A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Toward a Resonant Material Vocality for Digital Composition

Erin Anderson, University of Massachusetts Boston

(Published: August 18, 2014)

The voice is elusive. Once you’ve eliminated everything that is not the voice itself—the body that houses it, the words it carries, the notes it sings, the traits by which it defines a speaking person, and the timbres that color it, what’s left? What a strange object, what grist for poetic outpourings… — Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema

Over the past decade, interdisciplinary sound studies scholars have made great strides toward highlighting the role of music, noise, and non-verbal sound as powerful modes of sensory experience, politics, and persuasion, whether through everyday lived environments or deliberately designed sonic spaces and texts.1 Building on this momentum, scholars of sonic rhetoric have worked to carve out a space for sound as a subject of rhetorical analysis, a material for multimodal text production,2 and a methodological model for alphabetic writing practice.3 However, to the extent that sonic rhetoric has defined itself in opposition to—or at least as a departure from—the field’s historical roots in language and semantic meaning, it has often been characterized by a de facto turning away from the voice, imagined as an instrument of human speech and meaning.4 Although this effort to carve out a space for the senses against the longstanding privilege of rational sense-making is admirable, such a move may inadvertently muffle voice’s potential as an audible, vibrational material, which is more than the sum of the language it carries.

To the extent that it has been explicitly acknowledged as a component of sonic rhetoric, voice is often taken up either as a function of song in the so-called non-representational realm of music5 or as a welcome return to rhetoric’s roots in classical oratory and live, embodied speech.6 While these conversations have been instrumental in highlighting the non-verbal, affective affordances—the tone, the emotion, the “grain” (Barthes)—of the voice-in-performance, they have also frequently fallen back on familiar notions of the “human element” (Stedman) or “aural presence” (Lambke) of voice without stepping back to consider the problematic metaphysical associations that such terms provoke. Indeed, although the popularity of the “voice” metaphor has largely subsided with the decline of expressivist writing pedagogy, such unacknowledged slippages might betray a lingering—and I would argue limiting—attachment to voice as a function of authorship, personhood, and identity. At the very least, they suggest a need for more explicit attention to the role of technology in producing our experience of and relationship to voice in contemporary digital environments.7

In order to more fully account for the voice, as a rhetorical mode and a compositional material, perhaps we must expand our present frameworks of orality (speech) and aurality (sound) to include questions of vocality (voice), as a peculiar category of sound that attends speech but also exceeds it, and as a mediated material that pushes the boundaries of human embodiment and agency. Toward this end, in this article I explore the idiosyncrasies of vocality—and, more specifically, the mediated vocality of digital audio technologies—to elucidate both the paradoxes and possibilities that it poses for digital composing practice. Though Anne Frances Wysocki is right to demand that we “define ‘new media texts’ in terms of their materialities” (3), I propose that we might go one step further to first define and understand the materiality itself. To this end, my analysis draws together an interdisciplinary body of perspectives on voice from fields such as philosophy, physiology, film and media, and digital aesthetics to take up the questions: What is vocality? Why does it matter? And what can it contribute to digital rhetoric? I begin my discussion by working through theories of vocal ontology, phenomenology, and mediation, working to shift the conversation beyond familiar disciplinary conventions that may have constrained our relationship to voice, as well as its relationship to language, bodies, and technologies. I then bring these interdisciplinary insights to bear on contemporary debates in the field of rhetoric and composition, proposing a series of openings through which digital vocality—if taken seriously on its own terms and in its complex relations—might enable us to re-imagine the methods, materials, and ethics of contemporary compositional practice.

Voice and Language

The idea that voice is sound should stand as common sense. However, in the history of Western philosophy, as in our contemporary culture of writing, voice’s sounding capacity has quite often been placed in the service of language—as a means to an end of rational speech and linguistic meaning. According to Adriana Cavarero, Jacques Derrida is one of the key figures responsible for propagating this confusion. Derrida’s critique of “phonocentrism” in Western metaphysics has been instrumental in speaking back to essentialist notions of vocal “presence,” which imagine the voice as a form of direct, unmediated access to the self and the essence of signifiers. However, by suggesting that both speaking and writing are ultimately “traces” and nothing more, Derrida effectively reduces the voice to the status of “an acoustic signifier” (Cavarero 35), erasing a sense of “what is proper to the voice” (10) and subordinating it to its service to linguistic meaning. Addressing this pitfall, philosopher Mladen Dolar suggests that we might productively shift our understanding of voice as a “mere means” toward language’s end and embrace it instead as “a cast-off of sense” (16), as “the material element [of speech] recalcitrant to meaning” (15). In this framework, the voice is no longer a medium for conveying or transmitting language, but rather, in the words of Paul Zumthor, “an unutterability suited to clothing itself in language” (5)—an untterability in which there is always a material excess.

Voice’s inability to be reduced to language is evident, at least in part, by its inability to be captured or expressed in language.8 Indeed, many elements of vocal sound—accent, intonation, timbre—escape our fundamental desire to signify and thus to capture, categorize, and control (20). Research in forensic linguistics has worked to overcome this descriptive dilemma, deriving a language for accurately and comprehensively capturing voice quality for identification purposes. However, according to voice scientists Jody Kreiman and Diana Van Lancker Sidtis, such efforts ultimately treat the voice “as if it can be decomposed into a set of specific features or elements” and thus fail to express the unique and nuanced assemblage of sounds that make up the voice of a particular speaker (11).9 In this sense, it seems fair to say—as Dolar suggests—that “if we speak in order to say something, then the voice is precisely that which cannot be said” (15).

Of course, voice also resists language, quite markedly, through its myriad capacities for nonverbal sounds and utterances. On one hand these sounds include visceral, often-unintentional vocal emissions, which signal a “voice out of control” (Neumark “Introduction” xxvi). According to philosopher David Appelbaum, vocal sounds like the cry, the cough, and the laugh have been systematically excluded from the sphere of voice by the abstract, disembodying forces of the Western philosophical tradition.10 Working to reassert their value, Appelbaum celebrates such forms of non-semantic vocality precisely for their ability to disrupt the steady flow of language and cognition and thus to draw attention to the erasure of “incarnate experience” from philosophical inquiry—and, by extension, from Western formulations of the rational speaking subject (19). And, of course, on the other side of this phenomenon is the voice’s potential for deliberate performance and play. Noting the voice’s capacity to imitate both human and nonhuman sounds, like “the giggle of a baby and the approach of a steam engine” (362), Philip Brophy emphasizes the extent to which “the voice can reach far beyond itself, and hence beyond the limiting definitions of being human” (362)—definitions that are, at least in part, rooted in linguistic values.

Sound poetry stands as a fascinating example of an artistic tradition that has explored vocal embodiment and performance at the limits of language. “[B]elieving in the power of the body and the thrust of word play to fully escape the constraints of linguistic meaning” (LaBelle “Raw Orality” 152), sound poetry occupies a liminal space between literary and musical composition, where the sounds of language—or sounds beyond language—are paramount. Indeed, sound poet and scholar Steve McCaffery discusses the evolution of the genre as a steady progression away from language, beginning with early approaches to word-as-material and moving toward technologically-mediated approaches that shirk off verbal orality in favor of “the shit of speech” (159)—or voice as the castoff of and antithesis to language. Perhaps the most extreme example of this so-called “raw orality” is reflected by the work of seminal sound poet, Henri Chopin, who used techniques of “microphonics” (LaBelle Background Noise 135) to produce compositions made up the sounds of the mouth that usually go unheard in everyday speech.

In the end, though, any such attempt to rescue voice from language wholesale and move into a space of pure sonority may in fact be futile. Certainly, from the perspective of human perception, it seems reasonable to suggest that, when we hear a voice speaking language, it is the language we hear first. Contrasting the experience of speech with the experience of music, Don Ihde suggests that voice in everyday speech “does not draw attention to itself as sound” (158); rather, “the sounding withdraws as the context and setting in which what is said emerges as foreground” (157). But this argument—that language is what we hear first—ultimately hinges upon what we mean by “hearing.” If we approach hearing, as Derrida does,11 as an analogue for “understanding,” then there is no question that language is primary. However, if we step back from the authority of the linguistic turn and consider our lived experience from a more material or affective angle, vocal phenomenology emerges as something else entirely. If it is true, as Brian Massumi suggests, that “the skin is faster than the word” (86), then perhaps we might argue, to the contrary, that it is voice’s sound, as a vibrational intensity, that hits us first.

Regardless of which is primary, it does seem safe to say that “one does not leave behind signification simply by speaking nonsense, or by turning the mouth into a noise machine” (LaBelle “Raw Orality” 152). In fact, it is possible that such efforts might even exacerbate and emphasize the core impossibility of voicing without meaning. For Dolar, these “presymbolic uses of the voice”—forms of voicing that work explicitly against the goals of signification—risk drawing attention to the process and structures of signification itself (29). In other words, even the most radical attempts to mobilize voice in an attack against or in opposition to language might ultimately serve to reinscribe the primacy of language by continuing to define voice in linguistic terms. In this sense, whether or not voice is actually directed toward semantic meaning, we may be unable to escape our expectation of meaning’s potential. As both Dolar and Cavarero have argued, it is not the fact that voice always signifies, but the fact that we expect it to that makes it stand out as unique among all other sounds. In the words of Dolar, “[I]t is as if there is an arrow in it which raises the expectation of meaning, the voice is an opening toward meaning” (14).

To move beyond this impasse, then, we must move beyond binary understandings that position voice in relation to language, either as an expressive handmaiden or as an embodied adversary. Certainly, to reduce voice to a function of language would be to overlook many forms and features of voice that exceed semantic transmission—to overlook the extent to which “[v]oice speaks itself at the very moment it speaks” (Zumthor 6, original emphasis). At the same time, to place voice in opposition to language is clearly not a suitable alternative. As we have seen, such a move risks either reinforcing the dominance of the linguistic ideal or falling back onto essentialized notions of metaphysical presence. In this context, perhaps it is the case, as Massumi suggests, that “[t]he trick is to get comfortable with productive paradox” (99). And Dolar provides us with an opening into this possibility: by locating voice at the intersection between language and the body, as precisely “[w]hat language and the body have in common,” he maintains that “the voice does not belong to either” (73). Neither at home in linguistics nor in the body, voice emerges as a fundamental paradox.

Voice(s) and Body/ies

Apart from its “opening toward meaning” (Dolar 14), one of the key features that sets voice apart in the sonic landscape is its source: its unique status as a sound produced by and emitted from the human body. Inevitably, when we hear a voice, we hear a body: “Listen, says a voice: some being is giving voice” (Connor 4). In other words, it is our sense of the voice’s origin in embodied human activity that places it at the top of our so-called “hierarchy of perception” (Chion 5).12 As such, and this is the case with any sound but perhaps more urgently in the case of voice, we as listeners find ourselves working “to localize and if possible identify the voice” (Chion 5, original emphasis)—to determine from whence and from whom it came. In the end, to define the voice as an embodied phenomenon, to determine its origin in and relationship to the human corpus, may be a deceptively straightforward endeavor.

Firstly, it is important to emphasize the extent to which voice’s relationship to the body is not natural, but highly constructed. As Douglas Kahn argues, although voice always implies the body, it “inhabits bodies differently,” changing locations and physiological allegiances depending on the cultural or historical context (291).13 Furthermore, even in the empirical context of voice science,14 hotly contested debates revolve around the simple question: What is the voice as an organic bodily process? According to Kreiman and Van Lancker Sidtis, at least two distinct definitions of voice exist among mainstream voice scientists: on one hand, a narrow physiological definition, which localizes voice in the “voice box” as “sound produced by vibration in the vocal folds” (5) and, on the other hand, a broader framework that takes into account “the acoustic results of the coordinated action of the respiratory system, tongue, jaw, lips, and soft palate” (6). Although this distinction may seem pedantic, each definition sets out a radically different relationship between voice and speech: the first distinguishes between voice and speech by confining voice to a process of vibration, but the second effectively equates voice with speech by following it through to the act of articulation (6). In this sense, we might say that defining voice—even as a concrete physiological process—is a deeply rhetorical act.

That being said, it is also possible that this impulse to localize the voice in a particular part of the body is problematic from the outset—that even the purportedly “broad” definition of vocal production does not adequately capture the physiological processes at play. Clinical voice specialist Robert Sataloff emphasizes that despite our tendency to privilege the role of the larynx,15 “[p]ractically all body systems affect the voice” (53). Indeed, the function and sound of the voice is highly dependent upon the full musculoskeletal system (posture, muscle tension, etc.) and, of course, on the psychological state and “gray matter” of the brain. Beginning as an impulse in the motor cortex, vocalization draws upon “[c]omplex interactions among the centers for speech, musical, and artistic expression” (79), which exceed the capacity for language alone and bring together interconnected parts of the body into a relational assemblage. This understanding of voice challenges the artificial distinctions between rational and creative mental processes (left vs. right brain), as well as the Cartesian mind/body split more generally.16

Looking beyond this privileged moment of vocal production, we must also consider what happens to the voice after it emerges from this complex set of physiological processes. While the voice undoubtedly comes from the human body,17 and it also inevitably leaves that body behind—or, as Steven Connor puts it, “What I say goes” (7). This fact raises important questions about our relationships to our own voices—relationships we typically approach as a question of property, either as the rightful possession of a unique human body or as the authentic expression of a unique human subject. By highlighting the necessity of voice’s departure from its body of origin, Connor invites us to unsettle these assumptions of ownership and identity. For Connor, “my voice is not something that I merely have, or even something that I, if only in part, am. Rather, it is something that I do. A voice is not a condition, nor yet an attribute, but an event. It is less something that exists than something which occurs” (4). Ultimately, by extending the body beyond itself in this way, such a reorientation toward the voice event may encourage us to move past stable, bounded notions of body and self to imagine more fluid and permeable modes of being.

Rethinking voice as an event also draws attention to its spatial dimensions. Popular metaphysical understandings of voice as “presence” have emphasized voice’s role as “a special sensory key to interiority” (Ong 117, original emphasis). As Walter Ong points out, when we hear an object sounding (e.g. a hollow log being struck by a stick) what we are hearing is the resonance of its insides, its “interiors as manifesting themselves” to the external world (117). It is easy to imagine how, especially in the context of religious or spiritual philosophy, one might draw connections between sound and soul and position the voice as a window into essential personhood. However, to insist, as Ong does, that voice simply “moves from interior to interior” (125) is to overlook the extent to which voice interacts with other bodies and spaces in the larger material world.18 Indeed, the voice’s movement from the body is one that always takes place within space and, in fact, appropriates the space it requires (Connor 12). This reciprocal process of voicing space and spatializing voice is responsible for shaping our experience of space itself, providing richly sensory information about “the original object or body” (the speaker) and “the related environment” (LaBelle Acoustic Territories 200). As a vibratory phenomenon, this relationship is perceived not only as an auditory experience via the ears but also as deeply felt “frictions and tactile feelings” throughout the body (134).19 Ultimately by “marking out the relations of interior to exterior”—and by suggesting that these relations are more fluid than we might typically imagine them to be20—voice “announces and verifies the co-operation of bodies and the environments in which they have their being” (Dolar 6).

Of course, voice’s movement from a human body into space, more often than not, implies a movement toward another human body or bodies. For Cavarero, this relationality stands as one of the principal values of speech itself. Challenging the logocentric emphasis on the what of voice—or “the said”—Cavarero proposes an alternative “politics of saying” (200), wherein the voice, in its most material sense, provides the basis for ethical engagement with others. Within this framework, it matters (in every sense) from what particular body a given voice emerges; ultimately, we always hear in the voice not just anybody but a particular somebody—a body that we may not identify as familiar but that we always recognize as “unique” and “unrepeatable” (9).21 The voice, in this sense, serves a dual purpose, as that which unites us and that which sets us apart. Ultimately, because “a voice is never a voice in general: it is always a voice of a particular kind” (Rée 2)—and because it is this “incarnate singularity” (Cavarero 7) that we experience in relational acts of voicing—voice provides us with the immediate capacity to recognize and engage others as “human beings in flesh and bone, with mouths and ears” (175)—in other words, as bodies-like-me-but-not-me.

On the surface, Cavarero’s “vocal phenomenology of uniqueness” (7) may appear to evoke some of the metaphysical essentialism that the poststructuralists have so heavily critiqued. However, it is important to distinguish here between essence and event. It is true that “[d]istinctive vocal styles can identify people as sharply as their bodies or their faces” (Rée 2) and that the “voiceprint” is as reliable a measure as the fingerprint for establishing “identity,” in the most bureaucratic sense of the term (Appelbaum 2). However, to make the jump from identifiability to identity emerges as problematic and ultimately unwarranted.22 In his famous reflection on “The Grain of the Voice,” Roland Barthes argues that “[t]he voice is not personal: it expresses nothing of the cantor, of his soul; it is not original […] and at the same time it is individual: it has us hear a body which has no civil identity, no ‘personality,’ but which is nevertheless a separate body” (182). In a sense, then, we have a strange potential, through the voice, for a kind intimacy with the Other that is visceral and vibrational but, at the same time, paradoxically impersonal.

Considering voice in the context of sound-in-general, musicologist Pierre Schaeffer offers a productive framework for approaching this dilemma. His principle of “acousmatic sound”—and, for our purposes, acousmatic voice23—insists that we take up sounds not as secondary properties of their sources but as objects in themselves, which can be experienced independently of their sources. In other words, unlike the properties of visual objects,24 “while sources generate or cause sounds, sounds are not bound to their sources as properties” (Cox 156). To consider voices as “properties” is to subordinate them to their bodies of origin, but to reconsider voices instead as “effects” allows us to account for their causal relationship to the bodies that speak them, while allowing them a valid existence beyond those bodies, even as bodies in themselves.25 Under this framework, we can embrace “the impossibility of a perfect identity between sound and source” (Stanyek and Piekut 19), and at the same time recognize that voice is “necessarily pursued by the shadow of source and cause” (Kane 215). Crucially, this new materialist perspective suggests a break from the incessant question of who produced a voice to consider what voice does, offering a productive alternative to limiting textual frameworks of representation—which, as Christoph Cox argues, are fundamentally “inadequate” to the task of theorizing the sonic arts (146).

Voice and Technology

The practical implications of this shift from property to effect may appear negligible so long as we remain in the realm of live voice, where sound and source are fused in an illusion of co-presence. However, in the context of mediated voice, of voice that extends beyond its body of origin, this notion of voice-as-effect becomes more immediately accessible, expanding our abilities not only to speak in voice, but also to compose with voice as a malleable material. In the context of the present conversation, technologies of sound reproduction are of particular interest for their role in bringing the voice into “the realm of writing and the realm of the social” (Kahn 8) as a “stor[able]” and thus “manipula[ble]” medium (Kittler 36). And, to the extent that they are always intertwined with vocal inscription processes, technologies of amplification and transmission26 are also worthy of our consideration.

Technologies of amplification (e.g. microphones, acoustic design)27 may appear on the surface to be fairly straightforward. They project the voice across a defined space so it can be more easily heard by a listening audience. However, to say that amplification merely projects the voice, as is, beyond the limits of the live speaking body overlooks the fact that the voice—and thus also the body—may also be changed as a result of its encounter with this technology. According to Brandon LaBelle, amplification technologies shape the voice to the extent that they “multiply the body,” “displacing it, throwing it beyond the here and now, toward other centers” (Background Noise 135). In other words, we might say that microphones work to distribute the apparently singular voice across space such that it can be heard both by many bodies and as many bodies at once. Furthermore, amplification also has the capacity to bring us closer to the sounds of the body in the voice,28 “increas[ing] the range of the audible, both in terms of breadth (variety of sounds to be heard) and depth (distance of audibility)” (Hegarty 24). For Steven Connor, this “imaginary closeness of [amplified] voices” makes possible not only an intimate encounter with the body of another, but also a kind of visceral identification with that other, such that such voices feel as if “they could be our own” (38).

If technologies of amplification are notable for promoting visceral forms of identification with the other through voice, then technologies of transmission (e.g. telephone, radio) are notable for promoting identification of the other as voice. Because of its capacity to produce a specter of voice-as-signal that transcends geographical distance, early telephony was widely associated with occult ideas about telepathy and the ether, particularly the notion that the presence of the speaking person was directly transported through the wires of a telephonic conversation (Dyson 19). And radio, for its part, further contributed to contradictory ideas about vocal “presence” (of body or self) through the mass phenomenon of broadcasting (31). In other words, at the same time as sound transmission technologies worked to radically dissociate the voice from the body that speaks it, as a cultural phenomenon, they also served to reinforce the myth of metaphysical presence, in that “a person’s […] voice came to speak for their whole being” (9). According to N. Katherine Hayles, we can attribute this persistent belief in mediated presence to the fact of sound transmission’s “simultaneity” (76) or what has come to be known more popularly as liveness.29 But, of course, the very concept of the “live” speaking voice only becomes thinkable as a counterpoint to the possibility of the dead speaking voice of sound reproduction.

In highlighting the role of “the voices of the dead” in the public reception of the phonograph, sound studies scholar Jonathan Sterne suggests, “for its early users, death somehow explained and shaped the cultural power of sound recording” (290, original emphasis).30 As Sterne explains, alongside the development of sound reproduction technology in the Victorian era emerged a belief in the ability of the human voice to “be preserved indefinitely on record” (290), “embalmed” much in the same way that the human body could be embalmed through emergent chemical processes.31 Thus, rather than moving beyond the notion of embodied presence, the “canned” voice of sound reproduction came to take on a decidedly eerier form of presence—what Sterne refers to as “a resonant tomb” or “the exteriority of the voice with none of its interior self-awareness” (290)—which speaks from across the threshold of death.

Although this phenomenon “demanded commentary” in the Victorian period, Sterne points out that “[we] now dwell without comment among these voices of the dead” (289). Recently, however, new voice recording practices have begun to blur the boundaries between the living and the dead, giving rise once again to questions about “presence.” In a provocative example, musicologists Jason Stanyek and Benjamin Piekut explore the contemporary pop music phenomenon of the “posthumous duet.” Through a case study of “Unforgettable”—a 1991 collaboration between Natalie Cole and her father, Nat “King” Cole, produced 25 years after his death—these authors work to demonstrate that this duet is, in fact, a “collaboration”: an act of mutually agential “co-labor” in which one of the key participants simply happens to be dead. Drawing on the agential realism of Karen Barad, they arrive at this strange possibility by rethinking agency itself, no longer as present intentionality, but as future “effectivity” (Stanyek and Piekut 18). Pushing back against our paternalistic assumption that “the living [must] one-sidedly handle the dead” (14), this move opens up the potential for a radically new form of ethical composing practice—one that frees these so-called “embalmed” voices from the rigid binaries of subject/object, human/nonhuman, living/dead and invites them to enter into “intermundane collaborations” (17) as vibrant material agents in themselves.

While the posthumous duet is perhaps idiosyncratic, these authors are re-imagining the act of sound reproduction in useful ways. Rather than viewing the voices of the dead as closed and sacred objects of our protection, Stanyek and Piekut challenge us to consider the possibility that “the only guarantee that sound recording offers” may in fact be this: the assurance of “being enrolled in futures (and pasts) that one cannot wholly predict nor control” (18). What is significant here, for our purposes, is a decisive shift away from the nineteenth-century culture of “preservation” and toward a contemporary “culture of the splice”—or what Stanyek and Piekut call the “recombinatorial imperative” (17). In other words, more than simply capturing and preserving voices as inert relics of the past, today, we concern ourselves with the futurity of voice—the possibility of remixing and rearticulating voices into new material assemblages.

At the core of this shift in the cultural imagination is a shift in technologies of sound reproduction themselves. Hayles locates the “crucial difference” between the age of the phonograph and that of magnetic tape in the newfound capacity for “erasure and rewriting” (76). While the phonograph permitted a certain fantasy of permanence,32 the tape recorder enabled a contradictory new possibility that we might call impermanent permanence—as Hayles puts it, “a mode of voice inscription at once permanent and mutable, repeating past moments exactly yet also permitting interventions in the present that radically altered its form and meaning” (77, emphasis added). By allowing people not only to hear their voices played back to them by a machine, but also to manipulate and recompose their voices within the machine, tape recording enabled new configurations of subjectivity and embodiment33 that challenge our conventional relationships to voice and what it means to be human.

If the advent of magnetic tape first made possible this “recombinatorial” dream, the capacity for cutting, splicing, mixing, and reassembling voice has only become increasingly potent with the emergence of digital audio. Reflecting on this shift, media artist and theorist Norie Neumark describes a fundamental tension between the increased “fidelity” of digital voice, on one hand, and its increased “flexibility,” on the other (“Doing Things” 95). In other words, at the same time as a digitally reproduced voice may sound more like the “original” voice of the person speaking, it can also quite easily be made to sound in ways that defy that speaker’s original intention. Under a framework of representational ethics—which concerns itself with maintaining property and establishing identity—this tension presents an obvious liability. But if we look beyond questions of representation, as Neumark suggests, toward questions of performance, we also find in digital voice a certain promise and potential. Rather than focusing on what voice means, we can consider instead what voice does. Setting aside tired questions of voice’s metaphysical “authenticity,” Neumark proposes that we approach digital voice instead as an “authenticity effect”—a relational, vibrational performance of “intimacy and intensity” that we, as listeners, can’t help but feel (95). Under this framework, digital voice becomes not simply a hazard, but rather a resource: a performative material with potential to act and to affect in its own right.

Although such performative understandings of digital voice are provocative, we are still left with the question: What kind of material is digital voice in the first place? What do we make of the relationship between a voice spoken and a voice recorded? At the root of sound reproduction technology is a deeply held cultural belief in the possibility of reproduction itself—the capacity of a technology to produce a faithful copy of an “original” sonic event. Recently, however, sound studies scholars have challenged the very idea that what is created in the process of sound reproduction is a “reproduction” at all—at least not in the sense that we have come to believe. Film scholar Rick Altman emphasizes the contextual specificity of audio recording conditions—from the acoustical space to the microphones employed—arguing that “[w]hen we listen to recorded sound we are […] always listening to a particular account of a specific event” (16). In this sense, what we hear in digital voice is not a reproduction of the voice itself, in any intrinsic sense, but rather a representation of a voice-event. And, taking this one step further, Sterne asks us to consider the fundamental artifice of the recording scenario, in which the very notion of an “original” can only ever be a product of its own reproducibility (221).34 As Sterne puts it, “Sound fidelity is a story that we tell ourselves to staple separate pieces of sonic reality together” (219), and thus what we experience as the “aura” in digital voice is ultimately a part of this fiction—a fiction that is hard to resist.

Opening Voice to Digital Composing

Looking back at this interdisciplinary analysis of voice, it seems that what we are left with is little more than a series of irresolvable contradictions: that voice is not language but is not entirely separate from language either, that voice comes from the body but always leaves the body behind, that digital voice is caught between fidelity and flexibility—and that fidelity is only ever a fiction in the first place. In this context, perhaps all we can fairly say about voice is that, at its core, it is a paradox. How, then, should we approach voice? What does voice have to offer our practice? While I do not aspire here to offer an exhaustive vision for the future of voice in the field of rhetoric and composition, I would like to conclude by offering a series of tentative openings, which might give us a place from which to begin.

Bridging Body/Language

In recent years, the field of rhetoric and composition has seen a rising interest in questions of embodiment, with increasing attention to the body’s role not only in the perception of diverse sensory modalities, but also as an active compositional agent through practices like gesture and movement. One of the key challenges presented by this trend is the need to reconcile the relationship between the field’s traditional roots in language and emerging theories of the body. On one side of this debate, we have radical approaches that seek to place the body in direct opposition to language and enter into a realm of pure affect, raising the question of why our field—with its disciplinary grounding in language—has any business claiming expertise in this space. And on the other side, we have more conservative approaches that seek to make the body legible and writable as language,35 reducing it to a system of linguistic coding such that it may be picked apart and reassembled in the manner of alphabetic text. Rather than alienating the body from language or appropriating the body as language, perhaps the trick is to open up a space within which the two might converse.

As we have seen in the preceding discussion, voice plays a special role in relation to these two spheres of linguistics and embodiment. As Dolar has argued, “[I]t is precisely the voice that holds bodies and languages together. It is like their missing link, what they have in common” (60, original emphasis). At the same time, however, Dolar has also emphasized that voice is in no way reducible to either bodies or languages, but rather stands in a relation of radical excess (73). In this sense, perhaps voice might provide a promising means to find a common ground between the field’s longstanding investments in language and our emerging investments in embodiment—while at the same time respecting the value and autonomy of each. Furthermore, the voice is, as Jonathan Rée has noted, the only “active organ”36 of the human sensory apparatus—that is to say, “You can use your voice to populate your auditory world at will, and nothing remotely comparable applies to the other senses” (55). The voice, then, is also uniquely well suited to serve as a fundamentally compositional, as opposed to merely perceptual, bodily mode.

In order to pave the way for this move, it is crucial that we first distinguish between voice and speech—concepts that are readily confused in the context of a field so deeply rooted in discursivity, and, as Cavarero has argued, in Western constructions of the rational speaking subject more generally. While the rise of writing has, over the centuries, made language increasingly silent, to simply map voice back onto language is ultimately to disregard voice as something more than language, as that which language cannot say. If we, as a field, begin to embrace voice’s fundamental paradox—as an embodiment not opposed to language but always in excess of it—then perhaps we might bridge some of the deep Cartesian fissures—between mind and body, word and skin, cognition and affect—which have abstracted our practice (and Western philosophy more broadly) from the fleshy immediacy and visceral substance of primary lived experience.

From Delivery to Invention

As the field of rhetoric and composition has moved to recover the classical canon of delivery for digital rhetoric, we have seen a widespread disavowal of the canon’s roots in embodied performance in favor of technologized models of media or design (McCorkle 13). While this theoretical shift opens the field to a range of emergent compositional technologies and rhetorical practices, it also risks reducing the body’s role in digital rhetoric to a function of reception—a receiver of the multiple sensory modalities that digital media open up, rather than a core participant in the process of their production. Indeed, when we create a binary division between human performance on one hand, and technological design on the other, we fail to account for the many ways in which these materialities and practices might be mutually imbricated in the texts, experiences, and meanings we produce in contemporary media platforms. Because digital voice is not either embodied performance or mediated material, but rather both/and, it suggests a provocative case for disrupting these dichotomies and redefining the methods and mechanisms of digital delivery.

Paradoxically, however, despite this move to redefine delivery as design, voice in digital rhetoric has often remained aligned with the live speaking body of the oratorical tradition. For example, in “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing,” Cynthia Selfe frames contemporary digital aurality as the heritage of an historical trajectory beginning with classical orality and carrying through to the contemporary oral practices of marginalized people (626). Likewise, in “Sound Matters: Notes Toward the Analysis and Design of Sound in Multimodal Webtexts,” Heidi McKee takes up voice through the lens of “vocal delivery” (339), drawing on the eighteenth century elocutionary movement for insight into the role of “tone” and “mood” in live vocal performance (340). In this context, perhaps it should come as no surprise that to “compose with voice”—at least in the composition classroom—has been largely confined to genres like the audio essay or documentary voiceover,37 which mobilize familiar conventions of linear (if layered), speech-based delivery. While such practices harness the potential of digital audio software to “weav[e] vocal interview and commentary sources together” in multitrack audio compositions (Selfe 638), they also tend to restrict voice’s material potential to the direct representation of intentional speech.

Of course, when we take seriously voice’s encounter with technology, a host of new material possibilities emerges. As we have seen, with the evolution of sound reproduction technology, voice has become not only “writ[able]” as an inscriptive storage medium (Kahn 8) but also “rewrite[able]” as a malleable compositional resource (Hayles 76, emphasis mine). Today, with the rise of digital audio, voice’s “manipulable” potential is at an all time high (Neumark 95), invoking a range of opportunities for experimentation, disruption, and play. In this context, voice plays a much more complex role in the composing process than the canon of delivery might suggest. Beyond its capacities for interpretation, performance, or even a rhapsodic “weaving” together with other sounds and “perspectives” (Selfe 638), digital voice also serves as an invitation to create new texts through poetic or heuretic methods. Perhaps what emerges, then, is an opportunity to reorient our approach to voice in digital rhetoric away from time-honored models of delivery and toward alternative possibilities of invention, through experimental compositional practices that begin from and return to the material itself. While such disruptive approaches to voice-as-material have begun to emerge at the margins of digital scholarship in sonic rhetoric,38 the wider possibilities of such practices remain largely unexplored.

Toward a Material “Ethics of Effects”

Certainly, the ability to cut up, recombine, and re-perform recorded voices has been around since the age of analog audio, with razor blades and reel-to-reel tape. (And, indeed, in the annals of mid-century sound poetry and audio art, there exists a rich history of experimental voice compositions, which is worthy of consideration.39) What digital audio technologies add to this equation is not only the increased “fidelity” and “flexibility” of recorded voices, as Neumark has noted (95), but also the increased accessibility of vocal materials: the capacity to store voice recordings in compressed file formats and then to circulate them through networked media. In this context, we find an opening not simply to compose with voices, but, more specifically, to compose with the voices of others—and perhaps, in some sense, to speak through others’ voices as if they were our own. This possibility is aligned with a broader trend toward practices of appropriation, recomposition, and remix in contemporary digital rhetoric—and digital culture more broadly—wherein “more elements and others’ elements become much more readily available to mix, mash, and merge” (Ridolfo and DeVoss). But while popular music, photo galleries, and online videos have arisen as uncontested fodder for such “recombinatorial” compositions, vast archives of everyday digital voices represent a largely untapped resource.

In light of voice’s cultural baggage as a metaphorical proxy for authorship, agency, and self-representation, it may be the case that our present frameworks of representational ethics result in a de facto proscription against interfering with the voices of others. That is to say, when we are driven primarily by the need to accurately reflect the person behind the voice and/or accurately express the act of intentional speech, recordings of other people’s voices remain inert and sacred objects of preservation, closed off to the imaginative manipulation, recombination, and reuse that digital audio affords. To fully take advantage of voice as a rich and vibrant source of compositional material for digital rhetoric, then, perhaps we must begin to imagine new ethical frameworks that start from the material itself.

As we have seen, one of the vital steps in disrupting representational orientations toward the voice is to re-imagine its relationship to its body of origin. To completely abandon the relationship between voice and its human source—and thus to collapse voice into a framework of aurality (when “live”) or audio (when mediated)—would deny the extent to which voice is phenomenologically set apart from all other sounds in our “hierarchy of perception” (Chion 5). To hold on too tightly to the idea that a voice is a possession or attribute of its human source would overlook both the extent to which voice always moves beyond the body from the moment it is recognized as voice (Connor 4) and the extent to which “we can experience a sound without experiencing its source” (Cox 156). As such, as I previously argued, it may be fruitful for the field to imagine the voice as an effect. This framework allows us to simultaneously acknowledge a voice’s causal relationship to the human being who uttered it, while also affording it an independent existence as a “sonorous body” (Schaeffer 79) or “autonomous voice bod[y]” (Connor 35) with the vibrational potential to act and to affect in its own right.

It is here that Stanyek and Piekut’s provocative proposal for a new materialist “ethics of effects” (34) becomes particularly promising. By re-imagining voice as effect and effect as agency, these authors provide us with an unprecedented opening to interact with, and ultimately to collaborate with the voices of others—including the voices of the dead.40 This possibility has wide-reaching implications for digital composing practice, opening up vast archives of recorded voices to practices of manipulation and invention and encouraging us to approach these materials with a new appreciation for their role—indeed, their shared agency—in producing the effects of our work. Of course, this “mutual effectivity” does not imply a “mutual responsibility”41 (34), and thus in no way divests the living, human collaborator of her obligation to approach vocalic composing with a critical sensibility. What it does, however, is encourage us to move beyond the familiar knee-jerk reaction to vocal-manipulation-as-exploitation, making way for new practices of mindful experimentation and play. As I see it, this may be where the voice’s greatest potential lies: in forcing us to re-imagine our relationship to the materials of our practice more broadly—even going so far as to break down the boundaries between human vs. nonhuman, intentional versus inert participants in the work of digital composing.


1 See Jonathan Sterne’s The Sound Studies Reader and Trevor Pinch’s and Karin Bijsterveld’s The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies for two seminal collections of sound studies scholarship.

2 For example, Heidi McKee’s, “Sound Matters: Notes Toward the Analysis and Design of Sound in Multimodal Webtexts” and Jody Shipka’s “Sound Engineering: Toward a Theory of Multimodal Soundness” both lay out frameworks for approaching sonic rhetoric in both digital and analog texts.

3 Michael Jarrett’s Drifting on a Read: Jazz as a Model for Writing and Jeff Rice’s “Making of Ka-Knowledge: Digital Aurality” each mine the rhetorical moves of popular musical genres—jazz and hip-hop respectively—as new paradigms for invention and arrangement in alphabetic writing. Likewise, in “Was Foucault a Plagiarist? Hip-hop Sampling and Academic Citation,” Mickey Hess puts forth hip-hop sampling as an alternative to dominant citation conventions.

4 As a recent example, in a 2013 Harlot Special Issue on “Sonic Rhetorics,” Nathan Edwards’ video/essay “Finding Nowhere,” explores the rhetorical affordance of argument sans dialogue, posing the question, “Is it possible to convey a persuasive and effective message through a purely non-spoken narrative?”

5 See Kyle Stedman’s discussion of the female singing voice in “Making Meaning in Musical Mixes” and Andrew Vogel’s reflection on “the voices of jazz’s past” in “Recitative: The Persuasive Tenor of Jazz Culture in Langston Hughes, Billy Strayhorn, and John Coltrane” for two recent examples.

6 Cynthia Selfe’s 2009 College Composition and Communication article, “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing” stands as a prominent example of this framing.

7 According to Annette Schlichter, this avoidance of technology is also characteristic of a broader trend in voice studies more generally, in which scholars “do not account for sound technologies but prefer to present the voice as a medium of an unmediated body” (46).

8 This linguistic paucity is due, at least in part, to the visual bias of Western thought, which shapes our linguistic structures and imaginations. But there is also a fundamental complexity to sound—what film scholar Rick Altman calls its “material heterogeneity” (19)—which resists our efforts to break it into component parts through simple analytical description.

9 As Jody Kreiman and Diana Van Lancker Sidtis point out, because of the challenge that the voice presents to linguistics, such descriptive systems have remained more or less the same since the time of classical oratory (11).

10 Reflecting on the status of the cough, Appelbuam writes, “The explosive noise has no less voice than the group of consonants known as voiceless. […] To the oscilloscope, the cough is as reliable a mark of individuality as any voiceprint. The coughs of a man’s life may be as numbered as his days and words, but are they similarly recorded? Some philosopher’s prejudice is at work (2).”

11 Throughout his critique of phonocentrism in Of Grammatology, Derrida repeatedly conflates “hearing” with “understanding” as one in the same. For example he describes the system of auto-affective voicing as “[t]he system of ‘hearing (understanding)-oneself-speak’ through the phonic substance” (7).

12 What Michel Chion calls the “vococentrist” quality of human listening (6) applies not only to verbal voicing, but to voice in general, as a sound we experience as recognizably, quintessentially human.

13 As Kahn explains, “Modern Western culture typically locates the dominant operations of the embodied voice above the collarbone, attracted toward the head by the pull of the fusion of thought with speech and by an unconscious that serves as a proxy for the rest of the body” (291).

14 As I am mobilizing it here, the term “voice science” includes fields such as speech science, clinical voice pathology, forensic linguistics, and acoustic engineering, which take an empirical approach to the physiological and perceptual function of the human voice.

15 With the development of the artificial larynx (see Qmed’s “Artificial Larynx Successfully Implanted in Patient”), even this narrow definition of the voice becomes problematic. As technology continues to enter into the body, rather than remaining outside, we are likely to see new questions arise around the boundaries between human and machine, body and technology in popular definitions of the voice.

16 It is important to acknowledge that this voice-body relationship is not a stable, biological given. As the body changes over time—as well as with varying states of physical and psychological health—so does the voice. This process also works in reverse, as the body itself is altered through specific forms of vocal practice, from professional voice training to spiritual chanting. Thus, in a very concrete sense, it is not simply the case that the body produces the voice, but also that the voice works to produce the body.

17 Of course, the boundaries around what constitutes voice might also be drawn more widely to take into account digitally synthesized voice, which does not emerge from the organic processes of the human body. Indeed, digital, nonhuman voice stands as a provocative challenge to the humanist values we attach to the voice and raises fascinating ethical questions about the boundaries of personhood, more generally.

18 Douglas Kahn points out that our experience of another’s voice is actually quite unlike the auto-affective, interior experience of the speaker herself, who hears her voice “as it is conducted from the throat and mouth through bone to the inner regions of the ear.” Instead, what an outside listener hears is “a deboned voice,” whose vibrations resonate not “intracranially” but in the air beyond the body (7).

19 At the same time, as David Toop points out, “sound’s boundaries lack clarity, spreading in the air as they do or arriving from hidden places,” making this sensory experience “closer to perfume or smoke than the solidity of touching another person, understanding a conversation, or eating a meal” (36).

20 Dolar describes this phenomenon as “the voice problem,” suggesting that the voice presents us with the dilemma of “how to establish a distance at all, to draw the dividing line between ‘the interior’ and the external world” (79).

21 Recently, voice’s “unique” quality has begun to extend to computerized voice technologies and apps as companies like VocaliD work to create personalized voices for people without the capacity for “natural” physiological speech (see “Cutting Edge Tech Gives Synthetic Voice to the Voiceless”).

22 Darsie Bowden raises this distinction in her article, “The Rise of a Metaphor: ‘Voice’ in Composition Pedagogy.”

23 Michel Chion’s work draws heavily on Schaeffer’s concept of “acousmatics” and applies it explicitly to the voice, examining the mysterious power of voices without visible sources in cinematic narratives.

24 Cox uses the example of a door that is painted red as an explanatory tool, suggesting that, while “[t]he redness of the door does not survive its repainting,” the sounds a door makes “are not bound to their sources as properties” (156).

25 Steven Connor argues that, because of our need to attach sourceless voices to visible bodies, they have the capacity to become “autonomous voice-bodies” or the bodies we project onto them (35).

26 As Paul Hegarty explains, “Phonograph and gramophone technology is entirely bound up with amplification (whether through horns, circuits or chips), and amplification is not just behind transmission; it is transmission” (24).

27 While we tend to associate amplification with the relatively recent development of electric sound systems, Christopher Johnstone reminds us that such technologies have, in fact, been in use at least as far back as classical oratory, wherein spaces and structures for public speaking were designed with their acoustic properties in mind.

28 Connor’s discussion about the role of these technologies in making audible “the liquidity of the saliva, the hissings and tiny shudders of the breath, the clicking of the tongue and teeth, the popping of the lips” (38) evokes Barthes’s characterization of the operatic voice in “The Grain of the Voice.” While Roland Barthes does not explicitly discuss technology, it seems reasonable to suggest that his sense of hearing “the cantor’s body, brought to your ears in one and the same movement from deep down in the cavities, the muscles, the membranes, the cartilages” (182) might be a function of acoustics and amplification.

29 While the notion of “liveness” has over time become naturalized, Frances Dyson suggests we should consider live transmission not as actually “live” but rather as producing a “live effect”—something which “affects belief and knowledge” about how we encounter mediated sound and voice in the world (102).

30 This correlation between media and death also extends beyond sound recording to inscription technologies more broadly, such that, as Friedrich Kittler explains, “[t]he realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture” (13).

31 Sterne situates this phenomenon as “an extension of a larger, emergent culture of preservation” (292) in the context of the Victorian era’s obsession with technological practices of canning and embalming.

32 Sterne notes a disconnect between the initial public enthusiasm for the phonograph as an archival medium and the actual ability for early sound recording to produce anything resembling a “permanent” record (288). This dream of vocal immorality through sound reproduction continues to drive—and elude—digital archivists today, such that voice’s temporality has been extended more than overcome.

33 Frances Dyson argues that the concept of “embodiment” is no longer an adequate framework for understanding our contemporary cultures of technology. Instead, she proposes the notion of “atmosphere” as a means to understand the ways in which the material of human bodies is necessarily porous and connected to other materialities in the world—including those of technology—in a fluid interchange (16).

34 Sterne is, of course, drawing from Walter Benjamin’s thinking in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” wherein he argues that, in Sterne’s words, “the very nature of originality and authenticity is transformed in the context of reproducibility” (220).

35 Theo van Lleuwen’s “A Semiotics of Voice” is an example of a recent attempt in this direction, which seeks to propose a physiologically and culturally coded typology of vocal expression.

36 Rée attributes this observation, originally, to Jacques Rousseau, in his work Émile, or On Education.

37 These genres are central to Michelle Comstock and Mary E. Hocks’ pedagogical platform in “Voice in the Cultural Soundscape: Sonic Literacy in Composition Studies.”

38 Keith Dorwick’s audio composition, “For Voices, No Longer Human,” stands as a prominent example of work in this area. Notably, Dorwick uses the recorded voices of others as materials for an experimental composition, which explores the boundaries of “humanness” in the voice. However, by manipulating these voices to such an extreme, Dorwick ensures that they are no longer identifiable—even as speech in general—thus sidestepping trickier ethical questions, which might otherwise emerge.

39 See, for example, William S. Burroughs’ tape recorder experiments (Hayles 90) and Douglas Kahn’s 1980 audio collage “Reagan Speaks for Himself.”

40 Remix theorists Ken Jordan and Paul D. Miller suggest that all sampling and remix practices are, in fact, “‘collaborations’ between artists who are not even aware that a ‘collaboration’ is taking place” (101).

41 While Stanyek and Piekut do not completely disavow the possibility for a move toward shared responsibility between human and nonhuman actors in so-called “intermundane” collaborations, this possibility remains for them “the impossible question” at the root of their work: “What kinds of co-responsibility do the disparate yet mutually effective worlds of humans and nonhumans, material and immaterial entities, and the living, dead, and not-yet-born have for one another?” (34).

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