionary, technological, scientific, and medical representations of voice and vocal dysfluencies, but the most provocative of such analogies is the voice as crypt, tomb, or what psychoanalysts influenced by the work of Donald Meltzer refer to as the "claustrum" (Meltzer, Plänkers). In our own times, the interdisciplinary field of voice studies prioritizes the "object voice" (Dolar 4) or "acousmatic voice" (Chion 18–27) as vocal effects characterized by an uncanny decoupling of voice and body. Regarding speech dysfluencies in particular, Brandon LaBelle argues that the mouth is a "vessel not filled with language, but more so, haunted or stammered by it" (130). Such analogies of uncanny or haunted vocal effects and speech symptoms echo nineteenth-century attempts to describe the speaking body as porous and prone to invasion and inhabitation, attempts that reached their zenith in medical expert James Hunt's claim in the posthumous edition of Stammering and Stuttering; Their Nature and Treatment (1870) that poor speech habits could be contracted by either unconscious or conscious imitation of people who stutter. Relying on a haunted analogy for argumentative effect, Hunt warns young speakers "against stuttering in mimicry, lest they should raise a ghost which they cannot get rid of" (254). My contribution to this forum on Victorian voices examines two case studies from the 1840s and 1850s that represent broader anxieties about the speaking body as a crypt that can be penetrated from the outside by unwanted vocal effects: Joseph Faber's 1846 exhibition of the Euphonia, or "Speaking Machine," and Henry Monro's medical treatise On Stammering (1850). Both are especially intriguing accounts of the claustrum poetics of Victorian technical and medical thought about the origins of voice and vocal production. Analogies of the claustrum were not merely figurative descriptions of the voice as a physiological object of scientific scrutiny but also sophisticated explanations of the phenomenology of the body as a receptacle and receiver of voice.

Publication Information

Martin, Daniel. "Speaking Machines and Ghostly Phantoms: The Claustrum Poetics of Voice and Dysfluency." Victorian Review, vol. 46, no. 1, Fall 2020. doi: 10.1353/vcr.2020.0017


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