Voice and Speech as Instruments of ‘Emotional Practice’ in Nineteenth-Century Europe

Josephine Hoegaerts

In Are Emotions a Kind of Practice?, Monique Scheer suggested that “the body is not a static, timeless, universal foundation that produces ahistorical emotional arousal, but is itself socially situated, adaptive, trained, plastic, and thus historical”. This presentation takes up Scheer’s suggestion by focusing on one particular part of the body and its (culturally and historically situated) plasticity: the throat – or, more specifically, the organs of speech. Histories of the body have largely ignored the role of voice and speech (two ultimately intangible results of corporeal practice) in the performance of the self as well as in emotional practice. The voice’s inherently eerie and transitory nature makes it a challenging phenomenon to study historically (the voice only exists while it is being produced, and leaves no documentary trail without copy and transcription). But, as I will argue in this paper, the voice’s close connection to temporality and its dependence on performance for its sheer existence also makes it the ideal case for a historical analysis of emotional practice as active, time-sensitive and performative. The adaptive, trained and plastic nature of the voice (as noted by Scheer) is more obvious than that of other aspects of the body, after all, and the voice’s capacity to manipulate and be manipulated was obvious to the historical actors (19th century ‘experts’ on vocal anatomy and performance) under scrutiny in this paper.

In the paper, I will analyze the ways in which elocutionists, laryngologists and musicians connected vocal to emotional practice in their work. Throughout the nineteenth century, the voice was generally interpreted as an instrument to externalize the ‘inner self’ and communicate one’s will, affect and thoughts to others. At the same time, however, the possibility to ‘put on’ a potentially fraudulent voice was recognized as well, which complicated theories of the voice’s corporeal and ‘natural’ status, and its role in producing individuality and humanity.

I draw on a broad corpus of sources, including scientific treatises on laryngology, self-help manuals to ‘cure’ speech impediments, singing courses, essays on oratory and elocution and other documents generated by (mostly self-defined) experts of the human voice in the nineteenth century. The material was drawn from collections available to middle-class readers in Leipzig, London and Paris, and thus broadly represents the reigning normative discourse on the nature, meaning and use of the human voice in a large part of Europe in the nineteenth century.

Josephine Hoegaerts is a Core Research Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, and the author of Masculinity and Nationhood, 1830-1910, Constructions of Identity and Citizenship in Belgium (Palgrave, 2014). In her current work, she studies the history of the human voice. Recent publications include “Speaking like Intelligent Men: Vocal Articulations of Authority and Identity in the House of Commons in the Nineteenth Century”, in: Radical History Review, 121, (2015) 123-144 and “Recording the Subaltern’s Speech: Children’s Voices in the Antwerp School Archives, ca.1850-1905” in: BTNG, XLVI, 1, (2016), 10-31.