George Catlin’s Shut your mouth, the biopolitics of voice, and the problem of the “Stuttering Indian”
stuttering, speech, Indigenous peoples
The stutter persists as an unwanted excrescence in most cultural or critical/theoretical accounts of the voice, and sometimes even the most rigorous scholarly approaches still rely on powerful assumptions that link voices to personal or collective agency. What does it mean to find a voice for people who stutter? Sonically, stutters and stammers rupture time frames; conceptually, they do similar work halting the fluency and fluidity of histories premised on personal and collective identities, and institutional developments. Following Michel Foucault’s earliest outlines of biopower and the biopolitical production of manageable populations, I argue that the modern science and therapeutics of dysfluent speech emerged in the nineteenth century through “the controlled insertion of bodies in the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes”. Put simply, fluency in voice became foundational to modern regimentation and training in speech and communication. In recent years, scholars such as Josephine Hoegaerts and Riley McGuire have begun to examine the material histories of stuttered or stammered speech, each positing that the “science” of speech disorders emerging in the nineteenth century was implicated in powerful cultural narratives of fluency’s privilege and prestige. At the core of the explosion of curative and therapeutic techniques in early elocutionary and medical approaches to stuttered speech persisted a productive fantasy of a lost “natural” voice that could paradoxically be rediscovered through biopolitical instrumentation. The fantasy of this lost voice – a voice that experts believed existed elsewhere in space and time than the “civilized” nation states of the modern West – functioned biopolitically as an impossible “normal” that nevertheless became the goal of speech training, management, and production.
Martin, Daniel. "George Catlin’s Shut Your Mouth, the Biopolitics of Voice, and the Problem of the “Stuttering Indian”". Ordinary Oralities: Everyday Voices in History, edited by Josephine Hoegaerts and Janice Schroeder, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2023, pp. 65-80. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783111079370-005
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