An Abundance of Parrots: Vocally Articulating Humanity and Otherness

Josephine Hoegaerts


This paper focuses on what could well be called the age of vocal materiality. The period between ca. 1830 and 1890, between a time of vocal spirituality and the rise of the eerie (acousmatic) recorded voice, was characterized by increasing attempts to visualize and measure the voice, to anchor it in the throat and to identify it as ‘naturally’ human. Using manuals for laryngoscopy, vocal education handbooks and treatises on the ‘natural history’ of the voice, I trace the process of the embodiment of the human voice throughout the nineteenth century. Despite these 19th century experts’ great willingness to mention, cite and engage with classical authors’ notion of the humanity of the voice, their own interpretations of both voice and humanity were quite different from those expressed by Aristoteles or Quintilian. More than a century of first exploratory and then systematic study of the larynx had profoundly changed the ways in which the voice, its relation to the body and its material presence in the world was understood. In the age of vocal materiality, the human voice had become both more ‘natural’ (i.e. rooted in anatomy, connected to instinct) and more subjected to cultivation (i.e. efforts to cure, improve or strengthen it). The result of these somewhat contradictory processes, was a renewed need to assert and demonstrate the humanity of the voice. For if the voice was natural, could it not also be produced by animal throats – as many comparative biologists suggested, based on the utterances of their parrots? And if it was the result of artifice and cultivation, maybe machines could acquire vocal abilities as well (as seemed to be the case with inventions such as the ‘vowel machine’ or the phonograph). At the heart of these questions were not so much the obvious points of distinction between man, beast and machine, but rather the places where the categories seemed to overlap. Even when firmly lodged in the throat, something about the voice remained uncanny, and its uncertain capacity to articulate humanity led to cultural, political and scientific anxiety.